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Grace Smart: Want to design a cool, beautiful set? Read the script, stupid

Does your set design match the text, like the Olivier award-winning set for The Nether? Photo: Johan Persson. Does your set design match the text, like the Olivier award-winning set for The Nether? Photo: Johan Persson.
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I’m working on a play set in a single room. I’ve done quite a few plays that are set in a single room, and I believe I’m pretty good at it.

It can be tempting to force things on to such a room that it doesn’t need, and during this job I’ve thought a lot about serving the text, not my own ideas of what will impress people.

Our job as theatre designers is not to show you what a room looks like, but to tell ‘the truth’ of the room.

Sadly, that idea of ‘the truth’ has become one of those meaningless industry cliches we exclaim at 1am in the theatre bar while pounding our fists on the table.

But it’s easy to get seduced as a designer, to wander away from what the set actually needs, in an effort to be cool, literal or beautiful.

Cool can make you want to abstract the room completely. Cool leans on the doorway of your studio and plants seeds of doubt.

Cool says: “Don’t tell me you’re just gonna do a room. That’s so dweeby, and all the best designers don’t do like, walled rooms, they do atmos. Remember that show in Berlin?”

So you start forcing your room into something bizarre, and trendy. Cool.

Next, doddering in, comes Literal, picking up your research images and shoving them under your nose. “I had that wallpaper in the 1970s,” says Literal.

“What on earth is that abstract modernist thing? I want to see my childhood perfectly encapsulated. Everyone will be so impressed by your attention to detail.”

Literal then hits you over the head with his collection of programmes until you throw what you have away, and vow to do the hyperreal version.

And then there’s Beauty, draped across your desk like it’s a grand piano.

She cups your face, pulls you in, and whispers, breathily, “Use lots of velvet, beautiful rust, gorgeous rich wood textures, or Victorian panelled doors…Think how much attention you’ll get.”

You stutter back: “But none of those would be in a council flat…” as you stare distractedly at her Farrow and Ball paint samples.

But Truth… That’s actually the only voice you should listen to. Truth just asks a simple question: what does this room look like to the characters and how can you translate that?

Is the room a memory that has become exaggerated? Are they acutely aware of every detail? Or to them is it an empty stage with a single chair? Are they happy? Does it look beautiful to them? Or is it a beautiful room that terrifies them? How does it change?

I could go on, but the point is, as we all know deep down, it all has to come from the bloody text.

Basically, every show I’m tempted to cop out and cop off with one of these bold harbingers of trying-to-please. When all I really have to do is just read the script again. I’m learning, though, that when it’s right for the show, it usually is pretty cool, detailed and beautiful anyway. So don’t force it, stupid.

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