Scenic Design at Yale

By Zeke Blackwell ‘13, with Adela Jaffe ‘13

Preliminaries

First things first: read the script. Identify for yourself any large set elements that are important for the action in the show (for example, important doors, furniture pieces). Then, talk to the director about what you notice to the script. Find out what’s important to the director in their telling of the story. Determine where your ideas don’t meet, and talk through those differences

Be sure to talk to the producer about the theater space you’ll be designing for and the resources and man-power you have. It’s also important to communicate with the show’s lighting designer, as the collaboration between your two designs will make the show successful as a cohesive artistic whole

Assess your own ability, and be aware that as set designer, you are often responsible for technical aspects of the set as well. It’s important to clarify early on whether you’re filling other roles, including props, set dressing, and painting.

General Design Pointers

Talk to the Undergraduate Production (UP) team as often as you can. They have considerable technical and design expertise, and can help you figure out how to most effectively achieve your design goals.

Watch a lot of theater! Notice what you like and what you don’t like about sets, and look for ideas that you can borrow.

Conduct visual research: Google Images, Deviant Art, going to the Yale Art Gallery, travel and interior design blogs, The New York Times photo archive, and the Google Art Project are all great resources

Set design is sometimes more about functional elements than creating design elements entirely from scratch — but that’s fine! Functional sets can still be aesthetically pleasing, exciting for you to design, and add to the production. Don’t worry about not doing something totally off the wall, especially if you’re new to set designing.

Familiarize yourself with Google Sketch Up (sketchup.google.com). It can be really helpful for showing your ideas to the director and lighting designer. Undergraduate Production has floor plans and SketchUp models of every performance venue, so it’s very easy to design your set on SketchUp within that theater. UP can give you further advice and tutorials on using the software.

Making your Design a Reality

For CPA shows, we recommend you try to communicate your scenic design without much construction. Plan a trip to the David Geffen School of Drama props warehouse as soon as you have an idea of what you want in terms of set pieces. Watch other shows; there might be set pieces, set components, or furniture that you can use, or re-imagine slightly to use in a different way.

If your design requires construction, identify what exactly needs to be built early on and talk to Undergraduate Production as soon as possible, as they can help you strategize and make this happen. Keep in mind that many basic set elements that you might think you need to build already exist: platforms, flats, and pre-hung doors can be borrowed from the School of Drama, the Dramat, the Theater and Performance Studies black box, or the Off Broadway Theater. Visit the Undergraduate Production Equipment and Materials page for information on what’s available.

If you are building something brand new, you should work with Undergraduate Production to find a suitable space in which to build — most likely the Dramat Shop. Contact the prod@yaledramat.org">Dramat Production Officer for more information.

You can purchase some materials, like wood and steel, from the School of Drama. Ask UP for details. The best alternative is Home Depot. Bonus: when you go to Home Depot, if you know what your cut list is, they will cut the wood for you, making your life so much easier.

Be sure to schedule the delivery of your set and props from the School of Drama Props Warehouse well in advance — you may need to store these things somewhere on campus for a few days before load-in.

In terms of completing and loading in the set, be sure to communicate with your director and lighting designer to make sure important set elements can be in place by for focus and cue-to-cue. You should have a clear plan of how to install your set and what final touches need to be accomplished once in the space.