ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Sets | Playbill

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News ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Sets Exploring the work of a Broadway set designer.
Scott Pask


Ask is a weekly column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email [email protected]. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This question comes from Kimberly from Manhattan.

Question: I would like to know what the process is like for designing a set for a Broadway show. Does the set designer work closely with the director? Answer: For this question, spoke with Scott Pask, who recently completed the set for November and is now working on Cry-Baby and Les Liaisons Dangereuses for Broadway, the potentially Broadway-bound 9 to 5 for the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, and Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera. He won Tony Awards for set designing The Pillowman and The Coast of Utopia.

"I always begin firstly by reading the script many times and then beginning a long process of researching," Pask says. He might start researching visual images that come to mind while reading the script, from an entire building to merely a texture.

"In the case of Cry-Baby, it's based on a film, it takes place in a number of locations in a very specific time and place, Baltimore in 1954," he says. "I went to Baltimore, and John Waters [the original film's director] drove me around for a day to locations significant for him. We went to the film locations."

The set designer works very closely with the show's director, and directors will sometimes hire certain set designers that they have worked with previously. For instance, Pask has worked frequently with November director Joe Mantello, as they've teamed on The Ritz, Blackbird and Take Me Out.

The main job of the set designer is helping the director tell the story in a visual way. Pask and Cry-Baby's director, Mark Brokaw, talked a lot about the two different groups of characters in the show — the squares, the more upstanding members of society, and the drapes, the more rebellious, juvenile delinquent crowd.

Brokaw favored the action taking place in multiple locations, as opposed to one central location. "The idea of those two parts of society was a big undercurrent for me, to visually portray each of the locations where they spend time differently," Pask says. "The ones with the squares are more constrained, and a little more claustrophobic and a little more uptight," while the drapes' locations are looser.

(To skip the set design spoiler, jump to the next paragraph.) The first couple scenes take place in the park and the country club, where the squares hang out. "One of the first things I did was a series of concentric squares," which would frame the stage picture in those first two locations, Pask says. Then, when the set switches to the drapes' hangout for the first time, the frames tilt, to reflect the drapes' more off-kilter sensibility. "It became a framework for the whole show," he says.

Pask makes some quick, initial drawings, but pretty early on in the process, he constructs a scale model for each set in the show — usually a quarter inch for every foot, but sometimes a half-inch, if he wants to get more detailed. "That becomes a tool with which I communicate my ideas to the director," Pask says.

Models can vary: "Some are very rough, and some can get incredibly intricate," Pask says. He'll often make multiple models for the same set. "Sometimes it's for the purpose of comparison," he says. "You think, 'I know this probably isn't what I want to do," but he wants to make a model really quickly just to check.

For instance, for the Oval Office set in November, he tried out ten different quarter-inch models with different ceiling heights and different variations on the elliptical shape, and one model even took an asymmetrical view of the room. He eventually created a symmetrical set but with some slightly skewed aspects, such as the off-center door.

After he's made the models he likes, Pask converts them into drawings, which are given to the scene shops to bid on the set construction.

Pask will often have an associate designer, model makers and draftsmen helping him out in his Union Square studio. He currently has four workers, and in the past he's had as many as seven.

The scene shops will eventually make their own more detailed engineering drawings to help them with the construction. The props people are brought in to help create the furniture, and Pask will help with the larger, more noticeable pieces.

Pask says be brings an architectural approach to set design, as he got his bachelor's in architecture from University of Arizona before attending the Yale School of Drama for design. Pask says he tries "to make the design reflective of where we are and [tries] to keep it modern." But, he adds, "I don't feel like I've got one style. I'm happy when I do what's right for the play."

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