“This class makes my brain work differently!” —Elena Lindstrom ’17 

“If the set is elegant and well done, it’s easier to understand the play.” With those words, theater professor Megan Reilly launched a Fundamentals of Scenography class early in the semester. The course, taken by theater majors and non-majors alike, is an introduction to the art and process of developing design for performance.

Throughout the semester her half dozen students studied elements of design, and worked on set models as well as lighting plans and costumes. Reilly’s hope, she says, is that they come away from the class with “the ability to conceive of theatrical spaces in ways that support texts.”

That means students analyzing photos they like, choosing fabric swatches (“yes, you can touch them all you want!”) to convey a wealthy older woman with poor taste or an impoverished Victorian scholar, and building 1/8-scale models of a set design for a fairy tale.

“This class makes my brain work differently!” says theater major Elena Lindstrom ’17 (Arlington Heights, Ill.), referring to activities such as making color wheels, drawing costume designs, and using various shapes to create pictures of stages. Lindstrom took the course so she could better understand the design aspects of theater as she creates and directs a performance for her capstone project. Though she has worked on productions before, says Lindstrom, “I feel like I’m learning in a totally new way about all the elements of a show and the importance of communication among the director and designers.”

Reilly compares scenographers to detectives or magpies, charged with “discovering a world from the play’s text. Their research can take them from museums to thrift shops, she says, adding that “no experience is ever wasted” for those creating the look of a play. Her methods seem to be working. Says first year student Charlotte Houghton (Washington, D.C), “This class had pushed me to become more creative and aware of design decisions and why I’m making them…to come up with new and thoughtful ideas and really consider how best to illustrate a text to make it meaningful.”

For their final project, the students were asked to create one-quarter scale model set designs for the Shakespearean drama Macbeth, as well as two full-color costume renderings, a lighting design, and a concept statement. Meanwhile, most members of the class, including Reilly, were also immersed in the school’s production of the musical Urinetown, with Reilly designing the lighting with help from Houghton and others.

By semester’s end, the students have a good overview of designing for theater, says Reilly, though she adds that “in a perfect world I’d love to have this class be a prerequisite for a scene design course in which they translate their designs into actual sets.” And of course she’d like to see some of those same faces in the lighting design course she’s teaching next semester.

But in the meantime, six Macalester students have been taught, says Lindstrom, “to understand how to make powerful performances,” a perspective they can appreciate, she points out, “not only as theatre-makers but as audience members.” 

December 5 2016

Back to top