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Setting the Stage

How to take a playwright's script from the page to the stage is what students learn in Set Design I, T252. In this course, lecturer Edward Check teaches the hows and wherefores of a set designer's job and the hands-on fundamentals of fashioning an environment in which a play comes to life on the stage. Check not only instructs in technique but also asks students to create scale drawings, painted sketches and models of sets that will establish time period, mood and locale for the plays they read.

Specific challenges for neophyte set designers dwell in developing not only the necessary technical skills but also the communication skills, says Check. "If a student doesn't know how to sketch, that's okay. I teach regular sketching and technical skills," he notes. But more important, "this course emphasizes ideas, and the importance of collaboration and communicating ideas to theatre directors and fellow designers. It's a language for a visual medium that you have to learn: you have to be able to explain visual concepts with words."

This semester students will read six plays and work out detailed design ideas for each. Check says each work presents a specific problem for set designers. For instance the set requirements of a play that takes place in an interior, or box set -- such as 'night, Mother, by Marsha Norman -- are fundamentally different from those of a play whose stage must resemble the outside deck of a beach house, as in Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart.

"It's all about dealing with windows and doors, versus sky and trees," notes Check, who was production designer and art director on HBO's "Sex and the City," for which he received two Emmy nominations for Best Art Direction for the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

"Set design brings together a lot of performing arts students at Smith. I'm getting dancers and architects as well as theatre majors in my class," says Check, who has been teaching at Smith for four years.

For students who want more, the upper-level course Set Design II focuses on creating stage environments for dance, musicals and the opera. Students look at the advanced challenges involved in designing period plays as well as multi-set productions that will include live music.

"What makes Smith so wonderful," continues Check, "are the state-of-the-art theatre facilities that are available to all undergraduates. I know of graduate schools that don't have these strengths in the performing arts."


"In the Classroom" is an occasional column on the intellectual life of the college as viewed through the lens of academic course offerings.


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