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What does a Scenic Designer do?

Cassie L. Damewood
Cassie L. Damewood

A scenic designer, also known as a set or stage designer, creates the physical atmosphere in which a play or stage performance is performed. The stage is the canvas on which he creates the setting for the characters to perform. Just as appropriate and impeccably designed costumes play an integral part in a play’s success, a good set design can be crucial to the success of the production as a whole.

The initial steps a scenic designer takes to create a memorable set are usually fairly basic and simple. He and the director typically confer on the tone of the production before he prepares a preliminary set of drawings and paintings depicting his vision for the design. Once they agree on the set design, the designer often gives the plans to the master carpenter to build a set model.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

After the preliminary model is approved, the scenic designer may proceed to research the set’s aesthetic requirements. This may include studying historical data and pictures to guarantee accuracy in the depictions of furniture, architecture and accessories. As necessary changes are noted, he keeps the set production crews informed. If challenges are discovered, they discuss options for implementation or choose alternate routes to achieve the desired results.

As rehearsals get underway, the cast generally is briefed on the set design. As rehearsals progress, the scenic designer sometimes observes the production. He may note problem areas to be addressed by the production crews. These can include physical adjustments regarding doors or stairs, decorative changes to improve authenticity or lighting modifications affecting shadows or colors.

Consultations with various designers, managers and artists often continue throughout the production. As crew members make observations and recommendations for improvements, the scenic designer, director and producer decide together which ideas are worthy of implementation. Critics' reviews of the production are often considered as well.

On the less creative side of his job, the scenic designer is generally required to submit budget projections and expenditure reports. The venue’s management regularly requires inventory counts on materials borrowed from the scenery and props departments. The production’s investors may require explanations of cost overruns.

After the production closes, the scenic designer commonly compiles a portfolio for himself and possibly for the review of future designers, producers or directors. The portfolio normally reflects what materials he used in his design along with special effects and how they were created. The document may also include other facts or conditions that may help him in designing future sets for the same or similar productions.

While formal education in art or theater is preferred, it is not always a prerequisite for this position. Many scenic designers have a background in the areas of costumes, props or set construction. Success in obtaining work as a scenic designer is sometimes more dependent on the designer’s depth of imagination and creativity, as well as his ability to turn his vision into a believable set design.

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