Jobs in Theatre: Scenic Design

Jobs in Theatre: Scenic Design image

by Mike Sabourin, Scenic Designer and Carpenter

Mike Sabourin, Scenic DesignerYears at Casa: 2 Years
School attended: Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo MI and Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts and Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Technology
Age you started in theatre:  6 or 7 in theatre summer camp
Favorite set you’ve designed: Hair. It was my first big design in undergrad so it was a very special experience.
One word why you love your job: Variety
I became passionate about scenic design when I was in college. I actually started out as a pre-med major. I had a lot of science courses my freshman year and quickly found I was spending more time in the drama club than studying, so I changed majors. The Theatre Arts major requires both on and off-stage experience, so I also did stage and set design work. In my sophomore year of undergrad, there was an opening for a set designer for Hair. That was my first shot at a main stage show. It was critically well-received, and I never really looked back after that.

From 2013-2016, I went to graduate school specifically to get a Master of Fine Arts in Scenic Design. But between undergrad and graduate school I took 10 years off. During that time, I was working in regional theatres in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Florida. I spent seven of those summers in Kansas at a lovely musical theatre program called Music Theatre Wichita, where many of Casa Mañana’s production staff also spent time. I did not do any set design in that interim ten years. I was a carpenter, master carpenter, assistant technical director, props master – that sort of shop staff. All of those positions had elements of design, so there were projects and pieces that I did during that time that were useful in applying to graduate school.

I would ask producers at the various theatres if there was room on the design team, but I found that my undergraduate work alone didn’t provide the depth of portfolio that the producers were looking for. After graduate school, I do have an easier time getting those jobs. The key to getting jobs as a set designer is experience. If you have the experience, it’s not as important to get a master’s degree. But for me, graduate school was valuable because it allowed me to expand my design portfolio and provided the networking opportunities that I needed to get jobs.

I am just starting my third year at Casa Mañana and in that time, I have done half a dozen set designs; most recently, I designed the set for Grease. Collaboration and communication are very important throughout the design process. It’s best for me to have the director’s input before I even start with visuals. I received a great gift with Grease, because the director Tim Seib had some strong visual concepts for the design: the comic book work of Roy Lichtenstein mashed up with the California Googie architectural style, which you see in old hamburger stands (think In-N-Out) and the Las Vegas strip sign. The production team and Wally Jones, our executive producer, are involved in every step of the design process as well, which helps to avoid any issues with time or money involved in building the set. The whole design process at Casa takes six to eight weeks so you can imagine how important it is to communicate regularly with the full team to avoid any late changes to the design.

I started my designs for Grease by making pencil sketch storyboards, which are rough sketches of the shape of the space and how it ties back to the visual concept. But after that, I did a completely digital package. For a lot of my training, painting or building a scale model was part of the process but here at Casa, the producer and directors are really focused on sharing information, so a digital piece that can be shared easily is much more useful. I lean heavily on drafting and photo editing software. Set design for theatre is such a niche industry that I actually use a powerful lighting design software that includes the tools I need for designing sets. Maybe some entrepreneur who is reading this will develop software specifically for set design.

When I’m not designing sets, I am a carpenter and welder in Casa Mañana’s scene shop. Set designers cover a wide spectrum. I come from a production-heavy background which means I understand (mostly) how anything I draw is going to be built. That’s useful for budgeting and planning, but it can also be stifling when I’m sitting there in a blank space trying to come up with an idea, because I’m considering how much it might cost instead of just doing the art. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve worked with designers who were essentially art students who had come from an interior design or visual arts background. While the initial flash of their design is really stunning, taking it in a practical context is difficult sometimes. There’s a balance between those. Most of the working designers are pretty versatile.

I think it’s important for anyone who is interested in a career in theatre to have hands-on experience backstage. In theatre, all of the departments are essential and need to operate like a well-oiled machine. Without the production team building sets and making costumes, the actors would have nothing with which to act. Without actors, there would be no reason for us to build those sets or design those costumes. So, go push scenery, run a fly rail or operate a spotlight for a show. You might discover your passion truly lies behind-the-scenes.

Photo credit (top): Curtis Brown Photography
Photo credit (bottom): Jacy George