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Theatrical scenery is that which is used as a setting for a theatrical production. Scenery may be just about anything, from a single chair to an elaborately re-created street, no matter how large or how small, whether or not the item was custom-made or is the genuine item, appropriated for theatrical use.
The history of theatrical scenery is as old as the theatre itself, and just as obtuse and tradition bound. What we tend to think of as 'traditional scenery', i.e. two-dimensional canvas-covered 'flats' painted to resemble a three-dimensional surface or vista, is a relatively recent innovation and a significant departure from the more ancient forms of theatrical expression, which tended to rely less on the actual representation of space and more on the conveyance of action and mood. By the Shakespearean era, the occasional painted backdrop or theatrical prop was in evidence, but the show itself was written so as not to rely on such items to convey itself to the audience. However, this means that today's set designers must be that much more careful, so as to convey the setting without taking away from the actors.
Our more modern notion of scenery, which dates back to the 19th century, finds its origins in the dramatic spectacle of opera buffa, from which the modern opera is descended. Its elaborate settings were appropriated by the 'straight', or dramatic, theatre, through their use in comic operettas, burlesques, pantomimes and the like. As time progressed, stage settings grew more realistic, reaching their peak in the Belasco realism of the 1910-'20s, in which complete diners, with working soda fountains and freshly made food, were recreated onstage. Perhaps as a reaction to such excess and in parallel with trends in the arts and architecture, scenery began a trend towards abstraction, although realistic settings remained in evidence, and are still used today. At the same time, the musical theatre was evolving its own set of scenic traditions, borrowing heavily from the burlesque and vaudeville style, with occasional nods to the trends of the 'straight' theatre. Everything came together in the 1980s and 1990s and, continuing to today, until there is no established style of scenic production and pretty much anything goes. Modern stagecraft has grown so complex as to require the highly specialized skills of hundreds of artists and craftspeople to mount a single production.
Types of scenery
The construction of theatrical scenery is frequently one of the most time-consuming tasks when preparing for a show. As a result, many theatres have a place for storing scenery (such as a loft) so that it can be used for multiple shows. Since future shows typically are not known far in advance, theatres will often construct stock scenery that can be easily adapted to fit a variety of shows. Common stock scenery types include:
Purpose and approach
The purpose of every production is to provide an experience for the audience. At the conclusion your audience should feel emotionally different from when they first arrived. Scenery helps provide the experience exploring the unique and memorable in individual’s minds. Generating scenery ideas is a process of discovery. Through extensive research a designer looks for evidence that best supports the message and environmental feeling. But first, values must be determined toward a vast variety of approaches and techniques. As an example, if your value was to create a realistic, warm, inviting, organic environment then that value helps drive the ideas and choices. Realistic trees, grass and flowers painted warm colors could be a direction that supports that value instead of metal and concrete scenery that exposes a different feeling. Next determine what techniques could be used. Budgets usually guide this process. It may cost more to construct a tree than project one on a screen surface. Maybe the upstage layers are projected or painted backdrops of trees and grasses on a fabric surface but the down stage layers are more realistic trees made from different materials.
Here are some examples of scenery that inspired different approaches and techniques to accomplish a certain environment feel and emotion.
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