Set Design FAQ

  1. How do I get signed onto a show
  2. Do you read the script? What is important for you to draw from the script as a designer?
  3. What is important about your relationship with the director? How much of a design is your vision, and how much of it is influenced by the director? What do you need to know about working with directors?
  4. What is the process for designing a set?
  5. How does your theatre space influence your design and the way you think about your set?
  6. What are some of the advantages or disadvantages to certain spaces on campus?
  7. What can you do as a designer to make your set work?
  8. How much of the non-design part is the designer responsible for? Should the designer help build or paint the set? How much do you need to know about the practical aspect?
  9. How closely do you work with the other tech staff? What are some tips or important thing to remember about your staff?
  10. How closely do you work with the other designers in a show? How important is your relationship with them? How does your design relate to theirs?
  11. How important is scheduling to the set designer?
  12. How do I manage my budget? How can I design a set on a limited budget?
  13. Where can I go for ideas or help? What do I do if I run into a design problem?
  14. What are some things I should avoid doing? Are there pitfalls?
  15. Why is a model important? How do I make one?
  16. What are productions meetings? Do I have to go to them? What do I do in a meeting?
  17. How do budgets work?
  18. How do I order materials?

How do I get signed onto a show?

There are lots of ways to get involved with set design on campus. You just need to show interest and show that you are a responsible person.

  • Come to Common Casting and visit the tech table and get names of directors and set designers working on this coming season's shows.
  • Come to the HRDC's Tech Week workshops and express interest.
  • Email set designers to see if you can work on their shows, maybe even assistant design if they haven't designed the set already. (Many designers won't take an ASD...but you'll get a lot of knowledge from just being around and building.) Once people see you in the tech community and showing interest, directors and producers will start asking you and recommending you for the coming semesters.

Do you read the script? What is important for you to draw from the script as a designer?

Make sure you read the play at least twice before sitting down to design. You want to pick out what set design/large prop things that the script calls for as well as getting a feel for the arc, mood, and themes of the play. Don't just settle for the director's summary. The better you know the play, the better you can question the director on his/her choices, influences, and needs. I have found that reading the play once before talking to the director yields a better first design meeting. Then read the play again in light of the director's comments at said meeting.

What is important about your relationship with your director? How much of a design is your vision, and how much of it is influenced by the director? What do you need to know about working with directors?

All directors are unique (in a good way...). Some are very visual while others have no spatial conception whatsoever. Some come into the process with set ideas about the scenic design while others say they'll work with whatever you give them. The extremes can be dangerous sometimes, but each show will require a different balance from you as a designer. You want to be able to have the creative freedom to do what you want, but at the same time, you have to remember that it's ultimately the director's responsiblity to keep continuity in the overall design concept for the show. The director will be conveying his or her concept to all the designers and the actors, and you want to keep with that concept. That isn't to say that you can't help the director develop the concept. Know the director's influences. Don't be afraid to ask the director a lot of questions. Ask how they are thinking of solving the blocking for a certain scene or what they are thinking about telling the other designers. It will help you to fit in with their vision.

Also, know that most directors are NOT going to be able to follow your sketches/verbal descriptions. Sketches on a napkin may look like an entire set to you, but to a director, they may not fully get how the space works or how their actors inhabit the space. Your best bet is to MAKE A MODEL. (See section MODELS.) Models are great ways to express your design in 3-D (as well as impress everyone around you). Models help directors to block the show and to understand how things work in scale. It also will help you to figure out lots of space issues.
And know the director's track record. Know what he or she has done in the past and try to get a sense of how their process works. That way, you don't cross them down the line and are prepared for director/designer clashes (which inevitably always happen sometime).

What is the process for designing a set?

The set design process is a skill developed over time, just like developing your writing style or acquiring a taste for pungent cheese. Each person you work with will come to the table with a different way of working, and you will learn what is effective and what is not. Here is just one way of going through the process.

