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  • Writer's pictureJason Simms

What's in a line?--Why good drafting is important.

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

For centuries, designers of all kinds have been drawing their designs for the purposes of construction and communication. The most common methodology of drafting, or submitting of drafting is done in a to-scale architectural style of drawing called orthographic projection. Today, this is mostly done using Computer Aided Drafting or 'CAD' software like Vectorworks or AutoCAD; however, there are still those out there who draft by hand using a pencil. While it is true that 3D drafting and digital modeling/rendering techniques are becoming more and more popular for communicating designs to directors and fellow collaborators, a shop will still need the orthographic drawings (plan, elevation, and section or side views) in order to budget and then build a set.

Drafting is the most important way a set designer communicates a design to a shop, fellow designers, stage managers, and directors. Models & renderings, paint elevations, and research are all important; but drafting is literally the blueprint for a design. It is the map that guides the crew into making the world come to life, and without it, the production team is literally lost.

Groundplan of Disgraced
A groundplan (bird's eye view) For Ayad Aktar's DISGRACED at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Drafted by Jason Simms

Drafting exists as the visual, objective contract between the set designer and the scene shop. When a designer submits the draftings, or drawings, and the shop agrees to them after budget reconciliation, it is the responsibility of the shop to build the designs as drawn. Any and all changes must be approved by the designer.

It is imperative that the draftsperson leave as few questions as possible when drafting. Every moulding, doorway, window mullion, floor pattern, fireplace mantel, doorknob, wall texture, etc. are decisions the Set Designer must make. These decisions, or designations are called specifications or "specs". When a design is "built to spec", that refers to the fact that the scenery was built as it was drawn.

Drafting is also useful in communicating design ideas to directors. Like a captain, directors use groundplans to chart and plan the journey of the story. Understanding in space where each character's physical destination may be is a useful way to think through an emotional arc of a play. With a groundplan, a director can understand where a window, sofa, chair, doorway, etc. exist on the set. Much of this grows in rehearsal; however, having a starting place is always useful. Giving a director a grounplan is like giving them a foldable set in their pocket from which they can visualize the story in space and in scale. And while renderings are good, they can cause misjudgments of spatial depth.

Fellow designers benefit from set drafting as well. Lighting & Sound designers need groundplans and centerline sections in order to design lights and sound. Using a groundplan and a complete cross-section of the theater and set designated by a pre-determined access, the lighting designer is able to effectively position their lights and the sound designer their speakers. Often, a set will need to be altered in order for the lighting designer to effectively light the story. Thanks to new light and sound technologies, it is more common for scenic, lighting, and sound designers to make more decisions together that involve an integration of lighting, sound, and scenic elements. These ideas are best executed using meticulous collaborative drafting styles.

Costume designers use groudplans to track costume movement on the stage and around it. Crossovers, quick-change booths, dressing room locations, and floor details are important information needed for a costume designer to plot their costumes and consider materiality. Also, in some cases, large costumes are part of the story, so communication between the costume designer and set designer in regards to actor egress points is necessary.

Before every first rehearsal, the stage management team, using multi-colored tape, tapes out the ground plan in scale on the floor in the rehearsal room. This provides the actors, director, and stage management team with a full-scale facsimile of the set before it is built. This allows rehearsal conditions to mimic every story-telling moment in regards to space and time in preparation for performances. With a full-scale version of space, the director can make artistic choices with the actors, and the stage management team can record them.

While how we draft has changed over the years, its purposes remain unchanged.

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1 Comment

Jun 15, 2020

Hi, I think you made an interesting point here, thanks for writing this idea it was very helpful for those of us who are planning to do outsourcing.

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