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Set Design and Décor -- A 10-Step Program

By Chris Polo
Community Theater Green Room

Set design for community theater is something that some of us gravitate toward naturally, and others get into by necessity when there just isn't anybody else who will do it. To those who have never done it, it may seem a daunting task - where do you start, what do you need to know, how do you translate an idea in your head into an actual set, will it look good, how does it all work? Now, I'm not a trained set designer - it was something I thought I'd like to do, I did it and came through it unscathed, and I've been asked to do it again several times since that first attempt. So while I may not be an expert at it, I do have a few ideas about how to go about it, and I'd like to share what works for me in this article by going through the steps I take.

While I don't think that everybody can be a whiz-bang set designer, I do think that most of us are capable of putting together a set that works. Probably the biggest deterrent to would-be set designers is that they don't know how to actually build a set. Set design and set construction are two different things, and while you as a set designer should have some knowledge of how things are accomplished and what is possible on your stage, you don't have to be able to build a set yourself in order to design a set. If you don't have construction experience, you do have to communicate with and learn from your set construction crew - more about that later in this article.

Set design and set décor are sometimes treated as separate jobs, which is fine. That is, one person designs the set, and somebody else dresses it. As a set designer, I prefer to take on most of the set décor myself, because I think that's the part of the job that's the most fun, so in this article I'll be talking about set décor as well as set design. However, I do find it very helpful to take on someone else to work with me on décor, especially with detail painting, which is a big job. Often this is someone who's expressed an interest in set design, but feels that they need some experience before they attempt one on their own. In addition to a décor assistant, I frequently make use of "scroungers" - folks who volunteer to dig around for set pieces that we don't have on hand. I tell them what I need, and they go out and attempt to locate a reasonable facsimile thereof. I like that system because I absolutely hate to ask local businesses if I can borrow their stuff, while others in our theater group have no problem with that whatsoever and are very successful at it.

That said, let's talk about how to go about designing and dressing a set in seven steps.

Important Note: Steps 1 through 5 should be completed before the director starts the first rehearsal (before auditions for the show is even better), and throughout the process, you should sit in on rehearsals to see how the set is being used.

Read on for a discussion of each these areas.

NEXT: Step 1: Read the Play

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