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Take Note when Experiencing Theater Set Design

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © fudj | Flickr

Going to the theater is usually an invigorating experience. A good production definitely considers the orchestration of numerous stimuli…all in an effort to feed the senses. Similar to architecture, theater set design must work to create an experience with space, and often such theatrical experiences tap into so much more that just the visual sense.

For this reason, architects can learn a thing or two from good theater set design and performance.

Space Filled with Dynamic Moments

What goes into producing an entire theatrical experience rests upon more that just the actors. There is an entire environment that revolves around them — everything from the theater building itself to the often dynamic and jaw-dropping stage environments.

As architects we can learn a lot from film compilation, music composition and story narrative; but the subject of theatrical design and performance is often an underplayed topic. If you think about it…how often can you see a synthesis of so many senses “composed” to engage you in an experiential narrative?

Of course, there are some differences between designing for a theater experience versus designing for a lifestyle experience. However, there are some intriguing overlaps. For starters, both often incorporate cutting edge technologies like lighting and computer technologies. In essence, a theater stage (say for a musical) can be perceived as a micro-environment in that it must accomplish a lot with a little amount of space.

It’s time for architects to delve a bit deeper into how theater design and performance orchestrates the senses to simultaneously tell a story. The narrative can often be quite complex and often the experience for the audience becomes quite memorable and meaningful.

The Importance of Transition

Theatrical performances are compact, micro- journeys that can often tap into intellectual and emotional dimensions through the audience’s senses. With limited time and space transition becomes a critical factor. Hence, transitions are a key takeaway lesson for architects to remember.

As the scenes and the stage transition from one scene to the next, that space becomes more flexible — not just because walls and floors move around, but because transitions are occurring all the time. For example, lights transition within a scene and then fog emits to transition between two songs, then the walls rotate while colors evolve. The stage is ever transforming at all scales and the actors work with these qualities to ultimately create a well-synchronized performance.

Of course, the stage is a performance and much rehearsal goes into creating such a “perfect” showing. But architecture can learn much from the way a theatrical production is stitched together. Every small detail and every moment has a meaning and contributes to the greater whole of the narrative.

The next time you go to the theater to see the latest Broadway Musical, enjoy the show but also keep in mind how the set design experience really caters to the senses. It is really amazing to see what can actually be accomplished within such a small space — from visual illusions, to beauty, to emotions, to making you think.

The theater set designers takes the audience (and the actors) for an experiential ride — isn’t that what you should do with your architecture?

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what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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