Theater Set Questions Answered!
Answers to your scenic quandaries
In creating my other Lens on theater set design (look in the right column), a few questions kept popping up from visitors - because I hadn't thought of them.
Here are a few answers to the puzzles that a theater production can present. Check out the outline for the List O' Answers to date. If yours isn't there, please ask and - eventually - I'll try to answer them or find someone who can.
QUESTIONS - About Building Sets
Here are some of the questions I've gotten on the practicalities of set building, plus a few answers.
One note though: please remember that, although there are standard approaches to solving many theater problems, you must always check that the standard solution works for THIS specific situation. The safety of cast and crew depend on properly building the set - for the specific situation, uses, weight loading, etc. of each particular production. No well-intentioned online advice can substitute for the wisdom of an experienced theater builder. When in doubt: build it better, brace it more, do it SAFER.
Before we even start though, here are a few Very Useful Books that you'll want to refer to.
A Terrific Practical-Theater Book
Not the very best source for information on set building or design (I don't think the author much likes sets), but THE BEST place to start for all the other stuff - lighting, sound, all the technical aspects of theater. Read it fast!
Set Building Guidebook
This is one of the better, more comprehensive books on physically building a theater set.
But do keep in mind that individual theater companies, technical directors, and lead carpenters will often have their own way of doing things and that particular shows or stages may influence how you go about building.
# 1 - How to Build Free-Standing Set Walls
Walls of a theater set are generally built of "flats." There are two basic types: traditional stretched fabric flats or Hollywood flats, which have a hard surface instead of fabric. Fabric flats are becoming unusual (unless walls need to be flown so lightness is important) - it's more common to find hard-surfaced ones. They're a bit easier to build, about the same cost, and they don't quiver when a door slams or sag when it rains, so they're usually the better choice.
SOLID-FACE FLATS: For now, let's assume a hard-surfaced flat. The skin or surface is usually 1/4" thick plywood or luann, an even thinner, cheaper plywood. (Because it's made from cheap, thin layers of rain forest, I'm told, it's not too eco-friendly.) This rigid face is usually supported by a 1x4 lumber frame with the 1x4s either laid flat onto the plywood - like a picture frame, but with butt joints - or turned perpendicular to it - like thin house studs. The flat method makes a thinner wall (or "flat"), which is sometimes important. The perpendicular placement makes a thicker, stronger wall and is the usual choice. Use drywall screws and power screw guns for fast, efficient building and strike.
(The picture at the right shows a tall version of this kind of flat, complete with angled braces.)
Just to confuse us, some people give this perpendicular frame method the "Hollywood" name. So make sure, when discussing construction, that everyone is talking about the same thing!
Once the 1x4s around the edges of the plywood are in place, a short center horizontal is added to stiffen things up. Since plywood mostly comes in 4' x 8' sizes, the typical flat is a 4' wide by 8' tall rectangle. Civic and community theaters often have a large stock of pre-made flats: many 4' x 8's plus others of different widths - 1', 2', and 3' wide by 8' high are common - and, depending on the height of the theater, there may be other flats that are 10' or 12' tall. Some stock flats will have doors or windows already installed in them.
To build a set using flats, several are placed side by side and screwed together. If you picture this, you'd see a long straight wall standing by itself, or - - - falling over by itself! Obviously it wants to fall over. Most sets actually have side walls too, making a U shape. These side walls help stabilize the long wall upstage, but still, walls are going to quiver and free upper wall corners are going to wobble. Wherever possible add angle bracing (more 1x4s) attached on the hidden side of the flats, about 2/3 of the way up, slanting down at about 30 degrees to the deck or stage, where they're anchored. These make the whole structure rigid.
FABRIC FLATS - the frame for flats with a fabric face are just like those for a solid surface. The fabric is usually unbleached heavy muslin or light canvas. This fabric is stretched tightly, like a drum head, over the wood frame and stapled in place. (Staple on the back! not the front face or sides please.) Trim excess fabric. If the fabric is a bit loose, it can be tightened by painting it all with a mixture of about 1/2 white glue like Elmers and 1/2 water, which will tighten it somewhat as it dries. Last step, the fabric face gets painted to its finished look.
Sometimes a fabric flat is not part of the set proper, but used as masking to hide the audience's view backstage, say. Black duvetyne (much like black flannel in its fuzzy texture) is good at NOT taking light and works well as the stretched face of a flat. And sometimes you want something sheer or textured as fabric... most cloth can be made to work, although something smooth and slithery like satin can be horrible to work with!
GET HELP: There are good books on set construction - a few are listed below. I recommend reading one, especially if your theater group is inexperienced in set building. Try to find an experienced Technical Director or Lead Carpenter. There is a lot of lore in the theater - on stage and backstage - learned through practice and example, so give yourself that advantage in your lead builder.
