Monday, August 12, 2013

The Set Design Process

I've been asked to write about the process of designing for Circle Theatre's soon-to-open! production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

Unusually, this process started - for me - two years ago when Kitchen Dog Theater produced a staged reading of this script.  Hilarious!  Flash forward to last December when I learned that Exit, Pursued by a Bear would be part of Circle Theatre's 2013 season.  I've been looking happily forward to it ever since.

I remembered the play with a fond glow around it, without remembering many details.  But what a great title!  Shakespeare's most famous stage direction - certainly his most evocative.  (And one of his few, he being experienced enough to know that everyone ignores a playwright's stage directions.)  I love the idea of taking a little shard of the Bard and spinning out a whole story...

So, happy anticipation until the beginning of June, when I read the script.  It's a funny as I remembered!

That first reading is to get a basic idea of story and movement onstage; the second reading is specifically for scenic design issues.  Set designers look for setting and mood (to be translated into form and color), and also for practicalities. We look for entrances.  We circle words like "sliding glass door" and "deer head" as we work through the text.   In Exit, Pursued by a Bear it became clear that the husband's chair was almost another character.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear recliner - photo by CFD, gifted to the public domain

Next,  meeting with director Krista Scott - to compare views of the script, feel-out how scenic design can further her interpretation of the text, and talk through staging issues.  A good meeting!  I left with intriguing notes and indecipherable scribbles to help me on my way.

I started sketching.

An added wrinkle in designing this set was that the show which preceded it on Circle's stage... was another kitchen.  I didn't want the audience to feel they were seeing the same set, repainted.  (How budget friendly!  Earlier post on the issue HERE.)  So there was that...

But the plan came together pretty quickly.  Circle Theatre's thrust stage dictates that anything bulky - like kitchen appliances - has to go on the upstage wall.  The need to make a difference from the last kitchen helped determine what reshuffling was needed to change "the Look."  Fortunately, the mood of Exit is quite different, so color and texture of the set needed to change radically...  And every set is, in part, a biography of the characters that "live" there: when you watch the show, look for which items of set dressing are His and which are Hers.  (To my surprise they developed color schemes of their own too, His is mostly brown, Hers is cooler blues and greens.)

This set for Exit, Pursued by a Bear is essentially designed around that deer head and the husband's Lazy-Boy.

ADDENDUM: Previous post HERE.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


A lot of things going on simultaneously here.

In Fort Worth, construction on the set for Circle Theatre's production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear is finishing up.  I'm kinda on-call to go help on building trees.  And I still have a bit of set dressing to do, though the bulk was done last week for picture call.

Yesterday I had the first big director/designer meeting on Hank Williams: the Lost Highway.  This went very well - we came up with what I think are some good ideas and (what's even better) we seem to be on the same page.  The director and the designer understanding each other and having complimentary goals is a wonderful thing!  Because the schedule's a bit tight on this one, we're meeting again tomorrow to discuss the solutions I will magically Presto! pull out of my hat today.  (If only it was as easy as setting a hat on my board.)

Tonight is the first production meeting for Kitchen Dog's production of Detroit.  I have a basic idea on that one, but need to ask more questions tonight, then fine tune the design, then whip out fast construction drawings this week.

What else?  I've been working on a writing project and making preparations for a trip...  And, since it's as hot as the hinges of Hell here right now, there's a certain amount of swimming and lawn watering going on.  Plus icy-cool movie theater sittin'.  I recently saw Red 2, which was fun (all those distinguished actors obviously having a blast) and Pacific Rim (a well done, popcorny fun, robot-versus-Godzilla-y rockem sockem film).  And in the less popcorny, pay-more-attention-to-details film category, I rewatched Cloud Atlas on Netflix...  I really do like that film.  The book too.  An excellent writer!   (Earlier post on it HERE.)

Photo of clouds from Photos Public Domain

Friday, August 2, 2013


There are a LOT of plays set in the family kitchen.

Recently  I wrote about the design difficulties of creating one kitchen set right after another on the same stage - using a lot of the same appliances and cabinets too.  (HERE)

SPOILER coming...

Here's a progress pic of that second kitchen for Circle Theater's production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear.  The snap was taken yesterday after I set dressed for picture call so construction isn't quite finished, and it's under work lights, so please make allowances; it'll be way cooler at Opening when the deer head is highlighted and there's a view out windows etc.  But you can see the physical metamorphosis of the last kitchen for Miracle on South Division Street into this one.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Circle Theatre

Miracle on South Division Street, Circle Theatre

Details, colors, and moods of the two rooms are quite different, expressing, at base-rock simplest, unhappy versus happy homes.

(BTW those weird bags overhead?  Expensive new LED stage lights made construction-dust-proof with the application of Official Theatrical Pillowcases.  Among other details you can't quite make out are the sunflower decorated flyswatter and the tasty pork rinds.)

Other kitchens from other plays?

Farmhouse kitchen for The Drawer Boy, Plano Repertory Theatre

Yuppie kitchen-family room for The Rabbit Hole, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas

Urban loft kitchen for Dinner with Friends, WaterTower Theatre

Lego kitchen for Bright Ideas, Circle Theatre

Like any other room, kitchens on stage are portraits of the family that cooks in them.  They offer the designer the same choices of form, color, set dressing etc. etc. though you are constrained by the possibilities of borrowing appliances.  You can only use what you can get hold of!  (For Drawer Boy, above, a terrific Harvest Gold stove which weighed an absolute ton.)  But because the audience understands kitchens they'll pick up even subtle clues.  

The moral, I suppose, is that as a scenic designer you better be prepared to design and redesign the Family Kitchen over and over again!

Photo credits on my website at