Here are 150 set design terms and their definitions, suitable for Drama and Theatre students, teachers, industry professionals, and enthusiasts.
Set design and construction in theatre form the backbone of visual storytelling, intrinsic to the theatrical experience. At its core, set design is about creating a physical environment that supports and enhances a production’s plot, themes, and emotional tone. It is a multidisciplinary craft involving aspects of architecture, carpentry, painting, and often, elements of digital technology.
The set designer’s vision, brought to life through construction, gives audiences tangible worlds to immerse themselves in, ranging from the hyper-realistic to the abstract and surreal. This craft not only requires an understanding of artistic concepts but also demands practical skills in construction and material science, ensuring that the set is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and functional and safe for performers.
Recent years have seen a significant transformation in set design and construction, primarily driven by technological advancements. Digital technologies, such as Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and 3D modelling, have revolutionised how theatre sets are conceptualised and planned. These tools allow designers to create more precise and detailed visual representations, enhancing the accuracy and efficiency of the construction process.
In addition, digital projections and augmented reality have opened new avenues for dynamic and adaptable set environments. These technologies enable sets to change in real-time, allowing new levels of interactivity and immersion. They also allow for more sustainable practices, as digital elements can reduce the need for physical materials and facilitate the reuse of set pieces across different productions.
Moreover, automation and mechanisation have significantly impacted set design. Automated scenery, using motorised elements controlled by sophisticated software, allows for complex, precise movements and transformations on stage. Such innovations expand the creative possibilities for set designers and demand a new set of skills from those who build and operate these advanced systems.
150 Theatre Set Design Terms
Acrylic Paint: A versatile, fast-drying paint used for a wide range of applications in set painting.
A-Frame Ladder: A self-supporting ladder structure used for reaching higher areas of the set during construction or adjustment.
Amphitheatre: A circular or oval open-air venue with tiered seating, traditionally used for performances and spectacles.
Apron: The area of the stage extending past the proscenium arch into the audience space.
Arena Stage: A stage design where the audience surrounds the stage on all sides, commonly known as “theatre-in-the-round.”
Articulation: The ability of a scenic element to move or change shape, often through mechanical means.
Asbestos Curtain: Historically used fireproof curtain, now largely replaced due to health concerns, designed to prevent the spread of fire from the stage to the audience.
Auditorium: The part of a theatre where the audience sits, also known as the “house.”
AutoCAD: A software application used for 2D and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) and drafting, frequently used in set design.
Austrian Curtain: A curtain that gathers vertically, creating a scalloped appearance when raised.
Automation: The use of motorized mechanisms to move set pieces, often controlled by computer systems.
Backdrop: A large cloth or canvas, usually painted, hung at the back of the stage as part of the scenery.
Band Saw: A saw with a long, sharp blade consisting of a continuous band of toothed metal, used particularly for cutting irregular shapes.
Batten: A horizontal pipe or bar, typically suspended from the ceiling, used for hanging scenery, lights, or curtains.
Black Box Theatre: A simple, unadorned performance space, typically with black walls, which is versatile and can be configured in various layouts.
Border: A narrow curtain or framed structure hung above the stage to mask or hide lights and scenery from the audience’s view.
Box Set: A set representing three walls of a room, with the fourth wall (the front) being invisible to create the illusion of an interior space.
Brace: A support or strengthening piece of material used to stabilise scenery.
Breakaway: A prop or set piece designed to break or fall apart easily, often used for special effects.
Bristol Board: A kind of heavy paper used in model-making and design.
Build: The process of constructing set pieces or props from materials.
Bump In: The process of moving sets, props, and technical equipment into the theatre or performance space.
Bump Out: In theatre, this refers to extending part of the stage into the audience area or creating a protrusion in the set design.
Burlap: A coarse canvas-like fabric used in set construction and decoration.
CAD (Computer-Aided Design): Software used to create precise drawings and models of set designs.
Carpentry: The art or technique of building set pieces and structures using wood and other materials.
Catwalk: A narrow, elevated walkway used by technicians to access lighting and rigging above the stage.
Chalk Line: A tool used in set construction for marking long, straight lines on surfaces like floors or walls.
Circular Saw: A power saw with a circular blade, used for cutting wood in straight lines.
Contour Curtain: Similar to the Austrian curtain, but with the ability to be raised to different heights at different points along its width, creating various contours.
Cordless Drill: A portable drill used for drilling holes and driving screws.
Cornice: A decorative framework used to embellish the top edge of a set piece, such as a window or door.
Counterweight System: A system of pulleys and weights used to balance and move scenery and lighting equipment vertically.
Cradle (‘Arbor’ in the U.S.): A counterweight system component, typically a metal frame, used to balance the weight of scenery and lighting equipment.
Cue: A signal for something to happen in a performance, often related to set changes or technical effects.
Cyclorama (Cyc): A large curtain or wall, often curved, at the back of the stage used to create a background, often lit with various colours.
Deck: The floor of the stage area, especially when constructed as a platform.
