So you have seen Mary Poppins and think you know what elaborate set design means. Sure watching Burt walk upside down around the stage was amazing and an engineering triumph in theatrical experiences, but was it that “over-the”top of a production?
The opening of the story book/doll house quality was inspiring and the entire production was amazing, but what happens when your story doesn’t have that level of predefined imagination or known quality? What happens when your audience is seemingly more sophisticated or jaded and expects a more themed experience?
Some productions take the set design to an entirely “other level” making it fully immersive. Imagine the feeling you had when Mary Poppins flew over your head… now add that to an entire show (not cirque du soleil)surrounding you. Some productions are actually incorporating the audience into the show itself, while others take the traditional, more voyeuristic view and let the audience watch and immerse them with quality theming. We have previously talked about a show staged entirely in an old air-plane hanger that ends with the actors actually flying away.
Other shows go on to them out the entire theatre. ‘Seebuhne’ Stage on Lake Constance in Austria is home to some of the most amazingly themed shows during theBregenz Festival ‘Opera on the Lake’ that you will ever see. This open air theatrical space changes its look yearly (and sometimes through the festival) and sports some of the most elaborate set designs we have ever seen. For examples of their work see the images below or check out the scene where James Bond meets the villain in Quantum of Solace. This sequence of the film was shot at this location with no additional set dressing needed.
Some show designers feel the need to make the spaces (even simple rooms) so detailed that every inch of the space is covered with authenticity. Rumours of designers demanding actual historical pieces are nothing new to the industry. Other designers simply believe in not only immersing the audience but the actors as well, giving them, intricate fully working sets to play with. This can either be the killer for a show, making it “too much” for the audience to take in, or make the show lasting by taking them for an amazing ride with the players.
Balancing that line is a set designers job and they often walk it very carefully, balancing the artistic eye with the producer’s check book. In addition, the theming must accommodate a variety of theatres. Unlike the festival show in Austria (see above), most shows must tour and that can mean small intimate theatres to grand opera houses and stadiums. Designers must create designs that are flexible and inspiring.
Some shows are simply not able to be accommodated in certain venues. This puts a limit on the locations and ticket sales and the blame can be passed on to the designer. If you take a show like The Lion King, the set pieces were flexible to be played in most theatres large enough to accommodate an audience that would pull in the seat sales to justify the show being put on there. Whereas a show such as Mary Poppins has such restrictions to the set design that it had to limit its showing to specific theatres.
Luckily for both of these shows, they had the story, IP and Disney brand to pull in crowds no matter where they ran. Smaller more intimate shows do not have that backing and must be flexible in both design and function. This is why you often see shows with little to know sets or pieces. It is simply easier to set up, break down and travel and is considerably easier on the pocket of producers. This often allows the show to acquire mainstream actors for parts the show would normally not be able to afford.
Some would argue that a quality performance means extravagant sets are not needed. We tend to think that if the performance is horrible at least a quality theme of the set, etc., can make it passable, if the performance is amazing and the set is amazing, then full immersion is possible. While lavish sets are not always needed, they certainly help us let go and believe in the world on the stage and it is nice to see a show, outside of a theme park that truly embraces immersive theming.