Guidance for Offies Assessors – Design


Note that these categories cover both plays and musicals.

Performance analysis is complex: generating meaning from a theatrical experience arises from a combination of interactions between the stage and the auditorium. This means that interpretation of the performance will necessarily involve aesthetic; emotional and interpersonal processes – and so an assessor’s view is rarely entirely objective. 

Nonetheless, by considering impressions before, during and shortly after a performance, it is possible to limit subjectivity when considering mise-en-scene elements such as costume, sets, sound lighting, and choreography.

Costume Design

What to look for

Costume is a consistent element of the production as a whole and, along with the set, often provides the most immediate indication of the directorial concept. The costume can anchor the production in a particular time or place but it may deliberately seek to obscure when or where the production is set. It’s therefore a useful discipline to consider, before the performance begins, what role costume may play, in terms of generating meaning.

Reviewing the supporting role (costume might play) can be done by, briefly, checking the production marketing materials – website and posters – as well as the programme.

This pre-assessment of costume’s role may be contrasted, in performance, with how costume mediates the actors’ relationships with the audience. Assessment should now start to consider whether the costume disappears as part of the overall illusion the theatrical event is creating. It should also review whether there are elements of the costumes, in themselves, that contribute to the pleasure of the spectacle – for example clothing that reveals cleavages or a well-toned bicep! Costume as part of performance analysis may therefore be considered dually: in terms of the fundamental relationship between the actor and their costume – and what effect this may have on audience reception. Secondly, individual costume detail should also be critiqued.

In this way, assessors should be able to develop a set of notes that help make decisions around rewarding costume design with an Off West End award nomination. The questions below should help to clarify that decision – but overall, the key question should be (as with all production staging elements): ‘Is the effect – of the costume design – on the creation of meaning strong enough to warrant an Off West End award nomination?’

Key questions:

  • (Pre performance) What role does costume play in creating expectations of time, play and character?
  • What choices have been made by the director and the costume designer?
  • Historical; contemporary; avant garde; neutral; deliberately obscure
  • Do the costumes denote character?
  • What is the relationship between the costume and the other staging elements?
  • Does costume complement; deliberately contrast or simply distract…
  • What effect does the detail of the costume generate – is it aesthetically pleasurable; does it deliberately disrupt; or is it simply slap dash?
  • Overall, does the costume design help to amplify the sum of parts – and enhance the overall generation of meaning?
  • If not, what effect does this have?

Set Design

The Offies knows good sets….and isn’t afraid to ask

London’s Off West End is ripe with challenges for Set Designers. Unlike the neat, custom-built houses of Shaftesbury Avenue, all kitted out and ready to play, our venues come in all shapes and sizes, and are often tucked into spaces designed for very different original uses.

To be even considered for recognition, a good set should transport you from your pub theatre / converted church / corrugated iron pop-up, and into an entirely new world. This world can be historically faithful – the lace-strewn drawing room of a Noël Coward revue, perhaps? – or imaginatively evocative. It might give a stark and symbolic view of a damaged mind or, built from antiquated computers, have something powerful to say about how our minds are linked to our technologies. Sometimes a good set is rich in detail – one hundred vintage books, carefully sourced from Oxfam; though, equally, a plain set with one explosive prop can be just as powerful a vehicle for storytelling.

And then there’s budget. The Director wants you to convey five different settings, with a flushing toilet and a collapsing roof. It needs to be hardy, and audience members will probably crawl right over it on the way to their seats. Oh – and it needs to be done on a £100 budget.

