Natural Children's Theater Design

February 20, 2005

For the past week I've spent many hours working with volunteers to fabricate a forest— having designed a few sets for children's theater in the past I can safely state that nature is the most difficult environment to construct. Castles, planets, Grecian ruins; these things are far easier to form because they can easily be shaped from flat sheets of plywood and cardboard. In fact, most set designs that I've encountered resort to painted flat sheet goods, even for their depictions of trees or bushes, because they are just that much simpler to construct. I've certainly gone this route myself, such as in the second incarnation of my adaptation of Aesop's Fables:

Aesop's Fables stage set, 2006
cardboard, lumber, primer, black latex paint, rope, paper, fabric, hardware

Now by the time I designed this simple set I'd already staged Aesop's Fables once and had spent hours upon hours constructing a 3D tree out of cardboard tubes (mailing and paper towel), newspaper, and papier mache. Not only was the tree in that first production structurally unstable, but its spindly brown limbs and sparse canopy cast a funerary tone on the entire production (which is not exactly the spirit you're hoping to engender in a children's theater production). This incarnation was much more successful as it not only felt more playful, but also emphasized the vivid colors of the costumes that the students wore. My golden rule for stage design is that it should compliment, not overwhelm, the performers.

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Building nature in three dimensions for the stage requires a few key elements: soft materials, soft edges, a tonal palette with tremendous variation but only a few colors, variable verticality, asymmetry, and a daunting amount of simple repetition. 

While Mother Nature can be horribly inhospitable at times, our subconscious tendency is to equate the outdoors with the softer elements of Spring and Summer. Because we think of leaves, grass, moss, and flowers before we consider icy climes or volcanic cliffs, it makes sense to design with an eye towards the more pliable and comforting elements of the natural world. Cotton dyed green can become a leafy canopy and the scratchy weave of burlap can simulate dirt. Cardboard can be softened to form the gnarled trunks, roots, and branches of old growth forest. In order to lend an air of believability to all of these elements you must remain conscious of the repetition inherent in the natural world and commit to the idea of creating the same element in vast multiples. This tends to be the stumbling block for most students, as it can be difficult for them to visualize just how all of this repetitive labor is going to net a rock wall or oak tree.

There seems to be a paucity of useful information on the internet about cheap and effective ways to construct stage sets and props with students. If all goes well in the next month, I should have at least a couple decent tutorials to post this summer on the creation of fake rocks, starry backdrops, and flowering bushes. At this point I can state that no matter how ambitious your natural stage setting may be, you're going to need a significant stash of the following items: toilet paper, cardboard, masking tape, muslin, duct tape, assorted lengths of 2"x2" lumber, a cordless drill, zip ties/twist ties, and a group of dedicated parents itching to use their vast collection of tools. When Boy Scouts go into nature they take their Ten Essentials, but when you want to create nature for the stage, I'd encourage you to heed the ten essentials listed above.

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