How To: Write Design Concepts in Middle School

So you've finished conducting visual research in your class. (Congrats!) What's next? After we analyze the images on our visual research wall and read our dramaturgical articles, we launch right into writing our design concepts. The most important thing to remember about design concepts is that they probably won't be any good at first -- and that's alright. Your students will refine their visions for what their designs will look like throughout the drafting process. You just need to be patient and remember that you're looking at rough drafts; your students will come back and revisit these documents in a few weeks and, by that time, everything will have changed.

I don't use a lot of exemplars in my classroom because students can easily become locked into the "right way" of doing something as opposed to taking artistic and intellectual risks. However, I do have sample design concepts that I've typed up and read out loud in class. I've found that these exemplars are extremely helpful for students who aren't necessarily used to thinking in terms of light or sound. They're all for a theoretical production of Romeo and Juliet that takes place during World War 2. (My seventh graders just completed Night in ELA class and are starting Romeo and Juliet. Why not combine the two for maximum literary neural networking?)

Sound Design
Our production of Romeo and Juliet takes place in Germany during World War II. Before the lights go up onstage, the audience will hear radio snippets from World War II German radio shows. At first, it will be clips like up-tempo 1940s songs to cheerfully set the time period for the audience. However, it will gradually morph (through the sounds of a radio dial turning) into German military marches and Third Reich speeches. After the lights go up, there will be a soundscape of a street. It will include the sounds of street vendors, cars driving, and military marching.

After we've read the sample design concepts together, I ask students what they noticed about each one. This helps us create a list of bullet points on the whiteboard. Students know that they need to think about:
- Colors
- Textures
- Lines
- Cues
- Set Shifts
- Soundscapes
- Songs
- Instruments

They also know that their design concept needs to start with identifying the actual concept. We even write that first sentence together: "Our production of The Taming of the Shrew takes place in a WWF wrestling ring." "Our production of The Tempest takes place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina." During my first year, our design concepts didn't uniformly begin with this statement, and I found that students drifted into what "looked cool," as opposed to what actually belonged in the world of the play. There are still students who occasionally drift, but it's easy to send them over to the visual research wall and say: "Look at the world of the play. Prospero needs to look like he belongs in that world." Or, alternatively, if they've listed elements for a design that DOES belong in the world of the play, but just haven't provided substantial text evidence to back it up, you just jot down a note in the margin: "Great design idea -- but explain how this connects back to New Orleans, Voodoo, Mardi Gras, Hurricane Katrina, etc."

(Makeup and costume designers collaborating on a scene for The Taming of the Shrew at their first design station activities -- coming next week!)

If a student has done a "good enough" job on the design concept, I put a plus sign in the top corner of their paper. If they either haven't finished or need to focus more on fitting the world of the play/substantiating with text evidence, I put a C in the top corner of their paper (for NEEDS TO COMPLETE). Why do I settle for "good enough" here? Because students, especially ones who have never worked in their area of focus (sets, costumes, lighting, and sound) before, are going to learn an encyclopedia of new knowledge through the first draft process. No amount of anticipatory writing can compare to loading Virtual Light Lab and watching a cue in real-time or writing and then listening to a musical motif on Finale Notepad. After they've played around for a few weeks and have a better understanding of what "lighting design" or "sound design" means, I have them go back and rethink their design concept before they start working on the final draft. (I'm a little bit harder on costume and set designers, since those are far more "tangible" design areas for our students.)

After they've received a plus sign, they can move onto their first design station activities, which I'll discuss in the next installment. Before I sign off, here are some examples of student work:

This design concept was written by one of my top students in The Tempest cohort. She's thought a lot about how to integrate information from the dramaturgical articles into her design concept. She includes the head wraps that we saw in a short film about Voodooism; the snake emblem, which she identifies later in her concept as a marker for Prospero (since, in the Voodoo tradition, snakes represent wisdom -- she even includes the detail that Prospero's books should be wrapped in snakeskin, as the source of his wisdom and magic); and the stitches, which tie into the rough hand-sewn textures on the visual research wall (not to mention popularized images of voodoo dolls).

We have one set designer who's working on the entirety of The Tempest. I'm really pushing him to think about minimalism in his design. How can we indicate a ship without actually having to build one onstage? He's doing a fantastic job of parring down his design into basic elements (rope, wooden slats, bookshelf, sand, etc.), while making sure everything's connected back to the rubble left after Hurricane Katrina.

This design concept was written by a student whose assignment was to dress the Strange Shapes that appear halfway through Scene Six. This could have gone so wrong. I'm imagining the following: "I chose this outfit because it looks strange, and they are called the Strange Shapes." But this student went above and beyond in her analysis. She re-read the entire scene and made sure that her design, in some way, foreshadowed the harpies that would arrive later. She also linked her designs back to devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina -- even making the actors' expressions appear haggard with the use of makeup. She also kept the mood of the scene in mind, recognizing that these shapes need to establish a sense of unease amongst the Royal Guests. Overall, an incredible job on a design concept that could have easily been mediocre.

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