Guest writer: Thomas Boyd, Houston Ballet production director and set designer of Stanton Welch’s The Four Seasons
I guess it was about this time last year, August/September of 2006, when Stanton (Welch) and I started brainstorming ideas about the set design of The Four Seasons. The first thing you do in the set design process is to define the clearest idea possible of the objective(s), be that the choreographer’s vision, staying in budget, tourability, personal best, whatever. Fortunately for me, Stanton was very clear that he wanted a large tree to be the one main, if not the only scenic element for the ballet. And, he knew he wanted it to be realistic, in other words not theatrical, or some hokey illusion, but a “real” tree.
After that initial meeting, I began researching. As time allows, I do as much research as possible of source images, style, music, color, mechanics, logistics, etc. when designing a brand new set. There is no way to know at this stage what ideas will survive and what won’t. There is no limit or rule to research other than a vague sense of what might be appropriate to the piece and the understanding that this design is like a series of problems to solve. The solutions to the various problems can result from just about any source material or activity: personal archive, the library, travel, movies, books, museums, specific artists, personal experience, and on and on. Slowly, the research reveals ideas and images that will eventually produce a result the designer and choreographer are happy with, or at least are jointly willing to take a chance on.
I sketched several versions of the set before I showed Stanton anything, so by the time he looked at the sketch, I felt that it had a good chance of being close to something he would like. After the sketching process, I started to put together a scale model. I am completely fascinated with this idea of “scale.” To develop an idea, an image, or create an environment in a particular size or scale, and then see it reproduced hundreds of times larger is pretty darn exciting. Actually, it’s pretty scary watching the set come off the truck, or standing onstage waiting for a drop to fly out. The studio time spent working it all out in the model is so much work, but also thrilling when it starts to come together.
So, I guess my favorite part of designing sets is the process itself, because it is life itself: work then reward, work then reward, back and forth til the curtain goes out. I hope you enjoy the result!
Sketch of The Four Seasons set design by Thomas Boyd. All rights reserved.