Abbie Brown, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Elementary & Bilingual Education
California State University, Fullerton
   Design Cultures
Design Culture in Theatrical Production

I began acting classes in my early teens and performed in my high school’s numerous theatrical and musical events. I studied stagecraft at Northwestern University’s summer high school institute. As an undergraduate I majored in Theater Arts at Temple University and participated in the university’s theatrical productions as an actor, designer, stagehand, and producer. I also studied acting at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York, and worked for a few years in the entertainment industry.

Theatrical production requires collaboration on a grand scale. It is not coincidence that the word “troupe” is often used in conjunction with theatrical organizations. Theatrical production is at its core a hierarchical, team activity with ‘ranking’ members dictating to a number of subordinate artists. Everyone must work creativity within a shared vision of the final product, and everyone’s creativity contributes to the success or failure of the endeavor.

The person with complete control over the entire production is the executive producer. The executive producer contracts with the various artists involved and, as the person that controls all purse strings, retains final say over all aspects of the production. Typically the executive producer chooses a script and/or musical score (in the case of repertory theater, the executive producer chooses an entire season of plays and musicals). The executive producer turns the script/score over to a director who coordinates the efforts of all the artists involved in the performance. The director initially communicates his grand vision for the production to the set designer, costume designer, and lighting designer. Each of these designers works both independently and in cooperation to create a set of preliminary renderings of the costumes and set. Once the director is satisfied, the director and designers present these sketches to the assembled cast and crew so that everyone has a sense of what is expected of them. The set designer often constructs a scale model of the set(s). This model gives the entire cast and crew a greater sense of the production’s look and feel; it also gives the lighting designer an opportunity to experiment with and decide upon numerous effects before the set is built.

As an example, in college I was cast in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (a play chosen by the theater department’s executive producer as part of its season of performances for that academic year). During auditions and casting, the director was meeting with the set, costume and lighting designers to determine the general look and feel of the performance. The director wanted the setting and costumes to evoke the style of the court of Louis XIV (France’s “Sun King”). After casting was completed and the cast and crew were brought together to read through the script, the designers presented their sketches and the set model. As the god “Time,” I had a single monologue between acts IV and V in which I announced that sixteen years had passed between acts. I now knew that I’d be delivering this monologue dressed as Louis XIV himself, holding a miniature version of the very large set piece, representing the sun itself that would lower itself into place as I spoke, and that I would be on a steeply ‘raked’ stage (the entire floor would be on an angle tilting out toward the audience). I know knew my speech would have to support and reflect the audience’s expectations of how Louis XIV might sound and behave, and I knew I would have to walk carefully on the steep rake.

Once everyone has a sense of the director’s vision through the renderings of the set, costume and lighting designers, The four artistic teams: performers, costumers, set specialists and lighting specialists begin work as independent, interdependent groups. The performers work with the director’s guidance, experimenting with blocking (the gross movements of performers on the stage) and interpretation of the text as speech (a good director never gives an actor a “line reading” – actors are artists who turn the written word to spoken lines through personal interpretation).

As the actors rehearse, the costume crew, under the costume designer’s direction, begins work “building” the costumes (this requires a number of fittings with the actors and a series of ‘parades’ on stage to be sure the lighting and costumes work together – I have learned from cruel experience that some seemingly opaque fabrics become transparent when lit from a single direction).

The set crew constructs the set and creates the props (a prop is any set piece an actor handles). Props are created and cared for by a specialized sub-group of the set crew: the prop masters. The set crew starts by laying down tape on the stage floor, indicating where walls, doors, steps and windows will be so that the actors may create blocking appropriate to the set. Depending on the facility, the set crew may lay tape on both the stage floor and the floor of a rehearsal room separate from the stage area (that allows the actors to practice without getting in the way of set construction); or the actors may rehearse on stage while the set is built in a shop at a remote location.

The lighting designer and crew must complete the tasks of installing and wiring the lights for the show while the stage is being constructed. Once the lights are in place, the lighting crew begins to focus lights, and experiment with transitions.

If the show has music or special sound effects, a fifth set of artists is simultaneously at work preparing the musical performance or sound effects. A musical director, working under the director, is in charge of a group of musicians. A sound effects crew may also work under a sound designer if a variety of sound effects are required.

At the first formal performance, the director turns control of the production over to the stage manager. The stage manager has spent the rehearsal period as the ‘right hand’ of the director, taking notes and compiling a version of the script that contains a description of every action to be taken (“cues”) during the performance. The show does not begin until the stage manager says so, and once the show begins, the stage manager calls each cue to the crew chiefs, who then relay the instructions to their crews.