  • Read the script. Take note of directions aimed at the designer, entrances and exits, details about period or setting, and other set pieces that are necessary for the action of the show. But you don't have to stick strictly with the script if you don't want to. A room with walls doesn't necessarily mean you need to build a room with walls. But if the door is key to the action, you might have to have a door in a door frame.
  • Have your first meeting with the director. At this meeting, discuss the script and the director's plans and visions for the show. It is good, at these meetings, to have the director come to you with visual influences that may help you in your development of the aesthetic for the show. Ask your directors for pictures, video clips, and even music videos that are very "the show." Photographs are a great way for you and the director to get on the same page.
  • Read the script again and do research. Find more photographs and exchange them with the director. The director might give you an artist, architect, or designer. Research that person and try to find out what in their work works for the show. Don't do a one to one copy of a painting onstage if that's what the director gave you as an inspiration. Find the pieces of the painting that you like and could use to design the set. Maybe those are lines for structure or painting techniques.
  • Start sketching. You can either hand sketch or start drawing on a computer or printed out plan. Think about space, scale, and audience space and sight lines as you work. If you design something you like, start questioning it and rethinking it. Art is something that you make and then remake. Never get stuck. Try to come up with as many different things as you can and then choose some that you like and play them out.
  • If you can choose a design, model it in 3-D, in scale. Make a model of the space you are working in (plans are available from the "adults" at the theaters) and then start making some basic model pieces to go in the space. Don't forget about the audience (especially in the Ex)! (See MODELS for materials.) Make sure you have a scale person to show the director how actors will interact with the space.
  • Show the model and some drawings to the director. Explain how each piece fits into your design. (If they all fit together like gears in clockwork, the director will be more impressed and less likely to cut things.) Don't be offended if the director does want some changes. He or she may have already blocked a scene or just doesn't like the design. Make sure you ask them what they like and what they don't like. Set designs are not set in stone this early. Remake and question yourself.
  • Go home and rework your model. Get it into something that is presentable to the cast and the rest of the staff. People understand models more than drawings. (Some people still won't get it...but that's ok. Try to explain it as best you can.)
  • Draw your plans. Whether this is on AutoCAD, Vectorworks, or by hand, make sure you draw a ground plan and elevation in scale. Show everything on the drawing and go over it with your TD. You don't want any unclear parts so your build crew is guessing or your lighting designer misreads a wall that will block half the lights.
  • Draw working drawings and come up with a build schedule. Working drawings are plans of each individual set piece showing dimension, details, and construction methods. The more detailed the drawing, the less questions the building crew will be asking you. Working drawings are important to get done as early as possible so you and the TD can add up all the wood and other materials needed to make wood, paint, and other materials order.
  • Help build. Set designers are required to help build their sets. Usually there is a techie shortage and the pair of hands is necessary to the completion of the project. Also, you want to make yourself available to answer any construction or decoration questions. You also want to make sure that your crew doesn't take short cuts in places that will compromise your design.
  • Tech Week. Be there to solve problems between the structure and the blocking. Actors will adjust to their new environment, but you want to be there in case there are questions or problems that you will have to solve.
  • Enjoy the production!

How does your theatre space influence your design and the way you think about your set?

Be one with your space. Go visit the space and try to see at least one show in it before designing in there. If it's the Ex with multiple ways of setting up the seats, try to see more shows so you get an idea of what can be done. Get the plans of the space and use them to sketch/model in. But most importantly, talk to people about the possible limitations of the space. For example, trying to rig gigantic set pieces from the Ex grid that need to fall in the middle of a show is not an easy task. Also, for example, ignoring the seating wagons on the Mainstage and setting up a small Ex space and using it as such is a waste of space. Know why your show is going up in that space and design for it. Fill the Mainstage. Challenge the possibilities of the Ex blackbox. Attempt to do some cool things with the Ag stage shape.

What are some of the advantages or disadvantages to certain spaces on campus?

Each space has its advantages and its disadvantages. The Ag has terrible sightlines. The Mainstage is gigantic. The Pool is very tiny. It is your responsiblity to overcome the disadvantages and to highlight the advantages. Some of the best shows in the Ex have utilized ALL of the space, including the grid and the ladder. The best shows in the Mainstage fill the volume of the space in unique ways. Etc. As Project Runway's Tim Gunn says, "Make it work!"

What can you do as a designer to make your set work?

Your best sets will be the ones that you yourself know every detail of, from how a piece fits into your show to how you are going to build something. The building something part is very important, especially in Harvard theater, where many times you will act as a TD or a main building crew member. This means that you will be responsible for explaining how you want something built, or building it yourself. This is not to say that you can't aspire to design things that you may not know how to build. (A designer once said, "Designers are best off to be overzealous. That's the way to learn.") However, you will quickly run into the wall of "how do I build this" and you may be the one leading the team, so you need to have a plan. Not that you shouldn't have plans...but the best plans are the ones that you completely understand. You learn a lot quickly by building things, but trying to do hydraulic lifts and upholstering crazy shaped couches might not be the best things to start with. In order to gain more knowledge, try to help out some other shows. Go to tech workshops. Ask for help. Going blindly into something complex is just going to make you spontaneously combust.
If you are more experienced, don't hinder yourself by sticking to traditional materials and building techniques. If you have worked with a certain art form before that is untraditional in theater, maybe you can try to work it in. If you are interested in learning how to build chain link fences, maybe you can work that in. Just make sure you do your research beforehand so, when you get to build or load in, you look like you know exactly how everything is going together.

