K-State set design prepares students for real world
By Kira Everhart
One might argue that a play's set is as instrumental as its actors. It often sets the mood or designates the style of the piece. It can present the playwright's message or communicate a theme. It can even evoke emotion.
But much like the dramatic process itself, set design is not a one-man job, said Fred Duer, scenic designer and assistant professor of theater at Kansas State University. Set design is a collection of various processes, skills and ideas, Duer said. It is a result of hours of collaboration and teamwork.
"You have all these people coming together -- that give and take, putting heads together," he said. "It's a time-space art."
Wisdom from experience
Duer should know. He joined K-State in 2002 after spending 15 years as an art director in the television and film industry. His credits include set designs for the situation comedies, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "In the House" and "Saved By the Bell." Duer also has an Emmy nomination for his design work on "The Pat Sajak Show."
Prior to his television work, Duer worked extensively in theater. His theater credits include designs for the Pennsylvania Opera Festival in Pittsburgh, Pa., the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y., and as resident designer at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, Calif.
To train students for the team aspect of set design, the K-State set design program emphasizes what Duer calls the "Three C's of Communication" -- collaboration, cooperation and compromise. Each is equally important to the success of a design project, he said.
Students need to be able to collaborate and share ideas, Duer said. In the theater world, this is a common practice in production design.
Cooperation goes hand-in-hand with the idea of collaboration. Duer said being able to effectively work together and share ideas is crucial in theater design.
As is the ability to compromise. With the number of ideas that surface at a design meeting, compromise is a game that everyone needs to know how to play, Duer said.
Skills for success
It takes more than just the "Three C's" to be successful. According to Duer, there are also three key skills necessary to be an effective set designer: art skills, skills for interpretation and a sense of history and theater.
Art skills allow the designer to communicate his or her ideas, Duer said. This can be done through models, renderings, rough thumbnails, computer design programs and several other techniques. Actual drawing skills, Duer added, are a bonus. They aren't necessary to someone just entering the program.
"The drawing and drafting skills can be scary, but they will come," Duer said. "I will accept anything -- any pencil put to a piece of paper. I want to make the students realize that any idea they put on paper is valuable."
Skills for interpretation encompass the designer's ability to take a piece of dramatic literature -- the script -- and use the language within that written word to communicate what he or she learns from it and how it makes him or her feel, Duer said. These skills allow the designer to create a set design that remains consistent with the content and the message of the play while utilizing his or her creativity.
"It all comes from the script," Duer said, "and how you can take the words and turn them into a visual metaphor."
A sense of history and theater is also valuable to a set designer, Duer said. With this sense, the designer understands how productions have been done in the past and how they are done today. The designer also understands the mechanics of theater -- both its history and current practices.
The theater department at K-State helps to ensure graduating design students have these skills through requiring various scenic design and theater history courses.
A little bit of everything
But just as important, Duer said, is making sure that the students leave well rounded.
"We try to get students to go out there and find those other things in the university," Duer said. "In the end it will make them understand better what everyone does, both onstage and off stage."
This includes taking courses outside of the department as well as taking courses within the department but in different areas of study. Designers are required to take acting classes while actors are required to take design and technical classes.
"Everybody gets to do everything," Duer said. "In smaller theaters, a person might have to do different things."
Another important aspect of the set design program at K-State is providing students with the opportunity to gain design experience, Duer said. All productions in K-State's Purple Masque theater are completely student produced and designed. The students also design various aspects of the main stage productions.
"There are no rules about designing -- we can individualize," Duer said. "If a person is ready for the main stage, we will find them an assignment."
For many of the department's productions, faculty and students work together in different design positions.
"Mixing it up like that is a good experience for us and perfect training for them," he said. "It's a place where if they have problems they can come talk to us."
Duer said that faculty and staff work with students to help make each student's educational experience as individual as possible. Courses provide hands-on projects and upper-level students complete independent studies.
"We're right there with them and we know where they are on their sequence," Duer said.
That is the most important aspect of the design program for Duer -- being there to help students work through challenges and come out on top. He takes that part personally, he said.
"That, to me, is very rewarding," he said. "I want to be the professor they remember, the good one. I do this with about all of my heart -- it's just too important."
Photos: The four images above show Duer's set design for the recent production of "Company" throughout the creative process. At the top is a sketch of the set, followed by a rendering, a model, and, finally, just above is a photo from the actual production.
Images courtesy Fred Duer.