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Major designers

Sebastiano Serlio | Nicolo Sabbatini | Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena |
Adolphe Appia |Caspar Neher | Jo Mielziner | Christian Bérard | Josef Svoboda |
Ezio Frigerio |Richard Peduzzi |

Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554)

Sets for comedies, tragedies, and pastorals as codified by Sebastiano Serlio in his Second Book of Architecture, published in Lyon, in 1545.

The architectural treatises of Sebastiano Serlio exerted immense influence throughout Europe in the early 16th century. At age 65, he left his native Italy for France, where King Francis I employed him as a consultant in the building of the palace of Fontainebleau. His Architettura, published around this time, was the first Renaissance work on architecture to devote a section to the theatre. It also incorporated his theories on perspective, the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a flat surface. His many treatises included illustrations of the tragic, comic and satyric stages, based on Vitruvius’s innovative ideas regarding the vanishing point. Serlio’s sets are constructed in function of this point, at which parallel lines drawn in perspective converge. He was also the first to employ the term “scenography,” and to make extensive use of the scenic space and lighting to give the impression of depth. He did not limit himself to the painted backdrop, which was so popular at the time. With his technical innovations, Sebastiano Serlio had a profound impact on the theatrical architecture of his age.

Sets for comedies, tragedies, and pastorals as codified by Sebastiano Serlio in his Second Book of Architecture, published in Lyon, in 1545.
Sets for comedies, tragedies, and pastorals as codified by Sebastiano Serlio in his Second Book of Architecture, published in Lyon, in 1545.

 

 

By Sebastiano Serlio:

  • The Book of Architecture by Sebastiano Serlio (New York: B. Blum, 1970)

On Sebastiano Serlio:

  • Sebastiano Serlio, architecte de la renaissance [Sebastiano Serlio, architetto] by Sabine Frommel, Gallimard (in French).

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Nicola Sabbatini (1574-1654)

Plans for a stage machine to lower clouds above the set (these usually held gods).

The Italian architect and set designer Nicola Sabbatini designed not only theatres and sets, but also a port, no less! His stage designs incorporated a multitude of ornamental details. With his sophisticated stage machinery, he was among the first to bring an element of magic to the stage, an air of mystery and illusion. His mechanical and acoustic innovations, for example, allowed him to represent the sea and its storms on stage, with visual effects generating lighting—a highly complex operation for the time. He also discovered a principle still in use today: the œil du prince, the ideal location in the theatre that affords the best possible perspective on the sets. The seat in question, often coveted, is normally located in the middle of the seventh row. The inventions of Nicola Sabbatini were to have a lasting influence on lighting, machinery and stagecraft.

By Nicola Sabbatini :

  • Manual for Constructing Theatrical Scenes and Machine [Pratica di fabricar scene e macchine ne ‘teatri, 1638].
  • The Renaissance Stage: Documents of Serlio, Sabattini and Furtenbach (Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1958).

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Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena (1657-1743)

Theatre set design by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena, around 1730

Born into a talented and illustrious Italian family of architects and painters, Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena invented an entirely new way of creating scenic perspective. He literally redefined the foundations of stage design with the introduction of angle perspective (scena per angolo). Rather than a single vanishing point located at the rear of a setting, Bibiena used two or more vanishing points at the sides. Whereas previous designers emphasized a central vista, discovered by Sebastiano Serlio, Bibiena characteristically placed buildings, walls, statues or courtyards at the centre of the picture and relegated vistas to the sides. The stage designs that resulted no longer confined or demarcated the spectator’s view: they were more dynamic, closer to reality, employing unprecedented asymmetrical and infinite lines. The audience thus had the impression it was sharing the scenic space with the characters. Having greatly influenced the work of his contemporaries, the innovations of Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena were also to have an impact on subsequent generations, especially since his four sons were to carry on his scenic research.

By Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena:

  • L'architettura civile / Ferdinando Galli de Bibiena; introduction by Diane M. Kelder (New York: B. Blom, 1971).

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Adolphe Appia (1862-1928)

Sketch by Adolphe Appia for the set of a Wagnerian drama: notice the complete use of the three dimensions and the absence of realistic or picturesque elements.

