The Functions of Scenic Design

The Functions of Scenic Design


Scenic design serves many functions. It defines the performance space by establishing dis­tinctions between onstage and offstage. Through the use of flats, drapes, platforms, floor treatments, or other means, designers delineate the areas that will be used for the dramatic action. Designers may employ a great deal of masking so that persons or objects outside a clearly marked area cannot be seen by the audience; or they may use virtually no masking and thereby acknowledge that the place of the action is a stage that continues into the wings as far as the audience can see. In arena and thrust theatres, the layout of audience seating itself may outline the acting space. In a variable space, acting space and audience space may be intermingled.


Scenic design creates a floor plan that provides multiple opportunities for move­ment, composition, character interaction, and stage business. The location of exits and entrances, the placement (or absence) of furniture, the presence or absence of steps, levels, and platforms—all the elements of the setting and their arrangement—are among the greatest influences on blocking, visualization, and movement. A setting can be organized in many different ways; arranging it to maximum advantage for a specific production requires careful and cooperative planning by designer and director.

simplestageScenic design visually characterizes the acting space. Just how it does so depends on the production concept. If the concept demands that locales be represented realistically, the designer will probably select architectural details, furniture, and decorations that clearly indicate a specific period and locale. For example, the designer might create a setting fix A Doll’s House that suggests a room in a Norwegian house around 1880. Another production concept might demand fragmentary settings with only enough pieces to establish the general character of the locale. Another might rely largely on visual motifs and theatrical conventions from the era when the play was written. A set­ting for Tartuffe, for example, might use decorative motifs and a wing-and-drop setting reflecting the age of Louis XIV. Or, as has become increasingly common, the concept may demand that the time and place of the action be altered (such as Hamlet being translated to an American Mafia context).

modelstageAnother way of characterizing the space is to treat it as flexible and nonspecific, a common practice for plays with actions divided into many scenes and set in many places, as is typical in most of Shakespeare’s plays. To represent each place realistically would require a large number of sets as wet1 as a great deal of time to change them, thereby interrupting the continuity, rhythm, and flow of the action. On the other hand, to play all of the scenes on the flat floor of an undecorated stage might become monot­onous. A common solution is an arrangement of platforms, steps, and ramps that breaks up the stage space, that provides several acting areas that can be localized as needed through the addition of a few well-chosen properties, pieces of furniture, banners, images projected on screens, or through other means.

How the scenic design characterizes the performance space may make a strong interpretational statement. The setting for Beckett’s Happy Days visually sums up the human condition as depicted in the play: an individual isolated, trapped, forced to make the best of her lot. For a play about war, the game of chess has been used as a metaphor~ with the stage floor laid out in black and white squares and the characters costumed to suggest chess pieces. The settings for The Hairy Ape” incorporate images of human beings caged and dehumanized.


Scenic design creates mood and atmosphere. Robert Edmond Jones’s setting for Macbeth creates a powerful mood of foreboding as the masks of the witches brood over the stage and the Gothic arch’s lean ever more precariously. (See the illustration on page 193.) On the other hand, Ezio Frigerio’s settings for The Servant of Two Masters (see the following page) create a sense of carefree improvisation through details painted on cloths (with slits flit entrances) suspended like shower curtains on visible rods.

Scenic design is only one part of a Total Design, which includes costumes, lighting, acting, and all the other elements of a production. It should evolve in consultation with those responsible for the other pans of the whole. It is not, as a painting is, complete in itself it cannot be judged entirely by appearance, because it should not only look appropriate, but also function appropriately.


The Principles of Design

The Principles of Design

In applying the elements of design, certain principles must be used if the results are to be effective. The principles of design are harmony, variety, balance, proportion, empha­sis, and rhythm.

Harmony creates the impression of unity. Typically directors and designers seek to harmonize the parts of each setting or costume and to relate the various settings and costumes in such a way that all are clearly parts of a whole. If monotony is to be avoided, however, variety is needed. Similarly, directors seek both harmony and variety through their choice of actors and through each actor’s use of movement and gesture.

