Review: Theatre Design – Sculpting Space in the Theater

US Title – Sculpting Space in the Theater: Conversations with the top set, light and costume designers. by Babak Ebrahimian

UK Title – Theatre Design: Behind the scenes with the top set, light and costume designers. by Babak Ebrahimian

There are so many books exploring theatre design these days that it’s becoming difficult to choose a favourite. Harder still for the writers of these volumes is deciding what approach to take, how do you make your book different from the rest on the bookshop shelves? A good exciting cover is one way of course… I’m not convinced that “Theater Design” quite does that, but then there is that old adage.

Theatre Design Book Cover

What Babak Ebrahimian has done however is to find a different way to interview designers, and that alone makes the book worth a look. Ebrahimian speaks to a number of the designers about designing either Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” Initially I found this to be a welcome approach; certainly the chosen scripts, both of which feature similar themes, make a good topic for discussion, though they do of course require the reader to have a knowledge of them. The designers interviewed speak freely about how they might approach each play, artistically and conceptually. They discuss the role of the designer in the process, the importance of understanding and working with the script and how they play their part in the production team. The real mettle however is certainly in the discussion of the scripts themes, and how each designer might understand them.

However, after a while, you began to realise that this discussion is never going to move beyond the conceptual and I soon found myself wanting for a little more. It is easy to become more interested in those designers who talked more extensively about realised designs – of whom there are a good many. My measure of books that interview designers is that they should make me feel like I’m sitting in a coffee bar having a chat with the interview subject, and on this count Ebrahimian has effortlessly succeeded. His interviews with Ming Cho Lee and John Lee Beatty (both of whose work differs greatly in approach and style) particularly stood out. Despite my wanting more from the theoretical discussion this is an enjoyable and easy book to get to grips with. It is well presented and accompanied by an impressive range of production and model box photography.

As a European designer I found the comparisons that many of the generally US based designers made between our approaches enlightening, especially the interview with Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton, who talks frankly and in detail about her work in European theatre, working with Robert Wilson and teaching Lighting Design at Yale. However, I can’t help feeling that with a sub-title of “Behind the Scenes with the Top Set, Lighting, and Costume Designers” a few more contributions from designers based outside of the USA and Canada would have made the book a better read, and more deserving of its title. I’m enthusiastic and interested in American theatre design, but I’m similarly excited by those working elsewhere in the world. These minor points however do not stop me from recommending this book. It has not perhaps filled the gap on my shelf that I had hoped but it is a unique look at the working practices of designers based in the USA. It is certainly a book I’d recommend especially for theatre design students, although seasoned professionals may find themselves wanting more.

Babak Ebrahimian

Babak Ebrahimian holds an MA in Directing and Dramaturgy and a PhD in Theatre and Cinema Studies from Stanford University. He also teaches at Stanford and Columbia Universities. As a director he has designed many of his own sets and has published a book on set design. In addition , he has been a guest director at the Deutsches Theatre, the Schaubuhne and the Wuppertal Danztheater in Germany, and Mnouchkine’s Theatre de Soleil in France.

Where to Buy?


UK – Theatre Design: Behind the scenes with the top set, light and costume designers. Published by Rotovision, ISBN-10: 2940361436, ISBN-13: 978-2940361434.

US – Sculpting Space in the Theater: Conversations with the top set, light and costume designers. Published by Focal Press, ISBN-10: 0240808665, ISBN-13: 978-0240808666.

Review by Martin Paling.



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