Peter Pan Set Design and Build

The local non profit theatre organization that I volunteer for (the West Elgin Dramatics Society) staged J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ for their 2017 year end production. I had the opportunity to design the set.  Barrie’s 1904 play script includes pages of set and production notes that weren’t a realistic aim for the organisation’s budget or the performance hall footprint. The cast was a large one (32 on stage plus the backstage and tech crew) so space was at a premium. The production called for a nursery, three separate settings in Neverland (daylight woods, lagoon, night woods split with the house underground), the deck of a pirate ship, and a place for Nana’s dog house/the Darling house yard.

I first read Peter Pan as an illustrated story when I was a child. I wanted to bring the same kind of feel to the set design. I decided to build large “boxes” that the stage crew would rotate to display four scenic murals with the other two scene sets remaining in place. Each original mural was 8 feet high by 12 feet long spreading across three “box” faces. I constructed the boxes combining existing theatre flats with additional ¼ inch mahogany sheets over frames made of 1 inch by 3 inch pine boards. Set build for a WEDS production usually begins around two weeks before a play opens so time was definitely a factor in getting the set together. Budget is always a consideration so the paint used to create the imagery was a combination of discount mis-tinted house paint and acrylic craft paint. I created the pieces with the knowledge that the flats used to build the boxes would be disassembled at production’s end to be painted over for use in other plays. In some of the pictures you can see some wear and tear under the paint from other set uses. That does make it hard to determine how much work to put into them but hopefully there were enough details included to create the required atmosphere.

The view from the catwalk shows the Darling family nursery as well as the yard where Nana’s house sits.

The backdrop on the wall and the trees were originally created for past productions (See How They Run and Alice Through the Looking-Glass). Community theatre often means recycle, recycle, and recycle some more.

The beds used were inflatable cots which worked surprisingly well in appearance (they aren’t fully inflated or completely covered here as this was just prior to opening), mobility, and storage.

Two of the boxes formed nursery walls that were hung with curtains to conceal the first woodland scene.

Using two of the boxes as nursery walls was the best solution to where to put them when not in use. As you can see from this picture there was no place for them backstage either stage left…

…or stage right. That’s the third box in front of the theatre’s baby grand piano.

The Neverland woods.

Here’s a closer look. Most of the work was done with foam rollers, house painting brushes, and a 1 inch acrylic flat brush.

Rotating from woodland to lagoon. I used felt furniture pads on the bottom and the boxes moved quite well.

The lagoon set. The lines between the surfaces look quite heavy here. These pictures were shot in regular daylight. With the theatre lights on during the play run the dividing lines weren’t as noticeable.

Lagoon detail. I live near the northern shoreline of Lake Erie. If you’re familiar with the area you’ll definitely recognise elements of it in this composition.

Rotation from lagoon to split night woods and house underground.

During the play run these pieces were set up with a split between them so plot lines could develop on the stage back to back with only lighting changes.

Night woods detail.

Rotation from split scene to pirate ship deck.

Pirate ship deck.

Pirate ship deck detail.

I’ve blurred the actors’ faces here so don’t be alarmed (they’re not melting). This rehearsal picture shows the actors utilising the split set.

Again I’ve blurred the actor’s face. This rehearsal (wet tech) picture shows the ship deck scene as stage lighting is being added.

This last picture is me explaining to one of my stage managers how it’s all going to work. She later said she had her hands on her head not because she didn’t think it would work but because she was concerned about the amount of work that was required to get them sorted out. I’m around 5 1/2 feet tall and you can see that even with my arm fully extended I couldn’t reach the top. Though the boxes were large and the stage crew were all small women they had no problem moving them.

The rest of the design consisted of a small number of set pieces like Wendy’s house, the pirate rowboat, the lagoon rock, Nana’s house, etc, that were built by myself and other handy members of the production team. With such a large cast and crew, and numerous scene changes, it really helps to keep the set pieces to a minimum. That said I really enjoyed the challenges that come with this type of production.

11 Comments

  1. I was fascinated to see and read how you overcame the restrictions of a tight budget and space. I’m sure a lot of work must have gone into your wonderfully painted and rotating scenes. I guess the irony of set building, is the art is only on display for a short time and then vanishes into storage. Similar to creating an elaborate dinner party, which may involve lengthy preparation but then its gone in the blink of an eye.

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    1. That’s an interesting thought Kevin. In that light I definitely see the two processes intersecting in some very significant ways -a foundation of skill and an idea – the composition and completion of the event – and only the memory to remain. I think it’s all lovely but perhaps a little wistful when it’s over. Cheers, Lori

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  2. That’s wonderful. My wife and I haven’t done Community Theater in several years now. I was usually part of the lead in the Set Construction and then the Stage Manager during performances.
    Reading your experiences from Peter Pan you obviously enjoyed your experience. I envy you! Your Stage was huge! I couldn’t make out from your images though. Did you have flats free standing permanent in the background besides the boxes? I was trying to see how you supported them? We usually created a giant C brace. Both the top and bottom parts that stuck out were against the back wall (when nobody was looking I used to put screws into the them to make sure they didn’t move during production). We had bags of sand on the bottom to help steady them. About 4′ from the wall. Enough for us to pass through to get to the far side behind the sets during performances.
    Great Job!!

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    1. Thanks Mark. Nice to hear from another theatre lover! I do really enjoy working on the sets. I’m pretty ensconced in theatre production in my small community as well as working with organizations in larger communities nearby on the stage and behind it. This particular theatre is a lovely little space. The stage has a free standing false wall that separates the backstage from upstage. It’s painted flat matte black and can be used as a stage set on its own or for a backdrop as it was utilised with the Peter Pan set. The flats I work with are 4′ by 8′ mahogany skins attached to pine 1″ by 4″ board frames. For a more traditional set they are screwed together and then braced when required with 1″ by 4″ board lengths to adjacent walls. Sometimes that’s not possible so 2″ by 4″ boards can be screwed into the stage floor and a flat (or wall of flats) can be crossed braced to those. I do try not to use that last method too often as it’s really not good for the floor and not as stable as the other bracing.

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      1. That’s pretty cool. We used 1/4” Luan 4×8 sheets for the sets. Easy to paint and cheap. The stages that we worked on, we wouldn’t dream of screwing anything to the floor. I believe we first started using large boxes for the sets back when we did Music Man. Had to be somewhere about 1994-95! We only had room for 2 but 4 sides painted different scenes made it real convenient.

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