On the subject of experience: a real-life carpenter, like a home builder, can be a huge advantage. But they do tend to want to use bigger lumber - 2x4s instead of 1x4s. Now, sometimes this is needed (which is why you want a good TD), but remember that set walls only have to stand up for a few weeks and don't carry any roof or floor loads like a house wall does, so the extra wood thickness may just be adding weight and cost. Weight is a factor when volunteers are getting tired and cost is always important to a theater's budget.
# 2 - How To Build a Stage Platform
The standard way to build a theater platform is to take a sheet of 4' x 8' x 5/8" or 3/4" thick plywood and add to it, underneath, a frame around its edge of 2x4s. These are turned edge-on (like a wall stud) for maximum panel thickness. Then, equally spaced, two or more intermediate pieces of 2x4 are added across the short dimension, for extra stiffness. If this platform is to be raised more than it's own 4 1/4" high, At each corner of this "table top" add 2x4 legs. All this lumber is usually attached to itself and to the stage floor using at least 2 1/2" drywall screws. Make sure all attachments are tight and rigid.
Obviously, as the platform is raised higher, cross-bracing becomes necessary to keep it from swaying and falling. Cross-bracing can be built as an X of 2x4s or as a full panel of 1/2"+ plywood.
Just as obviously, this lightly designed platform in meant for light loads and uses - for a couple actors standing around emoting not a piano or an athletic dancer. Where a platform must handle a more demanding use, either increase the depth of its frame (from 2x4 to 2x6 or 2x8) and/or increase the number and strength of its supports (from 2x4 legs at 4 corners to 6 or more). For very heavy loads or more permanent installations it is common to either build in wood just as heavily as you would for a house or to use steel frames and sometimes steel grids or planks. Pre-made scaffolding can often be an economical way to do this.
A NOTE ON LEVELS IN MUSICAL THEATER: You want 'em - levels look good and dramatic and allow interesting blocking, but keep in mind that dancers are (this is weird) Clumsy and will trip over steps if they can. Also, if singers need to walk up from one level to another, too high a climb steals breath they need to sing. So be careful (and short) when designing levels for musicals.
This is a beautifully clear video on how to build a standard platform. Watch n' learn!
More helpful how-to books
I own both of these books.
This is oriented toward portable sets, but many techniques are useful even if your set won't travel.
A useful book, but maybe a little old-fashioned in some of its practices.
Set Building Tools
Always bring your own tools to a Build - that way you know you'll HAVE tools.
I prefer a cordless screw gun (with drywall screws) for set building because it gives you more freedom than a cord. But have extra fully-charged batteries with you. And sometimes, when you need lots of power, a corded screw gun / drill is still better.
If you own other power tools you might want to have them in the trunk of your car in case they're needed. Ditto a few had tools like screw drivers and pliers. You may also want to have your very own tape measure and a couple pencils.
Put your name on ALL your tools!
Handy Dandy Stapler
For fabric flats and set building projects like "wallpapering" with fabric or upholstering, a good staple gun is what you need.
I prefer the Powershot because the staple is ejected at the "wrong" end of the gun - which lets anyone with small hands get much better pressure on the trigger handle and better control the staple. These staplers can be a little finicky (they all are), but even with that I keep returning to this model as the most useful. Remember to put your name on it - folks will borrow it - and bring your own secret supply of staples.
I own and love this stapler.
# 3 -Non-standard Non-Flat Set Walls - Sometimes a standard flat just won't do the job.
A Romanesque Window
For some special scenic pieces - here it's an arched window in a Romanesque monastery - the usual flats won't work. You need to build more of a 3D unit. in this show Act I has a broken window (the monastery is poor), in Act II this is replaced with stained glass (the monastery is now rich - don't ask, it's all a scam).
Design and drawings are by set designer Clare Floyd DeVries.
"Incorruptible" - Circle Theatre in Fort Worth, Texas
Photo courtesy of Circle Theatre
This photos shows the transformation from a construction drawing to real-life construction. It also shows a great view of fake stone. For this set, stones were cut out of approx 1/2" thick foam and individually applied, then painted in place. The linen-fold paneling to its right is made from plywood, 1x4 lumber for the "frames" and, again, foam for the carved panels. Also painted and wood-grained in place. The carpenters and painters did a fantastic job!
# 4 - Building Wagons
And Sometimes the Walls Have to Move!
Freely movable units used on-stage are called "wagons." These are often the solution when a setting needs to change: a wagon rolls out to represent the new location; a wagon rolls away to reveal a, till now, hidden set; a wagon spins to reveal another set on the other side.
(I once designed a wagon where EVERY side AND THE TOP was a different setting... for five different sets!) Wagons can be wonderfully flexible.
Construction varies, but usually wagons consist of a standard platform or deck unit with casters underneath. You'll want at least 4 casters - more if the load is heavy - and always, always, always install the best, heaviest-duty casters you can afford. There are two kinds of casters: fixed and swiveling. It's tempting to use all swivel casters, because the wagon can roll in any direction, but if in fact this particular wagon will only travel a straight path, some fixed (properly aligned!) casters will roll easier... less of that crazy-grocery-cart wheel stuttering. This is another area where experience is helpful, so get advice from a good stage carpenter.
