Set Designer's Processes
Although each set designer works somewhat differently from others, they follow similar steps in the design process, beginning with an analysis of the play text and ending with a rendering and/or working drawings for the technicians who will build the scenery.
The designer's text analysis is somewhat different from the actor's and the director's. While a designer must analyze plot, characters, themes, and language, her focus will be on the visual needs of the play. She specifically looks for the locations needed in the play, objects needed by the action in each location, and suggestions as to the theatrical style. If a play involves multiple locations, one of the first decisions a set designer must make is how to change locations. A unit set is a single set which will stay the same throughout the play. A unit set might represent one single location; however, it might be varied by adding and subtracting wagons for other locations, or it might be a simultaneous setting, which means it represents many locations at once and requires the audience to imaginatively provide the distance among the various areas in the set. A box set is a setting made of flats positioned to represent three walls of an interior setting; these can be changed by flying the flats in and out, rotating the flats to show the reverse side, or placing several box sets on a revolve which only reveals the set currently turned toward the audience. The designer must also decide how theatrical or illusionistic a visual environment to create; a theatrical environment suggests a fuller environment by providing a few key set pieces, whereas an illusionistic environment seeks to fill in all pertinent details with a life-like accuracy. Whereas earlier in this century audiences were content to see a curtain descend, wait for the set to be changed, and watch the curtain rise to reveal the new set, audiences today enjoy watching elaborately choreographed, spectacular set changes. Using a curtain to hide set changes also interrupts the action of a play more than many designers and directors desire.
Once the designer has a basic grasp of the needs of a play and the style of scenery and set changes, he goes into production meetings. In production meetings he hears the director's production concept and perhaps helps to shape that concept. He refines his design concept in dialogue with the other designers and the director. If he has not worked in the specific theatre building before, he learns details about the capabilities of the stage.
The scenic designer's next step is to begin to sketch out his ideas. These preliminary drawings are called thumbnails; because he is describing visual elements, thumbnails communicate his ideas to the other artists far more effectively than words. At this stage a designer will also fill in his ideas for set dressings and perhaps properties. Set dressings are objects like furniture, fences, shrubbery, and carpets. Properties fall into three categories: they are "set props" if they live on the set, even if they are used by actors; they are "costume props" if they accessorize a costume; and they are "personal props" if they are carried on and off by actors. The set designer is often responsible for designing or approving set props.
The first element that must be finalized is the groundplan, or map of the stage floor looking down on it. The designer usually drafts a groundplan so that the other artists, especially the director and lighting designer, will have the exact locations and measurements of each element of the final set. Once scenic ideas have been agreed upon among the producing staff, set designers paint renderings or build models to represent their finished designs. Many designers' renderings or models are treated as works of art in their own right and displayed in museums or published in art books long after the theatre production has closed. But the initial purpose of the rendering or model is to communicate to the rest of the production staff how the set will look to an audience member. Renderings and models each have their advantages; renderings can be painted to give the full effect of actors, costumes, and lighting on a set, but models give a more accurate sense of how a set will work in three dimensions or as set pieces are added and moved over the course of the play.
Finally, once the entire set design has been coordinated with the director and other designers and all designs approved, the set designer translates her artistic vision for the technicians who will build and paint the units. Either the scene designer or the technical director creates working drawings, or elevations, which are scale drawing of each set piece that indicate materials, size, shape, color and texture. Often a separate set of elevations is drafted for the builders and for the scene painters.
Historical Conventions of Set Design
Scholars argue about the oldest conventions of scene design because history has left us incomplete records. Ancient Greek theatre festivals may or may not have used painted scenery, and they may or may not have changed the scenery to represent different locations. Ancient Romans acted in front of an elaborately carved, large-scale wall with several doors leading to a backstage area. This wall, or scaenae frons, was a permanent structure, serving as the background for every performance given in the theatre. Many scholars believe that in late Greek theatre and in Rome, there were spaces along the permanent back wall in which triangular periaktoi were placed; these periaktoi had different scenes painted on each of three sides. Until the Italian Renaissance, most performers across Europe used little scenery, instead describing locations with dialogue and using set dressings and properties to suggest an entire location. This approach was practical, given that many companies toured, like the Italian Commedia dell'arte, and few had much money.
