EARLY IN MY CAREER as a designer, I was challenged many times with the need to create multiple settings for a production while taking up minimal space. Many young set designers are most familiar with the traditional three-walled set, which features a back wall and two side walls on angles. This model and its variations work well for shows requiring a unit set, where all of the scenes take place in the same location. You can design a convincing and lovely room or set of rooms to give the audience a sense of space and time.

However, for a play with multiple locations — pretty much any classical piece or musical — the scene changes will require set designers to make a choice. You can use the theatre’s wings or fly space to store alternate flats and wagons that augment the unit set. You can create something simple and suggestive that relies on the audience’s imagination to generate the specific details for each individual location. Or you can design in a thematic manner, adding props and furniture while asking the audience to suspend disbelief for a while. All of these options are viable methods for creating a fantastic set.

A problem remains when using multiple wagons and flats: How can you change the set when you’re working with little to no wing or fly space in which to store large pieces of additional scenery? The answer lies in Greek theatre history with the periaktos.


An aerial view depicting the design for a standard periaktoi.

This aerial view depicts a standard periaktos. Image courtesy of Jason Robert LeClair.

A simple device, the periaktos — or plural periaktoi — is a revolving, three-sided flat with a different scene painted on each side. It is basically a billboard stating, “Imagine we are here.” The periaktos can be traced as far back as 14 B.C., when Vitruvius described the idea in his De architectura. It was notably used in Italian and English theatre during the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively.

The periaktos allows for the backdrop of a set to change, but designers are still confined by the diameter of its rotation. A 16-foot long by 80-foot high wall with three sides will take most of a stage’s depth when it is in position, never mind when it rotates. Alternately, you could use several smaller periaktoi in a row and turn them like the letters on Wheel of Fortune, but this becomes a logistical challenge and takes a long time to transition between scenes.


How then do you solve this dubious design dilemma?

I was confronted with the issue by a friend working with a local community theatre. I suggested an inverted periaktoi design. Instead of a prism shape, you design three walls that meet in the middle on an axis, creating a kind of pinwheel. Then, by adding another double-sided flat hinged to each outside corner, that pinwheel can be expanded to create a full three-walled set. Each panel can have whatever specifications you like. I would, however, recommend keeping the doors in the center.

An inverted periaktoi includes three walls that meet in the middle on an axis.
Inverted periaktoi include three walls that meet in the middle on an axis. Sample model designed by Jason Robert LeClair.

I have used the inverted periaktoi design in quite a few shows, from The Merchant of Venice to Jekyll and Hyde. I varied the concept for the Jekyll and Hyde set, where I designed two giant inverted periaktoi wagons. The versatility of this design is endless. It allows for very clean transitions without requiring tons of space, and you are not confined to one unit set in one location.

This design for Jekyll and Hyde uses two inverted periaktoi wagons. Digital model by Jason Robert LeClair.

The Greeks had the right idea in suspending disbelief by giving their audiences a reference point visually. The inverted periaktos allows designers to expand on the benefits of this ancient theatrical device by immersing their casts inside that visual reference point. With inverted periaktoi, you can design three sets in one, eliminating a major design challenge and opening up numerous storytelling possibilities.

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