I recently attended a production of As You Like It at Western Washington University. While every element of the production combined into a truly beautiful show, my breath was instantly taken away by the gorgeous set. It was big, detailed, and lavish; there was a slanted wooden circle on half of the stage, chairs which looked like winged chariots, shadows of trees in the background, and what looked like a moon floating above us. When the action transitioned to the Arden, the whole stage shifted seamlessly from the palace to a simpler yet still breathtaking forest set. Having not worked in the world of set design, I lack the language to properly describe what I witnessed on that stage, but from an audience perspective, it looked like sheer magic.
Especially for those working with theatres which lack big Broadway budgets, set design can seem like an unnecessary expense. During one of my theatre classes in which we were putting together proposals for productions with budget in mind, the class fell into a trap of almost always advocating for a simple stage design to minimize the cost of our imagined productions. We realized that the sparse set only was actually appropriate for some of our pitches, and other shows really benefit from an elaborate set design or, at least, one which has been carefully crafted with the show in mind.
Most actors agree there is something special about working in the space where the play will be performed. If you have been rehearsing elsewhere, entering the theatre adds a newfound gravity to the work. If you have been working in the theatre already, you might begin to take the space for granted and get almost too comfortable in it. But once the set is in place, the space is suddenly transformed into something new.
A bare stage is like working in front of a green screen; you have everything you need to act but still must imagine the specific surroundings yourself. A full set is shooting on location; you don’t have to imagine what the world looks like because you’re right there. Regardless of the particular budget or caliber, a thoughtful set design transports actors to a whole new world, a place they can explore and get to know as characters. It adds a depth and specificity to the work by allowing everyone to picture their environment in the same way.
For audience members, a strong set also opens the doors to a new reality. For most productions, the set is the first element the audience witnesses. They could be sitting for half an hour staring at this set. During this time, there is much potential to establish the mood of the play. A well-crafted design will have the audience already primed to laugh, cry, gasp, or whatever the production is designed to elicit. This is why it is so important for all elements of a theatrical production to communicate with each other, so the technical workers are clear of the director’s goal for the production. Once everyone is on the same page regarding the creative vision, the set designer can put his or her skills to work in constructing a stage which will get the audience ready for what they are about to experience.
I have no idea how great set designers construct such intricate visions or how the whole crew puts it all together practically. I have great respect for these workers, though, and believe their art is incredibly crucial to the theatrical production. Film can show you amazing views and computer generated worlds beyond anything we have ever imagined, but theatre can bring such worlds right in front of us in real wood, metal, and cloth. Set design has the power to elevate the theatrical experience to a fantastical level, or just bring us into another’s daily existence. Whether it be lavish or simple, the stage is a powerful visual tool. To stage designers everywhere, I salute you.
Photo: Guilford College Theater Studies. Scenic design by Robin Vest