Sometimes you have a few skilled people building your designs. Sometimes, you have a lot of unskilled labor instead. Design choices can play to your strengths and get the most out of the shop and the crew that you have.

In 2001, I worked on a production called Ananse the Spiderman and the Golden Box of Stories. SPOILER: The title character has absolutely nothing to do with Marvel Comics or The Avengers. Ananse the Spiderman is an African folk hero, especially in the regions surrounding Ghana. The script was written by Dr. Trish Lindberg.

The set design for this production contains a lot of solutions that might be of interest to theatre educators.

Making sure families can see the kids

For this company, it was always desirable for the set to display the cast as clearly as possible. There could easily be eighty children on stage at many points in the show. Making sure everyone was visible to their families in the audience was a priority.

This particular company was a theatre camp that produced in the summer time. The venue is normally a high school auditorium. Their production values were high, but a great many children were included in the build and running crew as a part of their theatre camp experience.

Designing is always finding the best solution to a problem for a given set of circumstances. The budget allowed a few things to be bought, but we would not be building any new platforms or stairs. We had no skilled painters other than myself, but we had enthusiastic school children.

Designing for lots of unskilled labor

The set was designed to capitalize on the stock platforms with simple construction. It was also designed to rely on simple painting techniques that could be taught to many students and then done repetitively.

The basic platform concept looked like this. This is all composed of stock 4×8 platforms and half-circles. The circular platforms are all faced with eight-inch thick hardboard (I think it was Masonite), which curves easily enough to conform to the shape.

The big flat area up-stage-left was hidden behind a black scrim framed with hanging vines and leaves. This was “the kingdom of the sky people,” and appeared and disappeared at need.

Half-circle platforms

We had a good stock of 4′ x 8′ platforms. We also had four half-circle platforms that we had built for a previous show. These were a great inclusion in the design. They make nice places for specific moments to happen. When they are faced with curved hardboard and painted, they look dynamic without a lot of effort.

Half-circle platforms are really handy to have in stock. Adapt these measurements for outside of the U.S. Start with a sheet of plywood. Use a string, a nail, and a marker to draw out a half circle. Cut it out with a hand-held jig saw. Frame it up as shown. You can use two of these to make a full circle, or you can make interesting balconies or other shapes pretty casually. HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS: If you have trouble cutting these angles accurately enough, does your school have a wood shop? Once a table saw is set up, it is pretty quick to cut these framing pieces. There are other ways to frame a half-circle, some of which might suit your resources better. Please build everything solidly and leg it properly. Use wood-glue to adhere the outside frame to the lid, and tie those framing pieces together all the way around so that the entire piece is solid.
I broke down the components by number to help keep track. The “cut drop and erosion cloth” was a combination of painted muslin and an old favorite material for scenery. The “climbable web” stage left was a little more complicated. It was a combination of welded metal and climbing rope. Only one adult actor, skilled in silks and trapeze among other things, used this part of the set. None of the children contributed to that part of the build.
The painted panels were planned out ahead of time. We used an overhead projector to draw them out and cut them. The kids did most of this work. They then use stencils and establish painting techniques to paint the bushes.

Down-stage-left, there was a half-circle platform with a bush attached to the back. It served as a little mini-stage, and the bush provided a place for characters to hide from other characters.

Ananse the Spiderman 11
This is the breakdown of the platform layout. We overlapped some of them. By sliding platforms underneath other platforms, we avoided building a lot of custom units. We were careful to make this all very solid as we legged it up.
The set included a scrim wall. some cut drop segments, and a lot of painted 2D bushes made of luan. The ramps and stairs you see in the foreground connected to a stock apron we would erect into the audience each year for this performance slot.

Most of what we bought for this set was luan for the bushes, a roll of erosion cloth, paint, and the black scrim. By building the levels up, we only needed the scrim to be about eight feet tall. We ordered a roll of scrim eight feet wide by I think thirty feet.

There was a standard method for painting leaves on this set. We taught it to all of the children who were painting. As I recall, the process included some stencils. Many of them only had one camp session per day to paint. This was a great use of their time, because it was easy to start and stop the painting process. Because so much of it was painted on luan panels, we were able to paint them backstage or in the shop instead of having to be onstage.

Paint technique for marble: rag-tossing

Finally, that crazy pink and black marble was a lot of fun to paint. It was not a long paint-call, but it was popular. We based the entire stage in black. We then used a deep magenta paint and applied it using a technique called rag-tossing. Rag-tossing means that you take long strips of muslin and tie them together into sort of a big web, maybe four feet wide and tall. You dunk it in paint, and then carefully swing it around and let it drop or smack into the floor or facings. It leaves big, streaky, jagged lines. With a little deliberate practice and technique, it can produce amazing and quick marble textures.