The theories of Adolphe Appia transformed the performing arts. The Swiss stage designer and director attached particular importance to the text and to the actor, which for him were inseparable from the sets and lighting. His numerous publications dealt with the ideal way of bringing together the various components of a theatrical production, of creating a harmony of parts, similar to music, an art for which he had a particular fondness. He created numerous stage and lighting plans which reflected his revolutionary theories of representation. Appia considered the actor to be most important element, from which all drama would ultimately stem. He refused the flat, painted backdrop in favour of three-dimensional, geometric structures that could be altered in appearance by varying the colour, intensity, and direction of lighting. The solid structures, according to Appia, would serve to create a bond between the horizontal floor and the vertical scenery and enhance the actor's movements. His precisely calibrated constructions were not intended to conform with reality but rather with the viewpoint of the characters. Closer to theory than practice, Appia nonetheless strived his entire life to make maximum use of the possibilities of theatrical space and the body of the actor. His ideas served as models for numerous directors, including Max Reinhardt and Jacques Copeau.

By Adolphe Appia:

  • The Work of Living Art; A Theory of the theatre, ed. Barnard Hewitt (Coral Gables, Fla., University of Miami Press, 1960).
  • Adolphe Appia: Essays, Scenarios, and Designs, ed. Richard C. Beacham (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989).

On Adolphe Appia:

  • Adolphe Appia: Artist and Visionary of the Modern Theatre by Richard C. Beacham (Philadelphia : Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994).

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Caspar Neher (1897-1962)

Sketch by Caspar Neher for the creation of The Threepenny Opera by Brecht in Berlin, in 1928.

One of Germany’s most influential 20th-century stage designers, Caspar Neher created sets that broke away from the realistic style of the early 1920s. His career is inseparable from that of the iconoclastic author-director Bertolt Brecht, with whom he collaborated on several productions, including Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), today considered his masterpiece. The political climate in Germany between 1933 and 1945 forced Neher to create designs that were less provocative in the eyes of the Nazis; he thus had no choice but to abandon the political ideals embodied in Brechtian theatre. During the war years, his stage designs became less contemporary, and more inspired by the existing aesthetic codes. After the war, he resumed his collaborative relationship with Brecht, whom the Nazis had forced into exile in 1933. He took part in the adventure of the Berliner Ensemble, the celebrated company founded by Brecht and Helene Weigel in 1949, whose productions would reverberate across Europe. After Brecht’s death in 1956, Neher worked with other directors before returning to opera. In the history of the stage, however, Neher’s designs will be forever linked with Brecht’s revolutionary "epic theatre."

On Caspar Neher :

  • Brecht on Theatre by Bertolt Brecht, ed. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964).
  • Bertolt Brecht: Journals by Bertolt Brecht, ed. John Willett (New York : Routledge, 1993).
  • Caspar Neher: Brecht’s Designer by John Willett (London: Methuen, 1986).

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Jo Mielziner (1901-1976)

Jo Mielziner’s set for the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, directed by Elia Kazan at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, on Broadway, in 1947. Seen here: Jessica Tandy (Blanche Dubois) in white, in the centre, and Marlon Brando (Stanley Kowalski), second to last from the right.

Jo Mielziner began his career as a set designer on Broadway in 1924. An American citizen born in Paris, he designed the sets and most of the lighting for over two hundred productions, including such major works as Eugene O'Neill’s Strange Interlude and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The influential designer introduced several devices that were to become standard in theatrical staging. His unusual technical ingenuity was demonstrated in the immense bridge he created for Elmer Rice’s Streetscene, as well as the transparent skeletal framework setting of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which allowed separate times and places to be shown simultaneously. Mielziner’s talents were put to use in the Second World War, when he worked as a camouflage specialist for the American Air Force. In the last years of his life, he worked as a designer for one of New York’s most eminent theatres: the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. With his technical innovations and grasp of the organic function of the total stage environment, Jo Mielziner helped to develop an entirely new American dramaturgy.

By Jo Mielziner: Designing for the Theatre (New York: Atheneum, 1965)

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Christian Bérard (1902-1949)

Christian Bérard’s famous set for Louis Jouvet’s production of L’École des femmes (The School for Wives) by Molière, at the Théâtre de l’Athénée, 1936. The small corner wall in the centre opens up to reveal a garden, thus solving the problem of having two different locations for the action in the play. The chandeliers negate any realism in the set and remind us that we are at the theatre.

