How to design a set
Before the band strikes up or actors enter from the wings, the stage directions for Jonathan Larson's 'Rent' require the following to loom above the stage: “a metal sculpture intended to represent a Christmas tree that stands in an abandoned lot, a wood burning stove with a snaky chimney, and a church steeple”. It’s not exactly the simplest place to start!
Whenever I start thinking about a set design, the first place I head to is Pinterest. While it’s better known for its plethora of Mason jar craft projects, Pinterest is actually a great place to search for inspiration, from both previous productions and the real world. My board for 'Rent' is a mixture of images from New York’s Greenwich Village, existing set designs that I’ve been inspired by, and all sorts of things made from old shipping pallets – something that’s going to be a big feature of our set. From the lowered forestage, standing in for the street, a pile of shipping pallets will lead up to the apartments and cafes that the actors will create in the main space above. There won’t be any big scene changes; instead everything will be done by the actors and the set pieces already on stage.
Rather than trying to create the mammoth metal sculpture described in the stage directions, I’ve decided to take a different tack, focussing on the abandoned lot and the “tent city” that has sprung up there. To this end, I’ve designed a set which makes use of several raised levels, heavily dressed in recycled wood and found materials. The idea is to evoke the temporary, ephemeral and impoverished world which the characters inhabit. With any luck, the set will look as if it’s been built piecemeal by the characters on the Playhouse stage.
Homelessness is all around us, particularly in Oxford, and I hope that a more conceptual set design will help to bring the action a little closer to home rather than staying anchored firmly in 1990s New York – one of the reasons 'Rent' is so engaging is because of the relatable characters and their situations.
Once I’ve decided on what the set will look like I then need to work out how to actually build it, alongside our Production Manager, Helen, and the staff at the Playhouse. This means creating a 3D model box, a digital model and scale drawings; without these it would be impossible to know if everything would fit in! Helen and I will have a busy 1st week, as we’ll be in the Playhouse workshop all day every day to make sure everything is ready on time. By the time it gets to 2nd week and opening night, I’ll be one of the few people in the production team who’ll be able to sit back, relax and have an ice cream in the interval!
And any hardcore 'Rent' fans, don’t worry – we might not be going with the metal sculpture, but we’re still planning to make a 3-metre high wooden Christmas tree complete with fairy lights!
This blog post was originally published on the 'Rent' production blog, Oxford Playhouse, 27-30 January 2016.