How to hide the casters? All you can do is add a "skirt" of thin plywood or luann that covers the edge of the platform and most of the casters, coming as close to the floor as, say, 1/2". The more uneven your stage floor, the bigger that gap has to be, and if your wagon has to go up a ramp, you may not be able to skirt it at all.
A stage revolve or turntable is really just a variation on this wagon idea: there is a central pivot (so the platform can only travel circularly) and all the casters are fixed ones VERY carefully aligned.
To see a great big wagon - a whole Italian villa - being built, check out the Lens below, in the "Stage Adaptations" section. This Liberty University set is also interesting because they use a store-boughten scaffolding system as the support framework for their two-story wagon.
# 4A - Changing Scenery
Many shows require a change of scenery. And there are many ways to accomplish this: drops; wagons; revolves or turntables; revolving walls; doors or flats or panels that hinge open or closed, or flap up or down...
But whatever method you choose - MAKE IT SIMPLE.
The easier to build and to operate, the faster and simpler to change, the better for the show. (And your sanity.)
Answered your question yet?
# 5 - How to Build "Stone" Walls
There are many techniques for creating "stone" walls on stage.
TROMPE L'OEIL - or fool-the-eye painting. This is the traditional method, to simply paint stone or any other 3D architecture directly on to the flat surface of the stage wall or flats. This works best for rather old fashioned productions - maybe a fairytale story or a mock 19th century production. This requires a Very Good Scenic Painter. For the rest of us, there are other ways - - -
VACU-FORM MASONRY - For big-budget productions there are store-boughten sheets of plastic molded perfectly to the shape of bricks or stones. There are joints between panels that must be carefully placed. These vacu-form sheets are terrific, but usually too expensive in the quantity needed. However, if there is a ritzy theater in your town, you may be able to get leftovers from one of their productions. Wonderfully easy to work with.
THIN "REAL" MASONRY - Nowadays most of the stone (and often the brick) that you see at new restaurants etc. are actually very thin slices which could work beautifully on stage. But expensive. However, for a small, important, close-to-the-audience area, it might be possible to get some donated. Could be worth asking.
CUT OUTS - Plywood, Homasote, Masonite, foam of any type, or other materials like cardboard can be cut into brick or stone shapes and applied - one by one - to the surface of the wall. This can look wonderful, but is obviously tedious to do. Paint the wall face dark gray before you start, because it'll be hard to catch all the cracks afterward. Likewise, you may want to base-coat the stones or bricks before applying them, then just touch-up paint once they're installed.
CARVED FOAM - This can either be that thin (1/2" - 1" ) sheet foam used as building sheathing - often pink or blue - or it can be much thicker (2"-6") foam - the white stuff that like for a beer cooler, that sheds tiny foamy pebbles. Choose your foam depending on whether you want crisp edges or rougher, more rustic ones. With the pink or blue foam, a very sharp craft knife can easily cut thin, clean-edged joints and you get (after a tedious amount of work) very crisp looking brick or stone with a flat face. Good for "new" bricks or a more machined look. With the white pebbly foam, use a serrated kitchen knife to cut - you'll get a rougher look and you can crumble-pebble edges further by hand or by cracking off pieces to make it even rougher. This makes good "old" brick or field stone. There are obvious dangers here regarding sharp edges and, you know, copious bleeding etc. so be careful and safe.
FOAM & ACETONE - painted or sprayed onto the white pebbly type of foam, this chemical will eat away at its surface, giving a very coarse, natural stone texture. CAUTION! This is dangerous stuff. Find someone with experience to advise you; follow manufacturer's instructions, especially regarding fire safety, toxic fumes, and skin contact; ventilate the workplace generously; and generally treat this stuff with respect. It may not even be legal everywhere, though it's common in theater. Frankly, I don't use this technique myself because I find the fumes kinda scary - I stick with carving.
DRYWALL MUD - If you never want to use that wall flat again, you can apply drywall mud (or spackle where it won't get damaged) directly to the surface and - - - basically make mudpies, sculpt it into thin - about 1/8" thick max. - stones or bricks. You can lay down narrow tape, then goop, then pull up the tape to reveal mortar joints. I've seen it done with cut-out heavy cardboard templates that lifted away to reveal joints. Tedious and messy, but surprisingly effective.
PAINTING FAUX MASONRY - Your fake stone or brick is always going to look more realistic if you paint the whole wall - especially the cracks - a dark gray or gray-brown first. After that base coat, apply the real brick/stone base color, taking care not to get any in the "mortar" cracks. From there, modulate the masonry color however you wish, but be sure to use a rather dry brush so the paint skims across the rough surface, leaving the deeper, rougher areas showing the brick/stone base color and, in the deepest cracks, that dark gray-brown. At the very end, lightly, lightly skim over the wall with a very dry brush of your lightest "high-light" color and just as lightly, skim over the mortar joints with a lighter "mortar" color.
LIGHTING FAUX MASONRY - After all that work to create texture, make sure the lighting designer places a few instruments so that their light will graze the masonry and create shadows.
