Liz Scott-McKean, Miners Alley Playhouse’s Operations Director and Set Dresser gives us some insight into her job and her set dressing process for our Main Stage and Children’s Theatre shows.
You’ve checked your coat. You’ve gotten your drink from the bar. You’ve silenced your phone and other noise-making devices. Now for the first time, you look at the stage and begin to observe the world in front of you. Obviously, you know what show you’re seeing. But let us say for a minute that you don’t. Everything you see in front of you is a clue to what is about to unfold. Every chair, every dish, every piece of art on the wall had all been selected to create a feeling. Whether you are looking at a highly conceptual set design or a hyper-real apartment, hours and hours of planning and effort has been put in to create the atmosphere that the director has in their vision.
This is my job. Taking a feeling that a director wants the audience to experience and putting it into hard objects. A chair, a dish, a piece of art. Now just to be clear there is a huge difference between what I do and what the set designer does. Where and what style everything is comes from the set designer. They create the world that show is sitting in. I go a acquire the necessary items to bring their design to life. As many of you know we at Miners Alley work in a highly collaborative manner. This allows me to be part of the artistic process much more than other set dressers at other theaters.
After the initial production meeting my work begins. Research of what the time period was. Anyone can look up 1953 and tell you what happened, I am looking for what 1953 looked like in a very specific economical situation. What was in someone’s living room? A couch, yes, but was is square or rounded? What was next to the couch? What was on the walls? All these questions must be answered before I begin to collect items.
Personally, the more hyperreal the set the more fun for me. I get to fill a world with items that make a house feel like a home. Whether or not the characters have loved their life in that home is an emotion that is created by the items placed on the shelves. My goal is to make you know who this character is just by looking at their home. Like when you walk into your grandmother’s house and see family photos, doilies, and an unnecessary amount of odd little knickknacks (maybe that’s just my grandmother). Everything depends on the details that when put together create the unwritten character of the setting. While I do have 6 storage units full of couches, chairs, dishes, wall hangings etc. I will always need those couple of show-specific pieces that typically require some hunting. I like to joke that I get paid to antique shop but honestly, that’s not far off from the truth. So many shows are what we call period pieces. Taking place in a time other than modern day. This requires a mental map of which antique stores have what I may need. There are several shops that I frequent, Alameda Antique is awesome! It also is very helpful that my mother basically has an antique store in her basement, earning it the title of “Gail’s Prop Shop.” I can’t count how many times I’ve called her to ask if I can borrow something for 6 weeks.
Conceptual sets are altogether another story. These sets tend to convey an underlining theme. They create several locations through an implied feeling. While typically there is far less items that need gathering they tend to be much more specific. A great example of this is the beautiful set that we put up last fall for our production of Lungs. If you remember the set was two platforms with trees lining the back wall and leaves on the floor. The discussion of what type of leaves and their colors were several days of back and forth. Same thing with their placement. These may seem like small details but when there are only leaves on stage they say a lot.
If when you are sitting in the dark looking at the world in front of you and you begin to be invested in the story that is about to unfold then I have done my job. If you see all the little details as one place, as one home, know that all those buried memories of grandma’s house are being tickled intentionally. To help you connect to the characters on a deeper level than their words and their story intend. This is my job.