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Interview with a Set Designer

Updated: Feb 1

We joined Logos Theatre set designer, Jesse Gould, at our Warehouse and were able to put him through a lightning Q & A round! Set design varies from production to production, but Jesse was able to share some of the principles he uses as he is designing the sets for the shows! If you would like to take a more in depth look at some principles of set design or to view the video interview with Jesse about principles to think through when you are designing a show in a limited space, make sure to check out the Director’s Guild!

Note: Some of Jesse’s responses have been edited for length.

QUESTION: When you get a brand new script in your hands, what is the first thing you look at?

JESSE: Generally speaking you will analyze the script for anywhere there is listed or implied that something is used, whether it's characters interacting with a set piece, or maybe sitting under a tree… there’s tons of clues that the script feeds you. Maybe they go through a tunnel or things like that that you’re looking out for and you say, “Okay, that sounds pretty set-related!” You just take notes of any of those things. You also want to get an idea of the scene, for example if it's a conversation between two people, you might hear from the script that they go through a door or something like that, you just take note of that and make a list from there. Write it all down!

Set Designer at work
Jesse at work at the Warehouse

QUESTION: Where are the best places to look for inspiration when you are designing new pieces?

JESSE: Typically the way we operate, I fall under the Artistic Director's vision, so we’ll have an initial meeting where she will talk through any ideas that she is having, directions that the set is going to go, because before you start looking at your inspiration you want to make sure you’re going in the same vein right off the bat. You might end up somewhere completely different than where your director is headed and you don’t want to waste time. I know for Prince Caspian, the Logos Theatre Artistic Director, Nicole, specifically in the remounting of it, felt we would need some new pieces that would be more suited to the spaces we'd be visiting on tour, so she came up with an idea of towers that could be used. She had some things practically that she needed them to do, and that gave us a reference point. From there, we talked it through with a few different artists to get some sketches out there so we could see if we were going in the right vein. But otherwise you look at things like Pinterest or Google, find references of different styles that you can pull concepts from.

QUESTION: Do you ever use historical sources?

JESSE: Sometimes…sometimes we’ll even reference films which can be dangerous if you go too far that route, but there is a difference between something that might be historically accurate and something that actually looks good on the stage so you kind of have to be willing to be artistic with the historical accuracy.

QUESTION: How do you balance creativity with cost effectiveness?

JESSE: You know the stage is full of different tricks. Tricks on the stage but also in making these set pieces a reality. You’re probably not going to haul a massive boulder on stage with you that you excavated from the side of the mountain, but you want to trick the eye so that it looks like you did. There are a lot of different ways that you can make things, so you want to get the right direction from the director on what is the highest priority in your production. Another question that you need to ask is how long this thing needs to last…one show? 200 performances? Does it need to be able to be loaded into different places and tour? If you find that you have to make your set last, that is going to bring the budget up because you want to construct it out of better materials. Are you going to have the time and money later on to fix it if you don’t make it well at the beginning? You can almost always find a way to make a set piece cheaper, but having a good understanding of what the director wants can keep you from going down the rabbit hole a bit with your designs. You want to make sure that the director is aware of the costs and is able to make the decisions based on their goals and their vision for the story.

QUESTION: Do you have any tips for creating a cohesive set design on a tight budget?

JESSE: Theatre is traditionally very good at doing things on a tight budget. If you are cool with a stationary set, you can really cover a lot of ground with traditional flat making techniques, using 1x4s, you can even rip down a 2x4 to be 1x4s to cut your cost of lumber in half. Also, instead of doing panel board you can just stretch fabric very tightly and then paint it and it will look like its solid, there’s techniques like that that you can use to save money. We use foam a lot as a money saver. We get foam blocks from tractor supply… they come in about 11/2x1ft rectangles and that's a great resource if you want to fill out your stage. You can get those for free at Tractor Supply, Northern Tool, etc. A lot of times they just have a stash of them out back that they are just waiting to send back to wherever they came from and you get in there and can snag them for free, and at that point your only expense is glue and paint, glueing them together and carving down to how you want. (For tutorials on how to make your own stage rocks using these foam blocks, take a look at our Director’s Guild!. Also, every Show in a Box comes with detailed suggestions and key set piece instructions!)

Set work with foam blocks

QUESTION: How do you handle designing sets for a small space?

JESSE: Whenever you are working with space limitations you want to hit heavy on the pre- planning side of things. I would recommend measuring out the entire space and then designing your set to work inside that space, because if you go into that blind and you think, “Okay, I’ve got the space and I just want these set pieces,” you might run into some traffic jams if you don’t know exactly how the set pieces are going to work together before you build them. I would recommend building miniatures of your set pieces and presenting them to the director and talking through them. If the director likes the scale of the piece and how it's crafted, you can use that as a reference in building the set piece as well.

There is a lot that goes into set design! With every new production you do, you will find that there are ways to grow and improve in the craft. The Director’s Guild offers direction and insight in even the smallest projects, as well as the Community Forum! Director's Guild members have access to all of these great resources, so take a look at all the Director’s Guild has to offer!

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