How much of the non-design part is the designer responsible for? Should the designer help build or paint the set? How much do you need to know about the practical aspect?

Set designers should always help build their own sets, not only because usually your tech crew will consist of you and your TD, but also because you will be there to answer questions and solve problems quickly and be resourceful. Knowing how something will be built is important in your overall design. For example, you can design a beautifully rounded 25' long cylinder, but probably the way you'll build it is more like a dodecahedral prism with small flat angled sides. If you knew that to begin with, you could design your pieces in order to fit with that aesthetic. You don't want to be surprised, or upset, when you see a finished set piece and it isn't like your design because of material limitations. Know that only some woods bend. Know what painted muslin is going to look like on stage.
Also, don't be afraid to search out unique building materials other than your typical wood and fabric. Many other materials are out there and can be used to create different effects. Plastic drop clothes are not only cheap, but they can create pretty colored surfaces when backlit.

How closely do you work with the other tech staff? What are some tips or important things to remember about your staff?

You want to make sure your know the crew that is building for you. Know your TD and what your TD has done in the past. (Know if you have a TD. If you don't and the producers are expecting you to build it all yourself...go yell at your producers.) If you have a very inexperienced TD, you will probably have to do some teaching/learning together. Don't design something that is so complex and huge if neither your nor your TD has any experience building sets. If you have a very experienced TD, don't be afraid to push them. They keep coming back for the challenge. Building flats gets boring after awhile. They want to learn about new materials and building techniques.
Also, know if you have a build crew. Build crews come and go, but if you know that you are going up at the same time as many other shows and techies are thin across campus and your TD has just come off of 10 straight weeks of tech weeks and is burnt out and you can't come in and build a lot because you have 3 papers due in the weeks leading up to the show...don't design something that will kill your tech crew. This doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your design. Just be smart.

And be nice to your tech staff. They are working hard in the shop for long hours. Candy is always good. Compliments are always good. Don't be that designer who doesn't come in and build at all and then comes in one day and says, "This is wrong. That is wrong. Redo it." That's a good way of making enemies (unless it actually is wrong, like building a mirror image of the set. Yes, I've done it - NS). And support your staff. If the director is breathing down your staff's neck during tech week because they are moving too slow, step in and try to encourage your staff to work faster while explaining to the director the complications of the problem. Everyone works most happily and efficiently when they aren't angry and overly stressed.

How closely do you work with the other designers in a show? How important is your relationship with them? How does your design relate to theirs?

Your design, while it might be the biggest thing to do at load in, is not necessarily the star of the show. The costume, lighting, sound, and prop designers are working hard too. Talk to them. They are your best tools and comrades. The lighting designer can just give you some light so your set can be seen, but the best sets integrate lighting in set pieces or use both set and lighting to create mood. The lighting designer will be most happy with you if you talk to them and give them options for creating cool lighting plots. The costume designer as well should be kept in the loop. Though they may be slaving over a sewing machine in a corner, you should to them about things like color and style. If you are doing a period piece, costumes and sets should match the time period you are going for. Maybe if you are doing something deconstructionist, the costume designer will follow suit and do some really cool things. If your set is grey, the costume designer will hopefully not make his or her costumes grey as well. There is nothing worse than having actors blend into the set...

How important is scheduling to a set designer?

Know the clock!!! This is very important and where most designers and staffs get caught up. It's very easy to procrastinate, but DON'T!!! Start the ball rolling right away. Usually for the fall semester, directors will ask you to get on the staff in the spring. Talk over the summer. For the spring semester, it's shorter, and you are asked onto the staff in November and even December. Talk as soon as you can. You don't want to wait and have the producers down your throat. Many aspects of the production rely on the set design plan to be completed including the blocking of the show and the lighting plot, not to mention ordering materials and building. You want to give yourself PLENTY OF TIME to build. Some sets only need a short build. Others need weeks. Materials always take time to come in. Wood ranges from a day to 3 days or even more. Paint takes a few days. Fabric ordered from places like Rosebrand takes a week. Don't get caught at load in not having the wood delivered yet. You should give yourself ample time to build. This also prevents everyone from getting stressed out to the max. (This also goes for writing essays...)
Tech week is an interesting week for build. Usually at night the actors have the space and it's good to have as much set as possible for them so they get used to the space and can have successful work time and runs. You can leave some things until tech week, but you don't want to leave so much that you are painting the floor 20 minutes before the audience walks in on opening night!

