How to Design Your School Production on a Budget | Playbill

Back to School How to Design Your School Production on a Budget Broadway’s best designers offer pro tips to create lights, sets, sounds, and costumes on a dime—that look like a million bucks.

The most important part of design is something every team can accomplish, whether you’re a big time university, a small middle school, or putting up a show in your backyard. “Read. The. Script.” Every designer Playbill surveyed—from 17-time Tony-nominated costume designer William Ivey Long to the first woman to win a Tony for sound design Jessica Paz—said the same thing.

As Tony-winning lighting designer Bradley King put it, “When you know the piece inside and out, when you know exactly what you need to tell your story, it doesn't matter if your budget is $5 or $50,000. And P.S., budget problems do not go away on Broadway,” he says. “One of my favorite designs was for a play called Empanada Loca; it was a one-woman ghost story set in an abandoned subway tunnel. All the piece required was two or three bare light bulbs running at 20 percent brightness.”

Here, Broadway designers serve up their best advice by discipline, best general practices, and their picks for inexpensive products they couldn’t live without—and you can afford.

READ: How to Rent Authentic Props for Your School Production—At an Affordable Price

By Design

To make a costume work multiple ways: “Use gussets. A tight fit to the body allows the most movement. Stylistically, make it in black. Black covers a multitude of sins in many areas and ways.” – William Ivey Long, six-time Tony-winning costume designer (Cinderella, Grey Gardens)

For hard-to-find costume pieces: “I’m amazed by the volume of talented vendors on Etsy: knitwear, leatherwork, jewelry—you name it, there is someone out there who can make it.” – Linda Cho, Tony-winning costume designer (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder)

Sewing tip: “Pattern matching! If you have patterned fabric and you match the pattern along the seams, you are using one of the tricks of high-end couture.” – Linda Cho

The first step in any sound design is: “Defining what mics are needed for what actors and instruments.” – Jessica Paz, Tony-winning sound designer (Hadestown)

A good sound design trick: “A well-timed reverb in terms of pre-delay and decay time [will help] sound smoother and more professional.” – Jessica Paz

For inspiration: “Get a membership to your favorite local museum to inspire you, feed your artistic spirit, take meetings at, and decompress in!” – Jen Schriever, lighting designer

“Frost your lekos [ellipsoidal reflector spotlight] It turns the sharp edge beautifully soft and lets the edges of your lights blend together: put frost in your followspots! Tape some frost to the front; if it's an arc source, add some color correction (a little CTO and a little pink) to better match skin tones, and shoot for about a half body shot. That will instantly make your followspots look 100 times better.” – Bradley King, two-time Tony-winning lighting designer (Hadestown, The Great Comet)

To make your lighting look more professional: “Stretch your masking! Stretch your drops! When side light hits loose fabric it can look pretty sad. Framed or stretched-tight masking and drops can make your show (and pictures) look amazing.” – Jen Schriever

Best Practices

“Never erase. You made that mistake for a reason. Incorporate it.” – William Ivey Long

“Always enclose the drums!” – Jessica Paz

“Dimmable house lights! Are you in a cafegymnatorium? Allocate some of your stage lighting for the audience. Or buy some simple light bulbs that you can plug into a dimmer. If you don't have control over every element of light in your show, then you can't make a conscious decision on how to employ them. If the house lights snap off because ‘that's the way they work’ then find a different way! Make sure you are the one in control over every element in your rig.” – Bradley King

“Beauty is not always the end goal, but storytelling is. As long as your design helps tell the story you are after for each character, I think that is a successful design.” – Linda Cho

“Experiment! Try making every light in your show the same color! Try a show only lit with lights on the floor. Try a show with zero theatrical lighting equipment in it. But make sure it's always in service of the play and the story!” – Bradley King

“Learn to draw. Drawing is the foundation of design. Drawing is to designers what language is to writers, and too many aspiring designer don’t spend enough time developing really good drawing skills.” – Derek McLane, Tony and Emmy–winning scenic designer (33 Variations, Hairspray Live!)

“Keep a sketch book handy at all times. Nothing can replace that and your imagination.” – David Korins, three-time Tony-nominated scenic designer (Beetlejuice, Hamilton)

“Have a sense of humor, have patience with yourself and others, find the joy in the room while you’re working. It doesn’t cost anything to be a supportive collaborator; it can cost everything not to be one.” – Jen Schriever

READ: How Anastasia’s Costume Designer Honored What Fans Loved on Screen in a Fresh Way

Best Products

“An adjusted light source to replicate the lighting on the stage. Crucial.” – William Ivey Long

“Apple Mainstage has become a staple for me. I use it as a reverb host for AU plugins. All it takes is a computer and an audio interface to run it—and if you can’t afford expensive plugins for reverb, it comes with all the same plugin that come with Logic Pro and it’s only $30.” – Jessica Paz

“The RemDim (remainder dim) button on your console! This turns every light off OTHER than the one you have selected. When a scene isn't looking quite right to me, it's usually because I've turned too many lights on. Remdim instantly cleans up a muddy stage; it lets you see that beautiful shaft of light coming in through the window and lets you get back to building around that idea. When in doubt, turn everything else off.” – Bradley King

“Incandescent dimmable little lights for tech tables. It can be really hard to see what you’re trying to create when the room is full of light from clip lights or desk lamps.” – Jen Schriever

“Scenery isn’t usually dependent on one single piece of equipment, [but] after some essential and fairly obvious safety equipment, I’d say a really good screwgun.” – Derek McLane

“The app Procreate is what I use to sketch on my iPad. It work in layers, like Photoshop, but is a great program for drawing, both rough and more finished drawings, and I can quickly email them.” – Derek McLane

“High quality paint brushes will last you a very long time.” – David Korins

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