Princeton Weekly Bulletin   December 17, 2007, Vol. 97, No. 12   prev   next   current

From Script to Center Stage

‘Theatrical Design’ class lets students expand their creativity

By Isabel Wilkinson

Princeton NJ — In some classrooms around campus, students are analyzing Euripides’ Greek tragedy “Bacchae” from a literary perspective. In Robert Brill’s “Theatrical Design” class, 10 students are physically translating it to the stage.

photo of Robert Brill with students

Leading the “Theatrical Design” class is Robert Brill, who has designed for Broadway and off-Broadway. He recently led a class session at his New York City studio, showing the students the tools he uses to design sets. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

The theater course pushes the boundaries of their abilities to express themselves visually, just as a literature class might test the limits of their powers of interpretation.

“This is not a class where you need to know a lot about set design,” said senior Courtney Mazo. “The point is to read a script and be creative. You’re reading a play not to find symbolism but to get a concept of how you would present it.”

The class is structured to provide students with a basic knowledge of the professional world of set design and equip them with the skills to articulate visual ideas creatively and then adapt them to the stage. Class time is divided between student presentations, group discussion and studio time, during which the students construct model boxes, or small-scale sets.

“It’s the abstract thinking about a concept and then creating a physical product from that concept that I like a lot about this class,” said junior Peter Schram.

Brill, a lecturer in the Program in Theater and Dance and the Lewis Center for the Arts, has designed for Broadway and off-Broadway, as well as for the McCarter Theatre Center, the Guthrie Theater and La Jolla Playhouse.

“I thought it was important to give them a fairly broad overview of the areas and aspects that I take to design a production,” said Brill, who was nominated for a Tony award in 2004 for his work on “Assassins.” “More than that, I wanted class to be about the discussion of visual ideas — how they see things visually, and [how] design enters their everyday life: furniture design, product design, fashion.”

Brill dedicates class time to fostering general discussion about design while simultaneously teaching the students practical skills like drawing and drafting. The class has attracted students from a wide array of backgrounds with very different interests.

Schram enrolled after acting in last spring’s production of “Boris Godunov,” directing Princeton University Players shows and working for his local regional theater company. He first encountered Brill while working at La Jolla Playhouse in 2004. “He did an incredible set design for ‘The Wiz,’” Schram said. “So when I saw this class, I knew I had to take it.”

Sophomore Sherry Zhang, on the other hand, came to the class with a major in the Department of French and Italian and an attraction to Italian culture and music. “I’m very interested in set design for opera,” said Zhang, who created a black and white model box whose walls were lined with Italian poetry. “We did individual presentations on set designers,” she said. “The most interesting ones for me were set designers who also did operas. They used their creativity to infuse opera into a modern setting.”

“I’m taking this class because we need more set designers on campus,” said Mazo, a psychology major pursuing a certificate in theater and dance. Mazo has worked in technical support for many campus productions and took the program’s “Lighting Design” class last year.


Sophomore Sherry Zhang shows the model box she created for a class assignment to represent lyrics in visual form. She chose a work, “You, Whose Look Pierced Through My Heart,” by 13th-century Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

“Painting a wall red is different than lighting a white wall red,” said Brill in reaction to a student presentation in a recent class. “I’m not here to say this is how we do it, this is how it’s done. It’s about opening up yourself visually in any way that you want to.”

Though Brill commutes to 185 Nassau St. for class every week, on Oct. 22 he hosted the students at his New York City studio. The class saw the tools Brill uses to design sets and learned about his work process.

“We got to see all the different supplies he had, and all the model boxes,” said sophomore Julie Dickerson, referring to the scale models of theaters which can range from 9 inches square to 3-by-2-1/2 feet. “The best surprise, though, was seeing his own designs. It felt awesome that he could share his work with us.”

The class spent the afternoon in Brill’s workspace, learning firsthand how theatrical design operates on a professional scale. “It gave us a picture of daily life in the studio,” said Mazo. “It provided us with a sense of the physical things that go into designing the set.”

In addition to showing the class his tools and work environment, Brill introduced them to Jane Ann Crum, a professional dramaturge who specializes in classical theater. “I thought it would be helpful for them to meet with someone they could present their thoughts about their characters to,” said Brill. “Usually the dramaturge gets involved very early in the process, and I thought this would be very valuable to have as a resource.”

Each member of the class spent a few minutes presenting their ideas for “Bacchae” while Crum listened and then offered advice. The class has been studying the work throughout the semester and is developing ways to create sets for it. For a final project, each student will design a small-scale set for an individualized version of “Bacchae.”

“She is helping us formulate our concepts and come up with ideas of how we are going to set ‘Bacchae’ — in its original setting, on the Upper East Side, etc.” Mazo said. “It was really interesting to hear [Crum’s] point of view,” said Dickerson, “[I] read the play and thought, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t know how to do that.’ But then I started to take some of her suggestions. Jane was encouraging us to look at one of the characters in a different way than we had all been looking at him before.”

Not only are the students developing their visual acuity, they also are gaining valuable insight into the competitive industry of set design. “I think there’s this mystery in school: What’s the real world like?” Brill said. “This is a class where we’re going to talk about contracts and agents.”

At the beginning of every session, Brill updates the students on what he is working on in his studio and walks them through the steps of actually mounting a show. “It demystifies the process for them,” he said. “It’s not something that happens quickly. It’s not something that happens without a lot of effort.”

“He’s very open about his background and what he does,” said Zhang of Brill. “He’s blunt about the challenges of the industry.”

Though not all of the students are planning to enter the industry, many felt certain their experience in “Theatrical Design” will help them after graduation.

“I would love to go into theater,” said Schram. “My two passions are writing and directing at this point, but recently I’ve taken to the idea of producing. You’re not going to leave this class being an expert in theater design, you’re going to leave the class with a better sense of how design plays a role in our lives.”

Though he gives his students insight into the business of set design, it is the expression of visual ideas that Brill emphasizes in class. “Success for me would not be that they build a beautiful model or make beautiful drawings,” he said. “What is most important is that they have really good ideas. If they feel solid and confident in their ideas, then that’s the most important thing to me.”

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