Scenic Design

Resources

Reference...
J. Michael Gillette. Theatrical Design and Production, 4th edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 2000. Chapter 7: Scenic Design
Jones, Robert Edmond. The Dramatic Imagination. New York: Theatre Arts Books. 1941.
Payne, Darwin. The Scenographic Imagination. Carbondale, IL: Southern Ilinois Press. 1981.


1. Who is considered the "father" of American scene design?

The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife
Robert Edmond Jones
The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife

Robert Edmond Jones (1887-1954) graduated from Harvard in 1910, traveled to Europe to study the "New StageCraft" and returned to America at the beginning of World War I. He shocked the American theatre audience in 1915 with his simple presentational set for The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife. Today he is primarily remembered for (1) his work with the Provincetown Players (1916-1929) and the Theatre Guild (1919- ) and their staging of Eugene O'Neill's early plays and (2) the vivid dramatic lighting for Macbeth, Richard III, and John Barrymore's Hamlet.
Link to Robert Edmond Jones' production credits listed in the Internet Broadway Database (www.ibdb.com)

2. Briefly discuss the "action-documentation-metaphor" approach to scene design.

The "action-documentation-metaphor" approach to design was developed and taught by New York designer Mordecai Gorelik (1900-1975). At the end of World War II, in the fall of 1945, the US Army opened a university for American service men and women in southern France: the Biarritz American University. One of the Fine Arts courses offered was Scene Design. The professor was Mordecai Gorelik. Ten year later he was conducting 12 week workshops in New York City for designers, directors and playwrights. Twenty years later the class was called The Scenic Imagination, in homage to Gorelik's mentor Robert Edmond Jones, the author of The Dramatic Imagination (1941), and was being taught by Gorelik at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Link to Mordecai Gorelik's production credits in the Internet Broadway Database (www.ibdb.com)
Action: Provide those elements -- doors, windows, steps, furniture -- needed by the director and the actor to stage the show.

Documentation: Locate the action of the play in a specific place -- London, Berlin, New York -- and a specific time period -- 1890, 1936, 2000.

The Metaphor is Gorelik's trademark and is used to assist the designer in developing a specific tone, mood, style, or feel for the play. According to the Free Dictionary, a metaphor is "A figure of speech in which a word ... that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison..." For example: "All the world's a stage,..." (William Shakesepare, As You Like It, Act II, scene 7). In less poetic terms -- the world is a stage. (Note: A simile would add the work like: The world is like a stage.)

A possible scenic metaphor for Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid (1673) could be "an apothecary's shop," a drug store. Argan, Moliere's imaginary invalid, does not live in a drug store (according to Gorelik: that would be "crude expressionism,") but the set, his sitting room, could have the tone, mood, style, and feel of a 17th century drugstore.

3. List five practical considerations a designer must face when designing a set for a play or musical.

  1. The play,
  2. The director,
  3. The theatre and its physical facilities,
  4. The budget (in both time and money), and
  5. The experiences and abilities of the crew.

4. According to Darwin Payne (The Scenographic Imagination), what are the scene designer's "four areas of influence?"

  1. The stage floor -- ramps, steps, platforms...
    To resolve the stage floor into appropriate acting areas is the first major step in designing a production.
    (Darwin Payne. The Scenographic Imagination, pg.46.)
  2. The general background -- walls, wings and borders, backdrops,...
    While the actors do not necessarily involve themselves with the background, they will always be seen in relation to it....This background can be, therefore, at one time, the least important part of the design to the performer and the most potent visual element in terms of what the audience sees. Actors simply cannot compete with a background that is too bright or distracting. This is potentially the most dangerous area in which the scenographer works...
    (Darwin Payne. The Scenographic Imagination, pg.46, 49.)
  3. The specific units of scenery -- doors, windows, rocks, trees..., and
    These units may be part of the general background but what separates them into a different category is that they may, in fact often are, used directly by the actors and therefore become much more important to them. Doors, windows, platforms, steps, rocks, trees, etc., can be used by themselves, that is separated from their surrounding background, to create the sense of a particular place without the connecting material -- such as a wall -- that would be found if the scene were completely realistic in conception.
    (Darwin Payne. The Scenographic Imagination, pg. 49.)
  4. The furniture and/or set props -- chairs, benches, beds, tables, shelves...
    These elements are one step nearer the actor, both in physical proximity and usefulness to him as an artist. Although there are only a few major categories of furniture that man devised, there are innumerable variations and permutations on these basic forms; he needs something to sit or lie on (chairs, benches, stools, beds), something to hold objects and materials for his immediate use (tables in various forms), and storage units, something open, often with lids or doors, in which to keep his needs and possessions (chests, boxes, shelves).
    (Darwin Payne. The Scenographic Imagination, pg. 52.)

5. Develop a list of basic questions which must be answered before the designer can begin work.

  1. Where does the play take place? Country? City? Interior or exterior? Place: Cottage, House, Castle? Forest?...
  2. When does the play take place? The period? The year? The season? Night or day?
  3. What is needed to stage the action? Doors? Windows? Furniture: Chairs, tables, shelves?
  4. What is the style of the play? Is it realistic or presentational?
  5. What is the tone of the work? Is it light or dark? Warm or cool?
  6. What scenic image (metaphor) does the script suggest?

5a. What is a box set?

An interior set which uses flats to create the back and side walls, and often ceiling, of a "realistic" room.

    How does it differ from a wing-border-backdrop set?

The side flats in a wing-border-backdrop set are placed parallel to the front edge of the stage. In a box set, these "side walls" are turned so they run diagonal from up stage to down stage.

Box Set

Wing-Border-Backdrop Set

6. Where, in a traditional box set, would you place a door for an important entrance?

In the center of the up stage or back wall.

