Costume and Set Design Teaching Ideas

This is my second post in my elements of production series. Today I’d like to look at some ideas to get student’s looking at the process of set and costume design in a theatre production.

In my previous post we explored the idea that the main jobs of the creative production crew is to interpret a script so that it reflects the playwright’s intentions as well as the director’s creative vision. Primarily, the creative aspects intention is to capture and enhance the mood and atmosphere of the play. It’s important to instill in student’s that reading and understanding the play is a necessity as well as being able to effectively describe and analyse the character’s and their motivations.

Design is not the last part of a production process. It is not an afterthought. It should be integrated into the pre-production process with as much importance as any of the other areas in the production.

I theme my entire elements of production unit around musicals a) because I love them and b) they are really good at highlighting the elements of design and the way characters and ideas are exaggerated and brought to life.


In preparing student’s to look at the areas of costume and set design they first need to understand the seven basic principles used in design. I like to use the following anagram:

  • Drama (Direction)
  • Students (Shape)
  • Like (Line)
  • To (Tone)
  • Create (Colour)
  • Silly (Space)
  • Theatre (Texture)

To get student’s thinking about these have a selection of images that focus on or combine of number of the design principles. Discuss the effect of the image in capturing a sense of mood and atmosphere. Artworks or photographs would be great here.


There are a couple of fun “mini activities” that I like to do before knuckling down and really interpreting a script.

1. Toilet Paper Costumes – Have you ever been to a Kitchen Tea? One of those hideous pre-wedding rituals designed to make women squeal over kitchen appliances? If the answer is yes, then you’ve probably played the game where you’ve had to dress a guest in a wedding dress that is made out of toilet paper. I don’t get my student’s to make wedding dresses but I do get them to use the toilet paper to design and dress up a student as a priest, soldier, nurse, anything you like really. Without realising it the student’s are thinking about all the design principles as well as accessories, shoes, maybe even make-up. Give student’s a time limit too to keep the pressure on.

2. Crime Scene Cut Outs – Remember when you were a kid and you and your siblings would be given sidewalk chalk and you all lay down in your drive-ways and traced around your entire body as though you were marking a dead corpse at a crime scene? Try something similar with your students using large rolls of butcher’s paper. Each student gets a large piece of butcher’s paper, they pair up and one person traces the other and vice versa. You can then either have student’s use textas, crayons, paint (if you’re game) create a costume representation of their partner thinking about clothing, shoes, accessories, hair and make-up. Stick them up on the classroom wall as a celebration of their designs.

3. Select a Scene – Once kids are in the swing of thinking about costume design it is then that you can knuckle down and find a selection of scenes or stage directions from one or a variety of plays and get student’s to think about how they would design the costumes for those characters. I like to read scenes out because I think it gives away more clues as to character. I then give my student’s a template (here) and literally get them to pencil in the costume and colour it in.

4. Write About It – A writing activity that could be attached to this exercise is one where we get the student’s to explain which elements of design they have used and why. How does it link back to the character, the scene, the play as a whole?

Finally, here are some videos you might like to use in your classroom (all musical inspired of course!):


Here are some ideas that I like to use in my classroom when teaching set:

1. Look through the Director’s Kaleidescope – Similar to the introductory exercise above about the elements of design, this time I find pictures of actual sets (just Google your favourite shows) and print them out onto large A4, A3 pieces of paper in colour. I break student’s into groups and together they go to a “set design station” which has one of the pictures, a sheet with the elements of drama on it and a sheet with the elements of design on it. Underneath the picture I leave a bit of space for the student’s to add their thoughts about mood, atmosphere, any other elements of drama or elements of design.

2. Looking from the Bird’s Eye – I then do another exercise similar to “Select a Scene” but instead of drawing the cosutmes we look at drawing the set from both a Bird’s Eye View as well as a front on view. You might also like to explore the variou stage spaces around your school and discuss how setting this same scene would be different depending on where it is being performed.

3. Dress the Set – If you have the resources and/or a bit of ingenuity and creativity use what is available to you to get you and your student’s to actually create a real life set. Present a scene for a guest audience. You might even like to incorporate your costume designs from the “Select a Scene” exercise here.

Finally here are some videos on set design that I think could be great for the classroom:

mannequins / Kris Sikes / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



  1. Since 1987 I am involved with theatre activities. At this moment I am the founder and coordinator of a well known theatre group in Chittagong named Nattyadhar. It is my pride to be one of the first batch students of B. A. (Hon’s) (1991-1992) of Dramatics Department of Chittagong University. Specially the last one has made a great impact in my life and inspired me boldly to be a pioneer in my practical life too. From my cultural and academic life I felt the power of creativity & spontaneity. Through a series of experimental work finally I discovered a grand opportunity to use it in mental health sector. From this realization I organized a group of people who thinks alike. In 1997 we formed an organization called Unite Theatre for Social Action (UTSA) by using my developed “Therapeutic Theatre” concept and working in different field by focusing mental health issue. Psychosocial Care and Post Disaster Mental Health First Aid through a creative way are parts of our very special strength.

    • Lecturer (Part Time)
    Department of Dramatics of Chittagong University
    • Executive Director
    Unite Theatre for Social Action (UTSA)
    • Trainer & Advocate
    Psychosocial Care through Creative Arts
    • Mental Health & Social Activist
    Secretary: Mental Health Advocacy Association (MHAA)
    Director: Bangladesh Therapeutic Theater institute (BTTI)
    Coordinator: Theater Therapy Center of parsons with Disabilities (TTCD)

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  4. Hi Chelsea,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and comment. The thing I’ve found with set is to try to use whatever I’ve already got that might work to indicate space or place. I don’t often have much money to create lavish sets and I personally prefer if it isn’t lavish and overdone because it can take away from what the actors are doing on stage. You might also like to consider how simple lighting can indicate space or place. Look for some pictures or have a brainstorming session with your volunteers to get their ideas. The more brains the better. I hope these ideas help. Good Luck. I would love to hear how it goes.

  5. Hello, I appreciate your blog. I just found it but I am looking at doing after school programing at a local non-profit and I am assisting with brainstorming ideas for a theatre curriculum that outlines some ideas that student volunteers could put into place. I have been trying to come up with set design and I was wondering if you had any suggestions that might be deemed more applicable in this environment with younger aged students. Thanks! If you could address this in just a brief comment or blog post, that would be great. I actually hope to teach this discipline in the future.

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  7. Hi,

    This site looks like a great resource, thanks for sharing your ideas.

    An exercise I find effective when I teach costume design, is one where I lay out four -five different costumes selected from the costume room. I ask the students to select a costume and write a description of a character that suits it. I begin by modelling a response (on a different costume), so that students can relate their character choices back to the features of the costume (colour, texture, line, ornament, etc). I also try to choose costumes that are less likely to be typecast.



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