Diorama: A three-dimensional miniature model of a scene, used for design or planning purposes.
Door Flat: A flat (a lightweight frame) that has a functioning door built into it, used as part of the set design.
Downstage: The area of the stage closest to the audience.
Drafting: The process of drawing the designs for the set, often using CAD software.
Drape: A large curtain used as part of the scenery or to divide areas on stage.
Dress Rehearsal: A full run-through of the production with all elements, including costumes, make-up, lighting, and scenery, as it will be presented to the audience.
Dressing: The process of adding props and details to a set to enhance its appearance and realism.
Drop: A large curtain or piece of fabric, often painted, that hangs in the background as part of the set.
Drywall: A building material used to create flat walls and surfaces on stage.
Dutchman: A strip of fabric used to cover and hide the seams between flats or scenery panels.
Elevation: A technical scale drawing showing the front or side view of a set or set piece.
End (On) Stage: A stage configuration where the audience is located on one side only, similar to a proscenium arch stage but without the arch.
Entrance: An opening in the set design through which performers enter and exit.
Environmental Theatre: A type of theatre production that aims to eliminate or blur the distinctions between the audience space and the performance space.
Epoxy: A strong adhesive used in set construction for bonding materials together.
Escape: A hidden exit from the stage for performers, often concealed within the set.
Eyelet: A small hole or ring in fabric, used for hanging or attaching parts of the set or scenery.
Facade: The decorative front part of a set, often designed to resemble the front of a building or structure.
False Stage: A temporary stage built over the existing stage or part of it, often to achieve a specific effect or height.
False Proscenium: A frame used to reduce the size of the stage opening, altering the audience’s view.
Flat: A lightweight frame covered with canvas or wood, used to create walls or scenery on stage.
Fly Tower/Loft: The space above the stage where scenery, drops, and lights are suspended when not in use.
Fly System: A system of ropes, pulleys, and weights used to move scenery and equipment vertically above the stage.
Foam Insulation Board: Used for creating lightweight, sculpted elements in set design.
Foamcore: A lightweight material used in model-making and sometimes in constructing lightweight set elements.
Foyer: The entrance hall or lobby area of a theatre.
Gaffer Tape: A strong, fabric-based tape used in theatre for securing cables and making quick repairs.
Gauze: A sheer, lightweight fabric used for creating effects or as a backdrop that can appear opaque or transparent under different lighting.
Grid: A network of beams above the stage from which lighting, scenery, and equipment can be hung.
Grip: A technician who moves and maintains the scenery and other stage elements.
Ground Plan: A scale drawing that shows the layout of the stage from above, including the placement of set pieces and props.
Hardware: Various nuts, bolts, screws, and hinges used in constructing and assembling set pieces.
Hemp System: A traditional system of ropes and pulleys used to fly scenery.
House: The area where the audience sits, also known as the auditorium.
House Curtain: The main curtain that separates the stage from the audience, often opened and closed at the beginning and end of a performance.
Illusion: A technique or effect used in set design to create a visual impression that deceives the audience.
In-the-Round: Similar to an arena stage, this configuration allows the audience to surround the entire stage, creating a very intimate setting.
Iron: A flat metal curtain, usually fireproof, that can be lowered downstage to separate the audience from the stage in case of emergency.
Italian String Curtain: A curtain that is raised to the fly space by strings that cause it to gather in scallops.
Jig: A custom-made tool or device used to aid in the construction of set pieces.
Jigsaw: A tool for cutting arbitrary curves in wood or metal.
Juice: Slang for electrical power in a theatre.
Keystone: The central stone or element at the apex of an arch or vault in set construction, crucial for structural integrity.
Legs: Narrow, vertical stage curtains used to mask the sides of the stage.
Load-Bearing: Referring to a structure or component capable of supporting weight without failing.
Luan: A lightweight, flexible plywood used in set construction, especially for curved structures.
LX Tape: Fluorescent adhesive tape used to mark positions on stage, particularly in low-light conditions.
Masking: The use of curtains, flats, or other scenery to block the audience’s view of certain parts of the stage.
MDF (Medium-Density Fibreboard): An engineered wood product that is dense and flat, used for detailed work and smooth finishes.
Mitre Saw: A saw used to make accurate crosscuts and mitres in a workpiece.
Model Box: A miniature 3D representation of the set, used by designers to visualise and plan the set layout.
Movable Set: A set design that can be easily changed or reconfigured during a performance.
Muslin: A cotton fabric used to cover flats or create drops, often painted to look like various surfaces.
Noise: Unwanted sound in a theatre, which can be a concern in set design due to its impact on acoustics.
Nominal Size: The standard dimensions of building materials, important in planning and constructing theatre sets.
Open Air Theatre: An outdoor theatre space, typically used for summer performances, festivals, and classical plays, like those of Shakespeare.
Orchestra Pit: The sunken area in front of a stage where the orchestra plays in some theatres.
Orthographic Projection: A method of drawing a three-dimensional object in two dimensions, used in set design.
