‘What team?’ I hear you say. Quite so. Chances are it’s just you and your best friend. But let’s suppose for the sake of this post that you do have access to people who will design for you – or at least be instrumental in getting your designs on stage in some form.

the set, costumes and a dash of lighting for 'After Juliet' by Sharman Macdonald. Rich colours and fabrics, different levels to act on, moody lights. Loved it!
The set, costumes and a dash of lighting for ‘After Juliet’ by Sharman Macdonald. Rich colours and fabrics, ‘punk- Elizabethan’ style costumes, a plaza, scaffolding towwers to create different levels, moody lights. Loved it!

Part of my ‘visioning’ period (that’s the never-ending period) involves visualising the design of the show in every way conceivable – the set, props, lighting, sfx, sound, costumes, hair & make-up. So, as soon as you can get together with each member of your team and talk through what you want. Show them your diagrams, sketches, design boards, fabric samples – anything at all you have collected whilst dreaming away! Try and find a way to make your design ideas a reality. I tend to be of the opinion that if my designer says ‘it can’t be done’ then I’m probably talking to the wrong person (although I do compromise when I really, really have to).

Our dog building the giant peach (James & the Giant Peach) all by himself.
Our dog building the giant peach all by himself.

I’m rubbish at actually drawing a set. I can’t seem to get the hang of 3D and perspective at all. But I know what I want to see on stage and what I need my set to do. So, this is how I go about getting my dream set:

  • If it’s complicated and needs an engineering design (the giant peach and my ‘waltzer style revolves come into this category) then search high and low until you find someone who can design what you need in an elegant and economical way. Your set needs to look good, don’t settle for less.
  • Be VERY clear about the look you want and what you need the set to do for you. If it has a function (revolving for instance) make sure this is understood! A static revolve would be pretty useless (yes, I know it seems unlikey, but just make sure …)
  • Get your Stage Manager involved so there are two of you keeping an eye on the development. Be part of the process. Make sure all is ok in set-build land.
  • Timetable it in to your grand plan. You’ll need time to rehearse on set (especially if it’s interactive). Bear in mind your lighting designer can’t light the set until it exists and it’s painted/decorated. Make sure there’s time (when is your first tech run?)
Specialist gun made for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It fires a bunch of flowers!
Specialist gun made for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It fires a bunch of flowers!

This is where your list making skills will come in handy. A good props person will do this themselves – go through the script and list the props required. However, you may have extra requirements, so make sure you have a definitive list of props & go through it with your props person. Pictures help, period notes, colour, style – anything that will help the acquisition of the correct pieces. If you need to make specialist props – find the right people for the job and make sure they have plenty of time. Meanwhile your props person or Stage Manager should be able to sort out some rehearsal props. This is important. I’ve seen people mime a prop in performance because they’ve rehearsed it like that for so long they forget to take the actual prop onstage.

Don't skimp on costumes - they matter!
Don’t skimp on costumes – they matter! This one took a long, long time to create, but looked stunning!

This might be very straighforward (never is for my shows), but don’t leave it until the last few weeks. If you’re doing a contemporary show and the cast are using their own clothes you still need to make sure the costumes are consistent with character! I’m amazed at how little thought people will put into this aspect of the show. I’ve seen some lovely performances that are totally let down by the appearance of the show. Schools will very often ask parents to sort out their child’s costumes. Whereas I can understand the economic reasons for this it means you end up with a mish-mash of styles. It will look pretty awful. With a bit more planning you can get round this and it doesn’t need to cost the earth (more on costuming a show to come).

  • Start early – as soon as you’ve cast start collecting costumes. Enlist help if you don’t have a Wardrobe Mistress. If you need to make costumes find people early on.
  • Use your design board, give people copies or relevant parts and and allocate tasks. Be clear about the timeframe you have to complete everything.
  • Use rehearsal costumes where needed. If actors need to get used to long skirts, fatsuits, masks, wigs – anything that will require them to adapt their physical performance, then provide them. I’m a great believer in rehearsing in costume as soon as it’s practical.
  • Make sure someone (if not yourself) is keeping an eye on continuity of style
  • Be creative and thorough – people really notice the visual elements of performance
  • When you’re creating your costume pics on your design board -include hair and make-up as well. It may not be elaborate but make sure you don’t get caught out the week before the show (‘how shall I wear my hair?’). Find someone to cope with more elaborate hair & make-up – most people can’t do it! Talk through each character and bear in mind the stage you are on and how it will be lit. Small stages do not need much make-up. Some don’t really need any unless it is to create character. On the other hand – everybody needs a hairstyle!

Whatever you have in mind for the soundscape, at some point in the early rehearsal period make sure your sound engineer is on board and able to produce what you need. Do sit down and go through the script page by page – it’s important that everyone has a bit of the director’s time and attention. If you’re using a lot of music/sound (I love having a soundtrack!) either source the music or sound effect yourself or describe it very well! Go through each piece and treat the sound like an extra character. Make sure the entrances and exits are ok! Involve your SM with all technical requirements. Everyone will need scripts marked up exactly the same (no, it’s not the directors job to do that!)

