To the Stage: Three Designers Talk About Creating Theatrical Ambience

Just as a foyer sets the tone for a home, a set indicates to an audience where and when a theatrical show occurs. Scenic design creates an ambience — a feel, a tone — that establishes a foundation for the drama or musical. Fabrics & Home interviewed three scenic designers on how they developed scenery for recent New York-based shows to discover their goals and inspirations.

Beowulf Boritt, scenic designer; Tony Award-winning set for the Kander & Ebb musical, “New York, New York”

Q: What were the challenges in designing “New York, New York” for the stage?

The show has about 60 locations, and ¾ of those we realize pretty fully. Another 25 percent are brief, but usually still need a piece of scenery to help establish them. Even a relatively large Broadway theatre like the St. James is very small backstage so making all that scenery look good onstage, but still fit backstage is a huge challenge — and when the locations include Grand Central station, the old Penn Station, the top of a skyscraper under construction, Times Square in 1946, Bow Bridge in the snow, the East River by the Brooklyn Bridge, etc., it’s even harder — New Yorkers know these places, so I have to try to live up to the beauty and the majesty of the real things.

From the details in the distance in New York Harbor, to the West 3rd St. one-way sign pointing the right way, I have to try to make the details correct.

Broadway musical New York, New York
"New York, New York" with actors Oliver Prose and Emily Skinner. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Q: What is the process in coming up with a look for the show? What were your initial thoughts about designing this show?

A: We started with a much more poetic abstract set — more of a ballet set almost — but quickly realized this show is about the reality of New York —both the beauty of the city, but also the dirt, the crowds, the difficulty of it.

That led to a set with more reality to it — the fire escapes in the show are real iron and steel, they weigh 10,000 pounds each — and they have to dance across the stage in time with Susan Stroman's choreography.

Q: How does a design evolve? What ideas made it into the final set?

A: As the script evolves the set changes. I often describe my job as transforming space over time. I might have 16 seconds, or less, to get a full set assembled onstage because it's all in time with music. 

Sometimes that set is only onstage for 16 seconds, so whatever I make has to be simple and clear enough that the audience understands what it is and doesn't have to spend too much time figuring it out. It’s all about visuals playing out in time as the story unfolds.

Broadway musical New York, New York
"New York, New York" Company. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Q: How would you describe the set's look now?

A: I hope it's a love letter to New York City — I hope it lets us see some of our favorite parts of New York, but also acknowledges that we are millions of people packed into a tight space all living on top of each other and while there is a beauty in that, it's also hard!

The set is full of windows, which reconfigure as the show progresses, and I hope those each imply another story, another family, another set of lives playing out in the world of New York. There is a quote I read while working on the set — which sadly I’ve not been able to find again — which said roughly, “New York is like living in a constellation” — all the windows on the set, all the lives they represent, is trying to show that constellation. 

Q: How does the set add to the theatergoer's experience when seeing this show?

A: Although my focus is on visual storytelling, I think of theater as essentially a literary form. In film the primary communication is visual: motion pictures. In dance the visual is paramount, usually in conversation with music. Music is the form of communication in opera; the words are secondary.

But in theater — at least the kind of theater I tend to work on — the primary communication is literary: words. That  literature —the words of the script — is conveyed by actors to the audience. All the rest, including the design, is frosting.

Design enhances the experience, focusing and enhancing the meaning of the words, but it’s not strictly needed. Still, I prefer my cake with frosting.

Broadway musical New York, New York
Times Square model from "New York, New York"

Q: What do you like most about the set?

A: I love the scale of it — it's attempting to communicate the power and scale of New York. The fire escapes are four stories tall, and disappear out of view going up; we see some of the greatest most beautiful parts of New York represented. It was a joy to get to create all that.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?

A: Ultimately, for all the bricks and mortar and steel of New York the set represents, New York is about people — it’s the vast diversity of the people that makes this city great, that makes it the churning, crazy, beautiful, terrible, engine of commerce and creativity that it is. The set aims to help represent that, but mostly to provide a world for the actors — the people of our story- to exist in.

Sarah White

Sarah White, the scenic designer for “Emilie: La Marquise du Châtele Defends Her Life Tonight,” at The Flea from April 6-30, 2023.  

Q: What were the challenges in designing "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight"?

A: I think one of the biggest challenges for me in this design was working in this specific space (The Siggy at the Flea) — unlike many theatre spaces, the one we are working in has several openings along the stage for entrances and exits instead of just one large one. 

This became both a challenge and ultimately a boon to my design as it gave me parameters to play within. Instead of being a problem, those openings and the different sized columns between them have come to showcase the dichotomy of the full universe of science and math that Emilie herself experiences compared to the more picturesque, mundane walls of the world she was born into but that couldn't really contain her and her mind.

Q: What is your process in coming up with a look for a show? What were your initial thoughts about designing this show?