Your wall will look amazingly textured and 3D!
The Beauty Queen of Leenane - A (mostly) stone Irish cottage
Carving field stone
Trying to imitate the texture of natural field stone...
Here the vertical faces of "stone" are carved from thin sheet foam of the sort used as building insulation/sheathing. In the small photo, you can see how carved joints wrap the corner to suggest that (though the sheathing is of thin sheets) the faux stones are realistically fat and 3D!
Below, in the big photo, is another detail. Here the thick stone cap of the wall at the side of our peat fire was a lucky find - part of a polystyrene packing box which was already 3D.
(We also had to fake the peat! But that's another story...)
Notice the painting? Deep inside the joints or cracks is darker, while the faces of the stones are of mixed color, with highlights in the lightest shade. We were going for somber here... Stones for your show might want to be much more cheerful, warmer or lighter in color.
Disadvantages to carved stone? Time consuming! The build has to be careful, with tight joints to not reveal the bits-n-pieces quality of its construction. Carving and painting is finicky and best done in place, rather than before installation. (Ladder work, yeah!) In this example, you can unfortunately still see some of the holes where screws attach our stone to the wood face behind it. These could have been filled and painted... but (look at the size of this set! (the photo shows the small half) by then we were getting... tired.
The other popular method of making fake stone is by "painting" on joints with acetone on foam. The fumes require serious ventilation! (And the stuff's highly flammable too.) More on this method and on scenic painting stone in this blog post:
A scenic stone how-to.
Favorite (Faux) Stone Carving Knife
This knife is by far my favorite for carving foam into fake stone.
Because of its easily replaced blade it stays sharp - critical - and because of its adjustable-length blade it can have an adjustable amount of flex - extremely helpful for making sweeping, naturally flowing lines of stone. Other knives don't work as well: a mat knife blade, for instance, is short and stiff, forcing you to make short, stiff, straight cuts. A serrated knife (like a kitchen knife) cuts foam well, but is better for hacking away large areas than for controlled or fine cuts like mortar lines. But with this snap-blade knife you can flow and curve or cut small joints easily.
CAUTION: the "snap" part of the snap-blade is so you can break off the blunted tip and use the next one down, but this also means that, if you extend the blade for flexibility, you may set yourself up for a sudden, unexpected Snap! BE SAFE - treat this knife with even more wary respect and care than you would another knife. Not recommended for children or fools.
Stone for the show above was entirely carved with a knife like this.
This is the style I like and find most useful.
Fake Masonry - Boy, they got everything on Amazon!
This should take light well.
Perfect for stage violence!
Kinda handy... though carved would be better.
# 6 - Doors On Stage
Sadly almost every set - at least the realistic ones - need at least one door. Why "sadly"? Because they're a pain to get right.
Whenever possible, buy and install pre-hung doors. These save endless trouble. But there will be times when you must hang existing doors, or even build the door. Here's another place that experience helps - try to find someone who's successfully wrestled with doors before.
In general: be very careful and methodical. Be sure your door frame is a true, straight, rectangle with its jambs vertical and its head horizontal. Be sure the jambs and/or the wall is well braced - especially if your show is a farce full of door-slams! And make sure the doors themselves are sturdy ones. (In one of my farces, of 8 doors, only 1 survived the full run.) The same goes for hardware.
It is just amazing how actors - who you'd think would have doors at home - will try to open your set door wrong, push instead of pull, or forget how knobs work, or shut their hands in the HINGE side of the door - - - All kinds of crazy.
# 6 A - GETTING DOORS TO SHUT: There are several methods. The subtlest, and only possible with very clever carpenters, is to very very slightly set the door hinges in the jamb slightly off of true vertical so that gravity gently pulls the door closed if left open. Another way, perfect for screen doors, is to add a weak spring at the door head to pull it shut. A third method is to add a piece of strong, invisible fishing line to the door head and pull this line back to the door frame's head, through a couple eye hooks to behind the side wall, then attach a small counter weight (like a cuckoo clock's) to pull the door closed.
# 6 B - GETTING DOORS NOT TO FLY OPEN: Sometimes the wretched things flap open at the merest touch and crash! against the wall. You can slow these down by attaching a cheap paintbrush on the unseen side of the door so that it sweeps the floor. The added resistance makes it behave. (I've seen a door it took 3 paint brushes to tame.)
# 6 C - THE DOOR'S SOUND: Some shows you want 'em to slam, some you want 'em silenced. A little felt at the jambs and head can help silence - paint the felt to match the woodwork.
#6 D - FREE-STANDING DOORS: If all you need is a door and its frame (or just the frame) well, you'll need more than that. Because opening and shutting that door or leaning - as actors will - against that jamb with cause it to crash to the floor. You need to brace it.
