Set designer Tom Buderwitz offers 25 rules of scenic design. Some can even be applied to life in general:
1. Form Follows Function.
This is the single most important thing Allen Cornell taught me about Scenic Design at Adelphi University. This adage stems from the Architectural world, but it is 100% applicable and paramount for stage design. You can’t decide what it looks like before you solve how it works. This is rule #1 and it gets broken all the time. A pretty set is worthless if the actors can’t move right in it or if it doesn’t make sense or if it doesn’t flow properly. You must work out the “machine” of the design first. I can make anything look good but I can’t make it function correctly without figuring out it’s mechanics. How the actors inhabit it. How they move and live in it. How it functions from scene to scene. How it can be blocked? The look, shape (form) it will take on must come after how it works (functions).
2. Less is more.
Mies van der Rohe’s Architectural motto also applies to all sorts of other areas of design. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify. If you can do without it, do without it. Learn to erase. There is always a part of the design process where I use my eraser. It is an important tool. Use it! Use only what you need and give the rest away. Negative space is almost always as important as positive space.
3. Treat your first read of the play like going to the theatre.
Respect it. Have reverence for it. Your first read should be a pure experience. Don’t cheat it. Make time for it. Make sure you can fully focus on it. No distractions. Treat it like that very important first date. You get one chance for a first impression.
4. Research, Research, Research.
You can almost never have enough research. And keep researching. You might be in tech and discover a gem of research and can still find a way of including it. Don’t just Google your research either. Get some books. Go to a Library. Read! I don’t always have a reason why for including some bits of my research. Sometime things just feel like they belong.
5. God is in the details
Also attributed to Mies van der Rohe, this is another gem. Make the details count. Design soars with the right details. Know your material (research) and make specific choices and execute them thoroughly. Your work will be elevated. John Ezell was always the best at this. Every detail was always right and complete. His designs were consistently brilliant because of it.
6. There are no arbitrary choices.
None. Arbitrary choices are lazy. Arbitrary choices stand out like a sore thumb. Don’t ever let them happen. Think everything through. Where did it come from? Who bought it and why? Why red? How long has it been there? Be specific, never vague. An actor shouldn’t make an arbitrary choice and neither should a designer.
7. Design the truth.
Hold honesty above everything else. The truth is paramount. Make sure what you design is truthful. Is it the right space with the correct elements? Does it answer the questions in the text? Is it the right world for the play? That’s huge. Again, is it the right world for the play? Does it fit to the text? It had better. Is it a viable space? Does it make sense? Do the actors feel right within it? Is there the right amount of room to move (not too much, not too little). Your design must speak to the essence of the playwright’s play.
8. Don’t impose on the play.
I see this a lot. Designers impose a look or quality onto the play that doesn’t support the text, doesn’t illuminate. Don’t do it. This is bad design and it is rampant. It is not only bad it is rude, lazy and sacrilege. Do the work of getting at the root of the play. It has a core. It has an essence. Each play has an emotional center. Your design must match it. Don’t stick something onto a play that doesn’t belong there.
9. Be nice to the crew.
That means everyone. We are all working for the same goal and there is no room for ego, attitude, or any lack of kindness. Don’t be a jerk. You will or will not get hired again based on three things 1) Did you do good work? 2) Did you stay within budget? and 3) Were you nice to work with?
10. There are no problems, only opportunities.
I hated this one when I first heard it (Jack Shouse, PCPA summer ‘90). I thought it was a cop out. Of course there are problems. But I finally realized what Jack meant is that it is no good looking at them as problems. So What? Your budget just got cut. That material isn’t in stock any more. The dates just got pushed up. What are you going to do now? Sulk over a problem? It is an opportunity for something different. Something you haven’t thought of yet. Maybe even something better. Embrace the situation. Be creative. Design.
11. Keep learning.
Hey, nice degree you got there. Now put it away. You’re in school for the rest of your life. Keep reading. Keep pouring through books, studying artists, discovering artists. Stay the student. Stay hungry. You don’t know it all and you never will. Keep a thirst for knowledge. Learn something new everyday.
12. Make it your own.
At Brandeis, Patton Campbell used to say “There is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been done before. It’s how you filter it into your version that counts.” All artists borrow ideas, inspiration. Don’t plagiarize. Don’t copy. Be inspired by someone else’s work. Add onto it. Extrapolate off of it. Put “you” into it. Combine it. Filter it. Process it and make it yours.
13. Trust your gut.
Your first instincts are almost always right. That’s why I always like to sketch right after reading a new play. I want to capture my gut instinct. Those images formed in my minds eye when reading will hold a lot of the essence. Trust that instinct.
