The role of a set designer is simple – create an environment where the searing soul of the play can be acted out, where actors can exist and bring the script to life for the wondering audience. On a budget of £20-50. With receipts. And six sheets of plywood, measuring 8’ by 4’, one bicycle, and Botley road to negotiate. Not to mention the four tins of emulsion paint, 15 paint brushes, 3 rollers and 2 paint trays.
Events conspire against the humble ‘settie’. The director looks at the flats, painstakingly hammered together, painted in hues of brick and urban grime, and points out, in that famous, nerve-shredding phrase, that it is "all wrong". They had shifted the ‘conceptuation’ from urban grunge to a calm garden in high summer. In an email during the vacation. So why was grime still visible? Oh, and cut that wood more quietly, with no sawdust. And no scratches on the floor, or paint on the curtains, as the Theatre Management doesn’t like it. Now. Or else the whole get-in will run late, and the lighting person needs that ladder, right now.
The everyday materials of set construction also seem trip up the settie. Plywood rejects domination by nails, paint tins cling to their lids with the tenacity of a limpet in its shell, hammers develop a passion for your fingertips, and sawing causes bloodshed which, more often than not, stains the backdrop better than any cheap paint from the B&Q in Blackbird Leys. Bloodstains, at least, can generally be passed off as artistic license. And then, once the whole misbegotten, nailed, duct taped edifice is erect, it will come crashing down because some clod-hopping actor will lean on it, causing hysterics and general fury. This isn’t to say that wood isn’t a preferable staging material to the other possibilities a settie is presented with. Rumour has it Tom Richards is only now – and only just – being talked out of plans to build an actual brick wall in the OFS for his bid for Edward II next term.
Being a set designer is not a bundle of laughs. But the sight of a stage coming to life, backdrop glowing in the lights, the doors opening and closing smoothly, actors not falling over any protruding set or mauling themselves on any overlooked nails, must be one of the most gratifying parts of this whole theatre affair.