How a Set Designer Unleashes the Potential Energy in Theatre

Every object on a set has the potential to animate a world for the audience.

I’ve been to some terrible plays—high school and even “professional” performances. I walk away with a sense of regret, but even more with a sense of loss. Every object in theatre, every set design has so much potential that it’s soul crushing when both fall so flat you wish you were back at home watching Lifetime by yourself.

I feel a sense of loss when poor experiences don’t fulfill theatre’s promise: to have a meaningful impact on the audience. To offer them a set and a story so dynamic that it moves them.

Everything in theatre has potential energy, from the light fixture on the wall to the actor’s shoelace. And yes, I know, I stole a physics term. But I don’t mean the potential energy of a coiled spring—I mean the potential each element has to impact the audience. A shoelace can impact the audience but the potential it has is smaller than the potential the furniture may have, or the actors. Each element’s energy must be maximized. That’s where the designer comes in.

Energy Maximizing Specialists sounds too much like we belong on the Enterprise so we’ll settle for “designer.” Or in my case, set (EMS) designer.

Reading the Script

Releasing this energy begins innocently enough: you get a script, or in some unfortunate (and most likely unpaid) cases, you scramble to round up a copy on your own. Then comes one of the most exciting parts of the process: you sit down, crack open the script for the first time, and let yourself get lost in the story.

I try to do my first read-through in one sitting. I don’t bring a pencil for this first adventure. I want to read it without my designer mind and simply let my imagination run wild with every element of the story.

Then comes the tedious—but oh-so-necessary—second read. For this part I bring every manner of writing utensil and every color of post-it. This is business.

I wish all I had to do is dream up a set based on how I think it should look (with doors wherever I want them, for example), but this isn’t the case. Usually during my third and fourth reads through the script I’m figuring out every detail of the set that the script requires: how many entrances and exits are made during the course of the show, and by whom, and from where they are coming and going. It wouldn’t do to have only one door when characters are supposed to be coming from the bathroom, the barn and the museum—not to mention the closet where that eavesdropping maid is always hiding.

Obeying the Script Gods

I divide this information into two groups: First, what a character says. This is detail that might as well be the Word of God and cannot be changed except under extreme conditions.

In the second group I note all the stage direction. You know: the italics that say Atticus marches into the courtroom. Italics are also like the Word of God, but only after everyone argues and decides to interpret it however they damn well please (meaning that stage direction is disposable and that the director will probably change it all anyway because in theatre, the director is God). But you still make note of them because they’re helpful and provide hints as to what’s going on.

Sketching the Design

The fun begins when I do some sketches of what the set would look like if I were directing, if I had an unlimited budget and the laws of physics did not apply. But I do multiple versions because I’m not directing, the budget is too small, and physics are actually law-abiding things. These first sketches lead to endless meetings and research. It’s tedious, but it’s not so bad when you’re working with an experienced and pleasant director.

The director really can make the process a joy or as painful as death by hara-kiri. (I have worked with some terrible directors, but that’s for another article). Let’s just assume that when I say director she is everything a director should be. She gives you her vision. She explains exactly which elements she can’t live without (and remember it may be something she has thought of that is not even in the script anywhere). And she’s nice.

With the director’s notes, your own ideas, and the research and the laundry list of things that you know the script calls for, you go back to the drawing board. Now comes the part where you really earn the EMS title. You merge your imagination from the first read with the practical stuff. Additionally, you keep in mind how these things will actually get built (like, how will we make a floating platform fourteen feet off the stage that can hold five people and glows like the sun?).

Building the Set

The entire goal of this process is to maximize the energy of the set—and there is a lot of potential energy in the set. I’m keeping in mind how set creates the world, thus adding energy. I’m keeping in mind how set increases tension between actors, thus adding energy. I’m keeping in mind the possibility for surprises on the set, even as simple as a door opening, because you guessed it…this too is adding energy.

This energy has a different impact on each person or group of people who are exposed to it. I would love my set to change everyone who sees it, but I have 3 primary targets I want the energy of the set to impact: the director, the actors, and—most importantly—the audience.

A fully realized set energizes the director when she sees it. It should be like a playground for an actor, a world he can’t resist entering and exploring. Often the set can be one of the final pieces to fill out the actors’ world and thus contribute to their energy output.


The first time the audience sees the set they should marvel. This is when the audience first begins to see the potential this show has. This is the first step in them suspending their disbelief.

So that the potential energy you established in the set becomes unleashed as the actors bring it to life right in front of the audience, transforming it from a static design to a dynamic experience.

by Rocco Ambrosio

This article is part of an August series on theatre, hosted by the Play and Create channels at Humane Pursuits. Read more here.

Photo by Eva Blue via Unsplash.

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