Abstract set design, developed in the early part of the 20th century, is a form of theatrical stage design used to create dramatic elements. The concept uses minimal stage props and decorations, while integrating audience imagination, to create the suggestion of an environment and focus the audience’s attention on the actor’s performance and their costume designs.
The abstract approach to creating a dramatic setting began with the work of Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, both in the early 20th century. The theater remembers Adolphe Appia for his contributions in new lighting techniques and his use of stage space and creative scene design. Edward Craig developed his own new theatrical approaches to the use of light and shadow on stage. Together, their influences ushered in the dramatic new style of stage performance known as abstract drama. Their contributions spread through other specialties, including theatrical dance.
Abstract stage design uses light, space and props to create a suggestive environment for a performance. This includes using only a few props that work to suggest an environment, rather than to set an environment as is done in other stage setting philosophies. Abstract stage design suggests that a story is taking place in a general time or unspecific place, rather than creating a specific location. For instance, when you set up your abstract setting, you start with an empty stage and add a tree to suggest that the action occurs in a forest and a platform for a focal character to stand on, suggesting that she is more important or more powerful than other characters.
Costume Design and Performance
The abstract approach to theater focuses on costumes over comprehensive stage props. While lighting, theatrical space and carefully selected props add to the scene, character costumes and dramatic acting become the focus of your performance. The lack of additional stage props forces the audience to pay more attention to your performers and makes their presentation the center of your audience’s attention.
The sparse use of stage props creates an amount of empty theatrical space on the stage. Based on the few props you use and the performance of your actors, abstract dramatic design encourages your audience to use their imagination and fill the empty space with their perception of what should be there, rather than presenting your interpretation through a complicated stage design. Additionally, careful use of light and shadows creates an additional element, allowing stage directors to create other imaginary elements, such as moonlight, the shadows of trees and other similar elements.
Kristyn Hammond has been teaching freshman college composition at the university level since 2010. She has experience teaching developmental writing, freshman composition, and freshman composition and research. She currently resides in Central Texas where she works for a small university in the Texas A&M system of schools.