Props are Things, Sets are Places.

props are things, sets are places

You’re playing Pictionary, and the clue to draw is “The Beach.” You sketch a sandcastle, an umbrella, and luckily someone shouts out “beach!” before you even attempt to doodle a jetty. It’s pretty easy to come up with a list of things at the beach. In fact, you can find just about everything you can find at the beach in the seasonal aisle at Target come June. But now think back to your last visit to the beach and imagine being there on the sand. What comes to mind? The sound of crashing waves, sparkle of the water, the smell of salt air & cotton candy… all curiously absent from back-to-school clearance sales.

The difference is that beach chairs & umbrellas are things at the beach. Sounds, smells, and sun on your face are sensory experiences that make the beach a memorable place. But what does this have to do with set design?

Play with the line between literal and abstract to find a tasteful compromise. @robmerow Click To Tweet

Good set design isn’t merely a conglomeration of props that explain to you what something is supposed to represent. Good set design transforms an empty space into an environment unique enough to be considered a place. 

So let’s say that your creative team decides on a beach themed sermon series. What direction should the set design take? You could build a lifeguard tower right in the middle of the stage. It would certainly be a feature, and it does scream “THIS IS A BEACH!But it doesn’t transform the room into an inviting environment. The key is to avoid thinking about all of the beach things you can put on stage. Instead, think of all the ways you can make the space trigger sensory memories of a place or environment. Maybe it’s replacing your pre-service tracks with soft crashing waves. Maybe it’s warm top light dappling an otherwise serene color wash. It could be as simple as some vertical sheer fabric panels gently rippled from offstage fans. Play with the line between literal and abstract to find a tasteful compromise between ambiguous and corny.

All of this isn’t to say that props have no place in your services. Sometimes specific teaching styles or topics come into perfect focus through a carefully themed on-stage visual. VBS weeks are a perfect time to break every rule in the book – the more inflatable starfish scotch-taped to the backdrop the better.

Think about who your audience is and build them a place that heightens their experience. 

Think about who your audience is and build them a place that heightens their experience. @robmerow Click To Tweet

About the Author_02

Author Photo - Rob Merow

Lighting Designer
OneLux Studio | New York, NY

Rob discovered his love of theater and passion for creating dynamic environments early on as a volunteer at his home church in Pennsylvania. His degree in architecture and years of experience as a volunteer prepared him for his calling to full time ministry where he led teams in the areas of lighting & scenic design, audio production, graphic design, branding, and interior design. He and his wife Emily have recently moved to New York City, where he has come full circle into architectural lighting. Rob enjoys blurring the line between theatrical, experiential, and architectural design; keeping one foot in ministry as often as possible.