Irish theatre – how to achieve the most from your set build.

Mary Murray, The Pride of Parnell Street, By Patrick Redmond_set by Tom Dowling (2)With increasing pressure on theatre companies to get better value for their budgets, set-building is one area where many companies are seeking to achieve savings.

(photo Mary Murray, The Pride of Parnell Street, by Fishamble The New Play Company, photo by Patrick Redmond.)


  1. If your production budget is very small, can you really afford a set in the first place, can the setting be achieved by lighting or projections?
  2. Sets do provide with actors with the right environment to get into character, and for the audience it can contextualise the play.
  3. A set can cost anywhere from a very simple set at €5,000 to tens of thousands for a complicated metal sets with moving parts.
  4. If you believe you will have a budget to build a set, hire a production designer in good time and ensure that construction drawings and a model box are done as early as possible to get costs from set builders.
  5. Set costs can be reduced by hiring stock flatage rather than building, unless your show run is longer than 5 weeks. It’s also friendlier to the environment to reuse flatage.
  6. The cost of building 3 metre high flats will be more considerable than a 2.4 metre set, however 4.8 metre flats will only cost a fraction more than 3 metre. (due to sheet size)
  7. A period setting will require more detail and be more costly than a contemporary one.
  8. Moving/flying pieces, practical doors, stairs and rostrum will add considerably to your costs.
  9. Using metal as metal (rather than paint effects) is usually more expensive but not always. Metal sets will also require a larger crew due to weight.
  10. Laminated glass (safety glass) is cheaper than perspex and safe to use on stage.
  11. Water features will give you added, waterproofing and sound issues as well as costs.
  12. If you are planning to tour to other venues, make sure the set is designed and built in sections that can be transported in standard trucks and will the sections fit in stage doors at various venues.
  13. A good scenic painter may add slightly to your costs but will enhance the look of your set.
  14. Ensure the design and construction of the set presents no danger to your cast or crew.
  15. If your show is site specific (in a non-theatre setting) you may have to meet other health and safety requirements from local authorities, OPW or other agencies.
  16. Send construction drawings to at least 3 set builders, for costings.
  17. Sometimes the director will require the set or part of for rehearsals – provide dates and suggest the set builder measure doorways for access.
  18. State clearly in an accompanying document how you expect the tender to broken down (breakdown between materials and labour) and when you require the set to be completed
  19. All materials must meet the relevant fire safety specifications, what treatments will be applied to meet these requirements?
  20. If any elements of the set load bearing is an engineer’s report required?

(c) Tom Dowling 2012


Categories: Theatre

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