Creating Sets from Maquettes
by Rae Ackerman
Find out how sets get transformed from scale-models to life-sized versions on stage. Rae Ackerman is Director of Vancouver Civic Theatres and was Production Manager of National Arts Centre English Theatre when the archives were being developed. His writings reflect the excitement of production at the NAC in its early days.
When I started working in the 1960’s, most, though not all sets, were what we called “box sets”: variations on a living room. They were assembled from a stock of “flats”: light weight panels of wood-framed canvas, like an artists’ canvas but larger. The cost of a new show depended on the stock of flats. I recall once in the ‘60’s looking at the maquette for the next show and telling the designer we couldn’t afford to build it because all of the flats we had were on stage in the show then running. He had to redesign it without using any flats.
Designers were obliged to submit a maquette and technical drawings, usually a floor plan and front elevations of all the components. The theory was that the shop would be able to build the sets from this information. In practise, there were often discrepancies between the maquette and the drawings; allowances were not made for the thicknesses of things, etc. After all, an artistically creative designer was not necessarily also an accomplished technical draftsperson. But this process worked well enough until designs became more complex, or demanded more in the way of “tricks” and effects.
As designs became more challenging, I increasingly found the solution to lie in creating a second set of technical drawings, known as “shop drawings,” that interpreted the designer’s maquette and drawings by detailing every aspect of every piece of the set, in scale, and deciding on paper how it would be built in the shop.
The shop drawings enabled us to work out almost all of the solutions on paper. They enabled us to accurately predict the material costs and manpower, and get special materials and equipment ordered earlier. In other cases, real structural engineering was required to figure out how to support cantilevered platforms, bridges over spaces, to make things track across the floor and turn into position, unfold in mid-air, etc. We increasingly explored the use of mechanization and remote control for effects and scene changes, although computer controlled mechanization came a few years later.
Thanks to the skills of the staff in the scene shop, we began using more and more light-weight steel truss construction, and sometimes, not so light like the steel set for Hamlet that we toured across Canada one winter. That set could bite the unwary.
As designers began to see how we were using shop drawings, they found themselves freer to focus more on the creative side, putting their time into creating a great maquette and leave the detail drawing to us. The most extreme example of this was a production of L’Œdipe Roi for the NAC Studio, designed by Michael Egan. It was a beautiful three-sided set with the audience also on three sides. It had a number of “moving parts.” Michael submitted a very detailed maquette and four pages of drawings. By the time we were done, I had produced forty pages of shop drawings.
The shows we were doing at the NAC in the 1970’s and 80’s tended to be quite large and complicated and became more so as time passed. We had excellent workshops and highly talented and skilled staff in all departments. We were ready for any challenge the directors and de signers could throw at us. As we go t better so the challenges increased in complexity. Our motto was “With time and money, we can do anything.” It was no surprise to me that the 1989 Toronto production of The Phantom of the Opera, arguably the biggest and most complex show ever produced in Canada, with a $10 million pre-production cost, employed some thirty-five former NAC production people in the top jobs in technical direction, scenery, props, costumes, wigs, special effects and stage management. And when it went on tour, there were NAC stage hands in charge of the tour.
When production activity at the NAC scaled back in the mid-1980’s, many of those highly skilled and talented craftspeople in the NAC workshops moved on. They turned up, as I said on those productions of Phantom and later mega-productions of Show Boat, Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, Sunset Boulevard, Ragtime, and after LivEnt disappeared, some moved on to Cirque du Soleil, World’s Fairs, Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
The NAC left quite a legacy.