If your cast are acting in a space like this you really need it weeks ahead! James & the Giant Peach.
If your cast are acting in a space like this you really need it weeks ahead! James & the Giant Peach.Peach design by Jim Rolt.

I have a very intimate relationship with my set when I’m directing a show. Very, very intimate and important. The set is something that starts to take shape in my mind long before the cast have appeared. As I read the script I start to play around with ideas. How will it look? What will it feel like? How can I create the required atmosphere? What do I actually need on stage? What would I like to have? And .. very importantly for me .. how can I avoid scene changes? (See Elegant Scene Changes for my feelings about scene changes). I start my design right there and it evolves with the production. There are lots of different ways to use to the stage – this is just my process, my take on it. My relationship with my set.

Drapes and greenery for some forest magic. Beauty & the Beast.
Drapes and greenery for some forest magic in a very ‘mechanical’ multi-purpose set. Beauty & the Beast.

Put your cast on a bare stage at your peril, unless the design/performance concept calls for a bare stage. Then the bare stage becomes an integral part of the performance. I never have (so far). I’ve never directed or written anything that actually requires a bare stage. On the other hand I don’t feel obliged to use a realistic setting for a play unless I feel it’s the best decision I can make. Surreal sets, minimal sets, mechanical sets .. whatever it takes to make the material come to life and allows the story to be told. Above all I love to be creative, to make the set into something the cast perform with – not around. I might paint the floor, use long flowing drapes, scaffolding, rostra, hang inflatables, use revolves, screens, flats, french windows and doors, a huge tree – anything at all that adds to the performance and the story.

What my set is not
It is not just a backdrop for the cast to stand in front of.
It is not a series of obstacles that the cast have to try not to bump into.
It is not a way of making the stage look pretty.
It is not something that is added at the last moment possible.
It is not without purpose or function.

Sometimes you need a BIG centrepiece. The chandelier takes shape from Terry Pratchett's Maskerade.
Sometimes you need a BIG centrepiece. The chandelier takes shape from Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade.

When I start to design my set it gives me a way in to the show. It’s a doorway to another realm inside my head where the performance starts to take shape. The size and shape of the set, the colours, the decor, the furniture (or whatever large items are on the set) – it all starts to gel and it becomes a part of the performance. The set needs rehearsals. You cannot expect your cast to use the set if they don’t get to see it completed before the first night (not to mention the lighting – you can’t light the set until it’s there). If you want your cast to wear 6 inch heels they will need to rehearse with them on. If they have to fall through a trapdoor or climb up a scaffolding tower – they must have rehearsal time with the trapdoor or scaffolding tower. If you want your cast to interact with the set in any shape or form (sitting on a sofa, rummaging through a cupboard, timing a crucial entrance) you will need your set on stage for that to happen effectively.

Light your cast from behind a gauze screen for a ghostly underworld effect. Orpheus.
Light you cast from behind a gauze screen for a ghostly underworld effect. Orpheus.

All sets are interactive to a degree. If they weren’t you would have little need for them. Even if it’s just a lit backdrop, your cast are acting within, and adding to, the atmosphere that it creates. Every element of your production is crucial, every aspect has a relationship to every other. They blend. They mix. And, for that reason, I expect my sets to attend rehearsals. I need them to be at their best. I want my cast to know them well, to get on with them. I don’t want altercations between cast, crew and set. I want harmony. Everyone working together creating a performance where the blend is right. No alien aspects to contend with, fall over or simply ignore. The set, the performance arena, sits at the heart of the show. It matters.

Me and my set

4 thoughts on “Me and my set

  • Avatar
    February 16, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    I’m hoping loads of people will read this. How fortunate that you have the gift to write about, and thus share, the creative thoughts that start their life inside your head. I have seen your productions. Your sets are always a joy to behold!

  • Barbara
    February 16, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    Thanks Nonny. Your comments and thoughts are always appreciated!

  • Avatar
    February 16, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    That chandelier! Have Jane’s fingers recovered yet?

    Brilliant chandelier though, may I add.

  • Barbara
    February 16, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    You certainly may! I think Jane’s fingers have probably developed a strange aversion to glue guns …..

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