Minimalist Sets: Making Worship Drama Easier Yet
Complication. Hassles. Time-consuming work behind the scenes. These are some of the things that keep drama from being invited back to worship week after week. And all these combine to rob a drama team and Its director of the energy to keep producing. What refuels motivation and sustains interest and commitment? Simplicity. This time, the focus is simple sets.
Let's start by acknowledging the value of a set. By definition, a set is what helps transport the audience from your sanctuary to a spot where imagination suspends skepticism and disbelief. Whether it's a single chair or an entire office suite, the set helps to lure the audience away from their tight rein on reality. So you might be tempted to conclude that the bigger and more realistic the set, the more effective the production will be. That's mostly true, especially in a theatrical environment where an intricate and well-crafted set adds a certain indefinable pleasure to the experience.
But the church setting is different. Although full home settings, backdrops and movable doors do add to the experience, they also add another level of preparation and complication that will discourage consistent implementation of drama in the real church world. We just don't have the time – not when we have one drama this week and another in two more weeks.
So what's the solution? Eliminate sets and just stand there reciting lines? Please, no. But minimalist sets can come to our rescue. Consider the following kinds of minimalist set designs and see if they wouldn't simplify your next church drama.
1) Use the structures already in the room.
Instead of bringing in chairs or other kinds of seating, look to see what's resident in your sanctuary. Steps are great places to sit. Or perhaps there's a well-placed railing or banister. Check out every flat surface in the front of the room and evaluate its potential as seating. Evaluate sight lines from the audience's perspective, and check with church leadership before you sit on something sacred.
Fortunately, many conversations don't depend on conventional seating. Once you start, the audience can quickly forget they're in a church and transport themselves to a garage or gym or Wal-Mart. The best part about using existing surfaces is you never have to move them in or out. They "disappear" after use.
2) Import simple seating.
If you don't have options built into the room, bring in as little as possible. Why do we focus on seating? Because most sketches require it. While there’s sure to be some standing and careful, strategic moving about, you almost always need a place to sit as a home base. So bring in something simple and easy to carry on and off. You can use a basic chair, but often you'll find stools easier to transport and visually less distracting. Consider standard metal church chairs spray-painted flat black (the flat finish blends in better and suggests a timeless or surreal setting).
If you really want to be creative, think a little more abstractly. Surreal sets don't portray any particular time or place. They're pure function. Try a 2" x 10" board sitting on two cement blocks as a bench. We've seen entire monologues using a standard aluminum ladder as a self-contained set. The audience soon forgets it's a ladder and allows it to be a staircase or a window or a mountaintop. Never underestimate the power of imagination.
3) Use easy hand props.
Remember, the point here is to transport the audience. Often a few good hand props will do as much as a full set. An open newspaper suggests a living room setting. A Big Mac, McDonalds; a spatula, the kitchen. An actual steering wheel, you guessed it. The nice thing about hand props is you probably already have them around the house. They're carried on easily and disappear just as quickly. Put them to good use.
4) Let lighting help you.
At the risk of introducing a different kind of complication, simple lighting can isolate the action and transport the audience just like a set. Just dimming the houselights and lighting the performance area does wonders. If you have the ability to isolate the action with tight circles of light, so much the better.
Why are we willing to take the risk of de-emphasizing the time-honored role of the set? Because we're not in a theater; we're in a church. We prefer to place our emphasis on good line delivery rather than elaborate sets. A good script, natural sounding lines, and as little set as possible. That's what keeps you going Sunday after Sunday.