A: My process starts the same for every show: read the script — multiple times — to take notes. One for understanding of story and big picture ideas, one for tone/mood/feelings, and one for the nitty gritty details of "character X mentions the window onstage" or "the dialogue references three chairs." 

My first thoughts for designing this production were actually towards the style and look of a chalk board — a drawn version of an interior instead of a realistic one, since this play is not in real-time for its title character, Emilie, but serves as sort of a recounting of her life, and in her era, it would be likely that beyond just paper, she might work out her physics equations on a chalk board. 

So, my original design idea was far more black and white but our director Kathy steered me back into color, which I think both warmed up this space and also created a stronger contrast between these walls and that universe beyond.

Q: How does a design evolve? What ideas made it into the final set?

A: Any theatrical design always evolves collaboratively - in conversation with the director and what themes they are really drawing on in the script to guide the designer in choosing what will actually serve this story, but also in collaboration with other designers and technicians.

If one of us has an idea, sometimes it comes down to a question of, "Does your idea clash with mine? What compromise can we make or which direction should we go so our different pieces fit together?" or sometimes even "Is it even feasible to execute this idea?" and we'll have a discussion that may lead to a better execution than the original idea. 

For example, in this set for “Emilie,” I had originally thought of the backings for the openings between the set walls as small painted backdrops — night sky with stars and then these equations painted on them in either UV or Black Light paint to try to be able to control when they appeared or didn't appear. 

We have since moved from them being painted to having printed drops of just the night sky with the equations as projections (as the material they're printed on would better reflect the light compared to the projections on a painted surface), which will give us even more control over when and how those equations can appear during the course of the show.

renderings from Off-Broadway show
Rendering of "Emilie" by Sarah White

Q: How would you describe the set's look?

A: This set is definitely inspired by the Louis XV and provincial French interiors and furniture of Emilie's day, but we're not trying to convince anyone in our audience that they're in a realistic French chateau since Emilie herself is not in that space, the entirety of the script is relaying her life in memory.

The design of the walls became a flat-painted, illustrative interpretation of those interiors instead of the three-dimensional architecture of a photorealistic film set, similar to the way our minds may fuzz out some details when we recall events at a later time. 

The dichotomy I mentioned before really encompasses the look fully: the world Emilie was born into contrasted to the universe beyond that her work and discoveries were made in as a representation of the two parts she was continually trying to reconcile — her life as a woman — noble, wife, mother — in the 18th century alongside her life as a scientist, scholar and intellectual.

Q: How does the set add to the theatergoer's experience when seeing this show?

A: In a show like this with a title character to whom the story belongs, I like to think of the set as an exterior expression of that character's journey - how can my work support and express to the audience that journey or the things the performer of that character will be sharing with our audience? How can the set both support the action of the show (by having all the specific necessities of space for each scene involved) but also tell a larger, more expressive or less concrete piece of the story?

Q: What do you like most about the set?

A: I think one of my favorite things about this set truly is the Little Theatre based on the one Voltaire built in Emilie's home, the Château de Cirey, to put on plays he wrote while in residence there. 

Its proportions were obviously dictated by the space we had, so it's not a 1:1 recreation, but being able to actually include that element in a way that both honors the actual theatre and fit within our set and style made me really happy. I'm also pleased with how the Little Theatre can remain hidden in the set until it appears in the text of this script.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add? 

A: I think scenic design — and theatre design in general — can seem a little mystifying, but in truth, the work I do is similar to that of an architect or an interior designer in the knowledge and research we may do in different historical styles or color palettes. But because the work I do is more fleeting — a show may run months or mere weeks, instead of remaining for years — I am afforded the ability to think outside of conventions and imagine different interpretations of those same puzzle pieces those other creatives may use in their daily work.

I think the challenge as a scenic designer is to find the line between function and magic onstage, to make a workable space for your performers and director, but also to make a space that anticipates and holds itself ready for that meeting of mundane and divine energy that happens when you tell a story to someone who is ready to hear it.

Company XIV set

Cocktail Magique sketch of a 1930's Berlin bar

Zane Pihlstrom, resident designer (set and costume) at Company XIV, a neo-baroque dance theater group located in Brooklyn.

Q: What are the challenges of designing a set like “Cocktail Magique?”

A: I think one of the biggest challenges is to continually try to do something that feels fresh and innovative. Theater designs biggest danger is falling into a routine or formula for how to do a show. So often I go see a production and I feel like I’ve seen it before the production even starts. I always ask myself, “Could this just be rented and re-used from another production?” or “What makes this design for this production worth the effort of hiring a designer and doing it all new?” I myself am guilty of designing those productions, but I do my best to fight it and at least be aware when I am falling into the trap.  

In the fall of 2022 Company XIV opened our new venue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The show is called “Cocktail Magique” and is an evening of burlesque, magic, song and illusions. The theme that ties all these disciples together is the joyful love of complex and delicious cocktails. All audience members received coursed cocktails during … the show that all relate back to the acts they are watching onstage. For instance there is wonderful act with Josephine Baker’s character dancing in her iconic banana dress. As she dances, bananas are magically appearing and disappearing around her.  The audience is then served a delicious banana flavored cocktail.  

