Section 2: Material Constraints

2.1 Context

My MFA Thesis in Drama at the University of Calgary (UofC) focused on Design and Technical Theatre and employed Artistic Research (AR). I completed this work in July 2018. My role as the costume, prop, and set designer for the show Conduct was the focus of my thesis work. This show, directed by Bruce Barton, was the first interdisciplinary project devised by and involving the Divisions of Drama, Music, and Dance in the School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) at UofC. The Division of Drama produced Conduct within the framework its own production model.

      My MFA took place over two years. In the first year, I was free to tailor my courses to my educational outcomes and collaborate on productions that advanced my interests in scenic arts.  I received valued guidance from my supervisors; Pil Hansen and April Viczko, on course selection and the more technical aspects of scenic design. During this year, I was interested in advancing the dramaturgical relevance of scenic elements by developing a method and set of tools to foster awareness amongst my collaborators of the different approaches one might combine or choose between when designing a costume, prop, or set design. I asked the following questions: how might I find and hold space for fluid approaches to design within a production system that anticipated predefined choices and structures? Can a process-oriented approach to design with openness to emergent options generate richer dramaturgical meaning and connections? How can the space conduct, confine, and invite audiences?                                                  

       Every year, the Division of Drama presents three mainstage productions. Undergraduate and graduate students are offered a range of diverse learning experiences in these productions. These experiences include working with professors, productions teams, and sometimes hired artists from the industry.                                                                          

       Each mainstage production typically involves one or two graduate students in roles such as director, dramaturg, and/or designer. Undergraduate students predominantly focus on acting, but they can also be designers, stage managers, stagehands, and assistant stage managers. In their course work, they are introduced by the professors to the different aspects of the mainstage production system. Faculty members can produce, design, direct, dramaturg, act, supervise students, and incorporate the production in classroom instruction.                    

        Each show offers distinct learning experiences for the students engaged in the different aspect of the production system mentioned above. Since the students often are supervised or collaborate with their professors, hierarchies are involved in the creative and academic process.

       The SCPA is fortunate to have Set, Prop and Costume shops. Each shop has a “Head”, who both provides labour and supervises undergraduate student assistants. The shops are supervised and led by the Production Manager, who oversees the overall budget for each show (around $10,000) and coordinates the calendar for the three Main Stage productions.

      The Division of Drama’s production model uses the standards guidelines created by the Associated Designers of Canada, which seems to be inspired by the Canadian regional theatre model, with its clear labour and associated hierarchical functions. For example, a Director is expected to articulate what they want to see in the designs. These functions reflect the roles and processes involved in the production of script-based shows, which is generally the style most. 

         At the SCPA, Drama students are taught to meet the expectations of this model with regard to their different roles. When working on a production that uses an already-developed text within this model, the director and designers generally begin by engaging in a conversation about their initial ideas, images, and interests as artists based on the descriptions and information provided by the script.  Conversation can begin as early as one year or as late as six weeks before a set of preliminary design drawings and budgets are due. These meetings between designers and directors pre-establish the designs and intentions for the actors, sometimes months ahead of when the rehearsal process begins. There is no need to wait for the actors to start creating the visual identity of the show. In the Division of Drama, this conceptual design work is typically completed in advance of a first design deadline determined by the Production Manager; at which point the designer delivers the following preliminary design materials (this list covers my design areas only):


  • An initial costume plot which contains detailed information about each scene, each character, quick changes, and whether the designer imagines the costume being built, bought, or pulled from the stock;

  • Spreadsheet containing initial budget-lines per costume or performer;

  • Costume renderings for each character;

  • Colour pallet (overall, or per scene);

  • Reference images and specific notations about the elements in each image that are of relevance to each character .


  • Ground plan;

  • Section plan;

  • White card preliminary model;

  • Notes about suggestions of materials;

  • Spreadsheet describing whether the set is to be purchased, pulled, or built.  ​​​​


  • Reference images for each prop on the set design;

  • Spreadsheet describing whether these props are to be purchased, pulled, or built.  


     After submitting the preliminary designs to the Production Manager, the creative team (director, designer, etc.) meets to present the design concepts to the production team (producer, production manager, shop heads, etc.). During this meeting, technical questions are asked and more explanations are given regarding the designs. The production team then has one to two weeks to determine the cost of the designs and inform the creative team. Conversations need to be held and substantial changes must be made to the designs in case the designs for show are costed above the available budget. Approximately one month after the first due date, final design packages which reflect such adjustments are due. These packages require:


  • Finalized costume plot

  • Spreadsheet containing revised budget per costume or performer

  • Finalized costume renderings per character

  • Revised colour pallet

  • Reference images and specific notations about what from each image is of interest for each character

  • Construction drawings for the built costumes


  • Ground plan

  • Section plan

  • Final model

  • Notes about suggestions for materials

  • Technical drawings

  • Updated spreadsheet describing whether the set is to be purchased, pulled, or built.  ​​​​


  • Reference images for each prop on the design

  • Spreadsheet describing if these props are to be purchased/pulled/built

  • Construction drawings

  • Updated spreadsheet describing whether the props are to be purchased, pulled, or built.


