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THE ART OF SET DESIGN

BBN Editor Anngelie Gomez-Munoz details the work done on the recent drama production set.

 

By: Anngelie Gomez-Munoz



When you think of theater, the first thing that comes to mind is the acting, singing and dancing but never the technicalities that go behind it. A good chunk of the work put into musicals and plays are lighting, sound cue timing, fly systems, and of course, set and props. A set is the image of a production, the setting. It’s the world of the characters and gives the audience hints of the time period, genre, and general theme of what they’re watching. For example, if the theater production is the little mermaid, the set would be themed underwater and have various blue undertones. Props are any objects used in a performance that aren't part of the set or worn by an actor. Props are what characters use to move a story along and vary in size from a key to a piano. The most magical thing about props is they can be created from ANYTHING. This includes paper, cardboard, wood, clay, and foam-the sky is the limit!


Before any construction, research must be done. If the setting of the play is in a castle, the set is not going to be jungle themed. Some plays/musicals interact with the set by having secret passages, trap doors or platforms and some can be satisfied with a simple landscape backdrop. What is important is making the actors and audience feel like they are a part of the world in the play. The proper dimensions and measurements must be taken into consideration because if a musical is dance heavy, a set with ample floor space will be needed. Most set designers have to watch the play a few times to take note of any scenery changes, props or set piece movement.




(Piano set piece carried on stage during act 2 of SEUSSICAL)


The next step is creating a blueprint. After an extensive amount of research is done, a design must be sketched in order to have a reference to look at during construction. Measurements are usually included to get a general idea of how big or small certain parts of the set are supposed to be.




(Rough blueprint of CLUE set)



(Finalized set design of SEUSSICAL)


This is the part of the process where set designers get to be creative by planting all their ideas onto paper and messing around with rough sketches until it is finalized.


Set construction and painting are the most time-consuming parts of the whole set designing process. This is the step where problems are encountered and alterations to the original plan can be made. For example, during the construction of SEUSSICAL we realized we lacked the proper wood material for new stairs and did not have the budget to buy new wood. To counter this issue, we decided to stack platforms and wood boxes that were okay to be reused in the workshop area.




(Platform concept for SEUSSICAL)


It's important to be able to adapt and have backups to your design when problems arise. Another sub section of set construction is writing set and fly cues as they are being built. The fly system is complicated to make changes to. The more you attach to the pole, the more weights need to be added to prevent injury while pulling.




(Bed frame panel hung on the fly system during SEUSSICAL)


Although props are smaller and do not often require large amounts of wood or nails, you do have to get crafty. Cardboard, styrofoam, and papier-mâché are common materials used for making props because of versatility. Props are used by actors so they must be sturdy enough to handle being tossed around for multiple show nights and rehearsals.



(SEUSSICAL props made of cardboard, toilet roll, and paper)



(Jellyfish props made from umbrella and streamers)





(Base of prop egg made from styrofoam and covered using papier-mâché)


Prop construction can be tedious since it requires a lot of attention to detail, but the process is more entertaining than set building. You have the freedom to get your hands messy!


Overall, finishing touches are the most satisfying part of the process. This is usually when set designers make sure all props and set match the style of the play/musical and can finalize their checklist. Set designing is not easy, there’s more to just sketching a setting. It involves overseeing the entire construction process, cooperating with the choreographer and stage manager as well as painting the props and set. While the job is heavy, there will always be people who offer aid to make the job less stressful and difficult. In the theater world, it’s important to manage time carefully to 1. finish the base at least a few weeks before the show to give the director and actors enough time to block around the set . The beauty of set and prop designing is seeing the vision come to life and observing the audience’s reaction to the world you carved.


(Finalized SEUSSICAL set during act 2 “Circus McGurkus”)


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