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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Theatrical Design

It was an unbelievable opportunity. Last year, you were directing very basic performances with low budgets. In fact, you could barely afford to pay your actors, so you didn’t have to deal with anything other than a designated space as a stage. Then, one day, your directing abilities caught the eye of the owner of a major theater downtown. In two months, your first big show opens on the big stage.

The theater owner has really pulled out all the stops, saying that her new genius director will do great things. There’s just one thing, though. You’ve been assigned a budget for set, costumes, sound, and lighting that was well beyond anything you’ve ever worked with before, and you have no earthly idea how to use it all.

Luckily, you won’t have to do it all yourself – you’ll have a crew in each section to help you design and implement all of the various elements. Let’s look at a few of the main aspects of theatrical design that you’ll be working with, courtesy of your new benefactor.

The Set

First off, with this big production you’re mounting, you’re going to have a budget for the set design. Sometimes referred to as scenic design, this refers to all the non-human aspects that are on the stage. The set design is often a work of art in and of itself, involving large mobile pieces, doors, walls, and even portable trees.

All of that comes at a considerable cost. The backdrop alone can often cost more than $10,000. So, how do you make sure that your set design is as good as it can be? Every director has to find his or her own style when it comes to this aspect. Some choose elaborate designs and props, while others choose much more muted representations. Some go with a literal interpretation of place and time, while others might be more metaphorical in their design.

As the director, you’re going to have to think about practical aspects, like whether you want to be able to change the set between scenes or acts. You may only have a couple of minutes between scene changes, and you want to make sure that the lights don’t come up while your stage crew is still moving a mountain offstage. You’ll work with a set designer and people with carpentry and painting skills to implement your vision.

The Costumes

Costumes are another important aspect of theater. Costumes are worn by actors during a performance. Costumes often help to heighten the realism of the play, and sometimes they can help the actor bring out aspects of his or her character. Think of a southern belle sashaying into a room wearing a hoop skirt. Would she be able to sashay as convincingly wearing jeans and sneakers?

Still, like the set design, costumes can be a method of showing the director’s own vision for a play. For example, in the play R&J by Joe Calarco, the actors wear school uniforms while performing Romeo and Juliet in order to reinforce the idea that you’re watching students act out Romeo and Juliet.

Luckily for you, this downtown theater has a costume warehouse with hundreds and hundreds of costumes that can be used and altered. Otherwise, your costume designer will get a crew of people sewing and going out looking for clothing.

The Lighting

Lighting is another tool you have at your disposal at this fancy theater. Theatrical lighting has come a long way from the Victorian era, when actors had to perform in either the dullness of gas lighting or the heat of lime lights. In addition to illuminating the scene, lighting is also used to create a mood.

Most obviously, lighting is used to highlight particularly important actions. Likewise, it can be used to hinder the audience’s knowledge of scenes on stage, like casting a scene that doesn’t have the action in it in the background. Most large theater productions have a lighting designer that will try to design lighting that goes with your overall vision for the play. You’ll also have a lighting operator to operate the lights during the show, working from a cue sheet that tells them what to do.

Sound Design

Another aspect of theatrical design is the sound design, or the soundscape of the play. This is one way that you can have a lot of creative control as a director, because, unlike big expensive set pieces or costumes, sound is portable and pretty much the same price for any sounds you’d want to use – with the exception of copyrighted songs you want to use.

Let’s say you want to play thematic music in the beginning, or you want to show that it’s storming outside by playing storm sound effects whenever a character opens a door, or you want to hear a car driving away or a dog barking in the distance. It’s really up to you as the director to work with a sound designer to put together an appropriate soundscape that fits with your overall vision. Then, the sound designer will work with the other designers to create the overall design element of the play. Finally, when it’s show time, you’ll have a sound engineer to operate all of the sounds from a cue sheet, just like the lighting operator has.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we saw how the set, costumes, lighting, and sound design are all important for the final outcome of a play. While it’s good to have some sort of technical knowledge in each of these fields, any large production will have people specializing in each area, who will work together to create the final piece. We also looked at traditional approaches to these theatrical elements, as well as how unorthodox approaches have become part of the stylized performances by certain directors.

Lesson at a Glance

There’s a lot that goes into a production on the big stage. Fortunately, there are specialized crew members that can facilitate the way in which the set, costumes, lighting, and sound design all come together for a successful performance.

Set design can be expensive, but it also needs to be practical.
theatrical design

Learning Outcomes

Assess your ability to achieve these goals as the lesson ends:

  • Identify the different aspects of the set
  • Recognize the way in which costumes bring out certain aspects of a character
  • Note the fact that lighting has come along way since the Victorian era
  • Specify the purpose of sound design
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