Whether appearing to be made of wood or stone, columns are an interesting design element on any stage set. A variety of materials and building techniques will mimic the look of fluted columns, stuccoed columns or wooden columns. Of course, stage columns should always be very lightweight and less expensive to build than real columns. There are several design choices to make in the planning stages to insure a good product.
Determine the architectural period of the columns to suit your script. Columns from Greek and Roman times, for example, were usually round and fluted and were built from stacked sections of carved granite, limestone or marble. They tapered to a narrower diameter at the top. Refer to reference materials and photographs to find the best style. These columns will transmit a very powerful visual image on the stage so be sure to design and construct them well.
Make the columns serve a purpose. Real columns support roofs and ceilings. Avoid designing columns that do not support anything; “pointless” columns are confusing to the audience.
Reduce unnecessary weight. Striking standing columns from the set during scene changes calls for lightweight materials such as Styrofoam or rigid urethane. Urethane is preferable. Because it is a closed-pore foam, urethane is more rigid, easier to carve and accepts stage paint very well. Because it is a poly-bead foam, Styrofoam “sheds,” does not allow for finer carving and sometimes resists paint.
Build columns the way the Romans did. Cut circles or squares from either Styrofoam or urethane. Stack these pieces, one on top of the other, to build up the column to the desired height. Taper the columns near the top if desired. Glue the pieces with construction adhesive and use wooden dowels to stiffen the construction. These columns will not be easily broken if knocked over or handled roughly by stagehands during scene changes.
Construct a base from ¾” plywood. Create a frame for the plywood if a flat base tends to warp and rock the column. Glue the column to the base using construction adhesive. If the column is very tall, add counterweight in the form of sandbags to the upstage side of the base.
Carve fluting in columns if desired. Urethane foam permits fine carving with knives, files and rasps. Styrofoam is more difficult to carve. Use a chalk line to snap flute lines and make sure they are straight up and down. You can also paint flute lines on columns.
Prepare to paint the columns. Prime urethane columns directly with stage paint. Cover Styrofoam columns with cheese cloth dipped in wallpaper paste or diluted white glue. Prime the covered columns with stage paint.
Paint any fluting, other carving details, or a faux effect such as stucco or marble. For fluting, paint the shadow cast by the flute, not the flute line itself. The effect will be more pleasing.
Seal the column and give it a luster, like polished marble or varnish, with a finish made of clear polyurethane or diluted white glue.