For those of us who just love to watch plays, with very little knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes, could you explain what the set design process is like for a new play?
This is a great question! It is a lengthy process that includes many different stages, requiring different methods, skills, and processes.
You generally start with a script, a director, a venue and an idea. I have to create a world in that the play exists. Originally working closely with the director to get the foundations down and then with all the teams that make it happen, scenic, construction, production and stage management, lighting, sound, costume and many more.
So many things need to be considered and realised. Once the aesthetics, budget, era, challenges, moments and movements are decided, the design is then built around the language and locations in the play. Each scene is dissected with a fine-toothed comb; who’s in it, what action that takes place, what props are needed, what is the meaning behind it, what’s the mood/ feeling, any challenges or special moments and then how can it transition to the next scene.
A basic, but to scale model is made from white card of the initial design. This is where all departments can see the shape of the design, the transitions between scenes and the movement and scale of the set elements. Walked through scene by scene, with a mood board to show colour, texture, lighting, projections and any other visual elements.
Every designer has their own method of communicating their ideas, mood boards, sketches, digital drawings etc. and this can change with each show depending on what is needed.
After the preliminary whitecard model has been confirmed, a more detailed finished model is made. Including all scenic finishes, props, set elements, and tiny little actors!
Complete digital drawings showing the dimensions and workings of the set and props for construction are completed. In-depth scenic plans, prop and set list are also finalised.
Then working closely with all departments it starts to take shape and come to life.
Most set designers also design the costumes as well…and that’s a whole other process added on top!
From whitecard to stage. Shirley Valentine at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.