14. Go back to the text.
If you get stuck, go back to the source. If the playwright is worth her (or his) salt the answers will all be there. Go back to the text anyway. Know it inside out. Know it to quote it. Get inside it. Your choices will all be better, truthful and honest from knowing your source material.
15. Design the entire play.
Another cop-out of set design is the designer who focuses the design on the one main set (70% of the play) and throws away the two sets (smaller scenes) that are just as important. The world of the play is ALL of it. The playwright wrote it for a reason. Design it equally. Does every scene feel like it is a part of the same whole? Does it all fit together? Does it form one world? Make it so.
16. Procrastinate wisely.
We all do it. And it isn’t always bad. Do it wisely. Know when to let it be in your head and when to get it on paper. Design needs air to breath and time to grow. Learn how to ruminate a design but don’t over do it. How is it after a good night’s sleep? Do you still feel the same way about it? Know when to let it breathe. Sometimes it needs the time to percolate before you commit to it. Just don’t over brew.
17. Sleep well and exercise well.
Nothing better than designing when well rested. Running or bike riding is a great way to work out design ideas. The mind focuses. The brain processes really well then. Clarity forms. Don’t believe me? Try it. Do yoga. Invert. Also take some time off. This seems obvious, but you have too. The creative brain must have time off, time away to refresh, restock, recharge. Take a vacation. Go to the mountains, Go to the beach.
18. Surprise yourself.
Step into the abyss. Don’t just rely on what you know that works. Experiment. Get out of your comfort zone. Be daring. Shock yourself. As Jacques Burdick used to say “Make the unfamiliar, familiar. Make the familiar, unfamiliar”.
19. Have a muse.
Get inspired. Find one. Find two or three. If I get stuck, I can always put on Mozart. Something in his work elevates mine. Always has. The same goes for Vermeer, Nirvana, Hector Guimard, and Al Hirschfeld. Find your favorites. Have some go to sources for creative inspiration.
20. Love playwrights and actors.
I can’t imagine designing scenery and not loving playwrights and actors. I love plays. I wish I could write them. I can’t. I can’t act either, but I’ve been doing this long enough to spot really good writing and acting. It is amazing when it is done right. It is also easy to spot the bad writing/acting too. Be a connoisseur of good plays, playwrights and good acting, actors. The same goes for good directors. It will make you a better designer. Go see a lot of plays.
21. There will always be someone better than you.
I love this one. Really there will and that is okay. Always strive to do your best but keep some humility. It will keep you hungry and working to do better.
22. Draw, Draw, Draw.
Get off the computer and draw. Draw anything. Sketch people. Sketch your research. Sketch your dog. Sketch your chair. Keep pencil and paper at hand. Doodle. Draw on napkins, whatever it takes. Keep doing it. Get it onto the paper. Practice makes perfect. Howard Bay instilled this in me. Drawing is the connective tissue between the design brain and reality.
23. Learn to let it go.
Do not fall in love with your work. It is not precious. It is expendable. Every set will be taken down and thrown away someday. Get used to it. Learn to give things up for the greater good. Design is a process and theatre is collaboration. Often someone else’s idea(s) are better. Embrace change. Learn to adapt. Be open to suggestion(s). Think through all the possibilities. You will become a better designer.
24. Study other scenic designers.
I wouldn’t be the designer I am today without loving and absorbing the designs of other designers. Robert Edmond Jones, Jo Mielziner, Boris Aronson, and Ming Cho Lee are designers whose work I find ever inspiring. The same holds true for Tony Walton, John Lee Beatty, Santo Loquasto, and Ralph Funicello too. Keeping up with what other designers do helps me stay on my toes. Respecting others work is part of the great honor of being in the Theatre.
25. Have fun.
It is called a play. Make sure you play in the process. If you wanted a boring job you could have done a million other things. Enjoy your work. Make jokes. Laugh. Smile. You get to create theater today!
Tom Buderwitz has designed for South Coast Repertory, Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, Intiman Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Denver Center Theatre Company, Laguna Playhouse, Chautauqua Theater Company, Arizona Theatre Company, San Diego Repertory, Artist Repertory Theatre, The Antaeus Company, Reprise Theatre Company, The Theatre @ Boston Court, P.C.P.A. Theaterfest, Riverside Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, Rubicon Theatre Company, Rogue Machine, Deaf West Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre LA and A Noise Within, among many others. Tom has been honored with four L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Awards (24 nominations) and three L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards. For television, Tom has designed specials and series for every major broadcast and cable network and has three Emmy Award nominations and an Art Director’s Guild Award nomination. www.tombuderwitz.com