     Once the final designs are revised and approved by the Production Team, the construction period of the show starts. This period often lasts two months and is completed shortly before Tech week. The rehearsal period starts two weeks after the final designs are due, continues for around four weeks, and ends before Tech-week. Once full production begins, any and all changes of the design must be explained to and approved by the Production Manager.             

     This model is advantageous for a script-based production. It provides the creative team opportunities to discuss ideas and plan the show in advance of production, which saves time and ensures a smooth process of creation. In the case of an unscripted, devised theater production, however, the design deadlines can become a substantial material constraint for the designer. These deadlines require knowing answers sometimes two months ahead of starting rehearsals. As most of the creative responses, solutions, relationships, and the script of devised work will be developed in rehearsal, the designer does typically not have completed dramatic contents or clear staging concepts to design around in advance. Within the labour divided production model, the shop Heads depend on access to concrete answers from the designer and the stage manager. They consider the delivery of such answers with certainly (and few subsequent changes) as an essential precondition for corporation. The designer and stage management team are also responsible for knowing what is happening in the rehearsal hall and reporting it to the shops in a timely manner while providing the production team with answers to their questions regarding details, safety, and the effects of blocking (i.e., setting actors’ movement in space) on the designs.

2.1.1 Conduct’s time-line of design deadlines and production schedule:

2.2 Concepts

The role of the designer is sometimes romanticized. By this I mean that the designer is expected to read a script and arrive at a bright, creative design vision that renders the descriptions of the script visible and embodied while realizing the director’s aesthetic preferences. If only looked at on a surface level, the designer’s role can be perceived as based on “the inspiration that appears from hidden and unknown places, sometimes coincidental and unintended, that allows the artist to arrive at the genesis of their work” (Hauser 19).

       In order to take a critical look at creation, we need to analyze the context in which it takes place and its effects on the final product. Through such an analysis we would become more aware of the systemic and structural conditions of creation that affect the people and things involved in it. We might ask how we are shaped by the spaces, language, people, economy, and situations that surround us and review the extent to which our perceptions and thoughts reflect such conditions. We may also consider the boundaries that organize our lived and shared experiences. Although experiences may be shared, it is also relevant to think about the ways in which they are perceived differently by each person based on their life experiences and past/present surroundings (Candy 1). Maaike Bleeker, in her article, "Thinking no-one’s thoughts", explains how collaboration is the result of the relationships between people and between people and things (Bleeker 69). (See the section “Collaboration” for a more comprehensive introduction to this concept.) To better understand such relationships in a given production situation it is helpful to take a close look at its material constraints.                                                 

        Approaching the subject of material constraints, I turn to the concept of ‘constraints’ as studied in the discipline of social cognition and connect it with a concept of ‘material conditions’, drawn from material theatre theory. Constraints are a set of spatial and external memory clues, social units and expectations, and even economic systems that in concert organizes lived behavior, reduces options, and enhances efficiency (Soydan, et. al., 115). Ric Knowles argues in Reading the Material Theatre that we should consider the sociocultural and socioeconomic as the spatial politics of a theater architecture (Jackson 448).

        The context of where a theatre piece is created and presented is crucial for its content.  Instead of operating with naïve notions of the instinctually talented and creatively inspired artist, I propose that we understand creation and inspiration as a result of the constraints given by the surroundings and generated by people and things involved in creative processes. Linda Candy argued in her article, "Constraints and Creativity in the Digital Arts", that constraints can have a positive and negative effect on a creative process, they are both limiting and liberating, depending on the case. She highlights that when we choose materials and tools for our processes, we are also making choices about the constraints that will shape the result of our process.  This takes us to the point also made by the philosophers Deleuze and Guatarri in a A Thousand of Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia


 2.3 Applications

As an international student at the University of Calgary with a background in collaborative and devised creation, the systematic and structural aspects of creation within Drama’s production model are not a naturalized part of my training. I became aware of how the approach to producing affected the final results of the designs and the actors’ ways of engaging with designed elements after participating in four productions at both the mainstage and student-showcase levels. The regional theatre model and the institutional approach described were alienating to me and I realized that their constraints were not directly supportive of a devised and interdisciplinary creation process. This understanding left me with the problem of how a preliminary design for an unscripted piece could be delivered two months ahead of the beginning of its rehearsal process.

        Working off this problem, I started to engage in conversations with Dr. Pil Hansen (dramaturg and this thesis supervisor), Dr. Bruce Barton (director), April Viczko (producer and this thesis co-supervisor) and Andrew North (the Production Manager) about what I first saw as a harmful limitation of my research and artistic practice. It became apparent after these conversations that only criticizing or comparing the model to my prior experience would neither affect the model, nor provide me with an alternative scenario more suited to devised work.  This led to the decision of developing strategies for how to work within the limitations of the existing production system in order to advance some of the interest I had brought from my undergraduate work in Brazil and further developed in my coursework as an MFA student. Bruce Barton and I decided very quickly that it was not logistically possible, nor effective, to generate the set from the performer's engagement with space and our source materials, the life and works of the composer Henry Cowell. Thus, we started to think of the set as a structure and decided that the props design would offer more opportunity for feedback relationships with the actors and process-based design choices. At that moment, we did not consciously know that the materials, tools, and methods we were starting to develop in response to the material constraints of regional theatre production model would significantly enhance the agency of design in this creative process.