Balance is the sense of stability that results from the distribution of the parts that make up the total picture. There are three types of balance. The most common is axial, achieved by the apparent equal distribution of weight on either side of a central axis. This type is especially pertinent to the proscenium stage, which may be thought of as a fulcrum (or seesaw) with the point of balance at the center. Axial balance is achieved if the elements placed on each side of the central line appear equal in weight. Apparent visual weight is not the same as actual weight, because a large light-colored object may appear to weigh no more than a small dark-colored object, and a small object near the outer edge may balance a large object near the center. A second type of balance, radial, is organization that radiates in every direction from a central point. It is especially im­portant on arena and thrust stages because these stages are viewed from several ang4s. A third kind of balance is usually called occult. It is especially pertinent to flexible and variable staging, in which there may be no readily discernible axis or center. Occult bal­ance results from the relationship of mass to space and among unlike objects.

Balance, especially axial, may also be thought of as symmetrical or asymmetrical.

Symmetrical balance means that if an object or space is divided down the middle, each side mirrors the other most costumes (especially before ornaments or accessories are added) are symmetrical. Complete symmetry in a stage setting creates a sense of for­mality and order; asymmetry, which depends on irregularity; may create a sense of in-formality or casualness. In performance, when the stage picture is constantly shifting because of the movement of the actors, directors must be especially aware of balance and how it is affected by what the actors do. During rehearsals, a director may adjust the position of actors in order to achieve balance.

Proportion involves the relationship between the parts of individual elements as well as the relationship among all the parts that make up the total picture: the scale of each part in relation to all the others; the relationship among shapes; and the division of the space (for example, the length of a dress bodice in relation to the skirt). Propor­tion can create the impression of stability or instability of grace or awkwardness. Furniture disproportionate to the size of a room may create either a cramped or meager feeling. Our perception of beauty or ugliness depends largely on the proportion of parts. In costume, the manipulation of proportion can do much to change an actor’s appear­ance and enhance or disguise attributes.

All designs need a focal point, or center of emphasis. Directors are constantly seek­ing to focus attention on what they consider most important and to subordinate the things of lesser importance. A well-composed scene or design directs attention to the most important point immediately and then to the subordinate parts. Emphasis may be achieved in several ways, among them line, mass, color, texture, ornamentation, con­trast, and movement The setting may make one area of the stage more emphatic than others; a costume may use emphasis to draw attention to an actor’s good points and away from defects; movement within an otherwise still picture will always attract the eye.

Rhythm is the principle that leads the eye easily and smoothly from one part of a design to another. All of the elements of design may be used for rhythmic purposes. Lines and shapes may be repeated; the size of objects or the amount of movement may be changed gradually to give a sense of progression; gradations in hue, saturation, and value may lead the eye from one point to another; changes or repetitions in texture and ornament may give a sense of flow and change; and the movement of the actors may increase or decrease in tempo.

The scene designer is concerned with the organization and appearance of the perfor­mance space. The designer defines and characterizes the space, arranges it to facilitate the movement of the actors, and uses it to reinforce the production concept.


The Elements of Visual Design

Lets work on some scenography basic theory. I found some great links on design, the best ones are so remote that one is lucky to just open it. I’ll just focus on the best one. Enjoy 🙂

The Elements of Visual Design

All visual aspects of a production are composed from the same basic elements:  line, shape, space, color, texture and ornament.


Line defines boundaries and permits us to perceive shape and form. There are two kinds of line—straight and curved—but these may be combined to form zigzags, scal­lops, and many other variations. The dominant lines of the performance space (with the scenery in place but without performers) are horizontal (the floor and any overhead masking) and vertical (the upright scenic units). This basic pattern is varied by the ad­dition of furniture, ramps, steps, and platforms. In performance, other lines are created by movement and by the placement of the actors in relation to each other and to the scenic elements. The costumes worn by the actors have their own lines created by the silhouette of garments and by darts, seams, ornamentation, and other features that result in visible lines.