How do I manage my budget? How can I design a set on a limited budget?

Shows on the Mainstage can allot a couple thousand dollars for their sets. Ex shows most times have only a few hundred dollars. It makes sense since you need more materials to fill the Mainstage and thus need more money and the Ex is a smaller space that can be filled with less. G&S designers are spoiled with thousand dollar sets in a small space. Usually you will find yourself wanting more money. Who doesn't? But you can be resourceful. Think about alternative cheaper materials to fill space. Think about reusing wood from past shows. You don't want to design this gorgeous set only to be told that you have to start cutting stuff. Sets work best when they are designed with all the parts working together. Take away a part and the set might look unfinished. Don't get caught in this dilemma! Design with money in mind in advance!

Tip from Nick: Always over budget. If you estimate the wood bill's going to be $180, round it up to $200. You can bet if you don't you're going to end up needing something and not have the cash to do it...and if you end up not needing anything, your producer feels happy that you came in under budget.

Where can I go for ideas or help? What do I do if I run into a design problem?

Again, you should push yourself in your designs. Dare to be different and exciting. But don't try to be a know-it-all. Chances are you are going to design something that you don't exactly know how to build. There are people to help you. Experienced TDs are a place to start. They can help you draft plans and discuss building material options. In the Loeb, go see Michael Griggs. You HAVE to pass your plan by him anyway, so feel free to ask him lots of questions if you don't know what to do. In the Ag and other spaces on campus, go to office of the Tech Director. There are multiple people in that office (located at the Ag) who can help discuss your design and your plans. There are also Ag shop assistants that can tool train you and help you to understand how things are built. You can also ask more experienced designers and TDs on campus. Run ideas by them. They may have worked on something similar and can give you tips. Don't not ask for help if you need it. Theater is a collaborative art and a learning experience and there are many people who want to help you!

What are some things I should avoid doing? Are there pitfalls?

Certain things that set designers do have a tendency to piss the other staff off. Here are some common problems:

  • Not being on schedule or budget.
  • Not talking to the producers or the directors. Keep them informed at every stage of the game. They are your best advocates and your best source of help. Send them emails of meetings you've had or things you need to order or all calls for help.
  • Being overbearing on the production. Yeah, the set is wicked important, but that doesn't mean you can tell the director and the other designers what to do. Yes, do convey your ideas and your design to them so they can work with you. Don't tell them how they can fit into your design and how the show should be blocked. Directors will use your space as best they see fit. You are responsible for creating the world. You are not responsible for the actions in it. (Yes, you are somewhat like a creation god who then sits on Mt. Olympus and watches the humans fight it out.)
  • Not asking for help when you need it. There are people to help. Don't just trudge through and say, "Yeah, I know how." and then fiddle for hours. Get people involved and interested in what you are doing. It's all about the team.
  • Not knowing your plan. You always have to be one step ahead of the game. Know how things are getting built. Know how things are getting ordered. Know when these things are happening. Put fires under people asses if they are slow in doing said things.
  • Not building. TDs hate this and will curse your name forever. The worst is when a set designer comes in after the crew has worked for days and says something is wrong and needs to be rebuilt. Come to build and catch problems early and be resourceful!
  • Not coming to load in and strike. Dude...you are the leader. (Well, you and the TD.) You need to have a plan including all your crew, staff, and actors. It is your job to make sure that no one is just sitting around getting bored. Make sure you are there...with a huge smile and lots of energy...and help the process get done as efficiently and effectively as you can.

Why is a model important? How do I make one?

