Like many other theatrical folks, I often find myself trying to produce a high quality set for a tiny fraction of what it should really cost. I thought I would try to put into words the thought process used to make this a reality.
When I do a set design I usually approach the project with 3 basic ideas or thoughts in mind.
1. What does the script really require?
2. What is the most important scene(s) to the script and the director?
3. What materials do I have onhand or available to work with?
First is always script analysis and discussion with the director. When looking at a script I always ask myself “What do I really NEED?”. While this seems obvious, often times we get bogged down with what we would LIKE to see or do for the piece versus what we NEED. I think it also matters depending upon the theatre space available and the flow of the script – for example: if the scene plays for only a few short minutes, why is it there? Was it meant to “cover” a larger scene change upstage? What is the easiest way to change the scenery for this scene? If I am working in a modified thrust space with no fly space and no wing space I must find ways to use smaller wagons or pieces with less individual depth to build bigger full stage looks. If I am in a traditional proscenium space with flys why not use that to my advantage. In both cases a simple painted drop will often work best whether flown or roll-droped. In a recent production of “Paint Your Wagon” I used a downstage roll drop in a modified thrust to cover larger set changes upstage and provide a “default” background for the apron without resorting to an act or house curtain.
Second I meet with the director and beyond the usual conceptual questions I try to find out what are the most important things they see in the script. What scenes matter most and how “big” do they want to play them? If we are doing wagons, can they play off of them? If the script says “on the street” and “another part of the street” and “center of town” can we consolodate them all into one location? By doing this I can SOMETIMES eliminate redundant type sets and locations and spend more time on fewer set pieces.
Thirdly I always consider what stock I have to work with. This may sound simple but this is usually the biggest difference in working on a budget. I always try to think ahead to the next show or next season. How can I best spend whatever budget I have for this show so I can reduce how much will end up in the dumpster at strike. We save lots of stuff from shows in hopes we can reuse everything from windows and doors to trim pieces to leftover plywood or stick lumber. When I design I try and make the show fit the stock rather than the stock fit the show.
Does that door really HAVE to be 36″ six panel or will a 30″ six panel work? I always try to keep as many doors and windows the same as possible this includes the flats they mount into. I try to design as much from stock as possible and really evaluate anything that has to be custom built. Should I really spend the money on building this versus using something I already have in stock? We recently built a set for “Into the Woods” in a proscenium theatre that featured a 24″ turntable with different platforms on top, a moveable stair/platform unit that mated with the turntable in several different ways, a huge upstage groundrow type piece like a huge tree trunk with an opening for “mother’s tree” as well as 3 wagons for the prologue and 2 cut tree portals and 2 sets of flown tree trunks, not to mention rapunzel’s tower -all this on a $1000 materials budget. Heres the breakdown: We had the turntable frame and top, all the platforming, the tree portals, the basic structure of the groundrow, the casters, and some of the support lumber in stock. We spent most of our budget on lauan, paint, some framing lumber, and fabric to cover all the platforming to make it look like rock. It sometimes pays to be a packrat! We keep just about anything that we have room for and really only clean house at the end of the season. For that show only the tree trunks (lauan), tower profile(lauan) and groundrow profile(lauan) ended up in the dumpster.
It all comes down to where you put your priorities and how much you think for the future. I did a full box set for “Odd Couple” on $400 last year – small kitchen, working windows, two level set, crown moulding etc. We spent almost $100 of our budget just for the crown! I love box sets because they go up quickly too. Most all of the show was pulled from stock and put up in an afternoon.
There are ways to do this art on a budget but to really be sucessful you have to think ahead, plan ahead, and work on the necessities first!