The theater is a very small intimate space.  It only seats 60 audience members.  One of the biggest challenges was designing the space not knowing beforehand what most of the acts would be. I design compartments into the set I knew would be used to hold magic props, costumes and set pieces without necessarily knowing what they would be yet.  I designed some areas with tracking velvet-striped curtains so that we could pre-set the tricks... I designed ways on and off the stage without knowing whom or when they would be used. In a way being a designer for theater is often making choices for the director before they even have started rehearsals.

Our work as designers usually happens before the production has been created by the performers so we have to anticipate a variety of ways all the acts could be staged. In the theater there was a pre-existing window in one of the brick walls. I embraced it and built it out like a mini opera box hoping it would be useful for some special moment in the evening long before we knew just how important it may or may not have been. 

Company XIV Cocktail Magique

Rendering of stage for "Cocktail Magique"

Q: What is your process in coming up with a look for a show like Company XIV creates? What were your initial thoughts about designing for their shows in general and for “Cocktail Magique”?

A: Company XIV has a very recognizable esthetic that we have been curating for 15 years. The theater is a mix of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors and a high-end sex dungeon. The audience sits of furniture with a 17th century silhouette that is painted gloss black and upholstered in black vinyl. Crystal chandeliers litter the theater and bath the audience in red light. Although it is certainly playful it is a definitely austere.

For this production of “Cocktail Magique” in our new second venue the director/creator Austin McCormick wanted to expand the brand and go in the opposite direction. At the“Cocktail Magique” theater we don’t use any black.  The theaters walls are painted a deep rich aborigine. The floor is epoxy with a mix of forest green, purple of gold glitters. The space has a sense of humor and whimsy with hot air balloon chandeliers and a 15-foot mural of a Federico Fellini inspired side show magicians face with a water fountain in his mouth.

 I’ve always been drawn to the Hollywood Regency Style of the 1960’s (an interior design movement influenced by Hollywood set designers turned interior designers in the mid 1900’s) with its unapologetically gaudy baroque sensibility so we packed the space with these elements: gold palm leaf chandeliers, elephant head footlights and 60 golden mice statues scurrying around the theater. Each audience member has access to a vintage mid century golden post office box which plays and important role in magic of the evening. 

My process is always dictated by how much time I have and the demands of the schedule or whom I’m designing for. I can do a costume or scenic sketch in a couple of hours and that is often the amount of time I have. But ideally I have time to draw and experiment, to draw something a couple different ways and include lots on the necessary information into it to make it really useful to the person building it or the director who needs to really understand what it is.

Cocktail Magique

Composite of sets for "Cocktail Magique"

Q: How does a design evolve? What ideas make it into the final set?

“Cocktail Magique” was our first full foray into creating en evening with magic at the heart.  There was a lot of trial and error in the acts and Austin and I intentionally designed more acts then we needed so that we would be able to edit the show or have back up ideas for future versions of the show. For instance, we had a miniature puppet theater trick where a performer crawled inside a very small puppet theater, performed a short puppet piece and then magically produced 60 real champagne flutes from the interior of the impossibly small theater.

In theory the trick worked well and the design was solid but for some reason onstage is just wasn’t very dynamic. We tried to make it work but eventually we realized the show was stronger without the effect. We had several acts like this where props and scenic pieces where designed and cast rehearsed but the acts where edited in favor of the stronger acts. 

Q: How does the set add to the theatergoer's experience when seeing this show?

I’m very proud of my work with Company XIV because it's truly immersive theater.  We successfully create beautiful spaces that help tell the story of the evening.  There really is no proscenium, and even during our intermissions we have performers singing and performing and keeping the magic going.  There is an industrial kitchen in the “Cocktail Magique” theater because we serve the audience some delicious surprise treats throughout the show.  

One small hallway underneath a staircase wasn't needed by the kitchen so I designed a hidden fortune tellers lair with scarlet wallpaper, a red-beaded curtain front and more Hollywood Regency antiques. Some special audience members are brought through the florescent light kitchen into the moody beautiful lair and are given a private Tarot reading.  These kind of special moments help blur the line between stage design and event design.

Find more inspiration from the entertainment world with our article on how Netflix uses Schumacher to create luxurious decor.

Featured photo of "New York, New York" set by Emilio Madrid.


Comments +

Leave a Comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

You might also like

The Kitchen and Bathroom Gadgets You Never Knew You Wanted

Gadgets can make your life easier and happier. Here are things we like at Fabrics...

Add a Book Nook to Your Home ... No Matter How Much Space You Have

Those that love literature may want to add a reading area to their home. Here...

Why You Need to Use DIY Cleaning Products and How to Start

DIY cleaning products use natural ingredients and can polish your furniture, sanitize your bathroom and...

Get on the list

Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll keep you up to date on the latest news and exclusive offers!