Arts & Culture / Mosaic / November 8, 2018

Constructing worlds: using set design to tell stories

Associate Professor of Theatre Craig Choma believes set design is one of the most important parts of theatre. (Daniel Conway/TKS)

Associate Professor of Theatre Craig Choma believes that set designers are storytellers. Through spotlights, scene backdrops and props a production team can bring a sense of magic to a performance.

“Audiences, generally speaking, especially if they’ve [never] done theatre or have been behind the scenes and understand the sheer amount of time it takes, a lot of people just show up and think it’s magical — and it is, in a way — but I think the thing that goes unnoticed the most is the sheer amount of man hours,” Choma said.

Choma considers his work in scenic design constructive and ever changing.

“I work with the students to teach them how to build, paint and rig the lighting, all that stuff,” Choma said.

A lot of the work that goes into the show designs include buildings models, displays and working with design software to help light the shows.

Prior to set building, the strenuous process of actual design must first take place, requiring precise considerations, a quota of detail and of course, time. Choma sees the scene shop as another team of storytellers. He believes performances would not be nearly as impactful without the presence of well calculated and cared for scenic design.

“Theatrical designers tell [a] story visually. We’re there to augment the story so that by looking at a particular character you may understand them more because of the color they’re wearing,” Choma said.

Senior Peter Rule enjoys working on the magic behind the scenes.

“I find that it’s really exciting to shape the space where the actors are when performing. You’re sort of creating a tool for the actors to use to make this world that they’re performing come alive,” Rule said.

The goal of the scene shop, as well as its counterparts in the costume shop and on stage, is to have the audience completely engrossed in the story that is unfolding before them.

“We hope that everything is working in concert with one another, so that audience members are able to sort of lose themselves, they willingly suspend their disbelief that ‘I’m in a theatre space, none of this is real,’” Choma said.

The “willing suspension of belief” when executed to success optimizes the collaborative nature of theatre — that everything works together in concord, progressing simultaneously and almost naturally.

“No one design area is more important than another,” Choma said. “In the end, theatre is entirely a collaborative art.”

Rule believes that scenic design demands great effort and communication among design areas, production leaders and the other elements of the performance’s storytelling.

“It’s definitely not the sort of thing where you finish your design and hand it off to someone; you’re constantly involved in all the production meetings where you’re getting together with all the staff: the costume, sound, or lighting designer, so that you come together, É a unified whole,” Rule said. “It’s a very involved process.”

According to Choma, when things go as planned it is easy to notice that scene design has done its job.

“If it’s working incredibly well, then none of the design is going to get noticed,” Choma said. “If everything has worked beautifully, they’re going to get lost in the story, and care about the characters and what they’re going through.”

Choma hopes to use upcoming projects “The Laramie Project” and “The Children’s Hour” to continue working within the college’s means, and provide experience for the newly introduced students hoping they eventually become increasingly vital storytellers — or future assistants — in Knox’s theatres.

At Knox, study in scenic design acts as substantial experience for theatre-oriented students that may desire a career of sorts in this subject, according to Choma.

“We try to model the profession as best as we can: about how production meetings work, how the conversations happen, how we collaborate. When students are part of that experience and generate work for their portfolio, that’s really what’s huge for me,” said Choma.

Luis Borrero

Tags:  department design Ford Center for the Fine Arts Harbach kresge plays scene sets studio technical theatre

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