One of the best things about drama in Oxford is that you can get involved in just about any role imaginable, with as much or as little responsibility as you like. Set design is an essential but often overlooked element of any show, meaning that production companies are always on the lookout for enthusiastic designers – and the best thing is that you don’t need any previous experience.
Coming to university is all about learning new things, and getting involved in set design can definitely be described as a learning curve. The role can encompass everything from small-scale model-making to wielding an electric screwdriver early on a Sunday morning, in order to make sure that the show can go on. The variety of tasks involved in the designer’s job is vast and often challenging, as I found out when transforming walls drawn on pieces of paper into real, 16ft structures.
With two shows produced at the Oxford Playhouse each term, Oxford drama offers a unique opportunity to work alongside theatre professionals. While you can learn loads from your peers who are involved in the show, the knowledge and experience of these people is invaluable.
Most challenging is balancing your aesthetic vision with practical constraints and a tight budget. Drawing a magnificent set on paper or a computer is a far fly from its physical construction: with a maximum of two weeks in which to build it, and a small student budget for materials, ensuring the set is secure enough to neither fall on nor disappoint audiences is no mean feat.
Even a more generous allowance may not grant stage designers with carte blanche for grandiose plans. As designer of The History Boys at the Playhouse I had a budget of £1200 for the set. My grand plans, however, were rapidly scaled down as dreams of a revolving steel set and real wooden parquet floor started to look unrealistic. But part of the enjoyment is realizing your set within whatever budgetary constraints you may have, while not making the cutbacks visible to the audience.
Getting the show ready to open is definitely stressful, and working with fellow students can be as well: everyone has different ideas and the elements of the show most important to the designer, director, and actors will undoubtedly be different. There were several times during The History Boys’ ‘build week’ when I wondered what on earth I had signed up for, but it’s all worth it when the show inevitably comes together. Sitting in the auditorium and seeing the set we had designed and built brought to life by actors and admired by the general public was a proud moment.
How to get involved
The easiest way to get involved in set design as a fresher is to design the set as part of your college Cuppers entry. As there is a maximum number of people in each team you might have to undertake some other roles as well, but there’s nothing to lose and the Burton Taylor Studio (where all the plays are performed) is a small enough space to experiment with.
Another route into set design could be becoming an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) on a Playhouse or Keble O’Reilly show as you’ll get to know your way around backstage and might be called upon to help with set construction. I was lucky and happened upon The History Boys bid when the team needed a designer and didn’t have time to find anyone else.
I would recommend signing up to the UDO weekly newsletter and the TAFF mailing list, both of which include production teams with vacancies and opportunities to help out with theatre get-ins and set construction. And, of course, go along to watch student productions and look at the set – if you like what you see or perhaps think that you could do better, find a play to put on!
A word of warning – don’t underestimate just how much work being a set designer will undertake. But don’t let that put you off: I’m so glad I took the opportunity to be involved and have learned so much about teamwork, communication, and the theatre.
PHOTO/History Boys publicity