With all this in mind, it seems that if you’ve designed anything for an Off West Stage, you should be applauded. That said, please consider the following checklist before nominating in this category, and bear these points in mind when writing your assessment:

A Set Designer’s work may be nomination worthy if…

  • it provides valuable contexts for the play, that are aligned with the Director’s vision
  • it shows understanding of, and engagement with, the work – laying the foundations for a loyal revival, or offering a distinct new take on the script
  • it enables the action to be seen – no matter where you are sitting. (A set can have all kinds of bells and whistles, but if Mr Jones in seat B3 can’t see the lead actor’s face, we’re not really onto a winner…)
  • it succeeds in reshaping the performance space
  • it employs significant symbols that add relevance to the performance itself
  • it transports you to the world of the characters – and then helps you to travel, with them, through time, space and state of mind
  • it shows resourcefulness against its budget

The creatives working in London’s Off West End scene are adaptable, dynamic and innovative – so this checklist only scratches the surface of a specialism that evolves quicker than anyone can record, and is by no means exhaustive. If the work you assess triumphs for a reason not considered here – or, indeed, triumphs by completely working against one of these points – do let us know!

Lighting Design

What to look for

Good lighting design has some key roles:

  1. Creating the overall mood for the production
  2. Lighting the eyes and faces of performers (allowing the audience to connect)
  3. Shaping the performance space
  4. Helping to tell the story
  5. Creating significant symbols that add relevance to the performance itself

GREAT lighting design should create inherent drama over and above these basic expectations and add convincing value and visual experience to the story and production. Above all, there should be an inherent power and intensity that takes the audiences away from everyday life and places them in the moment.

You may see examples of great lighting design as visual effects that really make the performances or stage craft pop out at you. The lighting may denote passage of time, an emotion or a feeling. It may emphasise a critical point in the story or a particular actor on whom the audience should focus.

Lighting designers are some of the best “guardians of the story” in theatre. They can step back for the director and ensure the thread of the narrative is driven forward, supported and clarified. They should know how to keep the audience engaged and not let them get distracted by insignificant details.

A great lighting designer has the same power to enthral as a film cameraman, without the advantage of a telephoto or wide angle lens or even an editing suite. Their audience is always sat in the same place but he or she has to train their eyes to see different things on stage.

Sound Design

This category concerns the presentation of music, sound effects, voice overs, atmospheric sound, both diegetic (emitting from the action – e.g. a radio being turned on and played by a character, birdsong in an outdoor scene) and non-diegetic (live supporting or background music/ electronic Sound FX to add ‘atmosphere’ or dramatic tension perhaps, not stemming directly from the action). The Sound Designer will occasionally have used the services of a musical composer or Sound Consultant (rarely) and it may be wise to add their names in the nomination.

The criteria for nomination should be:

  1. range – the Sound should have made a significant contribution to the play as a whole. One or two injections of popular songs or classical music, however appropriate, do not constitute Award-worthiness. The play may be enhanced by a subtle blend of mood music and accurate reproductions of diegetic Sound effects ranging from washing machines to farmyard noises in a naturalistic piece, or a cataclysmic collection of computer-generated state-of-the-art ‘noise’ to enhance a more theatrically unconventional drama. Plays in which the Sound stands out over (but doesn’t detract from) all other creative options (including Lighting at its minimal level!) could be strong contenders for nomination (but note criterion 3 below)
  2. originality/creativity – sounds and music chosen may strike the assessor as not only appropriate to the play’s needs (creating the right tone or atmosphere, reflecting the mood of the lead character, giving an ironic twist in a comedy, setting a sombre / dramatic / romantic / chaotic tone) but chosen or created in an original way.
  3. actualisation – the sounds reproduced should have appropriate volume and clarity as produced by the Sound Operator in the theatre.

LISTEN OUT carefully for ‘hidden’ sounds. Sometimes the play will be of such overall excellent quality that each creative element (lighting, set, costumes etc.) may inhibit your response to the Sound. It’s a good idea to check back over the separate elements of plot-driven diegetic sounds, background noise/music, inter-scene music, special electronic effects. Obviously there is a possibility that if all creative elements are of a very high standard, then Best Production may be the category to nominate.

General Questions for the Assessor to Consider:

  1. What role does the Sound Design play as part of the performance as a whole and how does it contribute to your reception of the play?
  2. What is the relationship between the Sound Design and other staging elements?
  3. Is the Sound Design coherently linked with the text/intentions of the playwright/director?
  4. What is the overall function of the Sound Design and what emotions/responses does it generate? Are these responses consistent with or contradictory to the reception of the performance as a whole?

Video Design

[to be added]