A Short Guide to Designing for a School Theatre Production
You have finally secured funding for your school play, you have the script ready, and you have found cast members to play the show’s characters. You’re also about to begin the rehearsals, but there’s still one important element that you need to take care of before the production can really hit the ground running.
We’re talking about the production design, of course. At a professional level, different heads are likely to handle the various aspects of production design, including the stage design, the props, the costumes, and lights and sounds. In a school stage play or musical, however, it is usually the director (a drama teacher or a drama guild adviser) who will mostly have the final say on aesthetic decisions, with the students and teaching assistants providing help as necessary.
Before commencing work, it is important to lay down the things you need to consider when designing for a school theatre production.
Identify your vision for the show
Defining your vision will help make it clear to the design production team how you want the show to be articulated on stage. The vision is basically the focal point upon which all of the design components will pivot.
For example, consider how the designers of The Lion King musical beautifully translated the story of Simba from film to stage. Whereas the film version showed anthropomorphized animals, this can’t be done on stage, so what the designers did was to incorporate elaborate elements of Bunraku puppetry and traditional African regalia into the characters’ costumes without any attempt to conceal the actors behind them. The result is a remarkable visual feast that is truly singular, with the costumes blending seamlessly with the performance of the actors, whose facial expressions and movements are not obscured by the outfits they wear.
The vision was to have both the human and the animal facets of the show to be celebrated at the same time, and the costumes were successfully created according to this vision. If you have been fortunate to catch The Lion King in Los Angeles (2000-2003) or in productions elsewhere, you’ll really be able to appreciate this fact.
Define the scope of work and set a timeline
Preparing the stage, creating the props, and acquiring the costumes can take a lot of time. Some of these things can be so complicated that you might have to start working on them right from the very beginning.
You don’t want to be pulled into a false sense of security that you have all the time in the world, so it’s best to immediately organize committees that will be responsible for their own sets of tasks. Ideally, everything that has anything to do with production design has to be finalized even before the rehearsals begin. Some of details that you need to work on are the following:
- Make an estimate of all the design-related expenses so you can prepare the finances beforehand.
- Know how the stage design elements, props, and costumes will be sourced. Is someone going to make them for you? Are they going to be rented?
- Set a timeline for the acquisition or creation of these materials. Make it the responsibility of committee heads to keep you up to speed about the progress of the projects. Also hold team meetings regularly to ensure that everyone is on the same page with regards to the timeline.
Ask for help from the community
To make things easier for your team, you might want to consider renting premade stage design elements from professional suppliers. Renting theatrical backdrops from a stage backdrop supplier, for instance, can take a load off your stage designers since the backdrop is essentially the most important and most visible element of the stage design. If you are strapped for cash, you can also ask for help from parents or from community volunteers, who can then lend a hand in making costumes and props for the kids.
Working on a theatrical production is really a great way to bring the school or neighborhood together because it is an entertaining and emotionally rewarding endeavor. Furthermore, it also helps the kids develop a sense of pride and accomplishment, since mounting a school play or musical is something that takes a lot of work and perseverance.