Scene Changes

The choreography of scene changes or transitions is a vital part of the smooth flow of the production, and can make or break a show. Scenic automation on larger West End and Broadway shows has raised the bar very high, and now many shows use wonderful scene changes in full view of the audience, with minimal visible crew. 
Sets designed for large scale professional shows have the function of the set in focus from the outset – how can the set tell the story, following the vision of the director and design team, and not distract the audience by slowing the production down.

Who Does the Scene Changes? 

The Stage Management team are responsible for the smooth execution of scene changes, and very often, they do the changes. However, actors can also be used to make changes (e.g. removing a chair), which can look smoother to the audience than having a member of stage crew come on and do it. 

How to document scene changes?

The layout of furniture / set pieces for each scene should be drawn in plan (overhead) view as part of the rehearsal process, and noted in the prompt book. 

Changes between scenes should be worked out well in advance, based on the number of crew available, and the required speed of the change. 

If the show is a traditional musical, written to facilitate easy scene changes upstage of a front cloth scene, then a lot of the thinking has been done for you already. The key is to ensure you’re making best use of the space available to you in the wings, and that you’re storing furniture, props and set pieces in an efficient manner to enable them to be easily retrieved for the next time they’re needed.

On large scale shows with automated scenery, pre-visualisation software such as Cinema 4D is used to animate scene changes so the director and technical staff can see what’s planned. However, things can be worked out using a card set model, or even just pieces of appropriately-scaled paper moving around a scale ground plan. 



Things To Avoid

Unless you have no other option, try to avoid the following sequence:

  1. Scene ends, lights go to blackout
  2. Blue working lights come up dim
  3. Stage Crew walk on and shuffle around moving furniture
  4. Blue working lights go out
  5. Actors walk on
  6. Lights come up for the next scene

If this must happen, ensure the crew are moving everything incredibly efficiently, and if there’s no music to accompany the change, ask the Director if it might be possible. Get the actors on as the last few pieces of set are moving into position, and try to make the change match the pace of the show. 

Things to Aim For

Think about the flow of the piece. Will the scene change enable the production to continue at the same pace, without interruption? Or will the moment be totally broken by the logistics of the set design and the need for furniture to be moved around. 

Does the director want the scene change to be noticed? Is it important that the audience take a break from the piece for a minute to think about what’s just happened? 
In that case, a well-choreographed scene change with some appropriate music might be perfect. Are the actors able to do anything meaningful while the change is happening around them? Maybe the actors do the whole scene change themselves – in character. In a domestic setting after a hurricane, for example, it may be absolutely appropriate for the family to put their home back together. 
Maybe one of the actors for the next scene could lean against the downstage proscenium wall thinking about what’s just happened (in a tight spotlight) while the change happens around them. Or maybe the first lines of dialogue could be spoken by the actors as they walk across downstage (in a tight cross light) while the change happens upstage of them. 

Are there too many scene changes breaking up the production? Could the set be simplified, or could the amount of furniture be changed? Could anything be made multi-purpose? (e.g. a table is used in two scenes, with a change of tablecloth, or a bookcase is revolved to reveal a fireplace etc. 

Would a more minimalist approach work where the set is effectively a blank box where scenic projections and lighting can do all of the work? 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a gloriously theatrical and playful production.

Computer-controlled Scenic automation has enabled hugely complex scene changes to happen in full view of the audience in a beautifully choreographed ballet of scenery and lighting. However, this is expensive, and out of the reach of the vast majority of productions. 
A well-rehearsed stage crew and an experienced set designer can effect incredible transformations…

The Red Barn (National Theatre, UK)
This example shows some glorious changes where transformations take place using a series of flats as framing devices to close down the view of the audience. 
There’s a stage crew of 12 people, and a large budget for special effects. 
The scenic design and execution mirrors the cinematic themes of the production. 

Opera Australia – La Traviata

Scenic Automation in Action

This set design for Chinglish is designed by renowned Broadway designer David Korins

Sunroof Trap

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Keywords: change set between scenes, creating a seamless productions, lighting without blackouts, no blackout theatre