Theatre design or scenography involves the design and construction of a performance space. A theatre designer or scenographer’s work could encompass a range of creative outlets. They might be involved with designing the performance space, constructing sets or even designing costumes and props.
Theatre designers utilise many skills such as painting, drawing, construction, sewing and even budgeting. They also need to have a good understanding of the text and how the actors will use the space.
Some theatre designers are self-taught whilst many are increasingly trained at schools which offer state of the art facilities and learning opportunities and experiences. The Society of British Theatre Designers have provided a list of accredited courses to train as a theatre designer in the UK which you can check out here.
Whether you’re a natural or trained at art school, a life in the theatre is not for the faint hearted. To be a theatre designer you need stamina and passion and must actively be discovering, researching and staying curious.
I recently spoke to two former Prague Youth Theatre interns- Lucía(Lux) Sánchez Zarza and Mira Reichstein- who have both been heavily involved in creating artwork and design for Prague Youth Theatre productions in the past and were able to tell me a bit more about the process of theatre design and how they each personally approach their work.
Spanish born Lux, interned at Prague Youth Theatre in the spring of 2015 and designed work for the plays In A Galaxy Far, Far Away, Twisted and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. PYT then employed Lux as a set and costume designer in the winter of that year, designing and creating work for Tribes United, I Didn’t Think, 4am, The Beauty Manifesto and Bassett and designing for Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Remote, The Taming of the Shrew and Empty Hands in the summer of 2016. Lux now works remotely designing graphics for PYT show posters.
Mira is relatively new to the theatre design scene and has recently earned valuable experience as an intern. Originally from Germany, Mira interned at Prague Youth Theatre from September 2016- December 2016 and designed and created props, costumes and scenery for plays and performances such as The Boy Who Fell Into a Book, Hood, Collected Grimm Tales and Folktales From Around the World.
Here is what Lux and Mira told us about their theatre design experiences:
How did you train to be an artist?
Lux: I studied Fine Arts at University, mainly at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) with an exchange year at The University of California, Berkeley.
Mira: I guess being creative has always been something I liked to do. I would often go to after-school clubs or visit museums or performances in our local theatre whilst I was growing up.
When did you first get involved with theatre design?
Lux: I first got involved with theatre design when I joined a theatre group (Caín) at the Architecture School in Madrid. The people in the group were all visually-driven and we made very fun space experiments for plays and performances which had a heavy design component.
Mira: In a theatre group for youngsters. To experience how much emotion can lie in the simplest stage design always fascinated me the most.
Are you inspired by any particular artists?
Lux: At the moment, I admire Daniel Egneus very much and especially his ink work.
Mira: There is not really a particular one. I like to follow a lot of contemporary artists on social media and get a lot of good inspiration there. Two artists I really like are for example Isabel and Ruben Toledo.
Where do you get inspiration for your work?
Lux: I am usually inspired when working closely with the director and seeing what the script brings. The director is the one with the initial vision. Ideas may not be clear during the first rehearsals but things fall in to place pretty quickly when you see the students working.
Mira: I try to keep my eyes open and get inspiration everywhere I go. You can’t always plan it- sometimes I get an idea in the weirdest places and moments and so I always have something with me to write it down.
How do you go about designing for theatre?
Lux: The first step involves actually reading the script and thinking about the different aspects to the play- I ask myself some questions. Where are the characters? What are they wearing? How can we present the space and enhance the character’s words and movements. It is important to work closely with the director from the start to see how they want to set the scene. Ideas become more defined throughout rehearsals.
Mira: I usually read the script, underline things and make comments for myself as well as finding out about the background of the play or the playwright – the script often looks like it has been forgotten for 10 months in the deep depth of a schoolbag! Also, I would make some sketches of characters and stage design and I would go to rehearsals to be involved in the process. To my mind a close collaboration of all aspects theatre is very important for the development of a performance.
What is the favourite piece you designed for Prague Youth Theatre and why?
Lux: In the play ‘Empty Hands’, I did a lot of thrift store and flea market hunting for props, which was exciting! I particularly enjoyed making shadow puppets for ‘Empty Hands’. Drawing the puppets, cutting around their outlines and then seeing their profile illustrate the story was perhaps my favourite part of all.
Mira: For the play The Boy Who Fell Into a Book I made all of the props and costumes out of paper. One piece was a hobbyhorse which was very much fun to make! Once the horse was done it was also very nice to see what the students did with it and how it was involved in their acting on stage.
Do you have any advice for someone who would like to start designing for theatre?
Lux: I think that always doing at least something makes a difference in the long run and helps you to improve- the more you walk, the better you’ll be at skipping over the stones. I really recommend self-imposed intensive drawing marathons. For example, you could do a sketch a day for each Shakespearean play. This helps you to have focus, loosen the hand and encourages you to discipline yourself. I think it’s really important to respect yourself and physically training yourself to get work done.
Mira: Don‘t be afraid. Sometimes you just have to jump in at the deep end!
You can check out Lux’s general work here, her theatre work here and the lamps which she co-designs here. As well as designing for theatre, Mira also designs jewellery. Make sure you check out her Facebook page to see her collection!
If you interested in becoming an intern like Lux and Mira at Prague Youth Theatre, whether it is because you want to get involved in theatre design or even any other aspect of the theatre, we recommend you get in touch here to find out more about internship opportunities.
Links and articles
Here’s some links and articles about theatre design which you also might find interesting:
- 5 tips for set designers
- 10 sets that changed the face of modern theatre
- VIDEO: Jane Eyre-Set Design (National Theatre)
- VIDEO: Designing and making a set (Royal Opera House)