Stagecraft 101: Designing and Building a Set

Melissia Gary

  • North Carolina Columnist

What does it take to design and build a set for a community theatre play? It takes dedication, love and hard work. Many people don’t know all the hard work it takes to put on a show.  Let’s first discuss set design and building. 

The set designer usually meets with the director and the producer to get their vision, discusses the budget and the time lines. Measurements of the stage and space are taken; perhaps an inventory of what the theatre already has in walls, wood, and trim is assessed.  Questions such as, “Are doors needed, if so how many? Do we have what we need? Do we need to buy them?

If we need to buy them is it in the budget?”  The inventory will tell us if we need to purchase any more wood for additional items like stairs if they are used in the set.  If the theatre does not have enough of something and it is within the budget then materials can be purchases and the items like stairs can be made. If the theatre is lucky they have everything they need already. If not hopefully the budget is large enough to allow for the expenditures.  If neither is true then everyone gets to stretch their creative muscles to make it work. 

The set is designed based on what the budget, inventory and vison.  The director and producer meet with the designer and the schedule is set up. In my experience with community theatre, it’s a call for all hands on deck. Everyone involved in the show is expected to participate in some way. If you are especially skilled in using a saw, hammer or drill you are especially smiled upon. We come together on the weekends, to hold walls in place, to bring wood and trim from storage to the stage and assist in any way we can. 

For a couple of weekends the sounds of the actors voices are replaced by the whirs of saws and the piercing sounds of drills as the set comes together. It can take longer depending on the complexity of the set.  After everything is built and in place we come forth with gallons of primer because of budgetary constraints most of our walls are used over and over. Primer is a magical thing. After all is primed, the painters take over.  After many coats of paint, sometimes multiple colors, we look at all we have accomplished. We smile. We are dedicated to making the show everything it can be and the setting is a big part of the magic of our community theatre.