Like all designing, it is a double-edged sword. On one hand, no one has ever designed for this show before, so you know it will look unique. On the other hand, no one has ever designed this show before, so you are setting the precedent.
So let’s talk about some of those struggles of designing for a totally new show.
Firstly, I’m mostly talking about shows on a college campus, where you will likely know the writer, director, and entire creative team on a personal level. In these cases, it is both critical and often difficult to put your foot down as a designer. You want to breathe life into the show, but you also understand that it will follow the playwright more than it will follow the designers. Most shows are not going to advertise the designers on the poster, it’s the director and playwright's names that are attached to the production. Being totally original means that the playwright (who might also act as director) will be pretty sensitive to criticism of their work.
Being a new show means that it has never been taken off paper before. This play has only ever existed in the mind of the playwright and on the pages of the script. Neither of these places are really subject to the laws of physics and logistics. Sure, I get why we need to have two hangings from a story perspective, but that comes with a lot of safety checks and (by extension) design considerations. It might be really dramatic to have a character commit suicide by jumping off a factory, but you also have to consider that two scenes later we have to add a net that will support the weight of the other actors.
Designing for a show that has never seen the stage before is tricky, because you have to be the one to break it to the playwright and/or director that a scene just cannot or will not work.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some really awesome things about working on a new show too!
For starters, you are not bound by anyone else’s interpretation of the show. No one else has ever done it, so you don’t need to be stuck by any one person’s idea of how the show should look. The design is up to you, and the rest of the production/creative team. I have a friend who has written and directed many original shows. She found that one of her shows ended up looking the same with every production. There was always the question of “how did you do it before?” which basically turned the show into “how can we duplicate the original with the supplies and space we have now?” With a totally new show, there is no duplicating what came before, because there is no “came before”.
Another great thing about designing for a totally new show is that the entire creative team is in the same boat: nobody knows this show. I’ve run into the awkward situation of being the only person in the room not familiar with a show. So, while it was my first time looking at a script, everyone else on the design team had seen or done a rendition of the show previously. With a new show, there is none of that baggage. Sure, the playwright and director (hopefully) are more familiar with the show than the designers, but the rest of the design team is as fresh to the show as you are.
It is also kind of nice to know that to a certain extent, your design will be what the playwright (publically or privately) compares all other productions of the show to. It’s sort of amazing to know that whenever the show is done again, it will be your design that people turn to for inspiration.
I have just been offered the opportunity to set design for a new play written by one of my fellow students (I go to a liberal arts college). After reading the script, I’m happy that it’s at least mostly based in historical settings, so I can glean inspiration from those real life places and times. But that is not true of all new shows, knowing the playwright, I was more than a little concerned that it might take place in some made-up land. While I’m terrified that any number of things might go wrong (the show has ten different settings!) I’m also proud that the playwright will think of my set when he thinks about this show. I’m glad that I get to work with a team of my peers to put together a show that I think will be really well received.
Photo: Ray Recht, Professor of Theatre Arts and Scenic Designer, painting the O PIONEERS! [Marymount Manhattan College]