While for theatre lovers going to watch a play may seem like patronising a single aspect of a performing art, for most people in the field, it’s the interaction of many creative expressions like acting, set designing, costume designing, composing music and lighting to mention a few.
In a play, a backdrop and sets not only provide a visual element, they also enhance the aesthetics of the experience. Theatrepersons differ on how important they are. Many directors and backstage artistes feel that the sets and backdrop depend on and draw from the script.
The birth of a set design starts when during the first few script readings, it takes shape in the director’s mind. Scripts could be realistic, surrealistic, symbolic, suggestive and stylistic, and this plays a huge role in what the backdrop will look like.
For Mangala Nagaraj, director and founder of Purvaranga, a script first gives her a sense of location. “It could be a specific town or city or just a house anywhere. So depending on that, the house will have different levels for different rooms or a doorway.”
She also feels that sets or parts of it can become characters in a play. “For example, in Vanity Bag (directed by Mangala) the huge bag that makes up the set is also a character. At the same time, it serves as a stylised representation of the theme of the play as other characters emerge from within the bag.”
The rapport shared by the director and set designer needs to be strong. “Typically, a director will convey his concept to the set designer who will bring it to life,” says Amitava Basky, founder of amateur troupe ENAD. “Luckily for me, I play both roles, so it’s easy.”
Pramod Shiggaon too designs sets as well as directs plays. “I design sets for my plays as well as others’,” says the artiste who has done the sets for B V Karanth’s Gokula Nirgamana and K V Akshara’s Swapna Nataka.
However, while the making of the sets might be time consuming, apparently, having them is not always mandatory. “It is necessary only if the script demands it. Sets have evolved over the years. Earlier, many plays would just have a black curtain as the backdrop, which is rare these days,” says Pramod.
According to Mangala, while the sets should have the power to convey to the audience what the play is about, they should never be so breathtaking that they overshadow the acting. “The sets should be good, but not so great that they distract the audience,” she says.
Simply put, as Amitava rounds up, “As much effort as I and the rest of the troupe put into the sets - ENAD members create them without any professional help - on the day of the show, it forms a maximum of about 20 per cent of the performance. The rest is acting.”