A Little Early History of Stage Design

Today’s scenery and set design in theatrical productions can range from extremely simplistic to deliriously technical. Sometimes it is fun to look back at how far we have come in scenery design and the art of theater that has evolved over the past centuries. Here is just a glimpse into what set and stage design used to be like so long ago:


Did you know that . . .


  • The western tradition of theater began in ancient Greece. Ruins of the earliest theaters – great outdoor amphitheaters – are still standing in places like Greece, Italy and Turkey. Designers of those theaters understood that maximum communication between the stage and audience was essential. The actual set design was minimal and usually relied on costumes, some props, and occasional items that stood on the stage.
  • Prior to the Renaissance, set design consisted merely of drawings or paintings on the back wall of a theater. Some theaters were open air theaters and relied only on the dialogue to give audience members a clue as to the setting.
  • During the Renaissance, mathematicians would help design sets to give the illusion of space, depth and perspective.Tables, moving pieces, and other gadgets helped with sound effects.
  • During the 19th Century, playhouses emerged that were designed specifically for shows that would allow for props, furniture, and design elements to make the performance come alive.
  • During the 20th Century, the first college set design course was offered at Yale University.
  • Today, set design has grown and evolved from these humble beginnings. It now relies heavily on the steadily advancing technology. There is an increasing use of computer-generated imagery, computerized lighting systems, robotics, and other technologies that allow stage walls and floors to move, rise, and drop at the touch of a finger. I wonder what the next few decades will mean for set design?


Elements of Great Stage Design

Designing a set for a theater productions, whether it is large or small in scale, can be overwhelming. Professionals know that there are many parts of the performance that need to fit together like a puzzle in order for it to flow and be performed seamlessly. Whether your stage design is meant to be simplistic or highly technical, there are some common elements that the professionals would recommend that you consider before you finalize your plans:

  1. Focus – Think about what you want the focus to be before you begin designing. What exactly do you want the audience to zero in on? Is it a lone actor projecting a monologue, or is it a full cast performance that requires technical assistance? Once you discover where the focus should be, you can add the design to enhance the acting and score.
  2. Stage Layout – Create a detailed and practiced drawing of the blocking of the show. Nothing can ruin a show like an actor being blocked from making an entrance or stage props being unable to be accessed at the right time.
  3. Lighting – Always consider the lighting when creating your set design. It can bring out the mood and allow for careful movement of backdrops or stage props.
  4. Timing – Be sure to consider the flow of the show. Do the set changes slow down at some points and speed up at others? How will you accommodate the different moving pieces so that it does not become a distraction to the audience?
  5. Mood – What type of mood are you trying to portray in each part of the show? Set design can enhance the mood and, in some cases, set the mood for the actors and audience members.

Talk to the professionals at Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart for your set design questions. Call (978) 682-5757

Finding Scholarships for the Theater-bound Grads

So when you told your parents you were heading to college to study theater and hoped to make it on Broadway or in some other stage production city, did they gasp in horror? Did they ask how you would support yourself or pay off those college loans you were sure to have? Well, I guess it all depends on the type of parents you have. Hopefully they are (or will be) supportive. Unfortunately, support sometimes can only go so far and you may need financial help to make your theater dream come true.

Being a theater major, you are passionate about your craft, so take some time to be passionate about funding your way through school and training. A theater degree can be expensive (heck, headshots can be expensive), and starting jobs right out of school can be low-paying or even non-existent for some. That is where theater scholarships come in handy. You will, however, need professional training to help you reach your goals of being a star, so take a look at some of these ideas to find scholarships to make your dream a reality:

  • Federal Aid – Always check out the federal aid applications to see what you may qualify for depending upon your specific financial situation. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the main application for federal aid programs. The FAFSA determines an individual’s ability to pay for college. According to the Department of Education, tax information from the previous year yields the most accurate assessments. You will need both your 1040 and W-2 to complete the FAFSA. A quick online search will help you with this.
  • Individual College and Universities – Check with the colleges or universities to which you are applying to see if they offer scholarships specific to your major. Many theater schools are aware of the huge burden of paying for college and will offer some amazing scholarships to their own students. Call the financial aid office at the schools to which you are applying to inquire further.
  • Private Scholarships – These types of scholarships take a little digging and hard research on your own. Here is a great resource that may help you get started looking for private scholarships in the theater field. Scholarships.com

When Theater Sets Dazzle the Show

Some theater productions become famous because of the brilliant acting or singing. Other shows become well-known because the dialogue is sublime or the score is exceptional. Still others are distinguished due to the relevancy of the topic or issue that is discussed in the production. And then there are the shows that simply dazzle because the set design leaves the audience amazed and inspired, and, in some cases, wondering, “How did they make that look so real?”

What can a phenomenal set do for a play or musical production? Here are just a few of the ways a set can make a production a “must-see” event.