Your choices are either to support the door jambs so rigidly they can't fall or to brace them. To make a rigid door frame, best choice would be a welded steel frame rigidly connected to the floor/platform - probably by bolting welded-on steel angles to a floor strong enough to take the forces involved - preferably more steel, concrete, or heavy timber. This is the serious I-know-a-welder version. But a rigid frame could be built of ordinary 2x4s if the door frame extended down INTO the platform at least 2' vertically and was braced so the jamb was utterly stiff. (Assuming a well-built platform.) This only works for a door raised 2' or more above the stage or where you have a trap to take the door's foundation. That would look MAGIC! Look Ma, unsupported door! The third and most common way is to add triangular (plus any camouflage shape added ) braces behind the door jambs as for bracing a wall. This also works if the door is mounted on a wagon.
Door are Entrances
Farces famously require many (sturdy) doors, but many plays require a number of entrances which are often doors. Here, for The Great American Trailer Trash Musical at Circle Theatre, the many entrances were disguised as the doors (and screen doors) to trailer homes. (A third door here is behind the actress.)
# 6 1/2 - Door Design and a Note on Architectural Detail
A quick word on a huge topic - architectural detail.
For even the simplest set - historic or present day - try to have at least one touch of interesting, period-appropriate detail. This doesn't need to be extravagant, just some material, shape, proportion, trim, or other element that is just right for the period of the play's setting. For instance (and this is a pet peeve, sorry, rant coming!) don't always use that same ol' 6 panel door from Home Depot that every one in the audience has at home! Sometimes it's appropriate... but it's so much better to find an unexpected, REAL old door. Or to build one.
At best, this little bit of correct architectural detail is not just added on to a set like a sticker on a kid's sticker book, but is an integral part of the whole design. If a stair is needed, suggest a period stair railing. Or include a fireplace - often not that hard to build and always evocative of a historical period. Make doors and windows the right size and shape for the time they would have been built. And doors... think about the right doors.
After sloppy construction, this issue of period correct detail is one big difference between an amateurish or a professional looking set.
Fixing it means doing some research. (Wahoo! Research is fun.) This used to be difficult without an architectural library, but Google is at most fingertips nowadays. So, if you're designing a set for The Crucible, type "Salem architecture" into the prompt box, eh?
And there still are some wonderfully helpful books out there...
A Guide to Architectural Detail
I use this book constantly! And I DO have an architectural library, full of other resources. But this is my favorite and fastest desk reference. Well, actually, I use its prequel Period Details by Martin and Judith Miller. It's still available. (But Amazon didn't have a picture.) Period Details is organized by architectural item - like "doors" or "windows" - and, within that, by historic period, so it's very easy to use.
The first and really, really useful volume.
This book pictured here is the sequel that I haven't got hold of yet, but am going to order Right Now!
One note: this is a British book, so it misses some specifically American (or Chinese or French etc.) styles, but for most of those shows set in the West, this is a very good source book.
# 7 - Theater Sets with Books
The hardest part of the classic English Country House Library set, or others like it, is the BOOKS.
There are a number of ways to handle books on stage.
LOANERS - If you have a lot of folks with strong backs, you can actually put actual books on stage. Be warned: it takes A LOT of books to look like anything. And books are heavy. Acquiring all these tons of books, however, may not be that hard. Talk to your local used book stores. Sometimes they sell books by the yard (you can't afford them), and surprisingly often they may be willing to loan boxes of these books to you. Sometimes give them to you. They might even lend you the bookshelves too! (Thank you Half Price Books.) Otherwise, simple bookshelves are straightforward for stage carpenters to build, though time consuming. Remember to get your lotso strong helpers back for strike and when the tons of books get returned.
STOCK - Most theaters have at least a small stock of real books. The problem with this stock is usually that they look nothing like the type of books your set requires. If these are truly odd, lost, worthless volumes it is possible to paint them - and painted books make a much better background (though it's a bit of a sin).
FAKE BOOKS - Once you've carried a few tons of books, fake ones made from foam become really appealing. These can be made either as separate volumes or as a row of books, with or without depth. Foam books always take paint better and last better if they are wrapped with glued-on muslin before painting. Considering the amount of time building foam books takes, the muslin is worthwhile. It's best to take your time - be sure to add that tell-tale recess where the pages are inset below a book's covers. For rows of books, the joints between them can be easily carved with a craft knife. When painting be sure to vary the colors of the spines or covers as randomly as you can and - if you have too much time! - gold titles and details look fantastic. You'll reuse well-faked books over and over again.
Theater Set Books
Books on sets and their design and designers! (I also own these.)
Gotta love handbooks!
"Charm" by Kathleen Cahill, at Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas, Texas.
Questions - About Theater Set Design
Important as all the how-to and technical part of a set is - - - a theater set is only as good as the IDEA behind it.
Take your time, do some research, use your imagination. A brilliant set can elevate the whole production.
Please pop back up to the start of this Lens to find suggested sites for more in-depth discussions of scenic design.
I also recommend the book Alice Through the Proscenium - available at Lulu.com, Amazon, and (as an ebook) through Barnes & Noble.
How about Now?
All this How-To is great... but how about How-To-Afford-It?
# 8 - How Much Detail Does a Set Need?
It all depends.
