Behind the scenes of a world premiere! Yesterday’s post was about Peter DeFreitas’ costume design inspiration. Today, February set designer Karen Elizabeth McMichael describes her process. She said she’d just “ramble a little bit”, but I found this whole thing fascinating, not to mention informative. I mean, did YOU ever consider what goes into a set design? Or how the mind of a designer works? After Peter’s post yesterday and now Karen’s, I conclude that designers don’t think like us regular folks, that’s for sure! (And that’s a good thing.)
Designing a set is a little bit like a sculptor sitting down with a big blob of squishy clay and slowly finding a shape in that. My “clay” is a combination of the script that the playwright has given me, the theatre that the producers have chosen for me to work in, and the initial vision that the director has imparted to me. From that somewhat formless mass, I have to create a set that is visually appealing, useful to the actors and director, and that says something important about the script.
I start with assembling as much information as I can — my sculptor’s tools, if you will. Where does the play take place? When does it happen? What themes are most important in the script? Are there specific items mentioned in the text that need to be on the stage? The first step in my process is research: I read, and read, and read as much as I can about the script and its content, and talk to other people about it, and gather together images and colours and shapes that seem like they fit well with the show, and look up what’s been done in previous productions (not something I could do with this script, but in many ways that’s a new and exciting sort of freedom). And once I have all of those elements, all of my sculptor’s tools, assembled, I can start to shape my clay.
For me personally, I begin with an overall shape — in this case, a tower. Or maybe a pile. A disorganized and yet unified manmade structure that represents the edifice of memory. Something with straight lines, sharp angles: imposing and human. I sketch a picture, and take it to the director. We talk some more, exchange more ideas, and I refine and revise my sketch. Add levels and layers, some feminine curves to represent the way in which women are so much an important part of this universe. Sketch again. Meet again. More ideas. Repeat. Eventually we’ve got something that looks like both of our ideas of the show.
Once that first sketch is complete, the next task begins: figuring out just how to build what I’ve got in my head. It’s all well and good to draw a thing, but making it out of wood and metal and at full scale? Takes careful engineering. Figure out just what those angles are. What the load-bearing strength of your materials is, and how you can safely have an actor climbing up this rickety looking structure. And stay under budget, of course. This is where “design” starts to look a lot like “math”, and with pencil and calculator I battle the numbers until they all start to add up.
And then, the numbers do add up. I have construction drawings, make my plans, assemble a crew and purchase materials. We take those designs from the page to reality, and then my happiest moment as a designer comes: when someone who wasn’t a part of the build team walks into the theatre and says, “wow, what a set!”
And then my work here is done.
See? I hear that the “tower” Karen describes will contain props that the characters use throughout the show… Come see February – running Sept 21 – Oct 6 – and be sure to exclaim loudly “WOW, what a set!”