  • A Window into the World on Stage – Great sets have the ability to take the audience into the world that is being portrayed on the stage. When an audience truly feels as though they are right in the play with the actors, the set design crew has done their job well.


  • Balance out a Weak Performance – A dazzling set can actually disguise weak material and/or acting. When an audience is focused on how a stage is designed or how realistic things appear, they are, many times, willing to forgive weak content or acting.


  • Support for the Main Characters or Message  – A set that changes seamlessly, supports the characters, and gives depth to the theme or meaning of the show can make a production come to life, and, in the end, become wildly successful financially.


So next time you are at a show that you are raving about consider what aspects made you love it so. Was it the acting, the score, the story line or . . . maybe, just maybe, you were drawn into it by the set design?

Common Set Design Mistakes

Every designer, whether it is for home decor, graphic design or set design runs into common problems and overages. There are so many components to bring together in a seamless performance that just about anything that can go wrong, will. Resident Set Designer at Hedgerow Theatre Company, Zoran Kovcic says, “You know what an expert is? It’s someone who’s made more mistakes than you.” There are many common errors when designing and setting up a stage environment. Here are just a few that you may want to avoid if you are directing or producing a performance on stage.

  • Rushing it – Many set designers need to be multitaskers and able to handle multiple performances at varied venues. In these cases, rushing and missing details can be a problem. Even the smallest detail can make or break a show. Take your time and go step-by-step through the script and take copious notes that will help you design a set that matches the action on the stage.
  • Over Designing – Some designers go the other direction and add too many moving parts to the set. This can get a bit overwhelming for the crew if there are too many pieces of furniture or too many prop changes to make.
  • Overspending – The cost of set design can range from working on a small budget to exorbitant amounts. Keep your costs in check by spending “smart.” Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart can help you set the tone and scene without costing you an arm and a leg for furniture or background props.
  • Not Listening to the Actors – Often in stage performance, the actors are the first line when it comes to understanding the blocking and flow of the show. Always talk to the people closest to the show to find out how the design should work for them.

Broadway or Off-Broadway?

Ever wonder what reviewers, critics and promoters mean when you hear the terms “Broadway” and “Off-Broadway” being bandied about in regard to your favorite theatrical productions? Well, Broadway is a main thoroughfare that cuts diagonally from the northwest to southeast of Manhattan island completely messing up the grid pattern of streets on the island, but creating large open spaces for places such as Madison Square, Herald Square, and Times Square. But are all the shows that are considered Broadway on this particular street? Let’s take a closer look.

According to Playbill Online Most “Broadway” theatres are located on side streets near Broadway in midtown Manhattan including West 41st Street through West 52nd Street between Avenue of the Americas and Ninth Avenue. The one exception is the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, near West 65th Street. The nickname “Broadway” was originally given at the turn of the 20th century when most theaters were located on the actual street called “Broadway.” Today there are only four “Broadway” theatres that are actually on Broadway: the Winter Garden, the Roundabout, the Marquis, and the eponymous Broadway Theatre. The term “Broadway” today also gives a sense that the show and theater are larger and tend to be more well known, or at least, hopefully, more successful.

Off-Broadway indicates that the theater is outside of the main area of Broadway, and instead is usually in areas such as Greenwich Village, the upper West Side, and, to a lesser degree, the East Side. The general term “Off-Broadway” also means that the scale of the production, as well as the size of the theater, tend to be smaller and attract less attention. Although this does not mean the show will be “less” – consider Rent as an example of an Off Broadway show that made it big!  When shows are considered appealing to a larger crowd at some of the smaller Off-Broadway locations, they may switch classifications to be newly considered as “making their Broadway debut.”

So the terminology theater buffs use when talking about Broadway vs Off-Broadway refers to, not only the physical location of, but also the size and appeal of a show. I hope this helps you in your quest to understand all things theater related. Check back next month as we look at more terms and fun shows debuting this fall and winter!


Creating a Mood on the Stage

Mood is a key element in any performance whether it is: a musical or dramatic performance, on a high school stage or under the big lights of Broadway. The audience can sense the mood and atmosphere through the lighting, music, set design, props, clothing and the tone given off by the actors. The performers can add to the mood by using specific dialogue, facial gestures and movement. Here at Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart, we know the importance of setting the tone, atmosphere and mood from the moment the curtain rises. Let’s take a look at ways to set mood during a performance and through set design.


  • Lighting – Lighting is probably one of the most straight-forward ways to set a mood on stage. From full stage illumination to a single spotlight, the mood can change from wild, happy and energetic to somber and quiet. The intensity, coloring and direction of the lighting can help set a mood that will be mirrored by the actors on stage.
  • Backdrops – Backdrops and drapes come in all sorts of scenic designs and colors. Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart can enhance your production by allowing for dramatic shifts with the use of different backgrounds.
  • Music – The music or score of any production works with the plot, acting, lighting and dialogue to create a mood that is unique to the action on the stage. In addition to the score, sound effects such as doors opening, floorboards squeaking and bells ringing can increase the dramatic effect.
  • Costumes and Props – While every play/musical has its own set and costume design, these items can also play into the atmosphere that the director wants to portray. Whether the play is set in the 18th Century or the 1980s, the clothing and props worn and used by the actors is just one more component that adds to the overall mood of the performance.


