Design for the Stage: First Steps

By Darwin Reid Payne | Go to book overview

Box sets are out of favor just now, but they have a great virtue: they allow the performance to build emotion under the pressure of confinement. Still, the emphasis of these boxes should be on the space they enclose and not on the furnishings the designer can plausibly pack them with to "heighten" the illusion. Nothing so deflates illusion as bric-a-brac that upstages the actor. Such sets invariably draw applause as the curtain rises on a parlormaid dusting the armor; in my view, any set that draws applause should instantly be scrapped for a plain backdrop. Stage design is like editing or undertaking--no trade for prima donnas.

I say that, realizing that the two greatest figures of modern stage design--Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig--were prima donnas of the first rank. But they were also seers, men transfixed by all-embracing visions. Appia decreed a stage of neutral emptiness to be transformed by light; Craig appealed to the theatre world to be saved by his "thousand scenes in one scene"--a distillation of the total human environment which, translated, became: "flat floor--flat walls--flat roof." The stage structures, imagined by these men were noble, expectant, almost religious, and fairly crying out for great deeds and inexorable decisions. But in both cases they also bore a strong resemblance to Stonehenge or the Giant's Causeway; had they prevailed, they could have restricted repertory to Wagner, King Lear, and Ibsen When We Dead Awaken.

However, the theatre has never been in danger of succumbing to the high-minded rigors of Craig and Appia. The kind of threat it does have to be on guard against is the staircase that is more beautiful than the heroine, the living room that is busier than the villain, and the forest of Arden in which you cannot see Touchstone for the trees.


Suggested Reading:

Burris-Meyer, Harold, and Cole, Edward C. Theatres and Auditoriums. 2d ed. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp., 1964.

Cogswell, Margaret, ed. The Ideal Theatre: Eight Concepts. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1962.

Gorelik, Mordecai. New Theatres for Old. New York: Samuel French, 1955.

Hodges, C. Walter. The Globe Restored. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1954.

Nicoll, Allardyce. The Development of the Theatre. 5th ed. London: Harrap & Co., Ltd., 1966.

Southern, Richard. The Open Stage. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1959.

-----. The Seven Ages of the Theatre. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961.

Theatre Check List: A Guide to the Planning and Construction of Proscenium and Open Stage Theatres. Edited by the American Theatre Planning Board. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

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