This lesson introduces the basic concept of stage design and its many names throughout the theater community. Of interest is the job of the scenographer who directs stage design and their process from script to opening night.

The Where and When of a Story

Ever attend a Broadway play, acclaimed ballet, or performance of a famous opera? If so, you may have noticed the elaborate and amazing sets used to create a world in which the action occurs. The grander the performance, the more astounding the set, thanks to increased budgets from anticipated ticket sales and venues with an extensive supply of complex equipment. However, no amount of money or tools can replace the most essential aspect of set creation, the imaginative talents of a skilled designer in charge of the stage design process.

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South Pacific set at the Wheatley Park School in Holton, Oxfordshire
Set for High School Production of South Pacific

What Is Stage Design?

Stage design goes by many names in the theater community, including stage design, production design, scenic design, and scenography. While these names hint at a diverse number of tasks and responsibilities, stage design is essentially the profession and process of planning and creating the scenery for each location in a performance’s action. This is not done as a solo project by one individual, but as a collaborative effort between the scenographer, also called the set designer or stage designer, who is responsible for the completed stage designs, the director, and other key people responsible for planning the action, lighting, costumes, set construction, and set placement.

Set for The Best Man on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
Set for The Best Man on Broadway

The Process

First, the scenographer examines the script, a step taken in every aspect of production from the director on down. This is the source material for the entire show and it is the responsibility of the cast and crew to bring life to the writer’s vision. For stage designers, they bring life to the places where the story transpires. They must identify each location, as well as if it changes over the course of a scene or when a new scene returns to a prior location. They also identify what props are specifically mentioned in a script or will be necessary for a scene to successfully occur. Props, short for properties, as a term refers to physical objects touched and used by the actors during the performance of a scene.

From the script analysis, scenographers create preliminary thumbnails, basic sketches of stage designs per scene to use in collaborative meetings with the director and crew heads. Later, after the consultation, the thumbnails will be modified to include the input of others and finalized into a ground plan, scale representation of the set pieces on the stage as seen from above, and working sketches, detailed drawings directing the construction of set pieces to exact specifications.

Why Is Stage Design Important?

Aside from the practical necessity of placing objects for use in action and providing set pieces called for in the script, stage design provides a spatial context for the plot to occur. Audiences use the visual clues of a set to determine if the story happened in the past, in the present, or in the future. It gives depth to the characters by revealing where they live, how they might decorate their homes, and how they interact with the world around them. Finally, the stage design helps suspend disbelief for the audience by giving the illusion of seeing a different reality while the pieces on stage focus attention on the actors.

Elizabethan Stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Outdoor Theater Set

Lesson Summary

Stage design is the process by which a scenographer plans and creates the scenery for each location in a performance’s action. The professional scenographer develops preliminary thumbnails, basic sketches of each scene’s designs, prior to meeting with the director and staff. These are based on careful analysis of the script to identify key locations and props, the physical objects used by actors.

With input from the rest of the staff, the scenographer then develops a ground plan, aerial view of the stage in each scene with a scale representation of set pieces and their locations to help stage crews in placing scenery and help both the actors and director in blocking stage movement. Finally, they create working sketches, detailed construction plans for the set pieces including the dimensions, color, texture and component materials. All of these steps performed under the creative vision of the scenographer help to give life to the script writer’s characters and plot.