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Set Decoration as Narrative: Properly dressing the set to support the story

Larry Heyman • February 2020Sets, Scenery and Rigging • February 5, 2020

The set of The Vaudevillian

I was talking to a student scenic designer working on the first main stage show they’d designed. The conversation went something like this: I said, “We need to start thinking about decorating the set.” They replied, “But we have furniture and light fixtures, and lamps…” “Right, now we do everything else; we decorate it.” They came back with, “I had so much fun and this set is so beautiful and feels right as is; I so don’t want to clutter it with dressing…”

The conversation is not unique. I have spoken to some professional prop masters who say that set dressing and decoration is the bane of their existence. It’s possible that prop masters and properties directors fall into two schools of thought; some view themselves as makers, creators, and innovators tasked with researching and creating complete props out of “whole cloth”. To them, the challenge of their job comes from innovative problem solving and the sheer sense of achievement that comes from devising a clever, believable solution to a complex design problem. To these individuals, dressing a set; searching, laboring and procuring found objects with which to “litter” a set is challenging and intricate process often at the end of a complicated build. For some it’s also not a particularly creative endeavor.

It Seemed Like Something He’d Do

In organizing my thoughts for this article, I tried to analyze when I discovered my affinity for set decoration. I know that for my entire career I have considered props and set decoration to be inextricably connected. A defining moment for me came from a college production of Sherlock Holmes. I was a high school senior, on a campus visit. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater production was designed by the late Gene Wilson. During an onstage tour I was marveling at the detail of Holmes’ apartment set. It was filled with items seemingly displayed by Holmes himself; a medical display cabinet with specimens, microscope, telescope, transit, sextant, a skull, desk, chairs and so much more, but my eye was drawn to the mantle. On it, there were stacks of papers, notes, receipts, and letters. A combination letter opener and pen-knife was stuck into the wooden mantle, the pen-knife was open and a small bundle of letters sat on the blade, stabbed through as though more important than the others. I paused and felt Professor Wilson noticing my interest, “Something catch your eye?” He asked. I turned and pointed to the letter opener, it seemed oddly appropriate, but I asked, “Why are the letters stuck on the pen knife?” To which he shrugged and smiled and said, “It just seemed like something he’d do,” referring to Holmes. He was right. The entire set was a microcosm of character studies and script analysis, all expressed through carefully selected and placed objects. But how they were placed was meaningful as well. Although it wouldn’t strike me fully for a few more years, the idea that the objects that surround the characters are as important, if not more so, than the objects with which they interact was implanted and would stay with me throughout my career.

It was not until several years later, working professionally at the Goodman Theatre that the significance of the role of dressing fully implanted. The show was Riverview, a musical about a Chicago amusement park of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. There were multiple settings, but one stood out for me. It was a utility closet where two of the characters, maintenance men, spent their time. Alice Maguire, the prop master, gave it to me to dress. We already had a large piece of a roller coaster car in the unit. I set about gathering objects: a sink, buckets, tools from thrift stores and antique shops, paint cans with vintage looking Mautz paint can labels, used brushes, makeshift wooden shelves and a small mirror over the sink. There were also mops, rags, and all of the other supplies one might need to care for an amusement park. I was dressing objects into the unit and as a finishing touch, I screwed an eye screw into the edge of a shelf, I then slipped a screwdriver into the eye, and hung a coiled hose over it. It was a makeshift hanger that someone might put up to get a nuisance hose off of the ground. While reviewing the set with designer Tom Lynch, Alice asked me why I did that with the hose and I shrugged and gave Gene Wilson’s answer, “It just seemed like something they’d do.” She smiled and said, “Oh my gosh, you’re a dresser.” They both agreed that the minutiae gave the room the appearance of simply existing, never having been created. My goal was to create a room that looked like the accumulation of decades of workers simply putting things where they would be able to find them when needed. The detritus of everyday life is often what surrounds us in the spaces we inhabit for work and at home.

Changing the Mindset

So, what is the trick? What does one do in order to shift perspective and turn set decoration into design, scenic art, character study? When asked this question, I’m reminded of Proust’s often quoted thoughts on travel; “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”. Each time one visits a new place, taking a moment to explore it fully and in detail. In hindsight, I realize that part of what I do—and the joy I get from doing—is closely related to being a little bit nosey. When viewing photographs taken throughout history, I like to play a game where I try to construct a narrative of what is going on in the image, or what has just occurred. It’s a game I play with my students. 

