We were delighted to welcome professional theatre designer, Lizzie Watts to our screens for another wonderful ‘Artists Talk’. Don’t worry if you missed it, here’s Lizzie to tell us all about her talk and her advice on things to consider when it comes to designing for theatre!
Practical Theatre Design – an overview by Designer, Lizzie Watts
I think one of the most exciting things about theatre design is that every show is different: I get to research different subjects, use different materials and make work that is as individual as each production and the people making them. It would be wrong of me to reduce ‘how to design theatre’ into a single blog post (plus I would have no idea where to start…) There are, however, some processes I go though and questions I ask for every single show to make sure I make design something that works – which is just as important as it looking pretty. So, before you start…
Find your people
Work with the people who inspire you to do your best work and be the sort of person you would want to work with. If I feel supported and trusted in my role the work I produce is invariably better. I try and choose projects where that can happen and do my best to foster that environment for everyone else.
Inspiration is absolutely everywhere. If you want your show to look unique, don’t just look at theatre but look everywhere and build an eclectic visual library to draw from. I try and think about consuming art in the same way I think about food. If I only watch re-runs of Friends and nothing else, it feeds my brain the same way eating fast food every day would. I love a trashy tv program now and then, but I think a varied ‘diet’ is really important.
Good art into brain = Good art out of brain.
Why design is important
It’s human nature to consciously or unconsciously look for clues in the way things look, we make judgements and decisions based on that information all the time: is that person a member of staff; is that bridge safe; does that food look tasty and so on. We often make these decisions before we’ve had time to rationalise our thoughts. Design is about taking that knowledge and using it to your advantage. Design can tell you what time period the piece is in, the location or the social standing of a character – basically there’s loads of extra information that you then don’t have to get the characters to say.
Design is not necessarily about producing an accurate representation of the beach, castle, forest or wherever the scene is set, but instead we can create the feeling of anarchy, freedom, isolation or power. It’s about creating a world for the audience to believe in and then maintaining that illusion, making sure everything fits in that world and there’s nothing jarring to take the audience out of the moment. It would be the equivalent of watching an incredible film and then having a boom drop into shot.
Often design is overlooked in smaller productions because of budget restraints; not everyone can afford to pay an independent designer and that’s fine – I’ve seen some incredible art made with tiny amounts of cash. However, for me, it’s the amount of consideration that goes into design that is far more important. Dismissing design with “we don’t have any money so let’s all wear black” can be far more harmful to a production than the actual lack of funds. The very first thing people will do when they come and see your show is look at it – before you have time to act, sing or dance – and you will be judged on it whether you consider it important or not.
CHEAP, FAST, GOOD
You can only have two of these things at a time. If you want it to be fast and good, it won’t be cheap; if you want it cheap and fast it won’t be good. If you want it to be cheap and good, give yourself extra time to come up with clever solutions. You may need to beg, borrow, or ask around. Follow up leads and scour charity shops or sites like Freecycle, Gumtree, eBay or your local scrap store. Plus, as a bonus, if you can’t afford to buy things new, it makes your show more sustainable – so you get to feel smug.
Practical design (parameters)
The first thing I do when designing a show is have a general chat with the director or company to get an idea of the themes and feel of the show. This is before diving into too many specifics. That way, my brain can keep that in mind while we discuss the parameters of the production. Establishing fixed parameters is vital in producing a considered and practical piece of design.
What is the budget?
It doesn’t matter what the budget is as long as it is fixed. In almost all other areas it helps to flexible but not here. I will spend every penny of a budget trying to create the best thing I can produce with the resources available. Pushing against those constraints is fantastic for creativity and also one of my favourite things – it’s a fun challenge.
What size is the van?
I’ve heard horror stories of people designing a set and when the van turns up on the first day of tour, the set is too large. This is also relevant for non-touring productions with limited storage.
How many people will be around to assemble it?
Are you building it into a space for a run or is it touring? Is there a stage management team around to build it at the venue? Are you touring with technicians? Are the actors going to build it? What skills do they have? Are they going to be exhausted before the show starts from building a complicated/heavy set?
What is the playing space?
