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Robert Pickering, Set Designer

What was the look you were going for with the set for Liz’s Circus Story?

BobBasically, we used circus elements throughout the set. Those were adapted so that they could be used to create another location—for example, her apartment. We didn’t try to actually re-create a realistic apartment setting but used elements from the circus that would be suggestive of an interior. Basically there were three scenic elements: a trailer like what circus workers would live and travel in, a center billboard area that would be an advertisement, and a truck that would haul equipment and animals. These are the three basic backgrounds we used, with other elements in front of them.

What kind of research did you do before designing the set?

There’s always research involved in set design. You read the script and get an idea of where the story takes place, the time periods, what the actors need, and whatever special ideas the director may have. That focuses your research. In this case, we did have the precedent of the live performance. Very helpful to me were the tons and tons of personal memorabilia Liz had kept through the years. It was wonderful.

What impact did Liz’s circus memorabilia have on the set?

We thought there was really a need to remain true to the story and to the actual events, to the circus as Liz experienced it. We remained pretty true to things as they occurred and really tried to follow that in terms of construction and design.

What about the set used for the Horse Cave Theatre production?

The set I did for television really borrowed a lot from the stage set, because that set worked. There was one particular element of that set—a very striking billboard of a circus poster that featured a tiger. We actually borrowed that piece from the original production and used it in one of the scenes.

Both productions used circus motifs such as ropes, animal stands, and bleachers, but in slightly different ways. We had to make a few adaptations for the television studio. One thing we did differently from the stage production was we made the scenery a little more ambiguous, conveying the feeling that we were in a dreamlike state or Liz’s imagination.

You’ve designed sets both for live theater and TV. What are some general differences?

In the theater, you’re dealing with live audiences looking at the set as a whole within one big, large frame. In television, the frame is determined by your camera and camera angles. You need to think in terms of what the camera is going to see, and that can vary quite a bit. You have to think about camera placement—what kinds of specific shots the director is going to use—and adapt to that. Also, in television, the set needs to be a little more detailed. You may have a wide shot 20 feet across, and you may have a tight shot showing one square foot.

How is the set planned?

You start with a ground plan: a floor plan of a top view of the set so you can show placement of pieces and get ideas of distances and camera placement. Then you start to narrow down and focus on what the camera is going to see. Some directors are very specific; others are a little looser and wait until the last minute. Some never make their decisions. Vince [Spoelker] is very organized and does a lot of planning but also left some flexibility to let the show evolve and develop in the planning stages.

Prior to the ground plan, there were a lot of meetings and discussions. Liz did a reading for us; it was overwhelming. I felt like we didn’t even need scenery because she expressed things so well. We had to think about what we could do to enhance the performance and what we could afford in terms of TV tricks, scenery, special effects graphics, and sound effects that you wouldn’t have in a live production. That was process before the ground plan, to get an overall feel for the show. Then it helps to lay out where things will be placed and build up from there.

What happened after you had decided the basic features?

It’s kind of an ongoing process. There’s a lot of sketching done before the actual ground plan is laid out in terms of size and scale of elements. You have to decide how detailed things will be. Will there be flats or dimensional pieces, how much will the actress move around, and what other pieces will be in front of the background? There are certain things required in the script. For example, she rolls the animal stand to the center of the ring. So we know we’ll need an animal stand. What kind of stand will it be, and what will it look like? Planning involves lots of lists and sketches. I get a loose mental picture of what I want, and it comes together with research. I’ll see photographs or things from my own experiences—or in this case, something from Liz’s memorabilia—and draw from all elements to create something unique.

Was anything with this production more of a challenge than you anticipated?

A key element was the center section of the stage. Three images stuck in my mind for the background of the set: trailer, truck, and billboard advertising the circus. I was really drawn to photographs of those actual pieces, but the center piece gave me some problems because it had to change. It couldn’t be the actual size of a billboard, but needed to be suggestive of that. At one point it was a billboard; later on, a circus banner. The final scene takes place in Liz’s head, so all those elements are removed and there’s only an abstract frame, which had to be present throughout the production.

Are there special limitations or requirements regarding the use of color for television?

Color is very important in television because the camera reads colors in a certain way. It’s sensitive to certain colors; it enhances blues, for example. Blue shades tend to look very good on tape. Reds are very intense, and you need to be careful with your use of red—a lot of times it can be overpowering or more prominent than you intend. With Liz’s Circus Story, we had a certain palette we wanted to work with: circus-style colors of red, blue, yellow, and green. We used those as splashes or hints of color. The overall set was painted rather loosely and ambiguously in a gray, shades of gray, textures of gray. That kind of indicated an amorphous, ethereal, non-specific location. Color was used to ground things and make it more specific. And of course you need to work very closely with your lighting and costume designer in terms of colors.

How were the props gathered for Liz’s Circus Story?

Props are usually a combination of using what we have in stock—we do keep things from different productions, although we are limited in our storage space—and renting, borrowing, or even building things that we specifically need. In Liz’s Circus Story, for example, the trunk was a key element in the show. I went out and looked for trunks, but didn’t find anything that was specifically what we wanted. So I built a trunk.

By the way, it should be noted that while props and set pieces are related, and often called the same thing, a prop is something an actor will handle, while set pieces are items that are on the set to fill it out.

What can students interested in set design look for as they watch Liz’s Circus Story?

For this and any production, I think it’s very important for anybody who watches motion pictures or television or videos to be aware of the medium itself and how it can influence you and how it determines what you see or how something is portrayed.—if there’s a chance, for the students to see the set in the studio as it’s lined up and then think about how the camera zeroes in on a certain part of the set to relay a certain image. It’s important to develop a visual acuity to understand how the medium shapes your thinking, because it’s very powerful. It’s easy to take what you see as being the truth, and that’s a wonderful thing about television. But you should also be aware of what’s behind the scenes—some of the tricks.

Are there examples of “tricks” in Liz’s Circus Story?

The presentation of this show was pretty theatrical in the sense that we didn’t try to be very specific or create a realistic world. We had a lot of suggestions of things to indicate we were at a certain place. For example, in the scene where Liz is in the audience in the circus, she is, of course, the only audience person there. When we first started shooting that scene, she was sitting on empty bleachers. It seemed to be missing something. We took a little time and added some popcorn boxes, cups, programs—and it’s incredible what it added to the feel of that scene. It created the suggestion of where we were without creating a realistic environment.

What is your background?

I graduated from California State University at Chico in 1985. My degree was in theater arts, with an emphasis on technical theater. I have a graduate degree in cinema and photography from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I also studied at FAMU, Prague Film and Television Academy. I have worked as a props artisan for the Santa Fe Opera and as a scenic artist for the Utah Shakespeare Festival and have been a freelance scenic and lighting designer for about 15 years. I came to Kentucky in 1998 after finishing grad school and started at KET in 1999.

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