Christian Bérard collaborated on productions that would become milestones in the history of the stage. As a painter and decorator in French theatre, he believed that the setting existed above all to facilitate and enhance the dramatic action. Each of his stage designs reflected his desire to reduce sets to the bare minimum; only those items necessary to the unfolding of the drama should be visible. A long-time collaborator of Jean Cocteau, Bérard created his first theatre sets for one of the author’s most important works: La Voix humaine (1930). It was through this association that Bérard met actor-director Louis Jouvet, for whom he went on to design numerous sets. In all of these collaborations, the sets were subservient to the plays themselves. There was never anything gratuitous or superfluous or solely aesthetic in his designs; each were inspired—right up to their very colours—by the texts themselves. Insofar as he regarded his sets as a machine that facilitated acting, Christian Bérard left his mark on the theory of 20th-century stage design.

On Christian Bérard :

  • Christian Bérard by Boris Kochno, Herscher (in French).

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Josef Svoboda (1920-2002)

Josef Svoboda’s set for the third act of Tristan und Isolde by Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival, in 1974. Notice the influence of Appia.

A veritable sculptor of light, the Czech stage designer Josef Svoboda was a prominent figure in the field of theatrical image projection. Trained in carpentry and interior design, as well as stage design under Frantisek Tröster, a Czech designer of renown, Svoboda designed over six hundred sets for theatre, ballet and opera. Using the latest advances in mechanics, optics and electronics, he attempted to find a balance between artistic expressiveness and the mechanical functioning of the sets. His art forged an alliance with the sciences, resulting in techniques and devices that allowed the set designer to go beyond the limits of theatrical space. Svoboda’s work in image projection is impressive, the most famous example of which is the Lanterna Magica created for Expo 67 in Montreal. After collaborating on numerous operas in the Czech Republic and designing over one hundred sets for his country’s principal directors, he worked almost exclusively abroad since the early 1970s.

On Josef Svoboda :

  • Josef Svoboda by Denis Bablet, La Cité/L’Age d’homme (in French).
  • Svoboda, Wagner: Josef Svoboda's scenography for Richard Wagner's operas (Scranton, Pa.: Harper & Row, 1983).

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Ezio Frigerio (b. 1930)

Ezio Frigerio’s set for the opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) by Mozart, directed by Giorgio Strehler.

Ezio Frigerio enjoyed a unique artistic relationship with theatre director Giorgio Strehler. The Italian set designer, costume designer and painter was studying in Milan when he met the man who would become his lifelong collaborator. In 1955, Frigerio became costume designer at Strehler’s theatre, the Piccolo Teatro, where he collaborated on Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters in 1956; two years later, he was appointed the theatre’s resident designer. Frigerio regards the painted backdrop as the most important element in the scenic space. Known for the luminous beauty of his sets, he considers the stage design a work of art that allows the play to come alive. He refuses to see it as something ephemeral, feeling that it had its own autonomy, a life of its own that depends on neither the actor nor the director. Apart from a few creations for television and film, Ezio Frigerio has concentrated on theatre and opera, working not only with Strehler but with such French directors as Claude Régy and Roger Planchon. Over the span of a thirty-year career, Frigerio has created sets and costumes for nearly two hundred productions.

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Richard Peduzzi (b. 1943)

© Pascal Victor
Set design by Richard Peduzzi for Phèdre (Phaedra) by Jean Racine, Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, 2003. Photo: Dominique Blanc.

Title: Pheadra

Playwright: Jean Racine

Production: Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, 2003

Director: Patrice Chéreau

Set design: Richard Peduzzi

Costumes: Moidele Bickel

Lighting: Dominique Bruguière.

Since 1969, Richard Peduzzi has created all of the set designs for director Patrice Chéreau. The French stage designer was working as a painter when he met Chéreau in 1967. The artistic relationship that developed was such that today we speak of the “Chéreau-Peduzzi style.” Together, they have staged several works by an important contemporary French author: Bernard-Marie Koltès. Peduzzi was among the first to reclaim the central importance of stage design in theatrical productions. He considers that this aspect of a performance, so often neglected, is inseparable from the mise en scène. In reasserting its fundamental role, he is defining the essence of the set designer’s art. His style is often characterized by the use of imposing vertical structures: skyscrapers, boulders, immense columns. These enormous masses on stage symbolize the dangers looming over the characters. Frequently mysterious and labyrinthine, Peduzzi’s designs for theatre and opera represent the tortuous destinies of the characters. Both on stage and off, he believes that space can communicate as much as words.

On Richard Peduzzi :

  • Lorsque cinq ans seront passés by Patrice Chéreau, Ombres (in French).
  • Si tant est que l’opéra soit du théâtre by Patrice Chéreau, Ombres (in French).

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Other artists who could well be added to this designers' pantheon include:

Giacomo Torelli, Yannis Kokkos, Léon Bask, Gilles Aillaud and André Acquart.