Making the Scene

Theater is storytelling. You want your audience to believe the world you put in front of them,” says Baxter Hartley, a theater arts major from Maplewood, New Jersey. He shares how the B.F.A. design program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick trained him to create those worlds for audiences.

How did you become interested in set design?
My grandmother, an architect, and my mother got me interested in drawing, painting, and art at an early age. Growing up, I also had an interest in building design and structures.

I thought about studying architecture but felt it was bound by too many rules. I wanted more creative control and direct input.

The next best option was something I had already been doing in high school: theater. There is a magical element in scene design, making things appear and disappear, shifting location and time without the audience members leaving their seats. When something really works, you get an immediate response from your audience; it’s a great feeling.

From Idea to Set

Baxter outlines the steps of designing and building a stage set and shares his thoughts on some of his projects.

  • Scripts
    Building Expertise

    To create a stage set, the first thing I do is read the script, of course. I’m looking for the mood of the piece and the mood in each scene. I’m also looking for any visual cues in the story.

  • sketches
    Building Expertise

    Then I’ll create some initial sketches that help convey those moods and reinforce themes. I’m also thinking about how the actors might move in the space. Are they going up and down, moving through many spaces, or staying in one area? Depending on what the script calls for, the set can be very abstract, realistic, or somewhere in between.

  • drawings
    Building Expertise

    There’s a lot of back and forth with the director and many drafts as the drawings are refined. Next, I’ll build a rough model, so we can envision the set in three dimensions and evaluate how things might work. Then there’s more back and forth and refining.

  • Baxter Hartley
    Building Expertise

    Once the rough model has been approved, a set designer creates drafts and a scale model of the stage and set. Precision is paramount because everyone will be working off these plans. Ground plans and elevations of walls explain the dimensions of what we want built. We also complete a rendering, or scale picture, of how the set is to be painted or how it might look under stage lights.

  • Baxter Hartley
    Building Expertise

    We build sets in the scene shop. Most scenery is made of wood or metal, but can be made of many things: foam, fabrics, cardboard, plastics. Each material can be used in different ways to achieve a desired effect. In the shops, we are taught how to do whatever is required for the set whether it's how to use different saws for different cuts or how to put a flat together, spackling, painting, etc.

  • Wardrobe shop
    Building Expertise

    One of the great things about this program, everyone is required to do shop hours. We collaborate to build the set, costume actors, and hang lights. Your base is the shop for your specialization but, by the time you graduate, you will have rotated through and worked in every shop. That’s important because knowing how others work feeds into how you can design the set.

  • set painting
    Building Expertise

    We learn all kinds of painting tricks to make scenes look realistic or to create certain effects. Want to give a “brick” wall texture? Mix joint compound and sawdust with the paint. Apply it over masking tape "mortar" and peel up the tape when the paint is slightly dry. Here, Nathalie Schlosser and Sun Young Park are creating a "wooden" floor for the set of Nathan's Secret Girlfriend.

  • Kites' set
    Building Expertise

    One project I enjoyed working on was the play A History of Kites for the Jameson Theater. The entire story was set on a beach and the characters had to appear to be flying kites. It was a challenge to create a believable beach and the illusion of flying kites in the basement space the theater occupies.
    Photo courtesy of Justin Smiley.

  • RUTV set
    Building Expertise

    I worked with Terek Pierce (above), the student producer of Wake Up Rutgers to design the set for RU-tv. I used Live with Regis and Kelly as an inspiration and basically hinged two panels of lightly stained wood to faux French doors. Curtains hide the hinges and one of the panels has a cut out for a television set.

  • Hay Fever set
    Building Expertise

    When I studied at the Globe Theatre in London as part of the theater design curriculum, I took classes in British arts and culture, historical costume creation, modelmaking, and design. The set model above is for the play Hay Fever, a project I completed under Rutgers professor Michael Miller. I used a method I learned in London to make the couch.

  • L'enfant et les sortiläges set
    Building Expertise

    This is one of the set models for the opera Les Enfants et Les Sortilèges. I spend a lot of time drawing, cutting, building, and painting models, but there are tricks you can employ to expedite the process. For example, it's easier to print out a scale image of a rug and glue it to thick paper than it is to paint one.

  • Romeo & Juliet Ballet set
    Building Expertise

    My favorite part of scenic design is the creative process and the problem solving. What can I do to accomplish the look or surprise we want? How do the scenes shift? How are people going to be affected by the scenery? Above is a model of a set for the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

  • Baxter Hartley
    Building Expertise

    The theater department is spread between Walters Hall and Mason Gross Performing Arts Center on the Douglass Campus. To get from one to the other, you must cross one of two footbridges, so I'm on the ravine bridge many times a day. It's also an excellent spot to just sit and catch up on reading. For me, it's a place that really means Rutgers.

  • Scripts
    1/13
  • sketches
    2/13
  • drawings
    3/13
  • Baxter Hartley
    4/13
  • Baxter Hartley
    5/13
  • Wardrobe shop
    6/13
  • set painting
    7/13
  • Kites' set
    8/13
  • RUTV set
    9/13
  • Hay Fever set
    10/13
  • L'enfant et les sortiläges set
    11/13
  • Romeo & Juliet Ballet set
    12/13
  • Baxter Hartley
    13/13

Why did you choose to come to Rutgers?
Rutgers has a prestigious theater program. It was close to home and affordable.

What have you learned at Mason Gross?
Among many other things, I’ve learned how to study a script and find inspiration to create on stage a believable period, location, and atmosphere. Details taken from the script help you to draw plans for sets, lighting, and costuming the actors.

Overall, the skills I’m gaining are really versatile. I can use them in theater, movies, television, and even nontheatrical arts. I really love that about the program.

Tell us about the sets you’ve designed.
I worked with the RU-tv network to design and build a set for Wake Up Rutgers, a campus morning talk show. I have designed sets for Jameson Project productions such as Tape and A History of Kites and assisted on several main stage productions at Mason Gross including Marat/Sade and Speech and Debate. I’ve also done volunteer work for a few outside dance and theater productions. The summer before my junior year, I was a production assistant in the art department of the CBS series Blue Bloods.

Tell us about your experience on that set.
It was the first time I worked for a television show, and it was exciting to be a part of it. It was definitely the most fun job I’ve ever held. I mainly ran errands, including delivering plans to the shop, and did research. The art department people were relaxed in attitude but extremely professional. I was even asked for my opinion on several things, which was rather amazing since I was on the lowest rung in the office hierarchy.

What are your future plans?
I want to go out into the professional world and start working. It would be amazing to land design jobs fresh out of school but I will probably start by loading, building, setting up stages and painting. I am also interested in environmental spaces and installation art. I want to try my hand at as many different things as possible and see where life takes me. I'm open to whatever comes my way.