Theatrical design is the art of creating and composing the visual and aural elements that shape a performance space. It encompasses the development of scenery, costumes, lighting, sound, and multimedia effects to create pictures onstage. These elements combine to create an environment in which the action of the play can take place and where the audience can experience the performance. Design brings the world of the play to life.
Theatrical design is different from many other art forms in that it is a collaborative art. Design does not exist in a vacuum. No one theatre artist works independently to create a performance. Instead, a production is brought into existence through the combined efforts of many skilled and specialized artists working together, sharing a common conceptual approach. Unlike a novel, a play does not exist solely to be read; it is meant to be performed and its greatness and wonder can only truly be accessed in this manner. A play requires actors to embody each of the characters, to take on their personalities and behaviors and make them real for the audience as the story is told. Through the characters, the audience is able to make an emotional connection with the events, ideas, and themes of the play. The design anchors them in the world of the play, communicating information about that world to the audience that supports the dramatic action and draws them in, engaging them with the performance on a sensory level.
A theatrical designer is an artist who creates and organizes one or more aspects of the aural and visual components of a theatrical production. Some designers specialize in one area of design—scenery, costumes, lighting, sound, multimedia/projections, or hair and makeup—while others work in multiple areas. Regardless of their area of specialization, each designer is working towards the same goal: the successful realization of the playwright’s vision on the stage. In order to do this work a designer needs to possess a wide range of skills. They need to be able to read and analyze a script effectively, not only to note the details that are relevant to their individual design area, but also to understand the story, identify key themes, plot details, and important actions, and to follow character development. They must be familiar with theatre history and literature and understand how they inform both the performance and visual style of a play. They must be familiar with the history of dress, art, and décor and be able to do appropriate research to inform and inspire their work. They must be imaginative and inventive, able to find inspiration and use it to develop creative conceptual approaches to the visual interpretation of the playwright’s work. They have to be resourceful, innovative, and problem-solvers. Designers choose the visual and audio elements that go into the stage picture carefully, in order to shape, influence, and guide the audience’s impression of the world of the play
Because theatre is a collaborative endeavor, designers must be good communicators in order to express their ideas and to work effectively with their colleagues. They must be organized and able to manage their time efficiently so that they can meet work deadlines. In order to communicate their design ideas to the director they must be able to draw and render with sufficient skill, whether through traditional or digital methods. Increasingly, designers are being asked to have a working knowledge of various computer software programs that are applicable to their design specialty, as design and technology become more closely linked. They need to have an understanding of the human form in three-dimensional space as well as the advantages and challenges inherent in different theatrical configurations. Drafting, painting, construction, sewing, patternmaking and draping, and mathematics are also skills that are needed to varying degrees.
Above all, designers need to be observers of the world. Like all artists, designers take in information from the world around them and use it to inspire and inform their work. They respond to and take note of the way other artists have used the visual elements of composition in their practice. Designers are avid visitors of museums, connoisseurs of the arts in all forms: fashion, painting, furniture, architecture, textiles, photography, literature, music, dance, theatre, and more. They are students of history and culture, curious about the influences that have shaped us as people, as individuals, and in communities the world over. Paying attention to both function and aesthetics, designers look to the world around them for the information and vision that inspires them to reveal and understand the action of a play in a visual form, making it accessible to an audience.
The scenic designer is responsible for the composition of the stage environment that the actors inhabit and for selecting all of the elements that make up the set, including platforms, levels, walls, and all structures whether they appear organic or manmade. Furniture, light fixtures, curtains, pillows, and interior décor are also part of their responsibility. Their work encompasses the design and selection all of the properties for the show, from items carried by the actors—such as letters, books, dishes, and luggage—to large articles like chests of gold, food, blackboards, or any other item required to facilitate the action. The set may be as simple as a bare stage or a complicated extravaganza with multiple locations, automated scene changes, and spectacular special effects. Both spaces require careful thought, design, planning, and creative choices.
The space that is created by the scene designer is more than a representation of the playwright’s imagination. It is more than a house or a room, a palace or a park; more than the literal place it represents. It is a space that will shape and is in turned shaped by the actions of the actors that will inhabit it. It is responsive to the needs of the action in a way that an ordinary location is not. In short, it is designed to serve the needs of the play. It will help to establish location, time period, time of day, the tone and stylistic approach to the production, and communicate information about the characters that live in the space. It will present an overall design concept, image, or metaphor that supports the content of the play. The set must also be unified with the other design elements and address all the practical considerations involved with how the space will be used by the actors.
