Stage designer

 28 February 2011

Stage designers are responsible for designing stage settings for productions. This can range from single scene dramas, to complex scenery and scene changes required by major productions.

Simeon Tachev is a carpenter at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre
Simeon Tachev is a carpenter at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre

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Set designers create the overall 'look' of a theatre, television or film production. In the film and TV industry they are often known as production designers and in the theatre as stage designers.

The role of stage designer

Stage design often requires extensive research to be carried out before a stage is created. Designers produce models for approval by the director of the production. Designers may have to be skilled at modelling, or employ an assistant to make them.

Stage designers work closely with the production's director. They may have their area of work completely delegated to them. In other cases the director may take a more active role in the design of a stage.

Stage designers are usually responsible to the production manager with regards to realising the initial design. In larger productions, the set designer and costume designer may be separate roles.

Designers need to work closely with other creative and technical staff. This includes the construction staff, stagehands, costume designers, wardrobe staff, prop makers, scenic artists, lighting and sound teams.

Working as a set designer

You will need a high level of design skill and creative vision.

As a set, production or stage designer, your work would begin at the start of the production planning process, and end on the opening night or when filming begins.

You would create the design ideas, but would usually delegate the practical work to others. Your work could include:

  • studying scripts and discussing ideas with the director
  • communicating your ideas to costume, make-up, props and lighting designers
  • overcoming any logistical problems, such as lighting or complex scene changes
  • researching the right historical, contemporary or futuristic details for the production
  • creating effective designs within the available budget
  • sketching design ideas to produce a 'storyboard', showing what the sets will look like scene by scene
  • building and photographing scale models
  • estimating costs and preparing a production schedule
  • overseeing set building and decoration
  • making any adjustments needed during rehearsals.

In theatre, you might work alone or with an assistant. In TV/film, you would manage a team that might include art directors, assistant art directors, storyboard artists and model makers.

Most set designers work on a freelance basis and spend part of their time marketing their services.

Becoming a stage designer

You will need a high level of design skill and creative vision. You would normally start as a designer's assistant or prop maker in the theatre, or as an art department trainee or runner in film and TV. You could then work your way up to designer as you develop experience and contacts in the industry.

In practice, many set designers have an art-based BTEC HND or degree. Several universities, colleges and drama schools offer specialised courses in theatre design, performing arts (production) or design for film and television.

Other useful subjects include interior design, fine art, 3-D design and architecture. You should check entry requirements with course providers.

Whatever your qualifications, you should find practical experience and build a portfolio of your design work to show to potential employers. You could get relevant experience through getting involved in:

  • student theatre or film
  • local amateur or community theatre
  • low-budget independent films
  • fringe theatre.

In film and TV, you may be able to receive apprenticeship-style training at the start of your career from new entrant schemes such as the BBC's Design Trainee Scheme, or those run occasionally by regional screen agencies.

Competition for places on new entrant schemes is very strong, so you will need to prove your enthusiasm and commitment by building relevant experience before you apply.

Training for set design

Most of your training would be on the job, learning from experienced designers and production staff.

You should continue to build your portfolio and develop your skills and contacts throughout your career. It can be useful to join organisations like the Society of British Theatre Designers, for professional recognition, networking and training opportunities.

As a working set designer, you could choose to take a postgraduate diploma or degree in theatre design, scenography or design for film and television. You could also take short courses to improve your skills in areas such as computer aided design (CAD).

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