How to bring big budget dreams down to earth

While waiting for a theatrical play to begin, you may notice how the stage is set, lit, decorated and put to music. You may have even wondered how much planning, designing and budgeting it takes to make that stage right in front of you perfect.

“I think what most often surprises people is the design process starts months before we ever hit rehearsal,” says Glenda Stirling, Artistic Director at Lunchbox Theatre and director of That Men May Fly, which is playing at Lunchbox Theatre from Oct. 21 to Nov. 16.

This is because every step taken and every dollar spent is carefully planned out.
Directors start planning by reading a play several times and then making notes of what comes to their mind.

“I write every smell, every colour, every image and every texture that comes to me from the play,” Stirling says.

After imagining what a set might look like, the team collaborates on what to build based on space.

“We often talk about the realities of the limitations or possibilities of the space,” Stirling says.

But space is just one aspect designers have to work with when planning out the dimensions and what is possible in a set.

Money matters

Budget also plays a huge role in what designers do and what materials they use.

While building a castle for the play The Passion of Mary on a tiny budget, Stirling says she and the designer had to get creative with different materials.

“We started looking at images online of art installations made out of cardboard and what we ended up with in the theatre network space was an extraordinary design,” Stirling says. “The brilliance of it was driven by the fact that we had a tiny budget [and] cardboard became an affordable option.”

Stirling says the budget directors have to work with ranges, and are set by the theatre company.
“You start with the big dream, then you have to cost it and then you go ‘can you afford to do this design?’ and if not, what are you going to do instead,” Stirling says.Glen Krushel, the head scenic carpenter for Alberta Theatre Projects, builds a ‘bridge truss’, for the play, The MotherF**ker with the Hat, the first play of the 2013-2014 season, which runs Oct. 15 until Nov 2.

Photo by Jasmine Han

“The difference between a two or three person show here at Lunchbox Theatre and a co-production between Theatre Calgary and the National Arts Centre, which may have 20 people in the cast, is a significant difference in budget,” Stirling says. “It can be anywhere from $500 to $50,000 for a single design element.”

But there is another element that artistic directors have to consider. They have to make sure the set captures the audience’s attention and has the right look for the theme of the play.

Creating a new world

Glen Krushel, head scenic carpenter for Alberta Theatre Projects, understands how important it is to build a set to match the theme of the play, and comments on how the first play of the 2013–2014 season for Alberta Theatre Projects, The MotherF**ker with the Hat, is built in a specific way.

“The designer has created a situation where the audience has a sense that they are invading [the set],” Krushel says. “They are looking in on the characters lives of the play.”

Anton de Groot, a freelance designer within Calgary’s theatre community, views his job as creating the world of the play — giving the audience a sense of what’s going on, and where these people are.

“It’s not just designing a floor and designing a wall, it’s making images that speak to the central themes of the play, [which will] come forward and be understood by our audience,” de Groot says.

jhan@cjournal.ca