"You Can't Take It With You" stage set designing ?'s

I’m currently designing the set for a high school production of the play, and have a few questions.

  1. Anybody seen the show, and have specific memories of the set?

  2. Anybody ever design a set for the show and have hints or ideas?

  3. If you could design the set, what would you do?

  4. The damned staircase! To have one visible or not? If it is visible, where do they go after they walk up the stairs? How do they get to the top of them to walk down? The flats are only 8’ high, if this helps. And I really want the audience to SEE actors walking up and down the stairs, rather than HEARING them.

In my high school production of the play, we had an unusual corner stage setup, with the the audience on two sides. The back of the stage had a higher riser for the kitchen area, and there was stairs behind, but not visible.

I don’t really remember that part of the stage to much. I played Mr. DePinna and always entered and exited into the “basement.”

Your going to have to forgive me, it’s been something like 10 years since I last read the play and my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I would like to help.

First, IIRC the stairs are important to the show, and the house is eccentric in character. The set is about showing how oddball the family is even though they are wealthy (am I remembering that right?).

So first, I would make the stairs a focal point.* The logistics of actually building them become a problem that you can design the rest of the set around. Stairs are a great thing to block around. You can bend them off to one wing and have another set of stairs leading back down into the offstage wing. That’s the easy bit. If you have a deep enough stage you can layer the flats to help with this so you don’t have a big swoop.

I am having trouble communicating this with words, I keep wanting to sketch for you.

I found this photo with google that gives you the basic idea of what I had in mind.

I don’t care for some of the other elements of that set, but I think the setup of the stairs could easily be stolen and used. And it wouldn’t be difficult to build. Something that is particularly important if you are using student labor.

*actually, first I would talk to the director and see what they want to do, but after that I would say make the stairs a focal point.

Do a Google image search for the title. You’ll have to wade through some posters and actor shots, but on the first two pages I found a few set pics. Clicking on one of them led me to this TCU production which has some great set pics. Looks to me like they’re using 16 foot flats, though…

Unfortunately, having only 8 foot flats to work with is gonna make your job very difficult if you want a functional staircase…

Another old techie trick–when you start thinking about props/set dressing, the Sears catalog for the appropriate year/season is a great research source.

Break a leg.

I have done a few professional and a few amature set designs, but I am not familiar with that show.

You say the flats are 8’ high. How high is your grid? Is it a fixed grid? Can you stack the flats so that the total hight is 12’?

As for the stair questions generally when stairs are used there is just another staircase behind the flats called excape stairs. The actors climb up and then right back down.

I would need to know more about the theatre specs before giving advice on design.

A good friend of mine did the set design for a college production some years ago. The front door to the living room was upstage left. His personal touch to the eccentric character of the room was a VERY big glass cage with a python in it! it was just stage right of the front door.

Eight foot flats are very short. See if you can’t extend them up to 12’ or at least 10’. An eight foot flat will have less than a foot of clearance above your doors, which will look goofy. That will also make your life easier with the stairs- it’ll give you more room to have actors visible on the stairs without having their heads stick up above the flats, which will look awkward. Here’s an example from a production of Arsenic and Old Lace

A staircase going upwards typically has a landing at the top that runs back behind the flats, then has another staircase, invisible to the audience, that the actors walk down. It’s called an “escape stair”, and it’s a pretty normal solution. You can even do a ladder instead if you’re tight on space, though it’s kind of an awkward solution and might not be acceptable in a professional setting.

Try this, if you’ve got the capability- put your staircase on top of a trap door, if you have one. Put the entrance to the basement underneath the staircase- lots of old houses are built that way. That way, when DePinna goes into the basement, he can actually go downwards. I’ve always wanted to try that with this show. Check that link I posted to see how to work that one out.

I only have a couple of minutes before I have to leave, but I directed it twice and simply put, you need a taller flat to mask the staircase. You could get by with draping a tormentor over the top of the flats you already have, but I would suggest you just build a taller flat or two (maybe two hour’s work on the outside and possibly $50 worth of materials, max). You could screw one of your spare eight foots about four foot up the back side of your flat between the flat and the staircase. and then put a climbing vine or something to mask the difference - it would work in that house.

You could change the blocking for the play and move the entrances to a side, but that’s really not practical. The focused entrances are on that staircase so you really do need to mask much of the staircase.

I was in a HS production of You Can’t Take It With You 29 years ago (holy crap!).

As I recall, we followed the diagram of the original Broadway set shown in the script pretty closely (unusual for our director). The stairs were visible and fairly crucial to the blocking.
The kitchen door and another door (basement, maybe?) were swinging doors to facilitate the many frantic entrances and exits.

Not sure if this will be helpful to you, pabstist, but I’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane. That was a fun show!

I’m back and I have a bit more time to work with.

What are the limitations of your stage? How deep is it? What kind of height do you have to play with? For that matter what kind of width? Do you have a full staircase to pull out of storage? Do you have the time to build one? Personally I don’t think you need a full, visible staircase for this show (for Arsenic and Old Lace, yes, for this one, no). Most of Alice’s big entrances (as I remember) are from the front door as are hers and Tony’s as are Grandpa’s (as are Tony’s parents and the police). It would have been good if she could have sprinted down them when Tony is being grilled by the family, but not really necessary, but that’s about the only time. The front door is a bigger deal. Timing-wise, the kitchen door and the door to the basement are bigger. To a certain extent, any stress on the staircase is going to take away from other entrances.

So, if I were you, I would go with either a masked staircase from upstairs with maybe three steps showing or to go with four steps to a landing then more steps going off to the right which you can’t see because they are masked with a flat. Either way, I feel you are going to need more than eight-foot flats.

I am a scenic designer, and I have done this show. We had to do the 'two steps up - landing- two steps up and behind a flat trick, as we were very limited in our set height - ten foot flats and 12 foot non-adjustable electrics. . Don’t forget you also have to worry about the BASEMENT stairs - either a door leading to them, or something else. We went with a trapdoor in the floor leading to our (very narrow) trap. (the trapdoor was counter-weighted so it would stay down, but was also easy to move). We also built a small apron, and put in faux basement windows on the front of it (about 24 inches wide, 12 inches high, with frosted glass). Behind the windows were lighting instruments that were set to go off when the fireworks ‘exploded’. Worked pretty well.