Models are extremely important to expressing your ideas across to directors, TDs, other designers, and actors. Drawings might make sense to you, but most people don't know how to read plans or understand your sketches. Models are a great way to show how spatially things relate to each other.
You want to start by making a model of your space. Plans are available online of the Loeb Mainstage and the Ex (loebinfo.com). The Ag plan will also be available online this fall. You want to make your model usually in 1/4" scale. (This means every 1/4"=1' in real life. Scale rules are great for making models, though you can also use a regular ruler.) Smaller spaces can be made in 1/2" and big spaces can be made in 1/8", though 1/4" is usually good. Use black foam core for the theater model because one, usually the space is black, and two, black is usually standard for backgrounds when showing off your awesome colorful detailed models.
Model building materials can be bought at Utrecht on Mass Ave. and Pearl in Central Square. (Bob Slate has stuff, but it's usually wicked expensive.) Pearl has more stuff including already to scale lumber, scale building material textures, etc. You don't have to spend tons of money on this...paper also does the trick. For structures, you want to buy a thin poster board to cut into sturdy pieces. While Elmer's is a good glue to use, Sobo Glue is a great model making glue and can be found at both Utrecht and Pearl. Details can be added with paint or representations of your materials as best you can.
The most important thing to show is how pieces fit together in the space. From the model, you'll find problems with fitting things in or sight line issues. This brings us to putting in the audience. This really goes for the Ex and the Mainstage with the seats that can move. You want to find a configuration that works with your set and see if there are going to be any problems with the person sitting in the front row able to see over that 4' wall you put 1' in front of them...
You ALWAYS want to have a scale person in your model. Draw a little guy or buy a little guy that is about 6' tall and 2' wide in scale. This way you can see if actors will be able to get around. Directors will also use this little guy to visualize blocking to see if all the actors will fit. Did you know...the term "blocking" came from directors using little blocks of wood in model theaters to work out the actions of the play.

What are production meetings? Do I have to go to them? What do I do in a meeting?
These meeting should be weekly meetings of the staff to just check in with one another on progress. Come to these meetings prepared to explain what you've done, show any progress you have, and ask quick questions of other designers and the producers. Use this time to solve material ordering problems, techie shortages, and staff miscommunications. It's a really good time to show your model to the entire staff in one room so everyone is on the same page. Don't waste this time by asking the director specific set design questions, explaining your trials over picking a paint color, or bitching about other staff members. Hold separate meetings with the director to go over specifics. Hold a color meeting to everyone is on the same page and costumes, lights, and paint treatments don't clash. And try not to bitch. Everyone is stressed and going for the same common goal. Go with the flow and keep a big smile on your face.

How do budgets work?

Budgets are usually set by the producers. They are in charge of getting money for the show and doling it out. Use your budget wisely. You can ask for more, but it will usually come from someone else's pot, so be careful. You can figure out, if you have a design, what your design is roughly going to cost. Michael Griggs has set up a great website ( loebinfo.com) with prices for wood. The "adults" at the theaters can help you find prices for fabrics, paints, and other materials. Do some research as you model make to see if you are going to come in budget.

How do I order materials?

Ordering materials happens different ways in different places. Regardless, you have to meet with either Michael Griggs (for the Loeb) and either the Tech Director or Assistant Tech Director Liz Dean (for Ag and other shows) to go over plans and a model. They can help price your set. Always add some money for last minute issues. There are always things you forget, and you want to have money for them. They will also tell you how to order or what your show code is to tell the suppliers. Cliff and Backstage know the Harvard theaters well and all you'll have to do is tell them what theater, what show, and give them your contact info if there's a problem. Sometimes "the adults" will order for you through the theater's accounts.
For wood, call the Stock Supply Company, which is the old Clifford Company, to order wood from Cliff. 1-978-375-1370. Give them about 3 business days to deliver.
For Rosco paint, tape, muslin, and some other supplies, call Backstage Hardware. Eric and Janet run the store and are the nicest people in the entire world. They also have two wicked cute golden retrievers. Delivery takes only a day or two, though always think worst case scenario. 1-800-698-8995 or 617-330-1422. Email orders to goget@flash.net. Usually you email and then call to confirm.
Note: Backstage Hardware will actually courier to you same day, if you ring in the morning, at an extremely reasonable rate (last time I did it, $13). This makes them the place to go for that paint you used up. - NS

For fabric, check Rosebrand if you are looking for flame retardant muslin, duvetene, scrim, and other stage fabrics. For simple upholstery fabric, Sew-Low up Cambridge St. is cheap and has a wide variety. Windmill Fabrics also has some stuff. Check with your costumers...sometimes, if you know exactly what you want and how much, they can go get it when they go costume fabric shopping.
Home Depot is also a good place to find random hardware that isn't already in one of the shops and some random building supplies like chain link fencing.
You may not be responsible for ordering all materials. If there is a master painter, he or she may order the paint. Similarly, the TD may take care of all of the ordering for construction materials.