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Designing the Details

How missing pieces in the design puzzle can throw off the whole show.


    Walking into a theater, the first thing an audience sees (besides an usher and program) is design. Pre-show sound, lights and set ready the tone of the evening, preparing an audience for what they are about to watch. An intentional manipulation, the pre-show is one of my favorite aspects of going to a show because it allows an audience to imagine what will come next, viewing the stage as a word-free work of art.    

    The pre-show attempts to capture the intention of the designers, to prepare us for the cues to come later and to give us a peek at the lives about to be led. I find it thrilling to imagine where the actors may go, what props they may use and what corners they will fill. Good designers know we are waiting and will give us just enough, highlighting details within what we see. This focus on detail will play out as the show begins, and these same details will color our perception as we jump headfirst into the world of the play.   

    Detail is what sells an audience on this world. In order for our eyes, ears and minds to accept what we see before us as “reality” (however reality is defined by the show), an audience must feel the designers’ commitment to detail. Our animal brains alert us when perception is not quite right, whether it’s a discord within the lines of a set, a sound that feels manufactured, a light that radiates without a rational source, a costume that fits unnaturally or a prop that removes us from the action.    

    Design elements must follow a uniform strategy, fitting together like a puzzle that once completed, defines the space and gives us an ability to comprehend what we see and hear. In an abstract sense, our minds wish to solve the puzzle we are watching, no matter how bizarre or common-day. On a fundamental level, an audience is there to follow a story, and the design elements are a big part of the telling. Without the collaboration of designers with a strong attention to detail, an audience will have a more difficult time making the leap to suspend their disbelief. Becoming lost in their own thoughts, audience members will begin to focus inward instead of involving themselves in the theatrical vision before them.   

    An example I can cite from my own experience as an audience member involves a show with wonderful direction, great actors and a mostly top-notch design. As I continued to watch the show, however, I began to focus on the stage props. The items on various kitchen shelves were oddly distracting, so I took a moment to look closely at them. The play was set in the mid-1950s, and the prop designer seemed to not have done a thorough job researching. I noticed design elements from across the ages—bowls from the ‘70s mixed with knick-knacks from the ‘60s combined with kitsch from the ‘50s. I began to wonder if I was being annoying for caring so much about the specifics, but as I wondered, my attention shifted from the stage to my own internal monologue.    

    Suddenly I had lost minutes of on-stage action and began to care less about what was happening. I also began to question other elements on stage: was the acting really that good? Were the other designers just as unfocused? Is this play really that interesting? Is this seat as uncomfortable as I think it is?     

    I’m probably exaggerating a bit, but the heart of the problem rings true. If one piece of the design puzzle doesn’t mesh, the puzzle can’t be completed. Without a designer’s application of well-regarded detail, an audience is left with the seams and cracks. These breaks in design give an audience the opportunity to drift away from making a true connection.   

    When detail in all design aspects is met (and the show’s other factions do their detail work, too), then a play has a chance to become fully realized. Full realization is the theater artist’s dream scenario and an audience member’s happiest destination. A good designer knows that his or her work will not be finished until he or she is satisfied, along with the director, writer, actors and other designers. Understanding the collaborative nature of theater, great designers leave their strongest thumbprint in the details. This thumbprint is the key to engagement, comprehension and theatrical fulfillment.

Published: February 08, 2009
Issue: February 2009 Design Issue