What do you see in the picture to the left? A rainbow? A bar graph? I see a night-time cityscape, a stage set ready for a big production number, perhaps from the Alan Lund production of Singin’ and Dancin’ Tonight, a musical revue.
I grew up on a farm 85 miles from the nearest city. Seeing professional stage productions wasn’t an option, although I certainly attended local productions from an early age (my mother had a lovely singing voice, and was part of local Gilbert & Sullivan productions when I was 3 or 4).
Pinning down a date for my first experience of professional theatre has been an interesting exercise (thank goodness for the internet!) — I have finally ascertained that it was in 1970, and I was 13. The city’s professional theatre was in its infancy, still in the process of perfecting their “theatre in the round” trademark, not yet in a permanent building of their own, touring the province and staging in-city productions in a small theatre in the newly opened Centre of the Arts.
The play was Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and I remember the set to this day.
The set was sparse, with posts, platforms, and metal stairs more reminiscent of a building under construction than a traditional theatre set. The play was performed “arena-style” — no traditional stage as such, the audience in tiers along one or two sides. I can still see the actor playing the part of Tom shouting, “I’m going to the movies!” and then clattering down those metal steps. The set, though not what one might expect, was effective, giving just enough substance for the audience’s imagination to build on, supporting but not overpowering the actors and the playwright’s words. Black and white images on a screen above the set added depth, illustrated memory, took us “to the movies” with Tom.
It is amazing how such a simple set could contribute so much to a play.
And that’s the key to a good set. It contributes to the play. It serves the story. In an article on a website called The Magic Cafe, George Ledo says “a stage set is a space that evokes the feelings and themes and conflicts to be explored in the story, and that helps the audience get into a receptive mood. A set for a Neil Simon comedy has a totally different “visual feel” than a set for an Arthur Miller drama or a set for a Verdi opera.”
That description resonates with me. It’s not about building a set that leaves the audience saying “wasn’t that set fantastic?” but that leaves the audience saying “wasn’t that play fantastic?” It’s all about the story, and the characters that tell that story. The set plays its own role in the telling of that story.
In writing, too, the “set” needs to serve the story and not the other way around. Physical descriptions, words used, style, all must contribute to the telling of the story and to the character’s journey, so that at the last page of the book you are left emotionally touched by the story you have been a part of, not by the way it was put together.
I began by talking about a set that I still remembered after 42 intervening years — but what I remember most is how that play and the emotions it portrayed resonated within me. The Glass Menagerie remains one of my favorite plays because of the characters’ journeys, because of the story that is told in it. That sparse set all those years ago helped tell that story to me for the first time, and it began to show me the power inherent in the way a set is designed. On Wednesday, I’ll introduce you to a man who has been involved in set design for fifty years or more, who knows well how to serve a story through his artistry.