During rehearsal the director offers constant feedback to the cast and crew. At the end of every rehearsal, the cast receives notes from the director (this is often true throughout the run of a production, the director will review notes after a performance with the assembled cast and crew before they leave the theater or contact specific artists directly after the performance). The various designers give notes to each other as well, discussing how various aspects of the production dovetail into each other or sharing their sources of inspiration.

Theatrical artists tend to announce their ideas early and often, looking to see how their counterparts will react. I believe this is because, in show business, there is a need to develop consensus on an idea before that idea can be realized through production.

Given the nature of the activity, it’s easy to see why theater folk tend to behave communally more often than not. Cooperation is a cornerstone of theatrical events and the folks who participate in theatrical endeavors are often highly gregarious. They can, however, easily become clannish as well – it can be difficult to become part of a theater group that has worked together before. Another aspect of theatrical production that causes a somewhat different type of clannishness is the hours kept by theater folk. Entertainers are working while the rest of society is off-duty (the entertainment has to be presented when everyone else is free to enjoy it); often the only people free to socialize at the same time are other entertainers.

Drawing new people into the culture of theatrical production is in my experience split into two distinct venues. For people interested in participating behind the scenes (set, costume and lighting designers and crew), the opportunity to join is based on volunteerism. There seems to be a constant need for “an extra hand” backstage and anyone willing to invest the time can ease their way into the culture. For example, my brother and I were both inducted into the culture as high school students; he volunteered backstage as a runner (he ran errands for the cast and crew on his bicycle) and worked his way up to stage manager in a few years. Although he did not pursue it, his experience in high school prepared him to participate in theatrical production at the university and semi-professional level (he could easily have taken a position as an assistant stage manager anyplace outside of a unionized environment, and probably could have worked his way into the union by doing this).

I was accepted into the culture of theatrical production by volunteering behind the scenes as well. In high school and in college I volunteered in the costume shop (I was handy with a needle; I could run a sewing machine and I could sew a straight seam). I quickly became a regular member of the costume crew, and when a call came from the professional theater community seeking a “costume master” for the local opera company, I became a professional member of the culture (for six months I was costume master of the Pennsylvania Opera Theater in the afternoons and evenings, and a college student by day). I also aspired to perform, which my experience suggests requires a different method of gaining entrance into the culture.

To become a performing member of a cast, one must audition successfully. This requires a bit more luck than backstage participation does (one must be ‘right’ for an available role). Successful auditioning also requires a certain amount of developed performance skill. Unlike volunteering behind the scenes and learning as one goes, a performer usually has to have learned beforehand how to perform (auditions consist of prepared monologues, dialogues and/or songs, and may also require demonstration of one’s ability to improvise).

Having spent a number of years as the director of theatrical events for a middle school, I found that young people were drawn into the culture of theatrical production through one of two possible paths. Some students know exactly what they want. They aspire to stardom on stage (it has been said that celebrity in the United States is similar to royalty in other places). Many students audition for the school play with the intention of participating only if they are cast in a role they find suitable. They often audition at every opportunity throughout middle school, high school or college, waiting for their ‘big break.’ This is a completely different path than the volunteer-and-experiment path described previously. The performer who auditions for a specific role or range of roles seems to have a greater sense of exactly how they wish to participate in the culture of theatrical production. Once cast (and they accept the assigned role) these performers are generally accepted into the culture (keep in mind that this is a culture that places a certain value on divas). Another possible path involves more experimentation.

Students are often drawn into the culture of theatrical production by friends who are current participants, or through the recommendation of parents, guidance counselors or teachers. This seems to be more a path of experiment and discovery. In one particularly memorable case, a student began her middle school career as a runner for the lighting crew her first year (her friends were crew members); she enjoyed the experience and demonstrated great skill, becoming the lighting crew captain her second year. By her third year, this student wound up with the option to be stage manager (the highest ranking position backstage) or a lead in the cast (she had watched many auditions in her previous years and was coached by her performance-oriented friends – her audition elicited rounds of applause from the other performers). Although she was not sure initially what role she would care to take within the culture, this student ultimately became one of the culture’s most respected members. Her fellow performers admired her talent and skill as a performer, and her devoted lighting crew moved heaven and earth to ensure that she was lit perfectly every time she stepped on stage.

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Last Updated: February 18, 2005