The Set Designer – Alec Davis

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How long have you been designing scenery? 

I started at school when I was about 12. Hell! That’s 40 years ago. You’d think I’d have had enough by now.


What is the set designer’s job?

Basically to design a set which works, looks good without detracting from the acting and helps the audience believe what they see is real. 


Take us through the process. How do you start on a design?

Read the script, find out what the play is about and obtain research material. I prefer to meet the director early on to discuss their ideas – I hate developing design ideas which are divergent with the director’s concept! 


What happens at and after the initial consultation?

The director and I talk about the play, how we see it and what is important.  Some directors have quite firm ideas early on about the set, others want more input and inspiration from the designer. I usually try to sketch out plans and visual drawings to illustrate ideas as we talk. If we are meeting in a restaurant this can be quite surprising for the other diners!  Afterwards I’ll go away and attempt to put together our ideas in a more formal way. I usually draw the set plans on a computer but I always produce hand-drawn perspective drawings to illustrate what the set 

will look like. Most designers will make white-card models at this stage, that is a model which shows the bare bones of the set without any colour or detail, but I prefer to draw; I feel if I go too quickly into three-dimensions I cannot easily change my mind!  Another aspect of a drawing is that it can show the atmosphere of the set, which can be useful for lighting.  This is much more difficult with a model. Details can also be sketched much faster and altered if necessary.  Models take much longer to make and as a result they become more precious if the design needs altering. 


So once you and the director have agreed on the design what’s next?

We have a meeting with the production team: the carpenters, painters, lighting designer, sound designer, stage manager, props etc.  Their ideas and input are important and can frequently change aspects of the design – sometimes quite drastically. At the Little I am also the Production Manager, so much of the way the set practically comes together is down to me. I used to build and paint the scenery myself, but these days I am pleased to say we have a carpenter and volunteers who help 

me with the painting.


What makes set design so enjoyable?

No two jobs are ever the same.  

The magic of theatre is the illusion.  Even when you look at a basic drawing-room set it is usually just canvas, wood and paint. The trick is to convince the audience that it is something else. It is like one long, extended conjuring trick! I am constantly trying out new materials and techniques; that adds to the slight element of risk which is also 

so alluring. 

I love working with a team towards the goal of the first night. That is our deadline and it is paramount. 


Have you ever failed to meet that deadline?

No…but like most designers I have had narrow escapes! I’ve not quite had the experience of not knowing how the first Act has been received because I am still painting Act 2 behind the set but there is always a first time. I’ve scared more than a few directors by leaving the set unpainted until the last moment. However,
I don’t think I’ve ever had to warn the actors not to touch the scenery because it is still wet!

 In conversation with 

Richard Payton