Similarly, a room in someone’s home will often carry small signatures, hints, bits of DNA that give a visitor insight into who that person is. A close family friend, a retired podiatrist has a small office off of the living room in his home. Neatly kept, and well organized, there are bookshelves containing volumes about gardening, one of his greatest passions. But most interesting to me is the fact that there are several containers which hold his pen collection. Pens of all sizes and shapes, colorful plastic, tortoise shell, ebony, and other materials, glossy and shiny, waiting to be used. All beautifully nostalgic in their perfect little groupings. Similarly, I sit in a study that also has bookshelves the tops of which are far too tall for me to use. On the middle shelves are books that I don’t use but won’t get rid of such as scripts and other dramatic work. The lower shelves house books that I reference while working, or that I just like having nearby, but they also hold collections of objects; glass cases, photographic supplies, photographs, and watch boxes. The casual observer might see clutter, but these are objects that might help visitors get a better idea of my personality.

Set dressing is not clutter. Set dressing is an accumulation of objects similar to what many of us gather even in the cleanest of homes. Young designers have, on occasion used architecture and design magazines as part of their research. When that happens, I like to inform them that for magazine photoshoots, stylists will often remove 80% of the home’s contents in order to get an “austere stylish” look. This is not reality. Reality is what we walk through daily.

Creating a Meaningful Space

The opera The Vaudevillian is based on the career of vaudeville performer-turned opera singer, Rosa Carini. Set in New York during the Gilded Age, the show moves between Rosa’s dressing room, her tenement apartment, and offices and apartments of her patrons. The first set we dressed was the dressing room, based on research images from 1910s New York, the student prop master began by making a list of objects and items Rosa would need to have in her dressing room. The list consisted of makeup, hair products, brushes, creams, and lotions. Next came items she might like having, such as perfumes, throat products, jewelry, and similar items. Finally came gifts, flowers, champagne, glasses, an ice bucket and stand. Finally, wall decorations in the form of photographs, images, postcards and notes. Building up in layers, we were able to create a room that looked well used, but not cluttered, not messy and natural. Making lists, working in layers, and looking for practical needs created a meaningful space for performers to inhabit.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, presents some challenges not the least of which that the room in which the show takes place needs to accommodate scenes set in the recent past/present, and the distant past, 1809-12. Add to this the complication that for the present-day scenes the room, according to the script, needs to be near-empty because an event is being held at the estate. Throughout the action of the first act, items accumulate on the large table, the central furniture piece. Papers from the past commingle with objects from the present, allowing performers to interact with them in a smooth and naturalistic flow. The result is a carefully selected, almost curated collection of items that neatly and effectively fills the tabletop. The resulting commentary; that we tend to hold onto items meaningful to us in a way that may also be meaningful to others, is deftly painted into this arrangement.

Fueling the Imagination

Set dressing; objects the actors and actresses will never touch—and may not even notice—are necessary in that they fuel the audience’s imagination and allow them to see into the character well beyond the confines of the play. But another major impact comes into play when an audience member recognizes an object on set. The play The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston was produced at the Huntington Theatre in Boston in the early ’90s. One of the modern sets was the 1960’s era laundry owned by the family of the main character. Designed by Ming Cho Lee, there were shelves above the ironing station. After finding boxes, receipt books, string, wrapping paper, calendars, and numerous other items, a Pepsi bottle filled with water and capped with a sprinkler top was placed on the lowest shelf. The object predated modern spray bottles and was used to sprinkle water on laundry to relax the fibers and create steam. My mother had just such an item, so when I saw it in an old hardware store, I bought it. Upon reviewing the set, the designer tapped the object and smiled, “My mom had one of these…” 

Set dressing—similar to props—creates familiar and important touchstones for audience members. They may not know what every object is, but they definitely notice when those items are missing. Meaningful objects need not be expensive, rare, or amazing but their presence filling out the corners of sets is crucial. Understanding how to approach the topic of set decoration; making lists, developing character traits, finding objects and placing them convincingly is therefore something that we as properties masters, and theater designers at-large, must commit to doing well. One key activity may be simply recognizing the need to become an active observer of everyday places we visit. Carefully taking in how people place things in casual and unobserved moments is something anyone can do and will offer insight when needed as set dressing is placed. As with all other design processes, being mindful of the task and its significance is helpful in doing it successfully.  

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