In a medium-to-large sized traditional proscenium theater the rule of thumb for detail is the famous Thirty-Foot Rule: if you can't see it from 30' away, then it doesn't matter. This is also phrased as "seen from the back of a galloping horse."
Most small theater groups, however, play in smaller houses, and need greater attention to detail. On some intimate stages, the audience sits so close that you can't get away with anything that wouldn't look good in your living room.
# 9 - How Much Does a Set Cost?
This is almost impossible to answer except with, "It Depends."
It does "depend." A Broadway production will spend millions and millions. A small, poor theater may be able to create a fantastic set for a particular show for little money ($ 35 is my record), if company members are well connected - have access to great borrowings! - with a show that needs mainly furniture and is being performed in a space, of modest scale that doesn't have to be filled with scenery. On the other hand, a new company or amateur group with no connections, no stock of props or flats, an ambitious show, and a huge, demanding space, can spend tens of thousands of dollars.
TIPS FOR KEEPING DOWN COSTS
1) SCALE: Keep the show small and simple. One set is less than half the price of two - every set change adds complexity and thus cost. Likewise a big stage needs bigger sets than a small one. A period setting is harder (more costly) than a contemporary one. Other factoids: a realistic outdoor set is harder than an interior; a "rich" character's house is harder to furnish than a "poor" one's; and the more detail, the more expense.
This does NOT mean you only pick shows with a unit set that is a contemporary, poor person's living room! But it does mean you should consider all this as you choose shows. If you build a realistic Versailles - interior and garden - that switches in Act II to the deck of a sailing ship (also realistic), well, don't be surprised when it costs ya. Do that same show non-realistically? A chair and chandelier replaced by a ship's wheel, all borrowed, and it'll cost just $10 for gas for the truck. See?
2) DESIGN: Smart design can save a lot of money. As you design, make construction drawings, choose materials, and build, always consider your options. When it makes sense - choose the least expensive. For instance, If you know you can borrow an item that will give needed detail or character to your set, design around it: to suggest an elaborate garden, you could spend a fortune on silk foliage and paint an expensive drop... or you could borrow that beautiful statue, add $5 of ivy, and stand it in front of the cyc "sky" you already have, then add a fast/cheap cut-out ground-row with a profile that suggests the shapes of clipped topiary shrubs and, on a distant hill, a Grecian Temple. Cheap. More effective.
Likewise, when you draw up flat "walls," for economy, fit the modular sizes of plywood. Since plywood comes in 4' x 8' sheets and 1x4s in 8' or 10' etc. lengths, a 9' high wall is MUCH more expensive than an 8' high one. A 10' high would cost very little more than a 9' one, and a 12' high wall will cost the same as an 11' high one. Similarly, a 9' diameter turntable costs much more - and will be harder to build - than an 8' one. Keep material sizes in mind!
3) BORROW: Thus cannot be over-stressed. Borrowing is hugely cheaper than buying what you need. And you'll be surprised what you can sometimes borrow: books and bookcases from bookstores; furniture from friends, family, businesses; even wall flats (or anything else) from other theaters or university theater programs. It is vital, however, that you are a Good Borrower. Always make appointments and keep them and return things on time and in good condition. WARNING: things happen on stage - never use anything you cannot repair or replace, never use anything you'd be heartbroken (or bankrupt) over if it breaks.
4) RENT - Ask local scenic studios, fabricators, and indie stage carpenters if they have platforms or flats to rent. This can be much cheaper than building yours new. Ditto major furniture or specialty items. For instance, make some calls to area theaters that recently did your show to see if there might be a Little Shop of Horrors Audrey or a Sweeney Todd barber's chair that they'd be thrilled to rent out. And there is a big business in renting theatrical drops - check online. These aren't cheap and, to me at least, can seem old-fashioned or even cheesy, but may be the best solution for a group putting on a big multi-set show like 42nd Street.
5) BUY CHEAP: When you must buy, buy cheap. Find your local fabric and building supply discount barns, then search their "Bargain Bins" first. Look through the paint store's "Oops" cans in case there are colors you can use. Shop thrift stores. Scrounge! Check the curb before the trash truck arrives. You'll be surprised what good stuff you can find.
6) SAVE: If you can find free or very, very, very cheap storage, then stock-pile flats, building materials, and furniture for next time. Many a set has been painted using only scrap paint.
7) NEGOTIATE: Now and then I get "How much would it cost to..." questions.
Material costs are easy to estimate if you take a walk around your local building supply depot, but labor costs are tricky. If you have capable volunteers, then labor can come as cheap as the pizza lunch. If you pay stage carpenters, their hourly rate will range from minimum wage for lower-skilled carps to perhaps double or even triple that for experienced and highly-skilled ones. Lead carpenters/technical directors often work for a flat fee you negotiate up front. My only advice would be to find an excellent stage carpenter who understands how broke theaters usually are - but then to pay them as much as you possibly can. Because full-time theater carpenters or TDs tend to be even broker than theaters.
