Stage sets play a vital role in our visually oriented culture. A quality design injects life and excitement into a spiritual experience while reinforcing the message of the day. It creates anticipation and promotes connectedness and congruency. Additionally, a well dressed stage has the potential to communicate ideas and enhance the creative experience in a church service. It can convey a mood or tone and provides a canvas for lighting, actors, musicians and dancers.
The art of scenic construction can be encapsulated in two big ideas: DESIGN and EXECUTION. Just as a new home requires a quality set of blueprints, so too, a detailed design for a stage is indispensable. It is a tool for casting vision, raising funds, communicating with carpenters and managing quality. It cannot be overstated—the most important part of any set is the design.
Your production space plays an important role in determining the concept of your design. Become intimately connected with the dimensions and functions of your performance space. Begin by drafting a scale drawing of your stage and auditorium. Use “As Built” blueprints from the construction of your building. Measure all of the playing areas, stage floor, platforms, ramps, steps, levels and ceiling structures.
Make observations about the usability of your space. Evaluate structures for attaching items. Inspect rigging, walls and floors. How is the line of sight? Are there any obstructed views? Note the locations of lights and other technical equipment. Where are the entrances and exits?
There are several techniques for drafting your scenic space. Traditional scale drawings have served the theater well for hundreds of years. Model making is another medium for visualizing your scenic space. The most useful method for conceptualizing your stage is a 3D modeling program. Future sets can be incorporated into the model for a perfect visual overview. This technique does require more time and skill but it is well worth the effort.
Realizing the concept is a process that takes time, research and a thorough understanding of the vision and goals. Begin by considering the practical matters. What are the performance mediums and the playing areas? Do you need to incorporate a band, a dance floor a vocal platform, etc? What is the budget? How many people need to be accommodated? Will there be props? Are there moves requiring wagons, flying, turntables or elevators? Keep these issues in mind as you imagine the stage design.
There are three broad styles that are used in the world of stage design—abstract, representational and literal.
Abstract sets deal with shapes, textures and artistic expressions. They create a mood and evoke an emotional response without having any literal relationship to the event. These sets are typical for concert tours and award shows. Figure 1 demonstrates a typical abstract design. The shapes and color have no specific meaning.
Representational sets depict a likeness or rendition of something while leaving room for interpretation. These types of sets are used for events like a car show and other concept driven events. Figure 2 shows painted backdrops representing blues musicians in a painterly style.
Literal sets are intended to faithfully simulation an environment. It may be a house, a jungle or a junk yard. This style of execution is the most difficult, requiring skilled designers and artists. These sets are most commonly associated with Broadway musicals. A comprehensive understand of scale and perspective is essential for literal designs. Figure 3 is a literal scaled rendering of a city street from the perspective of a car.
Hunt and Gather
Look for source material and inspiration. Track the trends in the music touring industry, the theater and high end trade shows. A great reference for contemporary ideas is the Grammy Awards and similar events that have extravagant sets. Visit your local bookstore for source material. Coloring books and children’s books have great reference material for pattern, style, color and shape.
Create Working Blueprints
Create blueprints and renderings for the set team to accurately execute the design. Draft a birds eye view (overhead plan), a front view and other views that will be necessary. A typical plan has a center line that serves as zero. Measurements to the right are “+” and measurements to left are “-”. This is particularly useful when the design is symmetrical. Mark the center line on your stage for future set work.
Another helpful visual is to include a scale shape representing a person in the rendering. This shows how the actor or musician will interact with the stage. It also gives a sense of scale and proportion. Figure 4 illustrates this technique.
When designing elements that require carpentry, try to design using increments of four feet. This will conserve on lumber. Include as much detail as possible. Remember to use light weight materials like NRG board for non-supporting structures.
Tools and Materials
When conceiving your projects think about the various tools and materials that are available. NRG or R Board is a light weight foam board that is rigid and easily cut with a jigsaw. There are many useful fabrics like scrim, muslin, nylon and erosion cloth. Trussing is a standard element that can be used for creating structures or as a decorative feature. Don’t forget to use everyday objects like a taxi cab, boxing ring or a series of well placed mountain bikes. Objects can be hung in patterns to create a big effect. Other elements include metals, egg strobes, TV’s, flying units, travelers, sliding flats, projected scenery and cyclorama.
A useful machine is the plotter. A plotter is a large format printer that can print on paper, plastics and other materials.
Realizing the set design requires skillful execution. There are a variety of talents that come into play. It is helpful to have a team leader for each of the various crafts. Consider developing a team to oversee the construction process and share the work load. The primary areas of craft are carpentry, painting, sewing and rigging. Develop job descriptions for each leader and invite them to participate in the design process. Ask them to recruit an assistant to mentor and to build a robust team.
The large size of a stage can make it difficult to execute a painting treatment. One solution is to use a Grid Plan. Create a rendering and place a 4’ x 4’ grid over the image. Similarly, mark out a grid on your surface to be painted. Use the grid as a visual guide for drawing the outline of your design. Figure 6 shows a grid plan used for a 50’ x 20’ wall.
There are a variety of metals and plastics that can be cut into shapes from a vector based reference. Designs can be created in a program like Illustrator and then sent to a fabricator for execution. Build relationships with people in your church who work in metal and plastic industries. Often, you can get materials donated or at a reduced rate.
There are numerous ways to fabricate a stage. The import thing is to develop a great design and to execute the design with precision. Focus on these principles and you will create a dramatic and compelling stage.
Scene Design and Stage Lighting by Parker, Wolf & Block (Book)
Drafting For the Theater by Dennis Dom & Mark Shanda (Book)
What an Art Director Does by Ward Preston (Book)