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Planning the Show: A Checklist for Designers

Essential questions and definitions for stage designers before the work begins


Whether you're a lighting designer, or a costume, scenic, sound or props designer, there are several common, core definitions and questions you will need to answer as a basic checklist as you begin the planning stages for designing your upcoming production.

Answering and defining this checklist will help you to approach your project with as much knowledge and preparation as possible. Not only will answering these basic questions help you prepare technically for your upcoming show, but you'll also gain invaluable artistic and creative insight as you formulate these answers and solidify your design point of view for the piece itself!

Answering all of these questions and definitions will provide you with the vital groundwork you need as you approach the design needs of your upcoming piece -- and will make for a richer, more meaningful final design, as well.

The most important thing to remember is to communicate with the director and your fellow designers as early as possible on initial vision so that there's a sense of cohesion between costumes and sets, or between sets and lighting, and beyond. But within those few limitations, you can create anything you want. The stage is a delicious blank canvas that awaits your vision.

Get the technical dimensions of the stage or performance space.

Here, you'll not only want to get the measurements of the venue but a floor plan and list of the venue's features and amenities. What kind of space is it -- a proscenium stage, three-quarter round, or other type? Where are the exits? Are there sight line issues from certain audience areas -- intrusive pillars, or visual degradation from the balconies, or from the back of the house?

Get a complete tech and crew list.

How much help will you have in your job? This will directly affect the complexity of your design. Get a list of confirmed people who will be working under you and with you on the production. Get their home and cell numbers, e-mail addresses and more -- you'll need them. Also make sure your contact list includes complete contact information for your fellow designers on the production. If you're designing lighting, for example, you'll need at least a few discussions with the director, set, props and costume designers to ensure that whatever you do works symbiotically with their visions. And vice versa! Your stage manager will be especially invaluable to you here.

What are the space's technical abilities and limitations?

These questions are especially vital for the lighting and sound designers, who will have to base their designs on the machines and tools provided by the space. For instance, how many lights are available for use? Make sure you organize your list according to lantern type here. What other stage lighting elements will be available to you, from gobos, gels and effects items, to spots to LED striplights, and more? What kind of light board is in the booth? What kind of sound system does the venue have?

For those of you addressing the set design and effects needs of the show, you'll need to note potentially useful existing items such as trap doors or trebuchets, snow machines, and more.

Whatever your role, make a list of tasks and tricks that you know you can use smoothly here -- as well as stuff to stay away from because of the limitations of the space. Even better -- talk to someone who's already handled effects, lighting, sound or tech there in the venue, and who knows what it's capable of.

Get the director's vision statement for the production.

Even before you address the show's setting, time and place from the script, talk to the director about the big picture. How does the director describe the production and his or her approach to bringing it to life? What artistic or pop culture influences or buzzwords are used? Will the interpretation be by-the-book or something new? What is the message or theme the director is trying to communicate to the audience?

Sometimes a single phrase from the director can send you on an inspired and unexpected direction for your design, enabling you to create something that powerfully communicates the show's theme in startling or beautiful ways. The beauty of your role as a designer is that you will be able to visually evoke this theme without saying a word. You will let light and color, texture and period, prop and furniture piece, say everything that needs to be said.

Define the kind of performance being staged.

Be as specific as you can when you answer here. For instance, it's not as simple as "play or musical" or "comedy or drama" -- what kind of comedy or drama? Realistic period drama, melodrama or Shakespearean tragedy? Farce, drawing room comedy, or vaudeville? What kind of musical? A classic musical under the proscenium or a cabaret in which players will come out into the audience to interact?

What's the location and historical period of the show's world?

When and where does the show take place? Make note of the city, country, and date of the setting (getting as close to defining a year as possible). Then prepare to hunker down for the fun part -- the research and exploration of what that setting and its world could (or should) look like.

What is the tone of the world in which the show takes place?

Absurd, hyper-realistic, experimental, or fantastical?

What are some of the "hot spots" in the script when it comes to your job?

Go through the script with a highlighter and note any big moments in the action, especially those involving major production challenges in set pieces, props, costumes, lighting and more.

For instance, let's say there's a gallows scene in Act II. If you're the set designer, this is an important set piece to create -- and it's got to be safe, sturdy, and mobile. Meanwhile, if you're the lighting designer, the height of the gallows in the scene could present a challenge when lighting the performers in the scene. And if you're the props person, will you need a safe, yet working noose? Will you have to come up with the little accoutrements that will enrich the character of the executioner in the scene?

The costume designer, meanwhile, may need to make special note of bloody or violent moments in the story. If someone gets shot, or a barber will be cutting throats, this will definitely affect some of the colors, textures, and material choices when creating the costumes.

What colors come to mind when envisioning the story or performance in your mind?

Period dramas often bring to mind rich deep tapestry colors or jewel tones against dark backgrounds. If it's a mystery or noir piece, the moods and colors will be a series of high contrasts, with lots of shadows. A farce will typically involve light, bright colors. But of course it's never as easy as just light versus dark -- an Oscar Wilde drawing room comedy, for instance, might feature a combination approach -- the rich, dark backgrounds of a historical piece, but a palette of lights, brights or pastels in the foreground in terms of costumes and furnishings.

Free-associate on the images or characters the story brings to mind.

Sometimes a little free-association can be a wonderful impetus for creativity, especially when it comes to theatrical or production design, so take a few moments to yourself to let your imagination run wild. Does your villain remind you of an Old West Outlaw, pirate, dictator, or famous criminal? Does a featured character remind you of a Shakespearean Falstaff, or of a classic character type from the commedia dell'arte? Does the world of the piece evoke unexpected associations for you, with disparate or contrasting pop culture elements? Design is, first and foremost, a creative effort, so this is your chance to play!
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