Designing For Theatre

A play springs from the page to the stage with the imaginative ideas of the creative team. The designers work with the director and performers to bring the writer's words to life. Here are specific responsibilities designers have in a production:

  • Costume Designer - responsible for planning, designing, creating and/or finding clothing for the actors including wigs, hair style, jewelry, footwear, period clothing and undergarments.
  • Composer or Sound Designer - responsible for planning, designing and creating sound effects, soundscapes, pre-show and intermission music.
  • Lighting Designer - assesses the lighting needs and special effects for the production, plans and creates a lighting plot, prepares a rough cue-by-cue lighting plan, and works with the technical team to hang and focus the lights.
  • Set Designer - creates a design concept, builds a scale-model and/or colour sketches that easily communicates the final set (including set decoration, props and furniture), and prepares a set of accurate blueprints for the carpenters, painters, and props department.

Get Clues From the Script

Before you start your design, you must read the play, absorb all the technical needs of the play and construct in your imagination the world the playwright has created. Here are tips that will give you ideas and help you to shape your technical design.

Find a quiet place to read the script in one sitting to absorb the overall mood, theme, and characters. What did you like best and/or least about it?

Read the play again and pay attention to the stage directions. These are the playwright's technical notes to designers. What do these technical clues suggest for your design?

Think of the theatre space where you will be presenting the play and how this play will work there. What will be your limitations?

What are the dominant colours, textures, patterns, sounds, temperatures and moods suggested by the play? Are there some scenes that require further study or review with the director?

Become familiar with all the names of the characters and scenes in the play.

If your play is set in an historical period, do some background research to help you understand and visualize the characters and their world.

Talk to the director and compare their ideas about the play with yours.

Read the play again and do a technical analysis of each scene that is specific to your design needs. As you read the dialogue, keep track of where and when the characters enter and exit. Are there time and location changes between scenes?

If you're in Grade 9, 10, 11 or 12, you may be assigned a design project before the year is over.

A Guide to Costume Design

The costume designer is responsible for clothing the actors including wigs, hair style, jewelry, footwear, period clothing and undergarments. They work with the director to create costumes that are functional, affordable and imaginative. The designer must also take into account the activity, safety and comfort of the actors.

The costume designer creates colour sketches that easily communicate the final "look" that are presented to the director for approval. The costume designer supervises the collection of costume pieces that may be purchased, borrowed or constructed, but they do not necessarily build the costumes. They may have wardrobe assistants, a cutter or seamstresses to assist them.

A costume designer has a strong visual sense, a talent and love for fabric, colour and clothing, and a strong sense of what looks good on an individual. They have experience in building costumes, mixing and matching, and adapting existing costume pieces to new uses.

Covering the Basics Before Rehearsals

Read the Script - Every costume designer must have an understanding of the play and should read the script to look for the following information:

  • List each character's name in the play and describe their lifestyle and personality.
  • Make a note of all references to costume pieces or colours as noted in the script for each character.
  • Note costume changes.
  • What is the historical context of the play?
  • Determine the style of costumes.

Create a Complete List - Make a note of what each character is wearing in each scene in the play and whether or not they have any costume changes. Integrate all these notes into a complete list.

Talk with the Director and Other Designers - Bring your ideas to the director and other designers to talk about the play and how you visualize the characters. As the creative team, talk about:

  • Style of the production (realistic, fantastic, or something in between).
  • Historical period of the play.
  • Colour scheme.
  • General direction and style of the production.
  • The overall theme and vision for the play.
  • Whether you should make, rent or borrow the costumes.
  • The budget and deadlines.
  • Lifestyle and personalities of the characters in the play.

Do Your Background Research - Before you start sketching your designs, do some background research which would:

  • Identify if the clothing is of a specific period.
  • Investigate the fashion of that era.
  • Determine what the clothing items would look like during that time period including: underwear, shoes, socks, hats, jewelry, gloves, coats, glasses, purses, canes, seasonal wear.

Find out what types of fibers or fabrics were used during that time and/or what can be used as a substitute.

Get the measurements of the actors in the play.

Create a "Costume Plot" - Your draft costume plot lists every single costume piece and accessory that each character is wearing from head to toe. Remember that a character's clothing reflects their lifestyle and personality. Will your costume changes work within the time constraints of the scenes?

Sketch the Costumes- Make a full colour sketch of the costumes to show the director and other designers. If you are building the costumes, include as much detail as possible, with fabric swatches. The final costume sketches will be used as a reference for making the costumes or buying or renting clothing; and as an introduction to the cast in the early stages of rehearsals of what the actors will be wearing in the play.

The Resource Centre and Links sections of this website also include other resources for costume designers.

A Guide to Set Design

The set designer creates a design concept and set that mirrors the director's artistic vision, and takes into account the available space and budget. The set designer creates a model that easily communicates the final set, and also creates a set of accurate blueprints for the carpenters, painters, and props department.

A set designer has a strong visual sense and the ability to conceptualize in three dimensions and large spaces. They have a good understanding of the interaction of colour, light and shadow.

The set designer must be able to build scale models, create accurate blueprints and should have the technical experience and communication skills to supervise carpenters, technicians, and scenic painters.

Covering the Basics Before Rehearsals

Know Your Theatre Space - A set designer needs to know and understand every aspect of a theatre space when designing the set. Look at:

  • The dimensions of the stage and acting area.
  • The floor plan including all the heights and the offstage space.
  • The wings in the theatre and the location of entrances and exits to the stage.
  • The stage's sight lines to make sure the actors can be seen from all the seats in the house.

