One of the best ways to stretch your creative and lateral thinking skills is by designing and crafting stage props and costumes on a limited budget. If you have children (or nephews and nieces) you can volunteer behind the scenes for the school play – if not, look up your local amateur dramatic society and ask if you can get involved.
Keep it simple
Less is more is a good rule to stick to in small theatre productions. Unlike television and film, the set doesn’t have to be realistic and detailed. Audiences enjoy adding their own imagination to the experience to visualise the setting based on a few basic clues, and this can even work to engage the audience more deeply in the work. Visually elaborate sets on unlimited budgets often overwhelm the viewer’s senses – which is sometimes the idea when the play itself is thin on substance.
It can be a challenge to strip a setting down to the basics in your mind’s eye when you’re trying to decide on one or two props that will represent the scene. It often comes down to what is available to borrow from those involved or your own home, and also the transport available. You may want to use a sofa to represent a scene in a lounge, but if you can’t get the sofa to the theatre, you may have to settle for a chair, or a bench covered in a couple of wide foam strips, to give it some volume, and draped with fabric.
What is the first item you picture when you think of the setting? For a kitchen it might be a kettle. For a jail cell, some chains and painted iron bars may be all you need to evoke the scene. Bar stools can represent a bar. If you can’t get bar stools, elevate an ordinary chair on a strong crate, cover the crate with card, and paint the leg extensions on the card.
Backdrops can be used to change a scene very quickly, but remember that the expense of the paint and sheeting needed can eat up your budget in no time. Try to get the most from simple props first, and leave the backdrop design to last on your budget. Time wise, it should be second (following costume making) on your to do list, though, as the next most time consuming and labour intensive task.
Consider something as simple as a different backdrop colour to represent a different place. For example, scenes in two different houses can be achieved by using red for the lounge in one house, and blue for the kitchen in the other, with the sofa quickly hidden by a cardboard kitchen counter. Add the kettle and your lounge is a kitchen.
An even simpler method is to hang white sheeting, and use a coloured spotlight to alter the colour of the backdrop. Of course, simplest of all is to retain the dark inner curtains and let the audience use their imagination.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in March 2007. © Elsa Neal
If you're interested in amateur stage design, or want some ideas for keeping the kids busy, try these books:
Stage Design : A Practical Guide by Gary Thorne (illustrated)
On Stage : Theater Games and Activities for Kids by Lisa Bany-Winters