Alex Marker, set designer

 21 May 2013

Alex Marker designs sets for theatre productions. He discusses how to make them realistic spaces and represent the context of the play. He also shares his five tips for getting started in set design.

"For good set design, focus on the mood, period and style of the play." Image: Alex Marker.

What is your hometown?

I live in Ealing, in West London.

What is your job title?

I'm a set designer – I've designed for St. James Theatre in the production of 'London Wall'.

Also, I'm a lecturer at the University of West London and Kingston College, and direct the Questors Youth Theatre in West London. 

What qualifications did you do?

After graduating with a BA in Theatre Design from Wimbledon School of Art, I completed a PGCE teaching qualification at the University of Greenwich.

How did you get interested in theatre?

I was involved in youth theatre and school productions from a young age, up until the end of university.

"I work with the construction team to make the set design a physical reality."

I only had one line in my first acting role at school, but that got me hooked!

The career choice in set design began when I went to an open day at Ealing Film Studios and saw some designer’s 1:50 scale white card models.

I always liked drawing, so I started making my own card models. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to continue studying set design at university.

What experience have you had in theatre?

At sixth-form college, I helped to paint set scenery.

Then, when I was 19 years old, I volunteered to design my first set for Questors Theatre. I found out about the opportunity by word of mouth.

In the past, I have worked in many roles behind, on, above and under the theatre stage. These include:

What does a set designer do?

First, I get a copy of the script and read it to understand the play. Then, I meet with the director to talk about what they want in the design, the venue size and the scenery budget.

"You could do exhibition design, themed corporate events, museum displays, window dressing and teaching."

By gathering research and pictures on the architecture and time period of the play, I'm able to figure out what needs to be on the stage for the performance.

When I know what I want on stage, I usually make an initial concept drawing. This is a sketch of how the stage will look with all of my ideas.

I start the technical drawings and floor plan next, so that I know exactly where everything will go on stage. Using these plans as a guide, I make a white card scale model – usually on a 1:25 or 1:50 ratio.

These are shown to the director for final input. When the director is happy, I'll create a colour scale model and work with the construction team to make the set design a physical reality.

What’s the best part of being a set designer?

The feeling you get when you know that the set has been created well, and works well for the actors on the stage.

It’s a good feeling to know that people like what you do and the audience is happy with what they have seen.

And what’s the worst part?

There is a lot of work to do and, when you’re working to a deadline, it's difficult to try to make everything happen quickly.

How do I get into set design?

My five pieces of advice for entering into set design are:

1) Be motivated

Get involved in set design if you have a real enthusiasm and passion for theatre and enjoy working behind the scenes. 

It is satisfying, but there is limited salary unless you work on large productions. You may need to supplement your income with another job.

2) Be prepared to use your skills in other areas

Theatre is a collaborative industry and your task may overlap with other tasks. The deadlines mean you may be asked to help with the other tasks, if you want to complete your task on time.

Also, with set designing, you could do exhibition design, themed corporate events, museum displays, window dressing and teaching.

3) Watch theatre and read plays

By watching plays, you get an understanding of good and bad stage design. I believe a designer should have been on stage, so they understand the stage from the actor’s point of view.

For good set design, focus on the mood, period and style of the play. It's important to understand:

  • The character's actions – like exits and entrances
  • Special devices – like trapdoors
  • How each scene transforms into the next.

Using this information, you can add vital things – like a door – into your design.

Also, look out for the implied actions and character's information that is not stated in the stage directions.

4) Do short courses to fill knowledge gaps

Doing a stage design course is a very good start, but develop other skills that might be useful to know. Things you could do include:

  • Drawing classes
  • Learning how to sew
  • Doing a scaffolding course
  • Learning computer drawing programmes
  • Learning to build set flats.

A set designer with other skills is more attractive to employers.

5) Do your research well

Each play will have a different period, so you need to research the details and style. If something looks out of place on stage, the audience can pick up on this.

It’s like creating a world where everyone wears period costume and rides in carriages – and then someone drives a Ferrari car through the scene.

Why is theatre important?

Theatre is an art form that operates in the moment. It can affect the way that people feel and think.

It allows us to explore ourselves, and the reactions we have to ideas and situations in plays.

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