# 9 1/2 - No Budget AT ALL?
Sometimes this question comes up: How can you create some sort of set with No Money At All?
The answer is Scrounging.
What can you borrow? What can you find at the curb? What scrap paint can you find in your garage - in anyone's garage? (So, it's a little smelly.) Can you whip sheets of a bed and hang them from borrowed string with borrowed clothespins?
This is when theater designers shine! Imagination can make up for a lot of lack-of-cash.
Here are a few free resources available to almost everyone:
1) old newspapers or magazines or sometimes books - ask friends, businesses, and places that sell books-by-the-yard for loaners/gifts.
2) cardboard - from discarded cardboard boxes (refrigerator boxes are kinda cool as-is) talk to appliance stores or talk to box manufacturers about free scrap and discards.
3) plastic or paper grocery bags
4) scrap lumber or building supplies - ask contractors about scraps (don't just take 'em, right?)
5) dry leaves or tree limbs (in season)
6) real rocks - borrowed (but paid for in sweat, believe me!)
7) empty bottles, cans, or bottle caps - ask restaurants, bars, or friends (clean 'em!)
8) weathered/rotten fence boards - from the curb or a fencing company
What industry or business do you have locally that discards waste that could somehow become a set?
A theater troupe in Lebannon builds a beautiful set entirely from trash for their show about waste and the environment.
Enough Big Picture!
Let's start designing and get Small...
# 10 - How to Make a Set Model
This ia a biggish how-to to fully cover here, but there's a book below that ought to answer all your questions.
The simple answer is that the EASIEST way is to draw the floor plan of your set (to correct scale, of course, 1/4" = 1'-0" is a good size) and draw all the set's walls (same scale). Photocopy these and mount them on a medium weight cardboard like matboard or on foamcore board - which is best done with spray adhesive, but a glue stick also works. After this dries, cut out the walls (a sharp X-acto knife and metal straightedge works best). Stand the cut-out walls up on the mounted floor plan and glue in place. This makes a simple, but useful model to help directors and anyone else understand your design.
The model directly below is of the cut-out-the-drawings type (follow a link in this section to see it painted). The model below that one was made the other way round - model first, drawings later. (Kinda a pain, as it had to be disassembled in order to figure out the drawings.)
The other question, of course, is WHY build a model?
It's a lot of work and time.
Well, a model can really help the design and construction process. A 3D model can explain a set design to the director, actors, and carpenters much more quickly and easily than can any amount of drawing and hand-waving. In fact, it explains it to the designer. (I can't tell you how many times I've caught a mistake or an awkward detail in model.) A model can help you study sight-lines too. And - as with drawing - it's a LOT easier to fix a problem in a model than in a full-size set. Painted models help the painters, taking the place of renderings (also time-consuming things to make). Photograph the model for your portfolio.
A pretty model can look great in the lobby!
Keep in mind that there are really two kinds of models: a working or design model and a presentation model. A working model can be messy, fast, and nasty and still really helpful to the designer and even to a savvy director, while a presentation model is the beautiful one you use to "present" your design to the outside world.
This post from my Design Diary blog talks about how to make fast, easy "white' models of sets as well as painted ones.
Or if you just want to visit a working set designer's life, here's a link to the blog's homepage DeVries Design Diary
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" WaterTower Theater - set designer Clare Floyd DeVries
"As You Like It" Trinity Shakespeare - set designer Clare Floyd DeVries
A Book on Theatrical Model-Making
I haven't got my hands on this book yet, but it looks like it should be very helpful. That photocopy in 3D style model described above is useful but crude - theatrical models can be very beautiful.
# 11 - A Fast Word on Floors
The theater stages or platforms - the floor - under the actors' feet turns out to be a huge safety issue. Wherever possible, it's best to provide a smooth, flat, non-slippery surface that is well supported and neither creaks nor squeaks (fixing squeaks, aaaargh!), but that has a certain "give" or spring to it. The best stage floor for most purposes is the classic sprung oak plank floor of a good proscenium theater.
Your temporary platform ought to come as close to this ideal as possible - especially if there is dancing.
For stage combat, that springiness can be adequate (if actors are young, fit, and generally bouncy), but you'll need to provide padding in the landing zones of certain stunts... a padded carpet may be enough or you may need stacked gym or yoga mats or even a true stuntman's air-filled landing cushion. Consult with your choreographers and fight designers!
# 12 - An Even Faster Word on FIRE!
Fire is a traditional and very real threat in the theater. All that audience? Exiting in a hurry through smoke, flames, panic? Take it seriously.
For this reason, NEVER EVER design a theater set that in any way blocks exit aisles or doors! You'll also notice that lighted candles etc. are almost never legal on-stage and that sets - particularly fabrics! - are often flame-treated.
Talk with the producers of your show, who usually know the theater's rules for sets. Or you and the producers may need to talk with managers of your theater space and then your local fire marshal (at the Fire Department) to find out the requirements. On some modern, fully fire-sprinkled stages, sets may not need to be flame treated, but usually it IS required. Learn the local rules.
