On Set Design

A few weeks ago, I saw “The Flying Dutchman” at Houston Grand Opera. As I mentioned in my blog post, I really enjoyed the performance, but some of the physical liberties the set took were a little off-putting.

I started to elaborate at length in the original post, but I decided it would be better to come at it in a separate article so that I didn’t have a lengthy sidebar.


When a theater is built, it is typical to make the stage and the auditorium somewhat proportional. A tiny stage with a huge audience feels strange, though the Greeks and Elizabethans did it.

The Greek amphitheatre at Epidauros, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Greek amphitheatre at Epidauros, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In a modern theater, especially a proscenium, the audience takes up a space roughly 2-3 times the square footage of the stage. (I’m making that number up, but it feels about right from my experience.) In the amphitheater above, it’s more like 10 times the square-footage.

Anyway, that is a sidebar. All this to say that, if a director is trying to make a set that looks realistic (something the greeks never bothered with), he has to make adjustments for theatrical realism. Which leads to sets like the one below. From “The Drowsy Chaperone”, it is intended to represent a New York apartment inhabited by an older, possibly retired gentleman.

Design by  David Gallo

Design by David Gallo

While not exactly cavernous, it is quite large for an apartment, especially for what appears to be an old man who presumably has a fixed income. It’s a studio apartment, but it seems to have about the square footage of a small house. Through clever design, it’s not really obvious, and it serves well when you have to have a cast of 20 onstage, but it’s not realistic.

Another favorite apartment is the setting of the first and last acts of the opera La Boheme. But opera houses are massive offenders on the subject of grandeur for grandeur’s sake.

Take a moment and imagine what the apartment of a starving artist might look like in 19th century Paris. If you’re like me, you think of a studio apartment with maybe 200 square feet, just enough for a bed and some art supplies. Maybe a small window that looks out on an alley somewhere and gets light for just an hour or two per day.

Now look at the picture below.

In this set, the poor garret inhabited by the two starving artists in La Boheme is represented by a large, rather austere room with high ceilings and a surprisingly large floor space. It’s no wonder they have trouble staying warm! Imagine heating this room.

Realistic interior sets are difficult. Far better to have a grand exterior, like, say, the ancient Egyptian monuments:

This set seems appropriately imposing for the massive stage of the Metropolitan Opera. It captures the grandeur of Verdi’s opera Aida, it seems appropriately proportioned with huge, larger-than-life statues towering over normal sized people.


Final option for a stage design is to go completely surreal and abstract. This is my favorite option, both because it is the least expensive and because it allows for a lot of creativity. It also hearkens back to the Greek origins of theater, because amphitheaters like the one in the first picture didn’t have much by way of set.

The set below represents all of the following things at different times in the show:

  • various rooms of a school

  • a bus

  • a bar

  • an airplane

  • a scenic overlook

  • a coffeeshop

  • a police car

  • hotel rooms

  • rooms in people’s houses

  • a TV studio

  • and other things I’ve probably forgotten.

The set design for Come From Away. Picture taken by me.

The set design for Come From Away. Picture taken by me.

This set uses a few abstract items like trees and aged wood to give atmosphere, and then a variety of chairs and a table to give actors physical things to interact with. Nothing else is needed. The turntable gives a little more excitement and drama at moments.

I love the idea of a non-representational stage. Partly because it’s part of all of the set designs I’ve showed you so far (with the possible exception of the La Boheme set, as I haven’t seen that production.)

In each of the sets I’ve shown, the massive structure becomes the backdrop for everything, whether it makes sense or not. Interior scenes, exterior scenes, scenes in different homes or even dream sequences are played out against a backdrop that may or may not be realistic.

In The Drowsy Chaperone, the refrigerator becomes a front door. The Murphy bed folds up and back down to show different rooms. All of these little changes both distract from and highlight the fact that the whole thing appears to be taking place in an apartment.

Every show has some kind of static backdrop. Whether that backdrop is a constructed set, or a curtain, or a back wall, it sets the tone for the show. When you have to throw out realistic proportions for the purpose of filling a stage, you end up with odd choices like the first few I showed.

But if a scenic designer is invested in showing both the realism of the humans and some kind of conceptual point, they can create an interesting backdrop that highlights themes of the show and builds atmosphere.

At other times, you end up with things like “The Machine”, Robert Lepage’s design for the Metropolitan Opera’s most recent complete production of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs. Google “met opera ring lepage” and you’ll see dozens of really interesting, abstract designs created from this series of rotating bars that served as platforms, backdrops, and projection screens, among other things. I’ll wait.

The images are interesting, even striking. But what do they say about Wagner’s work? It’s myth-making on a grand scale. Some 15 hours of music over four full-length evenings. A giant mechanical object like that seems more distracting than useful.

I don’t know. I’m rambling now. Suffice it to say, I really think a lot about set design, and I’m a fan of either extreme realism or extreme abstraction. Anything in between should be deliberate about what it chooses to represent literally and what it chooses to omit.