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Sets on a Budget: One Signature Piece

There’s nothing like a big, beautiful set to really create the mood and tone of a theatrical piece. With a little creativity, big and beautiful can also mean striking and singular. Sometimes the most interesting sets focus on one signature set piece. A singular set piece can be simple or elaborate, highly detailed or quite plain, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Selecting one signature set piece can be challenging. Since there is only one piece, it has to be chosen with care and consideration. What story are you trying to tell with this set piece? How much of the stage does it take up? How does it contribute to the overall look of the piece? How much is it going to cost in terms of money, time, and effort to assemble it? These are all valid questions no matter what type of set you choose.

First, let’s think about what signature set piece you might select. What you choose will depend on the show title, your budget, the story you wish to portray onstage, and the tone or mood you wish to suggest. Here are some ideas you might consider:

  • A single painted flat or curtain. This can portray anything from the sky to a cityscape to a house to a landscape. If it’s double-sided and can be turned around or covered up for certain scenes, that would be a bonus.
  • A periaktos, which is a revolving, three-sided prism, usually made of wood. A different scene is painted on each side and it’s turned by actors or stagehands so the appropriate side is facing the audience.
  • An item such as a shelving unit or a trunk, which is mounted onto a platform with casters and wheeled about. If it can be opened and/or used for storage, even better. You might also consider a flat object mounted on casters, such as a wall unit, blackboard, or costume rack that could be moved around, hidden behind, or have smaller items attached to it.
  • A single, large statement piece, such as a throne, tree, statue, sofa, or piano. A statement piece is generally stationary but still interacted with, such as by leaning against it or hiding behind it.
  • Good ol’ reliable rehearsal blocks. These can be painted or left plain, used individually or stacked together, and can be moved (or removed) to create pretty much whatever you need onstage.

Always keep in mind that whatever set piece you choose, it should enhance the overall look, mood, and tone that you’re trying to portray onstage with your students.

Once you have considered what the piece might be, you’ll need to think about how it is going to be used onstage. Is it meant to be looked at, or will it be interacted with? Will it be stationary or moved around? If students will interact with it, how will they do that specifically? Will actors or stagehands move it, or both? Does it need to move with a student on top of it, in it, or beside it? Does it need to hold or conceal smaller items? Does it need to perform an effect, such as light up, display shadows, glow in the dark, or play music? How can the piece be used differently in different scenes? Could it be lit differently, turned around, used by a different actor? Then, all these things considered, how much is it going to cost?

Keeping these needs and desires in mind, the next step is to design and build the piece. (You can use the worksheet below to help with this.) Is it a piece that you already own and can modify, or does it need to be built from scratch? If it needs to be built from scratch, can the materials be donated, discounted, or sponsored to keep costs down?

Once it’s built, use the piece as much as you can! Feature it in photoshoots for headshots and social media posts. Use images of it for the show poster and programme. If you can reuse it for class work or store it for future use, do it. You might also want to consider renting it out or selling it to another school or company for their upcoming production, and using the money towards creating a new signature set piece for your next show.

You can use the worksheet below with your students. Have them come up with different ideas for a signature set piece for the play you’re currently studying. Have them describe and/or sketch out their piece and list three different ways it can be used for the show.

Additional Resources:
Set Design: How to cut a big musical down to size
Full Class Project: Complete Show Design
Creative Fundraising Ideas for Your Upcoming Production

Click here for a free printable worksheet.
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