Thursday, November 11, 2010

From Mind to Mainstage

When designer Dan Ostling started working on the set for Becky Shaw’s first scene, he had exactly one sentence to guide him: “Act 1 Scene 1. A room at a mid-range hotel in New York City.”

So how did he get from that sentence to the picture below?

Brian Avers, Tessa Auberjonois and Barbara Tarbuck in Becky Shaw.

“I’m not thinking about it as a set first,” he explained, “but asking myself why the playwright chose this location and what does it say about the characters?”

For example, the script tells us that Max is well off but has chosen a three-star hotel (which one character calls a two-star hotel) for his adoptive mother and sister, suggesting he might be a little cheap when he’s paying for someone else.

“This is where I start to understand the playwright’s intention,” Dan said.

Next comes the research phase. That means finding photos of rooms in three-star New York-area hotels, like these:

Dan’s paying attention to the composition of the room—its size and shape and how the objects in it are arranged. A chair placed closed to a bed, for instance, suggests a small room.

He’s also paying attention to specifics such as air vents, door handles and coat racks—the details that make a set feel authentic.

Once Dan feels he has gathered enough research, he starts sketching: “Sketching is a quick way to get ideas out of your head.”

As different bits of research meld with his concepts, it gets hard to separate which parts came from photos and which came from his own ideas. “Some research you just love and you just keep it in your head and you sketch and you model, but when you see the research again, it is different from what you remember.”

In addition to the sketch, he also creates a ground plan from a bird’s-eye view. And from these two pieces, he creates a model made from all sort of supplies, including art board, paint, printed pieces, wood and wire. He buys some of the furniture and hand-makes others.

Still, he’s not done. He continues to make changes to the model and the sketch all the way up to the time the set is actually built.

“You go back and forth, revising as you go along, which raises the quality as everything becomes a little more detailed.”

In this case, the final details included not just the air vent and door handles, but an old-fashioned sprinkler head, a smoke alarm and a “Do Not Disturb” hanger.

The result, Dan has decided, “is sort of fantastic.”

Check out the final performances of Becky Shaw, playing until Nov. 21, to see this and the other six sets Dan designed for the show in real life.

Some photos from and

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