Your set can be as complicated and intricate as you can make it, or as simple and basic as you need it to be. It should bring the text to life, enhancing and not detracting from the action and the acting. Any set should be safe and should be easy for the actors to work on; it’s bad enough having to remember lines and movements without having to negotiate a difficult set as well!
If you are running your youth theatre in a school hall, you will have limited ability to create a set for your production. You will be faced with time constraints – other people wanting to use the hall – plus budget limits and space limits, and it’s unlikely (especially in a primary school) that you’ll be able to leave the set up throughout the whole of the rehearsal and performance period. Not without it being moved or damaged in some way!
So, for school productions the trick is to keep the set really simple and portable. Use a backdrop (back wall) of movable noticeboards or large screens. Decorate these with pictures or motifs that illustrate your setting. A white sheet thrown over a free-standing clothes rail works well, too. Stick additional pictures on the wall and, if you are using rostra, decorate the front of these as well.
Think about colour and how it can be symbolic, e.g. red for danger, white for purity, black for horror or nightmares. Even if you don’t have a fabulous proscenium arch stage, you can be imaginative in how you design the setting for your play. Create motifs that highlight aspects of the play, or which represent the characters. This is something that your young members can do and it will help them to gain understanding of the play they’re performing.
If you are running a youth theatre for older members, maybe a couple of your students would like to design your set. Insist that they work within the limitations of the actual performance area, and ask them to show their designs on paper or – if they’re really talented – by using a 3D model. Make sure that actors and any set designers communicate. The set might be the most fabulous one ever but it will be useless if your actors can’t move around it freely.
If you are working in a studio theatre and will be performing against black curtains, these can be incredibly powerful as a backdrop and can allow the power of your play – and the talent of your actors – to shine. If, however, you prefer to have some sort of meaningful set design, your curtains can be decorated with motifs from the play which can be cut from material or paper and pinned to the curtains.
Scene changes are also important. The more items you have on your stage, the more difficult it will be to remove them and set a new scene. Keep furniture and props to a minimum and remember: if it comes onto the stage, it will have to come off!
Think about lighting and make sure that you don’t create dark pockets on the stage where the action can’t be seen. Make lighting part of your set design and combine the two to create an atmosphere or realistic setting.
Keep safety in mind. Don’t fill your stage full of clutter – less is often more in terms of set design and staging. Make sure that any free-standing flats, structures, or doors are solid and won’t move. Wobbly doors especially are the bane of every non-professional theatre company. You won’t be forgiven a wobbly set just because you’re a youth theatre!
Remember: audiences will have expectations when they first see your set – you can either meet these, or surpass them!