Where does your set have to fit? If it’s for a tour you can go about it two ways:
- If you’ve already booked a tour, establish the dimensions of the smallest space and largest space you’re performing in. Decide whether you want a flexible set to adapt to each space or one which will work in all spaces without changing it.
- If the tour isn’t booked yet, research venues and find a size that will fit in the venues you’re thinking of visiting so you can send it out as part of your tech spec and then work within that.
What does the director need? Get a list from them, it might be – a hiding place, somewhere for a chorus to stand, 3 distinct, different locations etc.
What do you need practically? Somewhere to store props, somewhere to change etc.
What are you using it for? Do windows need to open or are they just there to look pretty etc.
Do you need to bring anyone else on board? Not all designers are makers. For example, I often outsource my scenic carpentry or any large scale construction to be sure it won’t fall over!
Paint finishes and set dressing. What materials do you need to make it look good?
Is it necessary? I hate unnecessary props: they get lost or broken and actors have to learn to pick them up at the right time and not leave them on stage. Sometimes, a prop is 100% the way to go but not having many props is a great way to make life easier for both stage managers and actors.
What style of theatre are you making? Establish the rules and then stick to them. If you’ve decided to mime a prop (great rule) you should then mime all the props. Having this rule is a fantastic, practical failsafe because you now know exactly how many props you need (zero). This also builds trust with your audience and helps with that suspension of disbelief. So using that rule as an example, if you mime all the props, an audience will be quite willing to imagine with you and be part of the game (imagine the food fight in the film Hook)….BUT if you break the rule, if you mime some props and not others, then the spell is broken and the audience will start to question what’s real. It becomes an confusing experience for the audience.
Does it need to work? If the director wants a record player, it is much cheaper to buy a non-working record player, purely for its appearance rather than function. Find out what needs to be functional and what’s just there for dressing.
Which era? These details are important. Again it’s about not breaking that spell: you can’t have a 1920s policeman in a fully accurate uniform alongside a 1980s phone (unless time travel is part of the plot!). An audience will always be looking for clues, so make sure your leading them in the right direction.
How many costumes per person do you need? What information do we need from each? Once you have an ideal you can work on simplifying things if necessary.
What costumes pieces do you already have?
Will a base layer be useful? Ensemble work and contemporary theatre often use a base layer which is then added to. Take time to consider what the base layer is communicating without its additions and what additions you’ll need.
Will there be any costume changes? How much time is there to change? Do the costumes need to be easy to get on or off?
Distressing/ageing costumes. For example, an actor who’s supposed to be poor wearing brand new shoes is a sure-fire way to break the spell.
Makeup and hair: An actor with long hair will struggle to look like an accurate WW1 soldier.
Basically with set, props and costumes it’s all about establishing what you want to say before working out how to say it.
When I have answered all these questions I make THE LIST, which is usually a big spreadsheet of all the things I need to make the show. SET, COSTUME, PROPS are divided into BUY, HIRE, MAKE. The make list also needs to include any estimated fees to other makers, tools and materials.
Once I have that, it’s much easier to spot where the money is going. If it looks like we need to make changes to save on money or if we could be a little more ambitious in other places, it’s clear to see early on in the project.
Ordering stuff: identify early on which items are going to take longest to arrive and ensure you order them in time.
Props or costumes that actors need to practice with need to be ordered early too. It’s so awful watching an actor be uncomfortable handling a prop because it was a late decision. Get anything that needs to be handled or used to the actors as quickly as possible so they can concentrate on their performance.
Risky ideas: if you’re thinking “maybe this section should be told with a giant puppet” but you don’t know, make a prototype so you can decide that as early as possible. Either way you will either have to find time to make a giant puppet or find a different solution…
Lighting and sound
How will it look lit? Scenic painting isn’t like painting your living room: you need to consider how it will look under stage lights. Black absorbs light so it would be a shame to spend money hiring a talented lighting designer and paint your set black so you can’t see any of their hard work. If there’s time, I like to paint a set and then once it’s been lit, I’ll re-touch it.
How could we use lighting and sound to further tell the story? A beige tarp on the floor might not be a beach until you put wave breaking sound effects over it and perhaps a flash of light to tell the audience a storm is coming in.
Design is just one ingredient in making a show, it must work in harmony with everything else to create the world and make your audience believe in it.