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Classroom Happenings: Setting the Stage

The Steward School
Theatre students study set design 
Spartans in all divisions explore the bounds of their creativity through hands-on learning. Just ask the students in Middle School Theatre Teacher Susan Sanford’s Theatre 8 class, who spent the school year studying all aspects of theatre, from prop making to scene work. They are ending the year by studying set design — a fascinating exploration of what it takes to set the stage for a theatrical performance. 

Guest speaker and set designer Mercedes Schaum came to campus four times during the past several weeks to talk to the students about her career and to share tips on designing a set. Ms. Schaum and Ms. Sanford, lifelong friends, have worked together throughout the years, most recently on a play that Ms. Sanford directed at the Virginia Repertory Theatre: “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” 

Every Detail Counts
During her class visits, Ms. Schaum talked to the students about how storytelling and set design frame a theatrical production. 

“Mercedes came in with sketches from ‘We Are in a Play!’ and shared with students that every play requires careful planning and attention to detail,” noted Ms. Sanford. “Although ‘We Are in a Play!’ is geared toward children ages four to eight, I took my students to see it to show them that it’s just as big a deal to do a kids’ play as any other production.” Attending the play, she said, was an integral piece of a larger picture. “It’s good to have the backstory on the set design and then see the play come to life as an audience member,” she noted. “Plus, watching younger kids’ reactions to the play  —  they were so enthusiastic  — was great for our students to experience!” 

Bringing Ideas to Life 
After watching the performance, the students worked in Steward’s BlackBox Theatre, creating their own set designs, each based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a book by Roald Dahl that was twice made into a movie. They started with mood boards  — collages of colors and sketches based on the scene of their choice. Ms. Sanford said, “I asked them to think about what kind of story they wanted to tell, and how they wanted to convey it. The two movies are vastly different from one another; for example, one is very dark and the other is brightly lit.” 

For KC Phipps ’27, designing a set offered a new perspective into the world of theatre.

“What I most enjoyed was being able to hear all these really cool things Ms. Schaum told us and then seeing them come to life in the play,” said KC. For her set-design scene, KC chose the candy store in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” KC said, “That is really where Carlie’s whole adventure starts. I have never read the book, and I watched the movie a long time ago, so I just went with my imagination!”

Ms. Schaum, who delighted in seeing the students’ work from start to finish, said, “I asked them to consider every detail, and to think: How would an audience see this set?” She said the assignment helped equip the students with skills that can transfer to lots of professions, not just set design. “There are many art-adjacent fields that they can explore if they choose to. I loved seeing how they surprised themselves with their final projects!”


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