Read the Script - Every set designer must have an understanding of the play and should read the script to look for the following information:

  • List each character's name in the play and describe their lifestyle and personality.
  • Make notes of all references to set pieces, furnishings and props as noted in the script.
  • What set pieces/furnishings will move? Make a note of set changes, scene by scene.
  • What props come on and off stage and which character is involved in their entry or exit?
  • What is the historical context and style of the play?
  • What is the tone and atmosphere of the play?
  • Characters and their personalities.

Talk with the Director and Other Designers - Bring your ideas to the director and other designers to talk about the play and how you visualize the characters. As the creative team, talk about:

  • Style of the production (realistic, fantastic, or something in between)
  • What physical action takes place on the stage?
  • Historical period of the play.
  • Colour scheme.
  • General direction and style of the production.
  • The overall theme and vision for the play.
  • Whether you should make, rent or borrow the costumes.
  • The budget and deadlines.
  • Lifestyle and personalities of the characters in the play.

Do Your Background Research - Research every aspect of the play or any themes that come up.

If the play is a historical piece, look into different architectures of that period, furniture pieces, what was collected and treasured, and what was in fashion at that time. Your local library will be a great resource for your research.

What is the style of the production? (Realism, surrealism, cubism, naturalism, futurism, modernism, etc.)

Designer Terms

Prop or Set? - As a rule, if it is moved on and off the stage and/or is used by the actors, it's a prop. If it is more a part of the d�cor, it is a set piece. Set designers often design props. Stage food is considered a "prop". Use your judgement and consult with whoever is creating your props as to what is your responsibility and what is theirs.

Scale Model or Maquette - A three-dimensional scale model provided by the set designer to help all the technical departments to co-ordinate and plan a production. The model is often made out of bristol board or foam board and is then painted by the set designer. The model is used as a reference when building, painting, dressing and lighting the set; and as an introduction to the cast during the early stages of rehearsals of what the set will look like.

Sight Lines - A series of lines drawn on plan and section to indicate the limits of the audience vision from extreme seats, including side seats and front and back rows. Often marked in the wings as a guide to the actors and crew.

A Guide to Lighting Design

As part of the design team, it is the responsibility of the lighting designer to create the lighting design for the show. The lighting designer creates a lighting design concept for the show, based on and supporting the set designer's and director's vision. They also take into consideration other design elements and the limitations of the available equipment and budget.

Keeping in close consultation with the director, other designers, production manager and technical director, the lighting designer assesses the lighting needs for the production, creates a lighting plot, a rough cue-by-cue lighting plan, then hangs and focuses the lights.

In the technical rehearsal, the lighting designer fine-tunes and sets the timing and intensities of lighting cues in consultation with the director, with the stage manager and technical director. During technical rehearsals and performances, the lighting operator runs the lights.

Covering the Basics Before Rehearsals

Know Your Theatre Space - A lighting designer needs to know and understand every aspect of a theatre space when designing the lights. Visit the space. For instance, you might not be able to hang 1000 lights. All of this will help you to visualize how the space can be lit. Look at:

  • The dimensions of the stage and acting area.
  • The floor plan including all the heights and the offstage space.
  • The wings in the theatre and the location of all the potential entrances and exits to the stage.
  • The stage's sight lines to make sure the actors can be seen from all the seats in the theatre.
  • The lighting and technical equipment that you can use.

Read the Script - The lighting designer must have an understanding of the play and should read the script to look for the following information:

  • What is the general mood and atmosphere of the play?
  • What is the mood the playwright is trying to convey in each scene?
  • Become familiar with each character's name in the play and their personalities.
  • Break the play down into scenes where you want to see a light change.
  • Go through the play scene by scene; make a sketch of what will be lit and from where.
  • Make notes of all references to any specific lighting effects such as lightning, sunshine, candlelight, moonlight.

Talk with the Director and Other Designers - Bring your ideas to the director and other designers to talk about the play and how you visualize the characters. As the creative team, talk about:

  • Style of the production (realistic, fantastic, or something in between).
  • What physical action takes place on the stage?
  • Historical period of the play?
  • Colour scheme.
  • General direction and style of the production.
  • The overall theme and vision for the play.
  • The budget and deadlines.

Go to Rehearsals - Not only do you want to light the set, more importantly you want to light the actors. Know all of their blocking, as it will help you in designing what areas of the stage need to be lit.

Principals of Lighting

Angles: Angles are probably the most important feature of lighting. Depending on the angle and the combination of angles you use to light the stage, you will create a different visual effect. For instance, lighting an actor from behind gives a sense of fear or doom, while lighting from the side of the stage can simulate sunshine.

Colour: Lighting without any colour is often very harsh and can detract from your production. Should you decide to use colours, check with the other designers to make sure your colours compliment their colour schemes.

Lighting Plot: A Lighting Plot is a diagram that shows where every light will be hung, the direction and angle it is placed on the lighting grid, the colour of the gel if any, as well as which circuit will be running it and any accessories (gobo, barn doors). Your lighting plot should also include an outline of the stage and theatre dimensions. There are specific ways of creating a lighting plot including symbols used for specific lights.

Lighting design is an art form in itself and a creative lighting designer will use theatre lights in various ways to make a scene appear as a bright summer's day, a dark and stormy night or something in between. Stage lighting helps set the mood for the play better than any other medium. When it's good lighting design - you alone will know. When it's bad lighting design - everyone will tell you!

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