Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to Start a Set Design

As readers of this blog will know, a set designer may have several designs going at once at different stages of development.

Right now things are quiet at my board: The Divine Sister is on stage at Uptown Players (come see!); I just struck Crimes of the Heart (my car is still full of its set dressing); Smokey Joe's Cafe doesn't open until Monday night (come see! at WaterTower Theater), but my part in that is largely done; and See How They Run is building, but it's too early for me to fuss with dressing just yet (soon, very soon).

Which leaves me at leisure to wade into two up-coming shows for Echo Theatre.  The fall show is Or, a fictionalized biographical piece about the early woman playwright Aphra Behn.

Aphra Behn - public domain image from Wikipedia

The second play will be one written by Aphra Behn herself.

I'm looking forward to these.  The restoration period is one I haven't worked with, other than a modern version of The Country Wife.  As a designer I'm interested in both the period and the "bookend" quality of designing two related plays, but as a woman designer, I'm especially interested in this fascinating trailblazer of a playwrightess.  

(I'm glad the obnoxious pink-ghetto ending "ess" has gone out of fashion!  Except just that, if I were an Italian female architect, I believe I would be addressed as "Dottoressa" which, I have to admit, sounds flatteringly cool.  But the English "esses" like poetess, laundress, stewardess, etc. sound either dorky, dated, or as in the case of negress, flat-out insulting.)


No question that Aphra Behn would have suffered her share of insult in the 1600s as a woman who dared to write professionally.  An added "ess" would have been the least of her worries.  Here's "Thanks!" to all the tough women who were Firsts in their professions, hacking trails for later women - like me - to stroll along, just doing the job.

My job for Aphra Behn started with reading Or, written by Liz Duffy Adams.  

A set designer looks for several things when reading a play: you look for story, atmosphere, literary quality etc. just as the audience will when watching the play, but you also look for the practicalities of staging.  What entrances are required?  What furniture or other set items will actors interact with?  What scene changes are required?  

From my first reading I learned that this play has a realistic (and occasionally farcical)  tone and two settings - first, a private room in a debtor's prison and, second, the main living/writing room in the writer's apartment, with an entry door to a common hall and another to her bedroom, plus a wardrobe large enough to hide a person in.  The writer's desk is important.  I assume there'll be at least one chair.  Will we see her bed?

Immediate questions are: how elaborate or complete must the two settings be (the budget is limited); how much or little will we see of the bedroom; and where will we find period furniture?  As with any period piece, it will be part of the set's job to establish the time frame... but this poor playwright would not have much up-to-date in her environment.  Look at most poorer people's spaces - old stuff, old buildings - even your own living room and its furniture is probably 5-10-20 years old.  So, though this play is set between 1666 and 1700, the playwright's room could easily be from the 1640s or earlier, though she would have late-model clothes, of course.  (I hate period shows that forget this fact!)

Next step is to meet with the director to discuss her take on the text, to ask these questions, and to debate first ideas.

Fun ahead!

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