18 December 2019
Jones, Robert E. “To A Young Stage Designer.” The Dramatic Imagination. Theatre Arts Books, 1941, pp. 67-84.
This essay asks young stage designers to move beyond the mere technical practicalities and flashy innovations of set design and to understand it as an as an art form akin to poetry, one which eschews fanciful adornment in a quest for unspoken and compelling truth. Jones begins with the powerful assertion that a set designer is an “artist of occasions.” This means that, to create a successful work of theater, a designer must address the inherent dramatic tension within a play, also known as its atmosphere. Stage design, Jones believes, must go beyond a play’s literal requirements, such time period and geographic or architectural settings, and speak to a play’s inner soul. Also, Jones believes that a stage design is only one component of a performance and cannot exist without the rest. That is to say that it is useless to speak of a set without speaking of the total play and performance.
Jones seems to be cautioning young designers against relying on tricks or stage wizardry that distract from a play’s truth. (I wonder if he believes this applies to both the stage design process and the design itself - probably so.) This essay was written in the wake of Belasco realism, a period in which many US stage productions became flashy but soulless physical objects. Jones is well known as the leader of the New Stagecraft movement, a time in which American stage design began to favor simplicity and dramatic tension, and this essay is a part of that movement.
One aspect of this essay that I imagine is frustrating to many design students is that is unable to tell students exactly how to achieve its goals. It gives examples, and speaks convincingly about it ideas, but it is unable to give an exact recipe much as it would be impossible to give tell someone exact steps for writing a poem. How exactly does one translate dramatic tension into a physical stage setting?
How does this relate to scenography?
This essay is directly about set design. Its themes will be eternally relevant, such as caution in the face of technical development and ambition for truth and simplicity in the name of dramatic tension. This should be required reading for all stage design students.