You’re preparing to design your first production! Any form of theatre design – scenic, light, sound, prop, makeup, or costume – requires a close read of the script. Here’s how to study a script so that your design highlights the story happening onstage.

1. Take Note of the Basics

Before you start designing, take time to understand the basic elements of a piece. For example, if you’re doing scenic design, the playwright might indicate there are multiple doors characters walk through. If you’re doing lighting design, the playwright might want a specific-colored light in a certain scene.

The earlier you note these specifications, the less chance there is for surprises halfway through the rehearsal process. Playing catch-up in the final weeks before opening night is stressful and often expensive. Some elements to look for:

  • Time Period & Setting: Creating a collage or vision board full of pictures from this time/place will give you an idea of the colors and textures of the world you are creating. If the play is a period piece, you may find it helpful to talk to a history teacher about what life was like in that period so you can hear even more perspectives.
  • Language: The playwright’s language can give you a deeper sense of the story world. Is the language poetic and lyrical, gritty and rough, or somewhere in between? If the play is experimental and less tied to reality, you will have some additional freedom in your design choices, so long as the choices you make are directly related to the story. Ultimately, an experimental comedy will likely not look the same onstage as a realistic tragedy.
  • Tone: Paying attention to tone is also important so your choices amplify the emotions of the story. A more optimistic, comedic tone can possibly result in brighter lighting colors, more vivid makeup, and wackier sound effects than you would use if designing for a more grounded, realistic play. You want your design choices to make the story come alive, not feel like a distraction.

Once you have a list of the basic elements in the script, you have the foundations of your design plan.

2. Study the Characters

Next, take note of each character and personality traits you associate with them (happy, sneaky, angry, kind, proud, etc.). The designs you create can subtly tie back to the personality traits the playwright explores in the script.

Say you have a character that is enthusiastic and encouraging. This character could wear yellow (a happy color), the lights could become slightly brighter when they enter the room, or they could wear makeup that emphasizes their smile. Each character changes over the course of the show, and your design choices can reflect this change to make it more poignant for the audience. For example, this enthusiastic character might become discouraged over the course of the story and start wearing bleak, bland colors. Whether the play ends hopefully or tragically (or something in between), the design should emphasize the journey of emotions being felt.

Similarly, large-cast shows may divide characters into groups, for example, different families or social classes. Take note of these groups. If these differences are important to the meaning of the story, you can use your design skills to emphasize them. For example, characters in different social classes can wear different colors or carry unique props. No matter what you notice as you read the script, if you ground your design in the characters and the arcs they follow, your design will feel cohesive with the story.

3. Discuss with the Director

Before you get to work and start designing, you’ll want to sit down with the director and share ideas. The director has also been intensively studying the script, and they might have thoughts about certain design elements. In the rehearsal room, part of the director’s job is to guide the actors towards a deeper understanding of the characters, so they’ll be especially attentive to the tone and arc of the story. Bring pictures, sketches, collages, or digital models to the conversation to share your ideas.

During your conversation, there might be some differences of opinion. Be sure to let your director know if you feel certain design choices they want are unachievable, whether it’s due to your budget, the amount of time you have, or your ability/knowledge. Being honest at the start of the process can prevent challenges down the line, and coming up with alternative ideas reminds your director that you’re a flexible team player.

No matter what, you’re now an expert on this script and have a multitude of excellent ideas to make the story world come to life!

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