World Building

I have been trying to do more academic writing.   I’m struggling with it.   Mostly my problem is I like to write short, tight (1500 word) essays on ideas about theatre.  Heck, my blog posts are even shorter than that.  Over the summer I was working on an essay on a concept called Worldbuilding.   I was never able to get it to the length I really needed it to be.  I took about 500 words of it, and shoved it into the longer work I’m working on where it fit nicely.    I had all but abandoned the article, but I needed to reference it for some reason tonight.  I decided I like it too much not to share.  So here it is.


I should start with a confession:  My husband writes Science Fiction.   I don’t mean he writes stories as a hobby, I mean he writes them, and gets people to pay him money to publish them.   Part of the job being a science fiction author is to attend conventions to speak to readers and aspiring writers, and to make a name for oneself to hopefully sell more books.   He was heading to a “con” (as the insiders call the conventions) and was leaving right after I opened a show and in a block of time when I was actually going to be “off” for a weekend.  I decided to tag along.

I could write about lots of things that I saw, and that happened, but one single discussion caught my attention because it applied so much to theatrical design.  Juliette Wade and Deborah J. Ross led a discussion and reading about “Worldbuilding.”   Wade and Ross, aside from being prominent Sci-Fi authors, are experts in the concept of Worldbuilding — and they opened my eyes to a new way to discuss and analyze what theatrical designers do.

Worldbuilding is the art of telling the readers about the world in which the novel (short story, etc.) is going to take place.  Often this world is not our world — instead it is an alien planet with different life forms, or a fantasy version of earth with magic and wizards.   In essence, Worldbuilding is setting the scene of the written world.  Ross and Wade emphasized the art of showing the readers what the world is like not by merely describing it, but building scenes and moments that organically take the reader on the journey through a new and exciting world.

Suddenly in this presentation, I was led to think about the similarities and differences that theatrical designers face when compared with prose writers.   Worldbuilding seems to be a popular topic within the science fiction community, but any play (and I would suspect any book) must engage in a fair amount of Worldbuilding.   Wade shared a rule that she lives by:  If there is technology in a Science Fiction or Fantasy story, you have to tell the reader on the first page, preferably by the end of the second paragraph.   In fact, as Wade shared the opening of her forth-coming novel, she described “electric chandeliers” in the underground cavern/concert hall.  In her experience, if the level of technology isn’t clearly demonstrated up front, readers are shocked by its existence later in the story.  The reason for the shock is that readers take what information they have at the beginning of a story and begin, in their mind, to build the world of the story.   Once they have decided what level of technology is available, any deviation from that shocks them out of the story and forces them to rebuild.

Theatrical designers often have similar challenges.   Plays, and designs, need to set up the rules at the start.  Theatrical designers rely on the audience’s willingness to accept the conventions of the design, but consciously or not, good designers let the audience know what they are in for up front.   Extrapolating Wade’s advice-to-writers to the theatrical designer, we need to tell the audience what is up with our world in the first scene (or certainly by the end of the first scene change.)   Are we in the world of the unit set where every location in the play will happen in this one space with just small property changes, and major lighting changes?   Or are we in a world of ultimate reality?   Whatever world the audience is about to engage with, designers need to let them know up front.   If a production design begins realistically, then suddenly changes to extreme abstraction we will jolt the audience out of play because we broke the rules we established at the start.   Breaking the rules is something that should only be done with extreme deliberateness.

The biggest lesson I learned from Ross was to present the world incidentally through the action of the story.  I don’t want to imply that Ross was Worldbuilding by accident, far from it.   Instead she introduced readers to the complex concepts of an alien world as she was dealing with other writerly stuff such as plot and character.   While Wade’s reading demonstrated rich narrative passages that allowed the reader to see the world, Ross’s reading jumped straight in to the action, but carefully crafted that action and her telling of it to expose the world we were visiting.   Ross’s approach is also one that relates organically to the theatrical designer.    Theatrical designers do not get to give the audience a two minute guided tour of the design so that they can take in what it is and what it means.  Instead, the curtain goes up, the actors enter, and the play is off and running.   The audience has to pick up the world of the play while following the action.  Is this the sort of play where a Styrofoam cup and some string symbolizes a phone? If so, designers show that to the audience.   Whatever the world of the play is, it is important to show it through the action of the play.

Taking Ross and Wade’s ideas together is a major part of theatrical design.  The opening moments of a play — the opening actions must be very carefully conceived to build the world for the audience.   Prior to attending the panel on Worldbuilding, I had an intrinsic understanding that the rules of the play had to be presented up front, but not a clear comprehension as to why.  The rule was drilled into me by several design professors,and I had seen from the audience what happened when the someone  broke the rules, but not reasoning behind the rule.   But following Wade’s ideas must also be tempered by Ross’s diving-in approach.   Although novels have a luxury of time with their audience that theatre lacks, Ross’s approach tries to get the action moving without obvious descriptive sections.   In one sense the theatrical designer does not need the narration since the audience can see the visuals of the design.  But even with the visuals, designers must present what the world is through the actions of the actors.

Worldbuilding, as applied to theatre, is not merely for one designer.   Although my initial thoughts were about scenery, I suddenly remembered a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice that I lit.   In my thoughts of the play, the underworld had no sun (since there is no sun underground).   I attempted to light the scenes in the underworld with an ever changing mix of very low angeles of side light.   When, in key moments,  the sun could penetrate the earth’s surface to get down to this underworld, the light was in tight pools of golden light piercing through the jewel-colored textured lighting from the side.

Designers on every show build the world of the play.    The colors of that world, the rules of how it behaves, how it looks, how it reacts to the actions of the characters — all of this is the Worldbuilding.    Is it a world of blackouts, and corseted figures?  Is it a world of mechanized scenery and melodic sounds?  The designers are not even alone in Worldbuilding.  As most things in theatre are, the world of the play is also guided by the director.

Ross and Wade’s in-depth exploration of Worldbuilding at the conference and on their individual blogs, is not a new concept in either the world of literature or the world of theatrical design.  What these literary concepts and constructs create for designers is a new way to look at an old problem.  How do we tell our audience the rules of the world they are going to interact with for the next few hours?  How do designers collaborate to give the information to the audience in the most effective and efficient manner? And do the audiences care?

Wait, do the audiences care?   About Worldbuilding?  No.  Not as such.   But Worldbuilding is the work, the backstory, the result of the analysis.   Without it, the scenery is just a room, the lighting is just illumination, the sound is just noise, the costumes are just cloths.   With Worldbuilding the room, the illumination, the noise and the cloths transcend their individual natures to become a world — a theatrical design.

For more information:

Bay Con, where I heard this talk:

Deborah J Ross’s blog:

Juliette Wade’s blog: