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  • On the Pedagogy of Theatre Stage Design: A Critique of Practice
  • Richard M. Isackes (bio)

When I began my formal study of theatre stage design some 30-odd years ago, my class was assigned Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit. We were instructed to go home, read the play, do some research, decide on a concept, do small “thumbnail” sketches of possible scenic solutions, and, by means of some mysterious and inexplicable process, devise a floor plan. We all dutifully attempted to complete the assignment—with varying degrees of failure. Although our lack of success was no doubt due to our inexperience, in retrospect the way the project was laid out was not particularly helpful. The assignment was based on a set of embedded assumptions about the design process that were, and continue to be, highly problematic for the teaching of scene design. As Raynette Halvorsen Smith writes in “Deconstructing the Design Process: Teaching Scene Design Process through Feminist Performance Art”:

Unlike the visual arts, the fundamental technique and process for the design and production of scenery has not significantly changed for close to a hundred years. As most widely practiced, the scenic design process has become frozen, steeped in tradition—tradition so pervasive that we have become blind to it. While scenery has taken on the veneer of style changes in “looks” borrowed from other disciplines such as architecture, painting, and sculpture, at its core it has remained unchanged since the practices outlined early in the century by Craig, Appia, and Robert Edmond Jones.


In considering my own pedagogy, I have been forced to come to grips with two uncomfortable facts. First, my teaching of scene design was largely based on an unquestioned replication of the training I had received as a student. Second, there was a major disconnect between my practice as a designer and the theoretical methodology I was advancing in the classroom. As a consequence, I decided to reevaluate much of what I believed to be true about teaching scene design and contest many of my own previously held beliefs.

By way of example, let me return for a moment to the No Exit project. Among other things, the assignment assumes that the process of design is a fixed sequential progression: read the play, do research, develop a concept, do sketches, and devise the floor plan. Further, it assumes that the sequence must always originate from the script, and that visual organization should be privileged over architectural function. It also assumes that the play script has a “meaning” that can be reduced to a “concept” that, in turn, will fundamentally inform a solution for what is essentially an architectural problem. I will argue that none of these assumptions is necessarily true, and, in fact, can be counterproductive and limiting when students attempt to enact them in practice. As an antidote, I offer a few alternative teaching strategies that have usefully challenged these assumptions in my design classes.

I begin my argument by questioning the assumed “fixed linearity” of the design process and contesting the privileged position granted the script in the organization of that process. I then propose a new paradigm of thinking about design training that shifts the pedagogic focus from the object(s) of design, to the process(es) of design. In the following section, I question the embedded [End Page 41] privilege of the “visual value” of scenery over its “use value” and argue for a teaching methodology that moves critique from considerations of visual attractiveness to performative effect. In the final section, I challenge the effectiveness of an overarching production “concept” and offer a decision-making methodology generated from specific considerations of narrative. I conclude with a few thoughts on how to generate and enliven the discourse on design pedagogy.

Shifting the Focus of Pedagogy from the Object to the Process

For many years, the curricular model I employed in my teaching offered the illusion of a predetermined sequential design structure. The first step, if correctly followed by the second step, would lead inevitably to a third step and so on until a successful design was achieved; in other words, step 2 could not be accomplished without completing step 1, and...


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