If your set does need flame resistant treatment, this is usually a matter of spraying it during construction with a liquid containing metallic salts that retard flame - a commercial product designed for theater use. This is another area where having an experienced theater master carpenter or technical director helps, because, obviously, this stuff has to be carefully applied.
Here is a fairly typical requirement from a venue for treatment, from the Miramar Cultural Center information guide book:
"FLAME RETARDANT TREATMENT: Draperies, curtains, set pieces, scenery and other similar loosely hanging furnishings and decorations shall be flame resistant as demonstrated by passing both the smallscale and large-scale tests of NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame-Resistant Textiles and Films. Acoustical and decorative material including, but not limited to, cotton, hay, paper, straw, moss, split bamboo and wood chips shall be flame-retardant treated to the satisfaction of the authority having jurisdiction. Sample materials may be required for testing purposes. Certificates of Flame Retardency must be provided. Materials, which cannot be treated for flame retardency, shall not be used."
Links to Other Technical Theater Answers
- Courtney Collin Studio
A Links page to several tech theater podcasts, videos etc.
- Miramar Cultural Center - ArtsPark
Here's the rest of that theater guide book quoted above. It's a nice example of what you'll wish every venue would give you to start designing your set with... all kinds of helpful information and drawings!
More Technical Theater Books
Help you can carry to the theater with you.
Safety is extra important when children are on stage.
So good, I recommend it twice!
# 13 - How to "Age" a Set
(I looove this question!)
This can be a ton o' fun. Many stage sets look better - and better fit their play - if they look aged and dirty.
The "aging" process can be a fun, messy playtime for us Techies!
First of all, as much as possible, use genuinely old, nasty-looking furniture, set dressing, and set building materials. It's hard to replicate the genuine look of wear and time on wood or the rusting of metal etc., which can be eccentric and unpredictable. So go for the genuine wherever you can.
Second, "age" as many building materials as you can before incorporating them into the set. If you're going to have a corrugated "tin" roof, new metal panels are way too shiny and new-looking, so dent and bend them before installing them. And dirty them with very diluted paint in shades of gray, charcoal gray, and rust. If possible, do this somewhere you can get soaking wet (like outside). Tilt the roof panel at about the right angle and simply pour dirty paint water onto it - not too much at a time - and let your roof get stained as if really weathered. You can replicate this on-stage, but you have to be less splashy. For wood planks, truly weathered wood is best, but new wood can be washed with watery gray and dirty paint washes (before installing, if possible, so you get more variety of "weathering" from board to board). Where some boards are already painted (this is theater, we reuse stuff), cover inappropriate color with black or dark gray or dark brown, then paint in a sloppy way with lighter weathered grays and even add painted wood graining.
For fabrics like curtains, either tea die them (large bucket o' strong, dark, tea, then dip, dry, probably iron) or sometimes you can spray-stain them with a medium brown colored spray stain. Michaels hobby stores used to carry cans of a fruitwood (I think) stain and Krylon now makes spray stain in a medium brown that ought to work. Apply it lightly for an aging, yellowing effect.
For walls... basically grubby things up! Wash your fresh paint with slops of dirty-paint-water-bucket and sorta wipe it off. Be sure to dirty up around door jambs, door knobs, light swtiches, and anywhere else people touch a room. Invent a roof leak and let dirty gray water drip from that area down the wall.
Furniture (if you're allowed to mess it up - Ask First!) can be antiqued by washing it with juicy dark brown or gray paint - force it into all cracks and corners - then wiping this off, wiping hardest at areas which would get most wear, like table corners. You might even sand high-wear areas with fine sandpaper so that the wood under the finish shows.
An aged set is a fun-to-do set!
# 14ish - How to Build Theater Stairs
After that Baker's dozen of answers, I just happened across this how-to for building on-stage stairs.
It looks terrific! The writer, Ben Teague, has a commonsense attitude I really like and his advice looks very sound. (Though I haven't tried or reviewed everything in it myself. Yet.) This website (a PDF) ought to answer all your questions!
- How to Build Theater Stairs
This seems like THE helpful, detail-packed, answers-all-your-questions how-to on stairs on stage.
Leave time near the end to just sit and stare at your set.
Then go fix the stuff you find!
Community Theater Books
Running your theater project better means more success and more fun.
Lens of the Day! Purple Star!
Thank you Squids
It's a little overwhelming - all these new visitors!
I appreciate the honors to this page very much. Thanks.
Links to More on Set Building
- The Theater Carpenter
Some good advice from an experienced set builder.
- Set Design for Dummies
Links to videos on aspects of set design.
- Theatre on a Shoestring
An interesting guide to theater aimed at teachers. This particular page has links to instructions on all sorts of scenery building topics. (I notice that this site discourages the use of dry wall screws as too brittle for structural use in, for ins
Just wondering, Valued Visitor...
If you're curious, you might scroll down through earlier comments. When questions are common I try to add them to this page, but there are some quirkier ones (like how to build a giant Tiki head) that get answered right with the question.