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Affordable Set Designs

By Marty Gould

CHURCH MUSIC productions have made an about-face in the past 20 years. The days of choir members standing with their faces buried in music are becoming obsolete. Ho-hum Christmas and Easter programs are a thing of the past. In planning music productions, churches today use a multitude of available tools and ideas to gain the community’s attention.

The music director is usually responsible for the success of a production and must create a fresh approach to communicating the gospel. Using drama and imaginative sets along with the musical score brings the creative element into the presentation.

When planning a musical for any occasion, a foremost consideration is the cost. Some churches have established music budgets; others have none. Is it possible to produce a dynamic presentation with little funds available? From personal experience I can strongly answer, "Yes."

Designing a Set

Knowing platform dimensions is essential in determining what is or is not appropriate for the set. During the design stage, work out in detail all major scene changes. Determine what can be used or adapted from sets you may already have and go from there. Use magazine pictures for ideas. Observe other productions and keep a notebook on ideas for future reference. Dynamic sets do not simply happen–they are created.

If you can’t afford to build a set, ask a neighboring church if you may borrow or rent theirs. I borrowed an entire set for our Christmas production. When I asked about the rental fee, there was no charge–only a credit line in our program. I gladly did this and made sure the church received a copy of our program.

Constructing the Set

The most common set is composed of flats, which are lightweight, portable wall sections usually made of canvas stretched on a wooden frame of 1 by 2s. The canvas is then painted. Fireproof hardboard may be substituted for canvas. With new paint, flats can be used repeatedly.

Flats can vary in width from 1 foot to 5 feet 9 inches (the industry standard) and may be from 8 to 16 feet high. An easy pattern can be applied by dabbing a sponge in paint and then onto the flat. It is best not to use glossy paint.

Use an overhead projector to transfer a sketch to a flat. Photocopy the sketch onto a transparency, place it on an overhead projector, and magnify it on the flat. Paint the flat once the design has been sketched in place.

A scrim is a backdrop made from gauzelike fabric. When lit from the front, the gauze hides what is behind it. If a scene is painted on the front, it appears as a backcloth. When lights are lowered and brought up behind the scrim, the painted scene virtually disappears from view, and what is behind the scrim appears slightly hazy or cloudy. This is ideal for a dream sequence.

Rostrums are made of portable riser boxes of varying sizes and heights that can be moved to any area of the platform, stacked next to or on top of each other, and can even form a staircase. Rostrums are versatile and inexpensive to construct.

To create a skyline, use large, flat pieces of cardboard to cut out a city’s silhouette–Jerusalem or any other place. It should extend the width of your platform with the pieces of cardboard lined end to end. Paint the cardboard black and attach it to your front platform wall for an effective backdrop.

For a library scene use books and bookshelves from your church library or offices. Place a large table with chairs in the center and decorate according to the season. Adding plants creates balance.

Decorating a Set

The more props you use, the more complete your set will look–newspapers, dishes, real food, plants, lamps add a finishing touch. For an outdoor winter scene have your choir members wear coats, mufflers, gloves, sweaters, and boots and carry wrapped Christmas packages or sacks of groceries. Avoid clutter.

Borrowed household furniture sofas, recliners, rockers, end tables, pictures, dining table and chairs may add to your production. Take care to return the items to the owners undamaged and with a handwritten note of thanks.

One Christmas we built a 10-foot-high frame across the entire platform and secured it to the floor. Chicken wire was stapled over the front of the frame and inexpensive tissues were stuffed into the wire, giving a plush-looking set. We added miniature white lights by weaving them throughout the chicken wire, which made a snowy effect.

For a snow scene spread white sheets across the platform. Purchase quilt batting (preferably 90 inches wide) and roll it out on top of the. sheets. Toss fake snow (available from a theatrical supply store) on outdoor props to give a winter look.

The setting for Paul and Silas’ jail cell can be constructed with PVC pipe painted black. The framework allows for a functional door to open and close. This is inexpensive and allows for a portable scene.

The challenge is originality. Don’t settle for mediocrity; be creative. Affordable, impressive sets are possible. The impact of your presentation will be greater when you take the time to create a fresh, realistic production. All it takes to achieve your goal is a bit of imagination and a lot of work.