Setting The Scene: Theatre As A Setting For A Mystery

Jun 1, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Arts & Entertainment, Mysteryrat's Maze, Theatre

by Deborah J Ledford

Although I now write what I want to learn, I took the advice “Write what you know” to heart for my debut mystery, Staccato.

My first profession was that of a scenic artist and master carpenter for the stage and screen. I don’t get to the theatre much anymore, but in my dreams I still see the stunning renditions of lifelike landscapes or lush interiors painted on drops forty feet high and sixty feet wide, dead hung from a pipe and ready to be revealed in order to establish a scene.

Much like the opening shot of a location for movies and television shows which indicate where the following scene will take place, these set pieces help to establish the locale and keep the story going without the need to explain further. For writers, setting the scene at the beginning of a chapter or page break provides cues to the reader, rather than the need to provide too much exposition. When a description of the location (interior as well as exterior) is introduced at the opening the following scenes need very little narrative, which in turn keeps the action going.

I studied the celebrated set designer, Josef Svoboda, extensively during my college years and decided to pay homage by naming him and his work in my first novel, the classical music-themed Staccato. The character I created to convey his mastery is Jessica Taft, a college student studying theatrical set design. Leading man, Nicholas Kalman, is a world-class pianist who has often performed at the National Theatre in Prague, a place Jessica dreams of visiting, where her idol, Svoboda, showcased much of his work. The connection due to this knowledge creates a strong bond for these characters and adds another layer to the overall story.

Deborah J Ledford

Josef Svoboda remains one of the most celebrated theatrical set designers, often replicated without contemporary designers’ knowledge. His attention to detail encompasses all of the visual elements–whether the use of vibrant color, or merely stark black and white set pieces, shafts of vibrant light blazing downward on the sparse sets–an emotional experience was assured.

For example, Svoboda used a “steps” theme for several 1960s productions: Oedipus Rex, Tristan und Isolde and Sicilian Vespers. Reminiscent of an Escher drawing, this dramatic visual concept is, as Svoboda is quoted, the perfect “Interaction between space, time and light movement on stage.”

Josef Svoboda steps design

Like my character Jessica, I’ve yet to experience a stage production at Prague’s National Theatre where so many of Svoboda’s shows were premiered. But I can imagine sitting in the audience as the massive, crimson main curtain drapes open to reveal a jaw-dropping set, worthy of a standing ovation, setting the scene before a single actor steps on stage.

Check out KRL’s review of Crescendo.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Deborah J Ledford’s latest novel, Crescendo, is book three of the Steven Hawk/Inola Walela thriller series from Second Wind Publishing. Other novels include: Snare—The Hillerman Sky Award Finalist, and Staccato. Three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, her award-winning short stories appear in numerous print publications as well as literary and mystery anthologies. Part Eastern Band Cherokee, she spent her summers growing up in western North Carolina where her novels are set. Learn more on her website.


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