In this scene there's a ghost who needed a spotlight that could follow him around and make him look ... well, spooky.
In this dark dungeon scene there’s a ghost who needed a spotlight that could follow him around and make him look … well, spooky. Everyone else needed to look as if they were in a dark (haunted) dungeon.

Now I’m really stuck. This is one area that I can visualise (well, sort of), but I cannot give precise information to my lighting designer. If you have that problem then talk to your designer about the feeling or atmosphere you want to create. Luckily for me I’ve been working with someone for years who can interpret my ‘slightly less than prescise’ thoughts on lighting. However, before you do that go through the script and mark all the places where a lighting change takes place. I mark the script with a different colour marker for sound, lights, music – anything where I want to be reminded that someone other than ‘acting’ takes place. My scripts are actually a complete mess after the event, but they serve me well! Think about what it is you need from the lights and then talk through ideas with your designer. Lights are SO magical on stage – it really is worth seeking out someone who has a real feel for lighting.Even if your space/stage/budget doesn’t offer the scope for West End type grandiose, stunning lights you can do a lot with some imagination! LED fairy lights (for example) – brilliant! In James & the Giant Peach I used green LED lights in a cotton bag to represent the magic beans (looked very magical on the ‘pulse’ setting). These days I just say ‘I want this scene to be very creepy’ and lighting magic happens!

The MOST IMPORTANT thing is not to leave all of this until the last month of your rehearsals! Get it underway as soon as you can – your technical crew and designers will appreciate being involved as soon as possible.

Phew! Now … onwards to that all impoprtant meeting with the folk who will produce, market and maybe even get you some sponsorship!

Next one ….
Offbeat Directing 7d: Infrastructure!

Offbeat Directing Ideas 7c: Your Design Team

14 thoughts on “Offbeat Directing Ideas 7c: Your Design Team

  • Avatar
    July 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    Oh goodness that looks so fun and exciting. I miss being in theater! Thanks for sharing this!

    –Visiting from BHB LinkedIn Group

  • Avatar
    July 15, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    I love the theater but many people do not know how much work it really takes. There are so many people in the background. I like the fact that you showcase all the hard workers backstage.

  • Barbara
    July 15, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks for your comments Susan. Depending on your role it can take over your life from conception to last night. Certainly does for me & I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are SO many things that need to come together! Have just started a new show …

  • Barbara
    July 15, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    Pleasure, thanks for dropping in. Have just got home after a hot, sticky night on stage with a new show in rehearsal & it just gets every creative bone in your body rattling away!

  • Avatar
    July 16, 2013 at 1:54 am

    From the audience, it all looks so easy. I recently saw a musical with only four people and two chairs and a table on stage – but the way everything was utilized, it looked like so much more. That’s professionalism. You know a lot of work and rehearsal went into making the most of a minimal set. I have nothing but admiration (and adoration!) for the theatre!

  • Barbara
    July 16, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Thanks Krystyna. I think minimal sets are some of the hardest to work with! Re your last comment – me too!

  • Avatar
    July 16, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    It’s incredible how much work goes into creating a visually seamless show. You have to be a planner extraordinaire and if you don’t have a big budget, incredibly creative. Actually, even if you had a big budget, you’d still need to be incredibly creative to suspend disbelief. My hat is off to you, I don’t know how you do it.

  • Barbara
    July 16, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks for comments Debra – it’s a labour of love I think!

  • Avatar
    July 17, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    I’ve only ever done 10-minute plays with my creative writing students, though I have been to many plays in the theater. Over the years, I’ve found I respond best to sets that allow the actors to move around on multiple levels by utilizing stairs and ladders. It just seems to add another dimension to what’s going on. It’s also amazing what can be accomplished with lighting. I really should try to get involved with community theater in some way because I would probably love it.

  • Barbara
    July 17, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    There’s so much you can do in a theatre – it requires diverse skills and is so rewarding. I also love sets on many levels. In fact, as I hate scene changes (can’t bear anything that interrupts the story), most of my sets involve all sorts of devices so I can change location on stage in the blink of an eye! Fascinating stuff! Thanks for your comment!

  • Avatar
    July 17, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    I love to go to the theater as I live close to NYC. When you are watching a production you never stop to think what goes on behind the scenes, you just come away thinking the set and costumes were great. It think it is great we got to the how hard the worker work behind the scenes

  • Barbara
    July 17, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    It’s good that you don’t notice or think about it Arleen! A bit like the soundtrack on a film I guess. The best ones don’t divert attention away from the action.

  • Avatar
    July 18, 2013 at 12:33 am

    My youngest daughter has been working in community theater. There is so much here she can relate too. Fr their current project (Seusical the Musical) she has gone as far as painting sets and set up as well as her parts in the show.

  • Barbara
    July 18, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Good luck to her in the show – hope she has a great time. It’s something that most children really benefit from in so many different ways.

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