It doesn’t matter what you’re building – whether it’s a set or a prop or a costume, you’re probably not gonna do it alone. This is theatre, and even a ‘one man show’ takes about 30 people to pull it off. You’re going to have to share your vision with someone to make it happen.
If you’re still (like me) drawing things on napkins and handing them to people or scrawling things on the back of a sheet of plywood and saying “Here’s my vision…”, you know that your results vary. If you’re with people that know you well and can read your chicken scratching it’s not so bad. But the fact is, a solid diagram will get more (and better) work accomplished for you. There’s a lot of free software out there that can help you get your vision out there, and it’s easy to just dive in and start grabbing walls and flats and dragging them around to see what you can do. But using an old fashioned pen and paper to start with is still your best way to go, get the ideas down there and then move them to design software to print out and share.
But… before you can just start drawing – you need to do your homework. If this is your first time doing a play, here’s a good set of steps I like to follow:
First… Play Analysis
Yup… Research… before I do a set design – the first thing I have to do is to read the play. When I do – I try to ignore the stage directions, ignore the notes – actually read and understand the play itself. Know what it’s about. Get a feel for the actual play. If you ignore the notes for the play – the stage directions you don’t limit yourself by thinking, “Okay, I’ve only got 20 feet of space to put in 3 doors, stairs and a ramp…”. Then you can actually get a feel for the play itself. Some plays are dark. Others are light. Some are very fast paced – others are very slow and brooding … all of these descriptions have certain colors and emotions associated with them in our minds. That helps me get an idea for color schemes and if I want to see shadows or bright colors or whatever in my head when I look at things.
It also keeps me from putting limits on what I can and can’t do. It’s important to know your limitations, but it’s also important not to be confined by them. Just because the play says, “Henry exits through kitchen door beneath stairs stage left”, does not mean you will have a kitchen door stage left, let alone one under stairs. Read it through first – get a feel for what the writer had in mind, not visually – but for the play over all. You may not have a stage which can even accommodate that set of directions. So all in all… ignore them the first pass on your reading.
Then, go back through after your first pass – and make your notes. Don’t apply these to your stage limitations yet – just be aware of them. Now, go look at how other people have done this play. Get some ideas.
The first thing I’ll use is search engines. Not just Google, but I’ll hit Google, Bing, Youtube, Deviantart – and do searches for the play you’re doing, and make sure you swap keywords for the searches – do them a couple of times with “sets” or “stage” or “theatre” and look at Images. When I do this I want to see what others have done, and this is also a good way to get an idea of what is available for props and drops for the play.
For example if I’m looking up Noel Coward’s “Peace In Our Time”, I’ll do a search for “Peace In Our Time Sets”… click on search and somewhere in the hundreds of photos, I’m bound to get a few like this one…+
And from these – I can move on to the second round of design, where I get my vision and meet with the director and the build crew and we get an idea of what we can actually do.
Second …. Do the Pre-Design & Vision
1) Design : More Research, consider other plays that have similar elements (you might be able to reuse your set pieces if you do things right!)
2) Design : Resource Assessment
3) Design : Draft
4) Design : Walk Through
5) Design : Build Team Assessment / Review
6) Design : Approved
From this, as you can see on my list… we’ll get some ideas. And it’s at this point having software you can print up stuff for everyone is really important. Why? Because it keeps you from showing your research. All those ideas you looked at to get ideas? Yah, don’t share that. Let me tell you why.
You’ll go meet with the Director. He’ll say he wants it to look just like your pictures… you’ll say… “I will never show the director pictures again! You were right!! Don’t ever show him research pictures!! Now I have to try to build this stuff!!!”. Because if you show the director pictures – that’s what he’s going to expect. Most likely you’re a small school. You do not have a full fly space, and a crafting budget, and a props budget, and a crew of 15 people, most of those volunteers who show up on weekends.
Your director – and possibly cast – are hoping you can do a 3 million dollar broadway production… and that’s not happening.
If you’re lucky, with your budget you’ll get some good stages, you get stairs and a few platforms. And the ability to re-use the flats from the last show. Most likely… reuse the paint as well. You don’t get to put wood floors down (like the picture above). Stair case that goes up to a second floor loft that rotates out over the audience? Probably not in your budget.
But all that research does give you ideas. And ideas let you build amazing things. So take your ideas – and grab a pen and pencil. If you’re not an artist that’s fine. There’s a lot of free software out there which can help you design a set. And heres a few programs I’ve found you can do some great stuff with… and they’re free.
Google Sketchup has a free version. And you can download literally hundreds of theatres, props, you name it – premade.
You can print these or even create little movies to give the Director and everyone a chance to see what you have in mind. Since these are all in actual measured sizes you can do some very impressive planning all on your computer.
Now… what if you want to actually DESIGN a set, and you’re not all that … into the complicated CAD thingy like sketchup? Try Autodesk’s Homestyler – it’s free and pretty easy to use. You drag and drop walls, etc., of the sizes and shapes you want to your stage area. You can even add furniture and it works well with tablets or mobile devices.
And as I mentioned – it’s free. Drag and drop the items you want in 2D, then click a button to see them in 3D. Although it’s not as robust as Sketchup – the learning curve to use it is such you can generally be designing things within a few minutes. Once you have “Your Designs” in mind – show those off to the director instead of the sets of Broadway productions and it will make your life much easier all the way around.
Having it here, also allows you to turn it into easy to understand build instructions for your crew. For example… Sketchup features tons of flats – all pre-set for building with measurements… just print and hand out.
Oh, and my “Third Step”… pretty self explanatory here…
1) Build: Estimate Build Time/Cost for Pieces, Props
2) Build: Get Materials…
3) Build: Build, build, build…