How can the post-apocalyptic, Simpsons-obsessed world of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns be appropriately expressed in a theater that seats a hundred? How can the set of J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton effectively and efficiently transform from the stuffy, rigid interior of Loam House, Mayfair, to a deserted tropical island in the Pacific? How can Shakespeare’s As You Like It be elevated by a setting that both evokes the play’s Globe beginnings and reflects the modern relevance of the work?
A lot of people grow up with dreams of being an actor. I am not among them. Even so, my love for theater is well documented in my closet. Embedded in the piles of childhood relics of questionable value are countless programs and stubs from shows I remember seeing, and a variety of elaborate props and set pieces from shows my brother and I used to put on.
It’s clear looking back that we were far more concerned with the visual and technical aspects of the productions than we were with the quality of our acting skills. “Top Secret” notebooks are littered with sketches of set pieces and elaborate mechanisms for special effects and lighting: a makeshift astronomical backdrop projector and an unnecessarily complicated shadow projection screen, to name a few. They’re strikingly similar to my notebooks today — sketches and doodles in the margins, all trying to tackle the same question: how do you tell the story you want to tell?
It’s an issue I think about a lot in the theatrical design work that I do. Each production is less like an image, and more like a puzzle — acting, lights, sets, props, and costumes have to work together smoothly to tell a cohesive and captivating story. Each piece cannot suitably stand on its own in the way that a painting or a sculpture can. The challenge of creating the compelling, coordinated world of a play is one that I’ve loved grappling with and have been fascinated by since I was young. I’ve always enjoyed reading plays, in part because the mental process of constructing the associated visuals is so appealing to me.
When people go to see a play, they don’t do so to see the set — they go to see the actors, and they go to see the story itself. But what makes theater great isn’t just the story or the actors: it’s the complete and total immersion and engagement that can only happen when everything comes together. A great set doesn’t overpower, but it is far from “just the backdrop”. A great set enhances a play by highlighting underlying emotional qualities and contrasts of a work, creating visual interest, and helping to transport the audience into the world of the play. And that excites me.