7. Where would the door be located for an important exit? Why?

Near the down stage corner of one of the side walls. Why? If the actor must make his dramatic exit through an upcenter door, he will be forced to turn his back on a major part of the audience.

8. If a character burns a manuscript in the fire place, why should the fire place not be located on the upstage wall?

Because it will require the actor to turn upstage, masking the character's actions -- the burning of the manuscript -- from the audience.

9. What is the difference between representationalism and presentationalism?

From the Cambridge Guide to Theatre:
Representational theatre tries to create an illusion of reality. Presentational theatre emphasizes theatricality and acknowledges the theatre as theatre--there is no illusion.
A representational set gives the illusion of reality. Generally it is a realistic representation -- a box set with three walls and a ceiling -- of an architectural interior-- a living room, parlor or kitchen.

A presentational set is often a wing-border-backdrop set, a "painted drop" behind the performer. Presentational designs are used in multi-set musicals, plays with an exterior location, and the classical dramas of Shakespeare and Sophocles.

10. What is the difference between presentational material and the working drawings?

Presentational material, a rendering or model, is used by the designer to present his ideas to the director, producer and cast.


Computer Model
Scene designer Boyd Ostroff created the model of this OperaPhilly production of La Boheme on a Macintosh using Strata StudioPro 2.1. Like the more traditional watercolor or pastel rendering, the computer generated 3d model can show how the set will appear under light. Click on the image to enlarge.

The working drawings are the "blue prints" -- floor plan, front elevation, rear elevation, detail drawings -- used by the production crews to build, paint, and assemble the set on stage.

The Opera Company of Philadelphia has posted online a nearly complete set of drawings (Computer Models, Scenic Photos, Floor Plans, Section Views, Designer Elevations and Shop Drawings) for a number of the operas they have produced. Go to their Technical Production Web Page. While there explore their shop (OCP Production Center) and the opera house (Philadelphia Academy of Music) in which they perform.

11. What is a rendering?

A rendering is a colored sketch or painting of the finished set as it will appear, under light, to an audience member seated in the center of the house. Today many designers create their renderings on a computer using both a CAD program (VectorWorks) and rendering software such as Art*Lantis or RenderWorks. Link to the computer generated renderings for Northern's 2005 production Disney's Beauty and the Beast. or to some of my early experiments with the demo version of Art*lantis 4.5

12. Which, a rendering or a scale model, better illustrates a designer's concept of how the set will look under light?

A rendering.

13. Which will best help the director understand the stage space with which he has to work?

A scale model.

    What is a virtual model?

Unlike pencil drafting where the designer is forced to work in only two dimensions, on a computer, the two dimensional world of the ground plan and elevation can be extruded into a three dimensional world. The virtual model can be viewed in perspective from the front, side, top, and back. Using Flyover Function it is possible to view the virtual model from any seat in the house.

Below is a view of the virtual model I created in VectorWorks 8.5 for one of the two major sets in Northern's spring 2002 production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers.


Virtual Model: Gertie's Kitchen, Fuddy Meers

The 10'x12' kitchen wall plus the three 12' tall masking units were created using the Wall Tool. The 4x12 wagon plus the kitchen appliances (the stove, sink, counter, and refrigerator) began as simple 2D rectangles which were extruded to give them height. The two figures were imported from another drawing and the table and chairs were symbols included in the VectorWork's Architectual Tool Kit. Below is a photograph of the set as it appeared on stage.


Photo: Gertie's Kitchen, Fuddy Meers

Link to additional photographs from Northern's production of Fuddy Meers.

14. What is a floor plan?

A top view of the set. The floor plan is used by the crew to locate the set on the stage floor.
Floor Plan: La Boheme
The floor plan shows not only the physical relationship of the scenic elements: platforms, door, chimney units, suspended skylight, table, stove, bed..., but also the set's location on the 73' x 90' stage of Philadelphia's Academy of Music. Click on the image to enlarge.
Link to floor plans (PDF files) of Northern's productions of 110 in the Shade (Act I, Scene 1) (2003), Rocky Horror Show (2004) and Syringa Tree (2005).

15. What is the conventional plan symbols for a door, windows, flat, step unit and platform?

16. What is the difference between a Designer's (or front) elevation,

A Designer's Elevation is a front view of each individual piece of scenery. The designer's elevations are used by the shop crew to determine the height and architectual detail of each scenic unit.
Designer's Elevation: La Boheme
This elevation presents a detailed (large scale) front, side and top (or plan) view of the two 22' tall chimney units which are major scenic elements in the first act. Click on the image to enlarge.
Link to the front elevation (a PDF file) of the Railroad Depot, Dry Goods Store & Water Tower from Act I, Scene 1 of Northern's production of 100 in the Shade (2003).

    Painter's elevation, and

A Painter's Elevation is a copy of the front elevation which has been rendered to indicate the color and painting techniques which are to be applied to the final set.

Computer model: Tosca Act II
To the left is designer Boyd Ostroff computer generated rendering for the Second Act of the OperaPhilly production of Puccini's Tosca. Below is the painter's elevation for the stage right wall. Click on the image to enlarge.

Painter's Elevation: Tosca Act II
Each wall in this massive set was 34' wide by 30' tall. Each unit was assembled from 8 luan covered flats-- 4 measured 8'6" x 11' and 4 were 8'6" by 19'. Click on the image to enlarge.

    Rear elevation?

A Rear Elevation is a scaled drawing of the back of the scenery. It is the guide used by the shop carpenters to build the setting. The drawing to the left is the rear elevation of one of the 8'6"x22' units which form the walls of the Second Act set for Tosca. Click on the image to enlarge.
StageCraft Home Page

E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at wildl@northern.edu.
Last updated: August 30, 2010
Copyright © 2001-2010 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401