A Day in the Life: Scenic Design

The first in a series of behind-the-scenes looks at what it’s like to be involved both on stage and off, we discussed the process of scenic design with M.F.A. in Design and Technology candidate Bruno-Pierre Houle from conception to strike as he developed designs for Texas Theatre and Dance’s 2015 production of The Wild Party by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe

1. First Design Ideas 
Designers break down the concept of the piece in terms of locations, scene changes, number of actors on stage during each scene, etc.

2. Preliminary Designs 
White models are constructed to get a sense of what needs to be built and helps designers to better understand the scale of the set. During this phase, lighting and media designers also plan their process of how to best work with the piece and the set. Drafting occurs during preliminary designs and consists of a ground plan and section to better understand the specfic layout of the space and challenges that might need to be address. Preliminary colors and textures are selected based on budget, building options and any potential challenges with the concept or text that may need to be addressed (water, etc). Preliminary lists of props are also planned and sketched, along with any other major elements that need to be part of the final design (flying, rigging, fire, etc.)

sketch of wild party

Scenic Design by Bruno-Pierre Houle

3. Costing Meetings
During costing meetings, designers discuss the proposed designs to address what challenges need to be considered and what needs to be changed before final design.

4. Final Designs 
Final design consists of a full-color model and a full drafting pack (groundplan, section and elevations). The technical director will then use this information to start making technical drawings of the show. It is the designer’s job to to convey how things will look on stage and the technical director makes those things take form. The technical director ensures the set is safe, solid and something that they can achieve with the materials available in the scene shop.In addition to the models and drafting pack, designers also provide 1/2 scale elevations, used to reproduce exactly what the designer wants to see on stage; final props list and props catalogue with any drawings and paint elevations required; fabric swatches for any props or scenery; paint numbers (if needed) and research and reference for all design concepts.

black and gold final rendering wild party

Scenic Design by Bruno-Pierre Houle

5. Final Costing Meeting
A final meeting occurs before construction begins where any needed changes are addressed. The designer meets with the technical director to discuss how things will be built, the scenic charge to look over samples and test materials, the props master to consider what’s available in stock and order/build any missing items, and other designers to make sure there is a cohesive vision for the staging including lighting positions, projector placement and costume needs. These meetings continue throughout the construction process.

 6. Construction
The set then moves to the construction phase and begins to take shape. The scenic designer stays in communication with the shops to see how progress is made, helps to get any missing elements (if needed) and updates the teams on any changes that may have happened.

layout of scene shop floor

Scenic Design by Bruno-Pierre Houle

7. Rehearsals
Going into the rehearsal phase is an exciting time when the cast, crew and design team get to see their hard work take shape. As rehearsals start to establish the workings of the piece, the scenic designers considers how movement, actions or technical alteration may necessitate changes to the design. They also maintain a list of any prop changes for additional items or replacements if something is broken and communicate with the other designers to ensure everything works together.

8. Set Load In 
Scenery moves into the theatre or space, installations are made and rigged elements are set up. Load in typically starts with the floor and builds upward to smaller details and elements. There is then time for the designer to make any needed corrections to final details (paint touch ups, trim, etc).

load in wild party

Scenic Design by Bruno-Pierre Houle

9. Props Load In 
Props are loaded into the space.

10. Spacing Rehearsal 
The actors move into the space and rehearse on set in order to help the cast become familiar with any set elements and the designers to look at the timing of transitions, sightlines, backstage set up and movement on the set.

11. Tech Week
Tech week signals the last few rehearsals before the opening of a production. Designers are looking at how everything functions, timing, finishes and final prop changes. They consider how everything looks together, whether or not the audience can see backstage and if there is anything missing before the public is invited to see their work.

12. Open
The show opens!

woman in crowded space

“The Wild Party” by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe; Photo: Lawrence Peart (2015)

13. Strike
The theatre is an experience. A fleeting moment of passion, artistry and creation. And just like the production itself, the set is a fleeting piece of a moving theatrical form. During strike, the set is dismantled and the theatre is reset for the next production.


Content and images provided by Bruno-Pierre Houle and The University of Texas at Austin Department of Theatre and Dance.