Collaboration in Theatre: Musings of a New Scenic Designer
George H. Jones (Husband), played by Sam Bock ‘21 and Young Woman, played by Lidan Zhang ‘21 are captured with the set design in Episode 7. Image courtesy Clare Harbin ‘23. 

Clare Harbin ‘23 (she/her)

I walked with trepidation into my first design presentation, held my breath, and now I am writing on the night before opening night of Machinal. “Collaboration in Theatre” (co-taught by professors Mark Sutch and Anita Tripathi) was an experiment, a new idea put into play from the Theatre Department that combined what once was “Directing II” and “Advanced Design” into one collaborative course. Throughout the semester I have worked with the other five students in the class to create various scenes and scenic designs all working towards one culminating final project: a single play split into thirds. The chosen play, Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, follows a Young Woman as she transitions from single to married, to the murderer of her husband, to the convicted. The play ends as she dies via electric chair. 

I was placed with director Lily McCalla ‘23 to design the set for the last three episodes, which holds the climax and diminuendo. Episodes 1-3 were directed by Caroline Gschwind ‘22 and designed by Zoe Harrison ‘21; Episodes 4-6 were directed by James Shakow ‘22 and designed by Landin Eldridge ‘21.

The process itself was incredibly new and exciting, and at times (sometimes simultaneously) incredibly scary and daunting. Over the course of my particular process, the main thematic element we wanted to focus on changed and the design had to quickly be adapted to fit the newly discovered idea: the Young Woman was in a box that doesn’t seem to fit. At first, I was lost on what set design would be an effective aid in telling this interpretation of the story; then, the railings were born. These rolling pieces, meant to resemble both jail bars and the dividers between the audience and the courtroom, would (by the end of the show) completely box in the Young Woman. 

The other major set piece, the archway, was designed to serve as the piece to bind it all together — an asymmetrical arch that had cut off jail bars and could be used as an entrance or exit. With these two main elements created, the stools, tables, and platform were seamlessly placed within the design for each scene. The next step was to draft all of my scenic elements in Vectorworks, an online program that allows all of the pieces to be drafted in a manner that shows the pieces in 3-D, what they look like placed together in the theatre space, and what the audience would see in any seat in the house, from any angle. I then sent these to the Technical Director, Chip Davis.

After the hard work of the Technical Director and the other wonderful people who work in the scene shop, my designed set pieces were built! Then came the task of painting — I decided to do a black base on everything and then a textured deep silver on top. In the stage lights, it looks like sheets of metal! This was an important characteristic: we wanted to show this story was not bound by a time period and it was designed to truly lean into the abstract, machine-like effect of the show.

My favorite part of this whole process was seeing the design pieces come to life. It was truly through collaboration that the design became as it is in the final show. It is through the incredible direction of Lily McCalla it gained breath! One particular moment of the show that really sticks with me is in the last episode when the Young Woman is condemned to death. She sits on a platform as the other cast members move the railings around her in an orchestrated movement piece as the voiceovers and actors speak the dialogue. The show ends with the railings shoved around the Young Woman, capturing the moment of electrocution, a blackout, and a textured light pattern as the railings are opened and she is pushed away. It is truly powerful and incredible to see the set pieces in action!

In terms of doing this project during COVID, I learned a tremendous amount about consistent communication and flexibility — whether that is communication with my director via email or flexibility of design specifications on account of  the materials available to the Technical Director for building the set pieces. Overall, I have learned a great deal about theatre from both this class and the final scene design. As someone who primarily acts, I have fully realized the immense level of work and complexity of collaboration and the creativity and dedication that goes into creating a set design. Truly, never again will I take a set for granted! 

Clare Harbin ‘23 (she/her) is a theatre and religious studies major from Portsmouth, VA. She can be reached for comment at clharbin@davidson.edu