Everything on the set has purpose ..
Everything on the set has purpose ..

There’s a ‘dramatic principle’ that Chekhov famously illustrated about what you should and should not have on set (or in your play if you’re writing). He said something along the lines of ‘don’t put a loaded gun on stage unless you intend it to go off’ or ‘don’t mention there’s a gun hanging on the wall in Act I unless you intend it to go off in Act III’ (you’ll find many variations if you search for ‘Chekhov’s gun’). His point being that you should not raise the expectations of the audience by drawing attention to an item that actually has no purpose or relevance to the plot. Interesting. I have read about this a few times and the interpretation of his words always comes out slightly differently. So, what should you put on your set and what should you leave out?

You’re at the stage where you’ve designed your set. Now you have to dress it – populate it with props and other relevant items to create the desired effect.
I think the golden rule is that everything on the set has purpose and relevance to the plot. There are (to my mind) 2 reasons to put something on a set:

  • The item has a purpose in dressing the set. It helps to create atmosphere and (if appropriate) historical accuracy. It becomes part of your design plan. I have designed sets for teenagers’ bedrooms on many occasions. In one I just had something to represent the bed. That was it. The play was actually set in the imagination of the teenager – so the actual bedroom was irrelevant, but we needed something to use as a platform/boat/bridge etc. In another I had the set littered with items because it was in keeping with the design requirements of the plot and it told the audience something about the character of the bedroom’s inhabitant. But be careful – don’t use provocative items that serve no purpose at all (Chekhov’s gun). If I placed a female mannequin in the bedroom of a teenager (boy or girl) it may well give information about their character, but its presence would also command attention – so it would need to be included in the plot in some way (referred to or used) to justify its inclusion. If it isn’t – don’t place the item on the set.
  • The item is a requirement of the script Sometimes you need all manner of strange and wonderful items placed on stage. If they are mentioned in the script they are going to be used in some way by the characters. Putting them in the right place is always a challenge!

Great! So you are using each item for a specific purpose that relates directly to the script / performance.
At what point would you expect to dress the set?
I’ve met people who dress the set at the last possible moment. They do this because they don’t understand how important the set is to the performance. You NEED a set weeks before your first night (not days)** – your cast have to be comfortable in the space. They have to be able to relate to it and USE it. I have also seen productions where the cast clearly were not given the opportunity to do this and as a consequence have spent the entire play trying not to bump into the furniture. If your cast have never acted in the set (or had very little time) they won’t be accustomed to the layout or the possibilities and will spend most of the time walking around everything and ignoring props that could be very useful. Use rehearsal props all the time until the real thing arrives on stage. Make sure your cast are aware of the layout of the set – use anything you can to represent the final set and props! The colour of the set is also important (not just for your lighting designer). If I paint a room deep purple it will have a different feel to a room I paint white. Your actors need this experience of set, colour and props way before the first night if you’re going to be convincing.


  • Each actor needs to have a relationship with the set appropriate to their character. A character who is playing a scene in his/her own home will have a completely different way of relating to it than a character who is visiting for the first time. Obvious really, but easy to overlook if you’re not seeing the big picture or leaving yourself short on time.
  • You need to work in the ‘business’ that your actors engage in as well. They pick things up, use props, share them etc. Each character has a different relationship with the items on stage. If you don’t use rehearsal props and your actors get used to miming don’t be surprised if, on the performance night, they mime the use of a prop. Often an actor will improvise using an invisible prop because they ‘feel it’s the right thing to do’ but they don’t think/remember to actually get the prop itself. I saw that happen in one of my own productions and was mortified by the sight of someone dusting with an imaginary duster!

So, design the set, dress the set and populate it with the props you need. Make sure you do this in good time so your cast get to rehearse with it (all of it). The result will always be worth it.

** Somebody recently remarked that in ‘professional theatre’ you might only get your set on stage days before your first night. In professional theatre your cast are a. professional and b. therefore available all day to rehearse (and many other things besides). If you only have a few nights a week available to rehearse your non professional cast you need weeks to make up the hours that the professional cast can muster on stage in a few days.

Seeing Things by Rob Hockley. A set full of stuff to represent a lad's bedroom.
Seeing Things by Rob Hockley. A set full of stuff to represent a lad’s bedroom.

Please see Various posts on Set & Props
Various posts on Skills
if you want to read more!

Directing doesn’t stop here, of course. There are a few more posts to come….

Directing Ideas Part 9: Populating the Stage