WHEN AUDIENCE MEMBERS walk into a theatre, the set is likely one of the first aspects of the production they’ll see. Sets help create the world envisioned by a play’s author, director, and designers. Good ones do this at first glance.

After building models and preparing sketches and shop drawings in school, I thought I would be ready to become a set designer once I graduated from college. But there were many things I was never taught, including the reality of being outside my comfort zone (our school) and working with a client paying me to deliver a professional product. That’s when real pressure manifested, and my lack of experience became obvious. The result was that I, like many of my classmates, made mistakes — the same mistakes other young set designers had been making for years.

Research of the actual Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris influenced design elements of the the set for Nevada Thespians All-State production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Designer Paul Chadwick’s research of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris influenced design elements of the set for Nevada Thespians All-State production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Photo by John Nollendorfs.

I’ll focus on 10 of the most common pitfalls of set design. Five are a factor of simply not having enough time for the design process. The other five generally result from lack of experience or confidence. Fortunately, they’re all easy to avoid once you’re aware of them and why they happen.

1. Starting your design too close to opening night.
Unfortunately, this is one area where designers often don’t have a choice. They’re hired at a certain point, and that’s the amount of time they have. But you can still go through the entire design process if you slow down (yes, I said slow down) and take things one step at a time. Read the script a couple of times, meet with the director, and do some research. Prepare rough sketches and refine your ideas, often a couple of times. Then, prepare the final design.

2. Skipping research in a rush to start building.
This mistake occurs when designers find themselves on a rush schedule with the start of construction looming. The urge to begin shop drawings can be very strong. But don’t skip the research. Take your time and enjoy it. It’s where a lot of inspiration happens.

3. Settling for the first idea that comes along.
Author Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to his masterpiece A Farewell to Arms. Your first draft is never the end of your process. Once you’ve completed preliminary work, you’ll usually have a good idea of where you want to go, but even then, slow down, and let your imagination do its job. I like to create multiple thumbnail sketches (very small and loose, with just pencil on paper) to explore the space and overall feeling. Then I step away from the project and clear my head. When I come back and look at the drawings with fresh eyes, I often see opportunities I didn’t see the first time. Then I create more drawings and repeat the process.

4. Focusing on details too quickly.
Instead of starting with the overall idea, I used to begin by drawing details. Soon, I would find myself detailed into a corner when those drawings didn’t work out or I ran out of time. Give your overall design (those thumbnail sketches) a chance to develop into something nice, and then work on the details.

5. Creating the final design too soon.
With a tight schedule, rookie designers often move quickly to a final design and think they’re done. Then, when the director needs to make revisions after construction starts, it’s not a pretty picture. The designer, director, and technical director are upset. Discuss your initial sketches with the director, make revisions as needed to fit the story and vision, and make sure you’re all on the same page before finalizing any work. Theatre is a collaborative business. Most of the best designs are the result of great collaborations.

6. Reaching for flats.
For some reason, flats take on a life of their own, as though they are required elements of every set. They’re not. Many wonderful sets have been designed with no flats. This is where thumbnail sketches come in handy to focus your overall idea. When you explore the space and overall feeling with multiple thumbnail sketches, you’re more apt to give the space definition instead of thinking of it in terms of specific scenic elements.

7. Making everything realistic.
We’re used to seeing realistic spaces in movies and on television, but live theatre is neither. We don’t always need to be realistic, and, in fact, it’s very difficult to create a realistic space onstage. Besides having to consider sightlines, we also have to allow actors to “open up” toward the audience during their scenes and suggest things that aren’t there. We may have to exaggerate angles, provide raised areas that would not be typical in certain types of spaces, and place rooms together that would never be together. Research ensures we understand the real spaces, but imagination allows us to evoke them in a dramatic manner.

Olathe South High School's production of Trap created a mood and environment rather than a realistic setting, with nary a flat in sight.
Olathe South High School's production of Trap, with set design by Aaliyah Pierce, created a mood and environment rather than a realistic setting, with nary a traditional flat in sight. Photo by John Nollendorfs.

8. Merging conflicting ideas. 
Inexperienced designers often show their sketches to several people hoping for positive reinforcement. Instead, they end up with a ton of suggestions that only confuse them and create self-doubt. It’s even worse if they show undeveloped sketches to shop staff, as questions about construction and suggestions for simplification can veer in unproductive directions. During the design process, work closely with the director, who is charged with creating the vision for the production. Learn to take ideas and suggestions from others lightly.

9. Thinking in terms of building stuff rather than creating space.
This is a common mistake among designers who started as technical team members. It’s easy to think of scenery units as just scenery units, instead of as components that define a space to support the story. Even when designing a box set, think of flats as walls. You should deliberately avoid designing a room 12 feet on each side just because that’s easy to do with 4-foot flats. Instead, create the correct size and shape for the room and present the design. If the technical director asks for minor revisions, then negotiate them.

10. Avoiding inspiration. 
As designers, we often feel we have to do it all alone. For years I did my research, but I didn’t know how to use it for inspiration, that is to better understand what the designers did and why they did it. I didn’t want to copy someone’s work, but I hadn’t learned how to let the lightbulb go off over my head. People in many careers — architects, painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, and even military leaders — study the work of their peers and mentors. It’s an important way to improve your skills. Study other set designers, but also study designers and artists in other fields, from architecture to sculpture to fashion to furniture. A good art history class is priceless, as are frequent visits to museums and galleries.

You’ll inevitably encounter pitfalls on your path to becoming a set designer. But working to avoid the most common mistakes will save you hours of frustration and make the journey a lot more fun.

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