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Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 4 (December 1948)

Design In The Theatre

page 5

Design In The Theatre

Décor by Sam Williams for Wellington Thespians' production of The Duchess of Malfi. Photo: Rowley Howell

Décor by Sam Williams for Wellington Thespians' production of The Duchess of Malfi. Photo: Rowley Howell

Theatre décor is frequently regarded as a kind of garnish to the main dish like parsley sprigs on the Van Druten savory or frilled paper round the Shavian ham. That this effect is so often the sole impression made on an audience by the visual aspect of a production points to an inadequate use of the theatre medium and some misunderstanding of the role of the designer.

In essence, the function of the designer is the same as that of the actor, although each uses such different tools. The actor has to interpret and create from the playwright's material and the designer assist him to do so with imagination and subtlety. The visual contribution should be neither superfluous nor an interference with the intentions of the playwright, but a help in expressing those intentions with the greatest impact.

The Production as a Whole

It is hard to define that ultimate and supreme characteristic in the work of art which compels our emotions and imagination. Those ineffable proportions of completely satisfying wholeness lie somewhere in the exquisite relationship of numbers of qualities to each other and to the idea involved. This applies no less to a production which is a complex creative effort in visual and audible expression. If any small portion is disregarded or another given over-eager or meaningless emphasis, the proportions are lost. What came near to being a work of art is at best merely a performance. No single part of the creative and interpretative effort which adds up to a production must be overlooked. Each must be fully explored and then integrated to capture that perfection of unity, achieved when an audience no longer consciously watches a spectacle, but lives a drama.

Stimulating the Mind

In creating a visual equivalent of the general mood of the play one does not necessarily attempt to duplicate all the conditions of real life. As far as theatre is concerned with reality, it is the illusion of reality. The task is to suggest to an audience just so much as will stimulate their minds to imagine the rest. Macbeth's witches can certainly stir the cauldron under a hessian boulder against a painted moor. However, credulity is more likely to stand the test, if they materialize in patterned light from an organic page 6 page 7
Christchurch Repertory Production of ‘Justice.’Photo: Selwyn DaviesSlowly, painfully, New Zealand drama societies are working themselves out of the cramping limitations of the ‘realistic’ set. The ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ which is all the stage asks for, can be achieved with the slightest of indications—

Christchurch Repertory Production of ‘Justice.’
Photo: Selwyn Davies
Slowly, painfully, New Zealand drama societies are working themselves out of the cramping limitations of the ‘realistic’ set. The ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ which is all the stage asks for, can be achieved with the slightest of indications—

and then the imagination is free, and positively stimulated to create its own world. Architects can be a great help in creating décor for the amateur theatre, and will find its working tools of space and light fascinating to handle.Left: Christchurch Repertory Production of ‘Twelfth Night.’Photo: Selwyn Davies

and then the imagination is free, and positively stimulated to create its own world. Architects can be a great help in creating décor for the amateur theatre, and will find its working tools of space and light fascinating to handle.
Left: Christchurch Repertory Production of ‘Twelfth Night.’
Photo: Selwyn Davies

darkness in which space is not specifically defined. One column, half an arch, and an arrangement of levels will be less impediment to imagining a Greek ruin than a whole labyrinth of marble distemper agitating in sympathy with the movement of the action and demonstrating nothing quite as much as the unfortunate 30′ × 20′ × 20′ dimensions of the stage. The whole aim is to the achieving of that point when the stage will not seem an isolated focus of action, but a universal experience.

Costumes, make-up, too, cannot be considered separately from the set any more than lighting. Even in a contemporary play, clothes have a relation to the general décor and must not create a discord for the eyes (unless deliberately, when the play calls for such an effect) any more than an actor should stutter his lines unless the interpretation clearly demands it. An actor must regard even his modern garments as a prop to assist his work in much the same way as he will take a staff to emphasize an elderly, feeble walk. Stage clothes have a variety of duties. It may be necessary for them to indicate time—the hour of the day, the season, summer or winter, as well as the period. As well, they may need to indicate a particular occasion. Their shape and colour must point a type and personality. They must sketch the mood and atmosphere of the particular moment and of the whole play.

Colour has strong emotional appeal. Its stage practice is a tricky thing and offers many pitfalls. Its adequate use can vitalize a performance. A wrong background colour—it may have been charming in a real room—can slow up the whole tempo of the play, causing the action to seem unnecessarily sluggish and that difficult first act to be a seat-squirming monotony. While the colour should have a general significance, it must also pattern and form within itself at given moments to underlie a climax of emotion or action. The total picture of form and dimension, colour and changing pattern must efficiently demonstrate the purpose of the play.