Paint Frame: A large, vertical frame used to paint backdrops and large pieces of scenery.
Painter’s Elevation: A detailed, color drawing of a set or scenic element, providing guidance for scenic artists.
Pin Rail: A horizontal bar, typically located on or near the fly gallery, used for tying off and securing the ropes of the fly system.
Plaster: A material used for coating and shaping surfaces in set construction.
Pneumatic Tools: Air-powered tools, such as nail guns and paint sprayers, used for efficiency and ease in construction.
Polystyrene: A light, versatile plastic material often used in theatre to create lightweight props or scenery.
Practicals: Props that are functional, such as lamps or telephones.
Props (Properties): Objects used by actors on stage to enhance the performance and set.
Promenade Theatre: Where the audience moves around the performance space and follows the action, rather than sitting in a fixed location.
Production Meeting: A gathering of all the heads of departments (like lighting, sound, set design) to discuss and coordinate various aspects of a production.
Proscenium Arch: The frame around the stage in a traditional theatre that separates the stage from the auditorium.
PVC Pipe: Lightweight and versatile plastic piping used for various structural elements in set design.
Ragging: A painting technique used on sets to create textured effects, typically involving dabbing or dragging a rag over the wet paint.
Rake: A sloped stage, angled upward away from the audience.
Rain Curtain: A curtain made of thin, reflective strips of material that shimmer as they move, resembling rain.
Revolve (Revolving Stage): Also known as a ‘turntable’, a stage platform that can rotate, often used to show scene changes.
Rendering: A detailed drawing or painting showing how the set will look from the audience’s perspective.
Rig: The arrangement of lighting, sound, and other technical equipment for a production.
Rigging: The system of ropes, pulleys, and counterweights used to move scenery and equipment.
Rostrum: A raised platform on stage, often used to elevate performers or set pieces.
Safety Curtain: A curtain typically made of fire-resistant material used to separate the stage from the audience in case of fire.
Sandbag: A bag filled with sand used as a counterweight in rigging systems to balance the weight of hanging scenery or equipment.
Scenery: The physical decoration on a stage representing a specific location.
Scaffold: A temporary structure used during the construction or maintenance of set pieces, providing a platform for workers.
Scale Model: A miniature, proportionally accurate model of the set.
Scissor Lift: A motorized platform that can be raised vertically, used for accessing high areas of the stage or set.
Screw Gun: A tool similar to a drill, specifically designed for driving screws.
Scrim: A lightweight fabric that appears opaque until lit from behind, used for special effects.
Set: The physical surroundings in which the action of a play occurs, including background, furniture, and other props.
Sight Lines: Imaginary lines from the furthest seats determining what parts of the stage are visible.
Spattering: A painting technique that involves flicking small droplets of paint onto a surface to create texture or a speckled effect.
Stage Picture: The visual composition of a scene as seen by the audience, including actors, scenery, costumes, and lighting.
Stage Right/Left: Directions from the actor’s perspective facing the audience; stage right is to the actor’s right, and stage left is to the actor’s left.
Staple Gun: A handheld device used to drive heavy metal staples into wood, plastic, or masonry.
Steel Square: A tool used in carpentry for marking and measuring a square or right angle.
Stock Scenery: Scenery that is kept in stock by a theatre and reused in various productions.
Strike: The process of dismantling the set and clearing the stage at the end of a production’s run.
Studio Theatre: A small, often informal, performance space, typically used for experimental or smaller productions.
Strike: The process of dismantling and removing a set from the stage after a performance or run of a show.
Tab: A curtain that splits in the middle and opens to the sides.
Table Saw: A woodworking tool consisting of a circular saw blade, mounted on a table, used for precise cutting.
Teaser: A horizontal drape used to mask the top part of the stage.
Technical Rehearsal: Rehearsals where the focus is on the technical elements of a production, such as lighting, sound, and scenery changes.
Thrust Stage: A stage that extends into the audience on three sides.
Trap: An opening in the stage floor, used for special effects, such as an actor’s sudden appearance or disappearance.
Traveller: A curtain that opens and closes horizontally, used to reveal or hide the stage or parts of the set.
Traverse Stage: A stage set up with the audience on two sides along the length of the space, similar to a fashion runway.
Truck: A movable platform on wheels, used to easily transport large set pieces on and off stage.
Truss: A framework, typically made of metal, used to support lighting and scenery.
Upstage/Downstage: Terms indicating the location on stage; upstage is away from the audience, downstage is close to the audience.
Upholstery: The materials, including fabric, padding, and springs, used to cover and cushion furniture used on stage.
Velour: A plush, knitted fabric often used for stage curtains.
Vomitory: An entrance or exit in a theatre, especially one leading directly to the seating area.
Wet Blending: A painting technique where two wet paint colors are blended directly on the surface to create a smooth transition or gradient.
Wings: The areas to the sides of the stage, concealed from the audience.
Winch: A mechanical device used to wind wire rope or cable, often employed in moving scenery.