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Importance Of Set Design Theatre Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Adolph Appia (pictured left) 1862 – 1928, was a Swiss theorist, pioneer in modern stage design and is most famous for his scenic designs for Wagner’s operas (Design for act I of Parsifal Pictured left). What set Appia aside from other stage designers was his rejection of painted two dimensional sets. He created three dimensional ‘living’ sets, which he believed created different shades of light which were necessary as light was important for actors to engage in the setting, time and space. Instead of using the conventional way of lighting from the floor, Appia lit the stage from above and the sides of the stage, thus creating depth and a three dimensional set. Light intensity and colour helped Appia to gain a new perspective of scene design and stage lighting. This helped to set the mood and create an authentic stage set.

Appia believed that the reason sets weren’t successful during his time, was because of a lack of connection between the director and the set designer. He believed that there should be an artistic harmony especially between these two people in order for his theory to be successful.

There are three core points which Appia uses to help define mise-en-scene:

Dynamic and three dimensional movements by actors.

Perpendicular scenery.

Using depth and the horizontal dynamics of the performance space.

Light, space and the actor are all malleable commodities which should all be intertwined to create a successful mise-en-scene. He used steps, platforms and columns to create depth and manipulated light in order to make the set look real. Light was considered to be the primary element which linked together all the other aspects of the production and Appia was one of the first designers to realise its potential, more than to merely illuminate actors and the painted backdrop behind. This was shown in his staging of Tristan und Isolde (1923). Notice the steps, columns and ramps. Directors and designers of the present day have taken great inspiration from Adolph Appia’s theory. Perhaps the main reason being the huge advance in technology, which was only just emerging in the late 19th century.

Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) also like Adolph Appia was an English theatre practitioner. Unlike Appia however he believed actors had no more importance than marionettes. Gentlemen, the Marionette is a writing in which Craig explains how the actors are merely puppets on strings. He had a great interest in marionettes claiming they were ‘the only true actors who have the soul of a dramatic poet, serving as a true and loyal interpreter with the virtues of silence and obedience.’ (Innes, Christopher, (1998) Edward Gordon Craig: A Vision of Theatre).

He built elaborate and symbolic sets, for example his set for the Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet (1909) consisted of movable screens. And like Appia, he broke the stage floor with platforms, steps and ramps. He replaced the parallel rows of canvas with an elaborate series of tall screens.

Craig left a promising career in acting in order to concentrate on directing and developing ideas about ‘the theatre of the future’, which was inspired by Hubert von Herkomer’s scenic experiments with auditorium lighting and three dimensional scenery in productions at the Bushy Art School. Craig’s idea of ‘new total theatre’ drew on the imagination to create a vision of colour harmony, visual simplicity and an atmospheric effect under the sole control of a single artist. Also inspired by his partner Isadora Duncan, a dancer which inspired him to look into the concept of the rhythms and movements in nature acting as a vehicle for an emotional and aesthetic experience. Craig was very interested in electrical light, something new and only just emerging in his time. An example of this can be seen when he worked on Dido and Aeneas. Craig used a single colour back cloth with a gauze stretched at an angle in front of it onto which light of another colour was projected, ‘ an astoundingly three dimensional effect was achieved’ (Innes, Christopher, 1998, Edward Gordon Craig: A Vision of Theatre, P. 46). He intensively researched theatre of the past in order to create his ‘new’ theatre. He imagined a theatre which was a fusion of poetry, performer, colour and movement designed to appeal to the emotions. As he progressed through his work, he followed his symbolist views using movement to create mood and in his studies in 1906 talked of removing elements of sets or props and replacing them with symbolic gestures. For example a man battling through a snowstorm, Craig questioned whether the snow was necessary. Would the actors’ movements be sufficient to convey what was happening?

In 1900 after Craig had developed himself as a set designer he worked on a production of Dido and Aeneas which was ground breaking as a set for theatre design. Due to certain limitations Craig was able to break away from the elaborate Victorian stage designs and experiment with abstract and simpler designs. Craig himself believed that what he was creating was ‘new’ theatre and wouldn’t be widely accepted until the future and this was true. During the 1950’s Kenneth Tynan wrote of how Craig’s ‘ideas that he expounded fifty years ago, in his breathless poetic prose, are nowadays bearing fruit all over Europe’. Craig has influenced practitioners such as Constantin Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Bertolt Brecht, and he also still impacts many designers and practitioners of the modern day.

Although both of these designers worked independently from one and other, they arrived at similar conclusions. They both criticised realistic theatre, arguing against the photographic reproduction as a primary function of scene design. Appia didn’t agree with Stanislavsky’s theory of the ‘fourth wall’ so he discarded it and designed a theatre building which became the first theatre in the modern era without a proscenium arch. Both theorists believed that the settings should suggest and not reproduce the location. Both also broke the two dimensional view on sets by using platforms and different levels, designing spaces that were practical and functional for performers. Also with the advance in technology, both took advantage of electricity which made it possible for the stage to be lit using bulbs. This helps to develop as an art and both used light as an important part of their visual elements. Appia’s and Craig’s designs focus heavily on stressing contrasts between light and dark creating heavily atmospheric sets.

Appia and Craig shared a lot of the same opinions; however they were not in total agreement. Appia Believed that the director, fused theatrical elements and the designer was an interpretive artist, bringing an author’s work to life from page to, stage forming a functional environment for the actors. Craig believed that theatre needed a master artist who would create all of the production elements. His designs were frequently thought to be on a larger scale than Appia’s. Appia’s designs usually required a set change for each location in the performance, whereas Craig used the modern unit using one basic setting which can represent various locations throughout the movement of its elements with only the need of slight changes such as lighting, props etc.

Both Appia and Craig have greatly influenced the way theatre has evolved. Not only as technology has advanced but also at the way the directors, set designers and production teams in general are working. There is a lot more communication and discussion between the director’s and the set designer’s vision into how a set should look. Also Sets on stage are predominantly three dimensional using levels, ramps, stairs and depth. The use of light has perhaps changed the most dramatically moving from the floor to lighting rigs in the ceiling and along the side of the stage. It is safe to say without the ideas and theories that the two had, theatre may not be where it is today.


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