Line is often said to evoke identifiable responses: straight lines, stability; curved lines, grace; zigzags, confusion. Therefore, line may be manipulated to achieve desired effects. In scenery, two lines that move farther apart as they rise vertically may generate a feeling of openness, whereas lines that lean in as they rise may generate a feeling of oppression. Line is important in creating mood and atmosphere as well as in defining shape.

1Shape and space are closely related and are frequently treated together as a single element: mass. Whereas line has only direction or length, mass involves three dimen­sions. It identifies shape (square, round, oblong, and so on) and space (height, width, and thickness). The stage may be thought of as a hollow cube that can be organized or altered in a variety of ways. Scenery may outline or limit the space. So may light, the actors’ movement, or the seating around a thrust or arena stage. Like line, shape and space may be used to affect audience response. An effect of compression may be achieved through the use of thick, horizontal forms overhead (such as a low ceiling with thick beams), whereas a sense of openness and grace may be achieved through the use of narrow~ vertical, and pointed forms (such as thin, tall columns and high Gothic arches). Mass is also reflected in the overall shape of costumes and furniture, the space they occupy, and the way a director groups or isolates actors. Perhaps the most effective means of revealing, concealing, or altering apparent mass is Lighting, which through its direction and intensity can create or eliminate those contrasts of light and shadow that let us perceive shape and dimension.

culoareColor may be described in terms of three basic properties: hue, saturation or in­tensity, and value. Hue is the attribute that allows us to identify a color (red, green, blue, and so on). Saturation or intensity refers to the relative purity of a color (its freedom from its complementary or opposite hue). Value is the lightness or darkness of a color— its relation to white or black. A color that is light in value is usually called a tint; one dark in value is called a shade. Hues are classified as primary secondary, or intermedi­ate. The primary hues are those that cannot be created by mixing other hues but from which all other hues are derived. The primary hues in pigment are yellow, red, and blue. The secondary hues—orange, violet, and green—are created from equal mixtures of two primary hues. The intermediate hues are mixtures of a primary with a secondary hue. Hues may be arranged around a wheel to indicate their relationships. (See the color wheel, plate 14.) Those opposite each other on the wheel are called complementary those next to each other, analogous. The primary hues are equidistant from each other on the wheel. Hues may further be described as warm or cool. Red, orange, and yellow are warm; green, blue, and violet are cool. Almost any combination of hues may be used together if saturation, proportion, and value are properly controlled.

Mood and atmosphere depend much on color. Many people believe that light, warm colors are more suitable to comedy than are dark, cool colors. Some color combi­nations are considered garish, others sophisticated. Designers may manipulate color to create the appropriate mood and atmosphere and to establish the tastes of the charac­ters that inhabit the settings or wear the costumes. Color can suggest the relationship among characters (either sympathetic or antipathetic) through the colors of their gar­ments. Color can be used to make some characters stand out and others fade into the background (for example, Hamlet wears mourning black in the midst of others dressed in colors of rejoicing). As with mass, lighting is one of the most important means of controlling color, because it can enhance, distort, or reduce apparent color in scenery, costumes, makeup, and all the other elements.

Texture may help to elicit the desired response trough such qualities as smooth­ness, roughness, shininess, softness, or graininess. Some plays seem to demand rough textures, others smooth. Such qualities as sleaziness, fragility or richness depend much on the texture (actual or simulated) of settings, costumes, and (by analogy) acting.


Ornament includes the paintings, decorative motifs, wallpaper patterns, moldings, and similar details of settings. His one of the chief means of achieving distinctiveness. In costume, ornament includes ruffles, buttons, fringe, and lace. Ornament can be used to indicate taste or the lack of it. Too much ornamentation or too many kinds of or­namentation may indicate lack of restraint or impart a sense of clutter. Accessories, such as canes, swords, purses, and jewelry may also be considered ornaments.  In acting gesture and stage business (the amount and complexity and its relative simplicity or fussiness) serve much the same function as ornament in visual design.