Critical Steps in Producing a Play or Musical: Set Design and Set Construction


The Giver  Fine Arts Guild, 2014













I think a powerful, creative, unique set design is vital to a production.  Depending upon the production budget (there’s that word again-it’s going to come up a lot in these blog posts), the set can be as elaborate as possible or simple.

If a director has the freedom to choose what she wants, always keep in mind that old adage, “Less is more”.  Personally, I think a set can distract the audience from the production if one isn’t careful.  On the other hand, a simple set can be distracting as well especially if one’s actors aren’t skilled in creating the atmosphere themselves.  A skilled actor should be able to imagine the setting and demonstrate that through character and movement.

Set Designer

But back to designing the play or musical’s set.  First, you need to know whether a designer has been hired or volunteered to design your set.  If so, then you are generally stuck (and I do mean stuck) with that person.  I’ve worked with good ones, lazy ones, entitled ones and very creative-but-can-not-get-it done ones.  If you are lucky, the designer will have ideas of his own and share them with you and vice versa. As I mentioned in the previous post, have your concept board handy to share with him.

If you are expected to design your own set, start by researching on the internet.  As you find ideas (probably from other companies’ productions of the show), you might want to make a copy of them.  Note:  I am going to say this one time.  If you are capable enough to direct the show then you are capable enough to come up with your own ideas for the set.  It is just tacky to lift (steal, copy or what have you) someone else’s design.  It isn’t polite, it certainly isn’t unique and it isn’t right.

I expect the designer to create a model of the set for me.  In fact, I require it.  Most humans are visual thinkers and consequently it helps the actors (and everyone involved for that matter) in their visualization of the show. As well, it aids me when I am blocking.  I remember directing Something’s Afoot and its first musical number is crazy busy.  Character are entering and exiting one right after another.  The model helped me to keep straight everyone as I placed little spice bottles with each character’s name in the right places.


The Diary of Anne Frank   Fine Arts Guild of the Rockies  2012

Ah, the set budget!

Set, costumes and prop budgets are the most challenging to estimate. If you are in charge of the budget, you will first need an inventory of the company’s set pieces (flats, platforms, stair units, etc.) .  Are you thinking of using a scrim?  Does the company own a scrim?  If not, will they purchase one for you?  Would you rather have a stylistic set?  That’s a good idea, especially is there is little  money for the set. Is the production a period piece?  You need to consider that question, too. There’s many more questions to ask yourself, but you get the idea….

If  I have a designer, I make it my designer’s job to create a line item budget.  Generally, designers (costumes too) ask for a color pallet from me.  It’s fairly easy to share my choices using my concept board that  I made at the beginning  of the project.

I have had many opportunities to direct on a great looking set.  However, some of my most favorite are simpler ones like The Giver (photographed above).  It was understated, perfectly suited the play’s message and met the budget requirements.  Recently, I directed The Wizard of Oz (my first time ever, I know–better late than never).  I didn’t want to regurgitate the movie in any manner.  For countless hours, my designer and I discussed how to create the set on a very limited budget, build it with inexperienced students while giving the audience something to imagine and enjoy.  The tornado and its metaphoric moments within the story was our thrust.  We used bicycle wheels, barbed wire and fence posts to create the Witch’s Lair.


The Wizard of Oz  Presser Performing Arts Center  July 2016

If you take the time to pre-plan every aspect of a production, it will save you time later.  Trust me, I have gone into rehearsals thinking I could be spontaneous and think out details as I rehearsed.  Admitting this, that’s a ridiculous thought to me!  I can guarantee you I still have spontaneous moments.  That’s part of my nature.  But everyone working with you will appreciate your forethought and I bet you find that people are more confident if they can rely on your somewhat established concept right from the first day of rehearsal.

See my next blog post on stage properties.  I’ll have plenty of tips for you there!

For more advice, check out these posts:


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4 thoughts on “Critical Steps in Producing a Play or Musical: Set Design and Set Construction

  1. Hi 🙂
    I’m a drama teacher too, and am about to be putting ‘Les Miserables – School Edition’ on stage at the end of this week! *gulp*
    I fully agree with your comments about simplicity of set design – I like to leave a lot to the drama itself, and let the set and props enhance that. I love playing with the intensity and colour of lighting to help that, too.

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