There it is, that famous quote, "Form follows function,"
in its original context. But how does it apply to theatrical design?
The sole purpose of a stage set is to provide an environment which
supports the story and the director's presentation of it. It doesn't
stand by itself. Sure it can be pretty and receive oohs and aahs
and great reviews (we designers love that!), but, in the final analysis,
whether the set is successful or not totally depends on whether
it has has done its job of supporting the story.
Interestingly, what finally cemented this into my brain wasn't
designing setsit was spending fifteen years in the architectural
field, working with clients to create spaces that made their work
more efficient and solved their current problems without creating
new ones. Clients who are spending millions on an office building,
or a courthouse, or a medical facility, can be quite a bit more
critical than audience members or even media critics. They want
to get their money's worth, and the designer's job becomes to understand
what the client's organization does, and why, and how, and what's
important and what isn't. Design is about solving problems, and
the design problem can't be solved until it's defined and understood
and agreed to by both the client and the designer.
So a stage set becomes the solution to a problem: what do we need,
physically and visually, in order to tell this story in a compelling
One of my professors back in college taught us to think like a
director every time we designed a set: how will the space be used
by the characters, and how will it help them develop the story?
This then gets into the question of who the characters are, and
what they want, and why they want it, and how badly they want it,
and how far they're willing to go to get it. We, as designers, need
to understand the characters and their motivations and their social
context so we can understand why they're here and why they are doing
what they're doing.
And why we, as an audience, should bother to care.
The American set designer Robert Edmond Jones put it very clearly
in his book The
Dramatic Imagination: "As we work we must seek ...
only to establish the dramatist's intention, knowing that when we
have succeeded in doing so audiences will say to themselves, not,
This is beautiful, This is charming, This is splendid, but This
is true. This is the way it is. So it is, and not otherwise."