Need help creating a mood for your set design? Call Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart for more information on the wide range of backdrops we offer. The possibilities are endless.


Disney on Broadway

Do your children love the theater and all things Disney? Then combine the best of both worlds for your little ones by exposing them to some of the great Disney shows that make their way to the bright lights of Broadway. Live audience shows for Disney stories are known for capturing the hearts of audiences around the world. Let’s take a look at some of the top Disney shows that have been on Broadway. Keep an eye out for your favorites that may make a comeback.

  • Lion King – The story about a royal lion who struggles to find himself and his place in the wilderness of the savanna is truly one of the greats! Children (and adults) have gotten caught up in this production. The amazing music of Elton John and Tim Rice, paired with a plot with Shakespearean roots were made to be a Broadway hit!
  • Beauty and the Beast – This tale of a man-turned-beast and a lovely maiden who fall in love under the most unlikely of circumstances is one that has delighted young audiences. The story’s charm, along with its notable music, quickly made this one a fan-favorite. Adaptations from the Broadway musical have gone on to inspire off-Broadway performances and many high school theater shows.
  • Mary Poppins – How many of us love the music and dancing of this show and can even remember it from our childhood? Probably many of us. This Disney performance is one that every child should try to see, whether it is at the professional level or done by summer theaters around the country.
  • Aladdin – The story of Princess Jasmine and Aladdin is one that will have young viewers dancing and singing along with their favorite songs. The genie will make you laugh and leave you wanting more. While the show did receive mixed reviews on Broadway, young audiences loved it!

Biggest Flops on Broadway

What makes a Broadway musical a flop? The truth is that Broadway is a brutal business, in which real success is enjoyed by only a handful of shows, while a vast majority crash and burn within the first 100 days – some even sooner. According to Theater Online, “Shows fail because not enough people buy tickets to see them. Maybe the title wasn’t as popular as the producers thought, the performers not as appealing, the stories not as dramatic, the songs not as memorable.”

This past year we heard so much of the success of Hamilton, School of Rock, On Your Feet!, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Color Purple. But what about the shows that flop? Let’s take a look at some of the biggest flops on Broadway.

  • Carrie – With a whopping five shows, this, my friends, is the ultimate quick flop. Stephen King’s Carrie was a great book, a great movie, and a painfully expensive failure of a musical.
  • Kelly – With a sad and pitiful one-night showing, Kelly wins for shortest run. Kelly opened and closed on the same night, with Howard Taubman savagely writing in the Times: “Ella Logan was written out of Kelly before it reached the Broadhurst Theater Saturday night. Congratulations, Ms. Logan.”
  • Enron – This show, about the rise and fall of the Enron company, ran for only 15 nights. While the story itself was epic and true in nature, it did not last the boring mathematics that the audience endured.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Hard to believe that the film that did so well flopped on Broadway after 45 nights. Rocky Horror got the last laugh, however, eventually becoming the longest running theatrical release in film history.


Visit us next month as we look at the best and worst of children’s musicals.

Best Musicals of the 20th Century

Musicals have come and gone from theatre’s and it can be hard to keep up. However, some continue to perform every night. With a combination of music, dancing, inspiring stories told by talented casts, which musicals are the best of the 20th century?

Today, we are going to take a look at the best musicals of the 20th century that many fans continue to see today!

West Side Story – The West Side Story is a modern day Romeo and Juliet in the lives of New York street gangs. This famous musical is beloved by many as two gangs battle for control of their turf, while one gang member’s deep love for a rival’s sister complicates things further.

Les Misérables – Based on the popular novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables is about the lives of characters such as Javert, Valjean and Fantine during the French Revolution of the 18th century.

The Sound of Music – This beloved classic continues to run on Broadway even today. This show is about Maria, who becomes the nanny of a set of kids that changes her life completely.

The Phantom of the Opera – Inside a Paris opera house, the looking Phantom schemes and tricks his way to get closer to the beautiful vocalist Christine Daae.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show – In this cult classic, Brad and Janet are stuck with a flat tire under a storm and discover the mansion of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Through dances and rock songs, Dr. Frank-N-Furter unveils his latest creation, a man named “Rocky.”

RENT – This favorite among many is known as an all time classic. RENT tells a story of one year of a group of New Yorker’s struggles through their love lives, careers and effects of the AIDS epidemic within their community.

Wicked – Wicked tells the untold story between Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West and Galinda, Galinda the Good Witch from their perspective as they were once the best of friends.