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The Magic Behind the Sets in Theater Design

The Magic Behind the Sets in Theater Design

Have you ever wondered how set designs are constructed for shows at the theater? Lightweight frames, called flats, are the main way scenery is changed on stage. They can be built in all shapes and sizes and sturdily covered with plywood or cloth to be reused for years. Think about the most intricate set design you’ve ever seen and be amazed at how simple the structure is behind the scenes.

Types of Flats

Many types of flats can be built for a stage set and they all have a different purpose. Masking flats are used to hide the backstage areas or allow actors to move behind the scenes. Narrow masking flats, called tormentors, are placed to prevent people sitting in the boxes from seeing backstage. Book flats are hinged and typically used as a backing for doorways and windows. A profile, also called a cutout, is a shaped flat used for scenery. A portal is used to create archways and frame areas on stage.

Moving Flats

Flats are lightweight and can easily be moved around stage when changing scenes. Two people are required, one on each side, to lift and move the flat to prevent breaking the frame. Large flats can get heavy, so they can be built with casters and wheels to help stage hands switch scenery more quickly.

Securing and Joining Flats

Weights, braces and jacks are used to provide support and help position the flats on stage. Depending on the size of the flat, different types of braces are used. A french brace should be used on large flats that measure more than ten feet high. For smaller flats a stage brace can be used. To join flats together for larger sets, stage hands can use ratchet straps, throw lines, cleats and pin hinges.

Building a Stage Flat

A stage flat is a simple project using basic tools and supplies. All you need is plywood, glue, nails and a hammer to build a frame. Once the frame is complete, you need a staple gun and canvas or muslin fabric to cover it. Any fabric used should be flame-retardant.

Without flats, the theater would have to rely on simple backdrops that match each scene in a play. Flats are a versatile and essential piece of set design. With creativity and artistic vision, set designers create the amazing atmosphere on stage to give theatergoers a taste of theatrical magic.

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