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On Set Construction and Original Practices

Scott Wright is a member of PCSC's Repertory Company and also sits on our Board of Directors. In addition to playing Prospero in The Tempest, Scott constructed the production's transformable set piece.

One of the biggest challenges for any touring theatre company is figuring out how to travel to the next venue with all the "stuff" (and people...) needed to put on the show - sets, lights, costumes, props, electrical, rigging - a shocking amount of "stuff"; without having to rent a fleet of trucks to carry it all.

PCSC's goal is to (as much as possible) re-create the performance conditions of acting companies in the latter decades of the 15th century. Historians have held that those acting companies invested most of their resources in their costumes - some of which were very elaborate and expensive - and comparatively little on sets & the like. Theirs was a very class-conscious society, and how one dressed was the most widely understood clue to a person's status in that society, or even who (historically) that person was. The company's costumes were possibly their most important story-telling asset as well as their most valuable possessions.

But this blog isn't actually about costumes - it's about sets...

I started out talking about costumes because when I imagine an early-modern acting company going out on tour (mostly to get out of Black-Plague-infested London...) I imagine the twelve to twenty people in the group walking, maybe riding a pony and/or pulling a cart or a wagon or two full of their stuff - mostly the costumes, a few props, some curtains, staves, their supplies and necessities - maybe everything they owned...

When at their home base, the early-modern actors might have some extra storage space for costumes, but historians have found little evidence to suggest that they did much in the way of sets in their city theaters. The stage was, for the most part bare. A single tree is said to have represented the great Forest of Arden - possibly with the addition of some greenery hung about the pillars supporting the roof over the stage. Perhaps some rope and cloth could be used to evoke the deck of a ship at sea... A throne to represent the kingdom's royal court.

But when you're touring you get even less - you have to carry it all along with you.

It doesn't seem likely that the players took every single costume the company owned out on tour, but they needed enough to be prepared for any eventuality. I imagine the lord of a manor, at which the players had just arrived, requesting a particular play - perhaps one he'd seen when last in London three years previously, but which these players hadn't actually prepared for. And the space he had available for them to play in might be quite different from the stage back on Riverside.

Our Will wrote quite a few plays that require such things as a balcony, or the steps of the Roman Capital, or the deck of a ship at sea... to name just a few - so we find ourselves obliged to provide these kind of set-pieces, or improvise something different (Shakespeare's plays are amazingly flexible in many ways...)

The design brief for a PCSC set-piece pretty much reflects the same things that would have been important to an early-modern acting company. Simple, flexible, tour-able, inexpensive, and serve the show & the director's vision.

Simple - any set piece no matter how simple or complex should help to tell the story, just as the costumes and props & etc. do - without being a distraction. Also, a touring acting company might have to set up the stage and be ready to give a performance on very short notice. It needs to go together quickly & without too much fuss.

Flexible - set pieces need to be recycled, show upon show. In Romeo & Juliet or "Two Gents", it's a balcony. In Julius Caesar it's the steps of the capitol. In "Winter's Tale" it might be converted into a quaint little country bridge, and in "The Tempest", with the addition of a ship's wheel and some rope to dress it, the deck of a ship, and the ship-wreck/beach-scape of Prospero's "poor cell." And it has to be flexible enough to be useful in almost any kind of playing space, from the basement-great room of a church or school with 8-foot ceilings, to the purpose-built proscenium theatre that seats hundreds of people, to a small and very intimate black-box.

Tour-able - everything - balconies, bridges, capital steps, sails, costumes, props, weapons - everything necessary has to fold flat (or at least mostly-flat...) and be packed into the back of a van or other passenger vehicle(s). Packing & unpacking of the van and setup for the show should be fast, easy, & straight-forward.

Inexpensive - this is perhaps self-explanatory - every theatre company works to minimize expenses and maximize profits, and most theatrical sets and props are illusions, at best. But when building pieces that can be used show after show and easily converted for use in the next show, a designer has to carefully balance the need for durability, and simplicity.

Serving the show and the director's vision within the constraints of low-budget touring is also a bit of a balancing act... For this latest production of The Tempest, director Katherine Mayberry asked for a "ship's wheel" for the set, and visually her concept was to be inspired by the work of Alphonse Mucha, whose late-19th century eastern-European art-nouveau style was full of soft colors, flowers, & curlicues, superimposed with regular geometric forms - lines, circles, arcs, and the kind of ornamentation that one sees in old wrought-iron or -bronze furniture and architectural features. It was these that inspired our break-away ship's wheel for this production.

Ship's wheel under construction

Come out & see it in action in our new "Tempest" at Dog Story Theater Apr.15-17 & 22-24, 2016...!

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