Set Designer

  • Set Designer

Even a minimalist set comprising only a single table and two chairs reflects conscious decision-making, intended to reflect the themes inherent in the story and support the cast on stage without being obtrusive. The set designer takes in the words on the page, the director’s vision, and  the limitations of space, time, and budget, then synthesizes it all into a meaningful environment for the performance.


Duties

The set designer is hired by the producer at the start of pre-production and begins by reading the script; he or she is looking for stage direction that necessitates specific scenery, and also to gather a sense of the space the actors must occupy. The designer takes that information and prepares a preliminary script breakdown that serves as a guide while developing sketches. Together with the director and other design department heads, this person participates in production meetings to exchange ideas, plan the build, and flesh out the overall concept of the show. The set designer must take into consideration the costumes, lighting, and other technical elements when creating the color palette and a basic aesthetic, ensuring cohesion on stage. With a mind full of images, this artist gathers information on the dimensions of the stage and storage space, then produces rough sketches to be tweaked and evolved into physical three-dimensional models and CAD blueprints.

While the director rehearses the cast, the set designer supervises the master carpenter and construction crew through the build of each piece of scenery, and is on hand to make modifications as necessary. He or she will also oversee the scenic painters and finishing artists, who bring out special touches in the design and transform the heap of wood and foam into a living space. The set designer must be diligent to ensure that the crew stays on schedule and has sets completed on deadline, as the cast needs time to get used to the scenery and the lighting designer must set focus. These deadlines are generally staggered according to the director’s rehearsal schedule to have certain scenes blocked by a specific date. Actors get used to miming interactions with objects on stage or using temporary sets, so, inevitably, there are growing pains the cast must work through when the real thing is finally in place. The set designer’s job is not done until the set passes final inspection during final dress rehearsals and the curtain goes up on opening night; but when the usher takes the first ticket, the designer is unemployed and moves on to the next gig.

Skills & Education

The set designer does not simply conceive of a pretty set and slap it down on paper; he or she meticulously plots out each miter cut, coffin lock, and toggle rail in a CAD document, much like the architect for a residential or commercial building. A bachelor’s degree or MFA in theatrical design or live show production is highly recommended, and a standard requirement for most professional productions. The set designer must understand the principles of construction, as well as the techniques of building scenery specifically for the stage; this includes the use of materials like foam, resin, and fiberglass. Courses in stagecraft, lighting, and fine art are also helpful.

What to Expect

This is a senior-level position that requires several years of experience in theatrical production and as a carpenter or scenic artist. Veteran designers are hired for their unique personal aesthetic and are generally recognized for a specific design signature, but new designers are expected to work with what they are given and deliver on the director’s vision, not cater to their own artistic whims. This is typically a freelance role and designers can dabble in a variety of entertainment areas: traditional theater, touring concerts, theme parks, and more. With several credits under your belt, you may also be presented with the opportunity to move over to film and television. To get your career started, participate in local productions and volunteer at theaters in your area; you will gain hands-on experience and build your circle of contacts.

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