The costume designer is responsible for the visual realization of the characters. They interpret the playwright’s words, using them to analyze each character and transpose that understanding into clothing that reveals their identity to the audience. Costume is an important tool that enriches and supports the actor’s performance. Using the language of clothing to create a visual narrative, the costume designer seeks to produce evocative costumes that evolve over the course of the play to mirror the progression of the character. The choices made by the costume designer also reflect the overall conceptual approach to the production and, like the scenery, contribute to the mood and atmosphere of the performance. Color, pattern, texture, and weight of fabrics can all contribute to the director’s approach.
Clothing reveals important information about each character. Social status, occupation, location, and time of year can easily be communicated through what an individual chooses to wear. Careful selection of fabrics, accessories, color, and level of wear and cleanliness can give insight into a character’s mood, health, age, state of mind, and personality. How a garment is worn gives as much insight into character as what is being worn. A well-fitted dress made of light and diaphanous fabrics might speak to the vibrancy and happiness of a young ingénue falling in love for the first time, while an ill-fitting one made of dark, heavy fabrics might weave the tale of a widow mourning her husband’s death and losing weight from the burden of her grief. A handsomely tailored suit can speak volumes about the man who wears it; but spill a few drops of blood on the lapels and his tie, or let a straight razor peek out from his pocket and the outfit takes on an entirely different meaning. Costumes can also be used to show the relationships between characters, subtly underscoring the connection between families, lovers, coworkers, classmates, or members of the same community. Choosing similar colors, textures, or silhouettes can create a
sense of group identity, unifying a chorus of dancers or a crowd of bystanders, ensuring they are a part of the world of the play and that the audience can understand who they are.
The lighting designer is responsible for illuminating the stage space so that the actors and the environment may be seen. They are in charge of all forms of light on the stage. They select the number of instruments and their types. They set their intensity, location and angle, determining how the light that is being cast will strike the stage. They choose how to alter the appearance of the light cast on the stage, changing the color, the texture, and the pattern. They ensure that practical light fixtures that are part of the set will turn on and off as needed. The lighting designer composes the cues and determines how long each will last, setting the duration of light on the stage picture.
Part of this task is choosing what to reveal with light and what to conceal. Light focuses the audience’s attention, drawing it to the important parts of the action and upping their emotional investment. Light has an incredible potential to create a sense of mood and atmosphere through the use of color, value, and selective lighting. By using all of the tools at their disposal, a lighting designer is able to paint the stage with light, modeling the scenery and the actors to enhance their three-dimensional form for greater visibility and to create compelling pictures that pull all the visual design elements together into a unified picture.
The sound designer is responsible for the design of all of the audio components for a production. Their work is varied, ranging from simple reinforcement of sound, allowing the actors and any musicians to be heard more clearly and succinctly, with a balanced composition of sound to the creation of a complete sound design that complements and enhances the production. Sound design can include the careful selection of preshow, intermission, and post-show music, to help set the mood and atmosphere, introducing the audience to the world of the play and maintaining continuity throughout their experience of the performance. It may also include any incidental music or underscoring to support the dramatic action. Sometimes, a sound designer might even compose all of the music for a production, tailoring it specifically for that play.
A sound designer is also responsible for all of the sound effects the script requires, whether they occur offstage or onstage or from motivated sources. Ringing telephones, doorbells, lightning, breaking glass, or elaborate sound compositions containing multiple effects may be used to create the desired result. Ambient sound may be incorporated as part of the design to help establish the location, time of day, the season, and to support the style and conceptual approach of the production. Although the sound designer is a relatively recent addition to the design team, more and more directors are realizing the potential of sound design and what it can contribute to a production in the hands of a creative designer.
The projections designer (also known as the multimedia designer) is an even more recent position in theatrical design. The projection designer is responsible for the design and creation of all images, moving and still, that will be projected onto the stage or into the theatrical space. There are multiple uses for projections in a production. They can be used for simple purposes, such as adding narrative announcements at the beginning of scenes to act as title cards or to add uncomplicated images to various scenes, complementing the action and illustrating it in a lively and engaging way. Or projections can be use...