Building Worlds to Remember

How stages are designed to bring stories to life and immerse audiences

by Nathan Robertson

We’ve all heard the age old adage, “Home is where the heart is.” This idea of ‘place’ is a vital part of shaping who we are and helping us to identify various experiences we’ve been through. Whether it’s the room where you met your best friend, or the front porch where you had your first breakup, place and setting help us to remember experiences.

Thus, it would only make sense, that when it comes to experiencing theater, it is important for the story to have a clear place and setting. Therein comes the necessity for quality stage design.

Early last month, Cedarville University’s fall production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” wrapped up its final performance. Perhaps one of the most talked about aspects of the show was its realistic set design that made audiences feel as if they were in the annex with the Frank family.

It begins with the various parts of the design team meeting with the director and turning the director’s concept into a physical plan. The experience of the set designer and their relationship with the director often dictates the amount of control that they have over the creation of the design.

Gisela Mullican, a Cedarville graduate with a theatre design degree, was the set designer for “The Diary of Anne Frank” and for upcoming winter production of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Her initial ideas for the set design all depend on the kind of play she’s working with.

Tim Phipps, a Cedarville graduate, has been the theaters technical director and project manager for over 10 years. [Photo by Naomi Harward]

“For Anne Frank, it was obviously going to be a house,” Mullican said. “If it’s more abstract [the set designer] can have more design control with what I would want to do.”

The upcoming production of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is going to be much more in the realm of the abstract. The central metaphor for the show is going to be “Jove.” Due to C.S. Lewis’ love of cosmology, there is a theory that C.S. Lewis wrote the seven Narnia novels with each one representing the seven planets in medieval cosmology.

Jove (the planet Jupiter in medieval cosmology) will be the representative planet for “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” This theme will play heavily into the design, which makes it a completely different challenge than something more straightforward like a house.

Mullican said her greatest challenge for the upcoming show will be its differences from past shows.

“For Narnia, it’s more abstract, a whole lot more so than for Anne Frank,” Mullican said. “The hardest part was narrowing down the direction I wanted to go with it.”

Working along with the set designer and director is the technical director, also known as the TD. It is up to the TD to take the design that’s been conceived and turn it into a physical reality.

Tim Phipps, also a Cedarville graduate, has served as the technical director and production manager for over 10 years.  With years of experience comes the understanding of the steps that need to be taken in order to begin building the set.

“I’ll work closely with our designer, whoever our scenic designer is for that show,” Phipps said. “Usually even before they start their design we’ll start talking concepts and ideas, more of the question of, ‘What can we do?’ What things might work, what things we probably can’t do.”

Other issues inevitably arise, such as complying to the dimensions of the venue — which dictates how far out, how high, and where things have to be built. A dialogue about those issues begins early in the planning process.

Once there is an actual drawn plan for the set, the TD takes over and looks for any problems. With “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Phipps had to speak with Mullican about the shallowness of the set. He suggested adding a couple of feet to give the actors more room to move, and to give the stage a more visual depth.

There is constant communication with the designer, whether that is shifting windows or deciding on different color choices. In professional theater, it is typical for designers to hand off their design and have little to do with the rest of the process. The next step is to begin the build, which normally starts with the ground plan.

“The ground plan is just the overhead view of the set,” Phipps said. “Where are the walls going to fall? What are the heights of the levels or platforms that we use? Where are steps located? Where are exits located? Where are windows? All that.”

The ground plan is then taped out on the stage floor and the set builders begin from the ground up. Then they move to putting in walls, doors and other finishes to the frame of the set. After that, it’s finally time to paint.

To put things in perspective, the walls of the set for “The Diary of Anne Frank” took seven layers of paint.

The process of designing and building a set is a long one. It takes countless hours and plenty of resources to come up with a finished project that satisfies not only the creators, but also the audience that comes to witness it.

After the hours of planning and labor that go into preparing the stage, it will only exist for a couple short weeks before it is torn down. After the final performance, the strike team strikes, or tears down, the stage to prepare it for the next set design.

So one may ask whether it’s all really worth the trouble. Isn’t theater about acting? Both Mullican and Phipps have a great understanding of the importance of the set in a production.

“The actors can’t act without a set,” Mullican said. “It can add so much more to a production.”

“We’re trying to bring the audience into the world of the show,” Phipps said. “To make it — make them — just be part of the show and be there. It comes through in all the different aspects. We want to wow the audience in many ways when we build things.”

The Cedarville Theatre Department prides itself on its quality and professional level set design. The stage is built in order to help bring audiences into the world of the show as soon as they step into the theater.

If you read this and you find yourself intrigued, make sure that you plan to see “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” in February of 2018. You may find yourself more appreciative of the new world you enter through the doors of the theater.

Nathan Robertson is a junior broadcasting and digital media major and a writer for Cedars. He is an avid film watcher, an open-minded music lover, and a devoted Netflix binger.

1 Reply to "Building Worlds to Remember"

  • comment-avatar
    HB December 10, 2017 (9:25 pm)

    Thank you for doing an article about the great work that CU’s theatre department does! I don’t think many people realize how on caliber our department is in the collegiate theatre community. The fact that we can compete with other schools in the community that have a renowned theatre program is very impressive for our small college. Scenic design is art, and I know I (as well as Gisela) was trained by extremely talented and experienced professionals in the Dayton theatre community and beyond. Grateful for Tim Phipps, Robert Clements, Don Jones, and Joe Kucharski who were passionate about the craft of theatrical design and taught so well during their time spent at Cedarville. I’m proud to be an alumna of the CU theatre department!