Designing the Multi-Set Show

Designing the Multi-Set Show


J. Michael Gillette. Theatrical Design and Production, 4th edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1999. Chapter 9: Scenic Production Techniques

Multi-set shows include the 17th century plays of William Shakespeare, the 18th century comedies of Richard Sheridan, the 19th century works of Anton Chekhov and George Benard Shaw and the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and Georges Bizet. Most plays written during the 20th century unfold in a single set, but the musicals which shared the Broadway stage are almost all multi-set. I can think of only two single set musicals -- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) and The Man of La Mancha (1965).

One of the major differences between the plays of the 19th century and the musicals of the 20th is the number of sets and how they fit into the structure of the work. For example, Shaws five act Pygmalion (1916) is set in three different locations -- Covent Garden (Act 1), Higgins' Flat (Acts 2 and 4) and Mrs. Higgins' Drawing Room (Acts 3 and 5). When produced today, stagehands generally have a 10 to 12 minute intermission to change the sets. On the other hand, Lerner and Lowe's two act My Fair Lady (1956), which is based on Pygmalion, has 18 scene changes -- 11 in the first Act and 7 in the Second.

1. What is the difference between a simultaneous set

In a simultaneous set all locations are on stage at the same time and the actors move from one location to the next. The audiences focus is shifted by moving the light from location to location.

    and a unit set?

In a unit set, the location is shifted by changing the decoration and\or props within a permanent scenic structure. Generally, Shakespeare's plays are performed on a unit set.

2. List the title of at least one major play which was written for a simultaneous set.

Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie (1945) and Streetcar Named Desire (1847) and Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller are probably the most famous works written for a simulaneous set.

3. What is a "scene-in-one?"

A small, short scene, played down stage (in-one) in front of a drop or traveler.

    What is its function in a traditional musical?

To provide the stage crew time to shift from one full stage set to the next full stage set. In a traditional musical, the first scene is played full stage; scene two is performed in-one; the third scene is again full stage...

4. What scene shifting techniques can be effectively used on our stage?

  1. We can break down a set into a number of small scenic units and run those units to the back or stage left wall where they can be stacked.
  2. We can run a drop across the stage as a one-way traveler.
  3. We can west coast a back drop.
  4. We can assemble a set (or part of a set) on a wagon and roll the wagon off stage for storage.
  5. We can assemble the set on a turntable or a jack knife stage.

5. What is a one-way traveler?

A one-way traveler is a full stage (24x48') "drop" which stores off stage and is pulled onstage on a single, full stage-width traveler track. Two "drops" can travel on one track. One stores stage left and the other stage right.

    Why is it used?

Because there is not enough fly space (at least a minimum of 48') to lift the drop out of sight.

6. How do you "west coast" a drop?

In west coasting, a drop is lowered to the floor, gathered and tied to the pipe, and then flown out to the grid. We typically "west coast" the sky cyc.

7. Why are we forced to use these two approaches on our stage?

Because we have no fly loft.

8. What is the difference between a wagon stage,

A wagon stage is a large wagon used to move an entire setting as a single unit. Normally a two scene play will use two wagons. Scene One is stored off stage in the left wing and Scene Two is stored off stage in the right wing. The scene is brought into play by rolling the wagon stage down center. In order to use two 16' x 24' wagon stages, the minimum dimensions of the stage house would need to be 72' wide (3x the width of the wagon) by 16' deep.

    A jackknife stage, and

The jackknife stage is also a large wagon used to shift an entire setting as a single unit. Normally two jackknife stages are used. One on each side of the proscenium opening. In their offstage, or out, position each is stored at right angles to the arch with the corner nearest the arch anchored to a pivot pin. The stages are brought into service by revolving them a quarter turn, bringing them into a position parallel with the front edge of the stage. In order to use two 16' x 24' jackknife stages, the minimum dimensions of the stage house would need to be 56' wide (wagon width + 2x wagon depth) by 24' deep.

    A revolving stage?

A revolving stage, also known as a turntable, is a large circular platform which pivits on its center axis. Traditionally the circular stage is divided into two, three, or four pie shaped segments. Each segment becomes a different set.

9. What is the largest scenic wagon which can be efficiently shifted on our stage? Why?

8'x16'. Why? A wagon wider than 8' would not fit between the masking legs which are normally hung on 10' centers, and a unit longer than 16' could not be rolled far enough off stage to mask.

10. What is the maximum number of wagons we can use in a MainStage musical? Why?

Eight, four on each side of the stage. Why? We typically use three sets of masking legs creating four entrances on each side of the stage. One unit can be stored in each entrance.

Northern's 1983 production of Lerner and Lowe's My Fair Lady, which was staged in eight sets (4 full stage and 4 in-one scenes) used 6 wagons (4 were stored SR and 2 SL), 4 scenic flats (which were run in from the wings) and 2 drops-- a painted backdrop representing 1914 London and a black one way traveler to back the four in-one scenes. Below is the scenic break-down.

  1. Full Stage Scenes
    1. Covent Garden - 1- 4x16 wagon
    2. The Tenament - 1- 4x16 wagon
    3. Higgin's Study - 2- 8x16 wagons
    4. The Ballroom - 1- 4x8 wagon and 1- 3 fold flat (opened: 12' x12')
  2. In One Scenes
    1. Ascot - 1- 3 fold flat (opened: 15' x 10')
    2. Outside Higgin's House - 1- 4x8 wagon
    3. Hall in Higgin's House - 1- 8' tall x12' wide flat
    4. Mrs Higgin's Conservatory - 1- 3 fold flat (opened: 12' x 8')

11. How long should it take to shift a set during a musical?

A scene shift should not take more than 10 to 15 seconds.
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Updated: September 27, 2006
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