At the Italian Renaissance, interest was reborn in all aspects of Ancient Greek and Roman culture, including theatre architecture, play texts, performance, and design. In 1545 Sebastiano Serlio published part 2 of his Architettura, in which he demonstrated how to build a theatre following Roman models, and in which he advocated three stock settings. Based on what he read about the ancients' use of periaktoi, Serlio advocated one stock setting for tragedies, one for comedies, and one for pastorals. The theatre designers of the Renaissance made several adaptations to accomodate the recent innovation of perspective painting;s they added depth to the Roman stages and built the upstage area on a rake up toward the back wall, and they painted the three stock settings in perspective. All of the settings, especially when placed on the raked stage, appeared to converge toward a central vanishing point. All three scenes were exteriors, all emphasized straight lines and right angles, all the masses were sizable, and all scenery was placed upstage while actors remained in front of it.
Serlio's ideas about scenery were generally carried out by painting sets of parallel flats, called wings, which were placed in pairs at the sides of the stage, with the pair upstage being placed slightly further on stage than the pair in front of it. At the back of the stage was a painted drop. This system of executing scenery became known through Europe as Italianate scenery or wing and drop scenery,after the method of building it. This style of scenery spread quickly throughout the courts of Europe during the 17th century.
Italianate scenery became increasingly elaborate and new innovations increased its efficiency. During the Baroque era -- the late 17th century -- in France, many Italians and native Frenchmen experimented with scenery under the generous patronage of King Louis XIV. Giacomo Torelli, an Italian lured to France to work for the French court, devised a method for changing scenes that was to become the standard in Europe for three centuries. He devised a system of parallel slots in the stage floor, with chariots on which scenery was mounted and which were controlled by ropes and pulleys attached to the part under the stage floor. A flat was mounted on the poles, or upright vertical pieces of a chariot, while the chariot was offstage, while another chariot was onstage displaying a flat of different scene. Each stage was outfitted with 3 or 4 double sets of slots on each side of the stage, and backdrops that could roll up. Onstage chariots, offstage chariots, and ropes controlling the backdrop were all connected under the stage floor to a rope and pulley system. Thus, stagehands could control and entire setting at once, changing all flats and the backdrop in unison. Audiences were so excited with Torelli's chariot and pole system, that he instigated a vogue for machine plays in France in the mid-17th century. Machine plays were written purely to show off scene changes, with minimal attention to plot or character.
In the 19th century, the box set challenged the popularity of "wing and drop" scenery controlled by Torelli's chariot and pole system. A box set merely turns the parallel flats, "wings", along the sides of the stage to form an angle with the upstage scenery, which is now made up of more flats rather than a drop. When placed at these new angles, the flats resemble three walls of a room or box. Box sets are much more effective at depicting a realistic interior location, but they are much harder to shift.
The 19th century also saw the culmination of a trend toward historical accuracy in scene design. This trend coincided with increasing interest on the part of historians, new archeological finds, and publication of new books on, for example, historical costume or armour or interior decoration. Interiors, exteriors, set dressings, properties, and costumes were regularly researched according to historical place and locality. If historical objects were unavailable, then stage objects were constructed to look like the originals. At its most extreme, the trend toward historical accuracy led to stages that were filled to the point of clutter with "realistic" objects. Some designers felt that too many stage objects could detract from the play itself, and that objects should be selected for their significance.
At the turn of the 20th century, stage design took a decisive turn away from theatrical trends that had dominated since the Renaissance. Spurred primarily by the Swiss Adolph Appia and the English Edward Gordon Craig, scene design turned away from painted perspective scenery to three dimensional scenery. The focus also turned from creating lots of realistic detail to selecting a few representative or metaphorical objects and allowing the audience to imaginatively fill in the details. With this selective approach to scene design, each object placed on the stage becomes more important and is often invested with symbolic weight.
Throughout the 20th century, scene designers have made use of the technological advances that have effected all areas of our lives. First, use of electrical power allowed areas of the stage and house as well as the scenery to be operated electrically. From the 1930's designers have made increasing use of projections; internationally known designer Josef Svoboda uses projections as the major element of his designs. In the 1960's and 1970's, many directors experimented with simplifying scene designs and creating stage objects with actors bodies or a few simple, multi-purpose objects. Since then, scene design has become increasingly fragmented and suggestive.
Some cutting edge contemporary designers are incorporating computer-generated 2D images or 3D environments into their designs. With advances in the technologies used to create virtual reality, it is now becoming possible to create interactive environments in which actors or audience members can have an effect on the computer generated scenery. Such experiments are being conducted at the University of Kansas, for example.
Scene designers today, like the other artists of the theatre, have no single standard way of creating scenery. Instead, they can design scenery drawing on hundreds of years of different styles and traditions, perhaps being true to the conventions of wing and drop scenery for one production while, for another production, they might use projections and fragmented scenery made up of three dimensional structures.
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