Art on the Stage: Using Charles Mee’s Artist Plays to Practice the Design Process

Submitted by: Mary Elizabeth Valesano, University of Detroit Mercy


Students are asked to design 3 costumes and 1 set for one of the following plays: “Van Gogh’s Sunflowers,” “Matisse’s Self Portrait,” or “Picasso’s Masterpiece,” all by Charles Mee. As all three plays are based on the life and work of a famous artist, students are asked to thoroughly research the paintings of their chosen artist and use the artist’s style to influence their costume and scenic designs. This introduces students to the research and design process and to the practice of using research to inform a design approach. Because the artists’ paintings provide a clear direction for research and a firm foundation for them to build on, this project is particularly suitable for introductory level theatre courses and students with minimal design experience.

Length of Activity

  • Month Long Project

Area of Technical Theatre

  • Costume Design
  • Scenic Design

Activity Objectives

Objective #1 – Students will practice conducting thorough and relevant visual research by creating a visual research gallery.

Objective #2 – Students will demonstrate critical thinking about the needs of a script and how the designer can meet those needs using creative design choices through group discussions and critiques.

Objective #3 – Students will creatively synthesize visual research with their own ideas, presenting their final designs via costume and scenic renderings.

Objective #4 – Students will effectively articulate and defend their creative choices in both group critique setting and in the form of a written essay.

Activity Goals

Goal #1 – Students will read and analyze a script through a design lens.

Goal #2 – Students will connect the design process to what they have already learned about the production process, articulating the role and responsibilities of the designers.

Goal #3 – Students will gain an appreciation for the time, skills, and collaboration required of theatrical designers.


Students must first select one of the following plays: “Van Gogh’s Sunflowers,” “Matisse’s Self Portrait,” or “Picasso’s Masterpiece.” All these plays can be found for free on After selecting a play students should read the script at least twice before moving onto the research portion. Students should expect to be challenged by these scripts, but class time will be devoted to unpacking and exploring these stories and characters.

Next, students will conduct research about their chosen artist & script. This research process should help students become familiar with the artist’s style and feel confident applying that style to their own design decisions.

For scenic design, images can include paintings by the artist that depict relevant locations, photos of the artist in the studio, or photos of places where the artist lived and worked.

For costume design, images can include fashion plates from the time period, paintings by their artist that shows clothed people, or photographs. Students will select 3 characters to focus on. One must be the artist, the main character in each play. The other two characters may be selected at the student’s discretion.

Research compilations should include at least one self-portrait by the artist, 7-10 paintings by the artist, 10-15 research images that relate to scenery/locale, and 5-10 research images that relate to clothing/costumes for each character. Students are required to use PowerPoint or a comparable program to compile and present research and inspiration images. Students will share their research and initial ideas in an informal class discussion.

After compiling a visual research document, students will generate rough sketches for both scenic and costume designs. Rough sketches will be presented in a group critique format, which will allow for discussion and constructive feedback.

Students should then move on to creating 3 final costume renderings (one per selected character) and 1 final scenic rendering. Both scenic and costume renderings must include color. Renderings can be done digitally, with colored pencil or paint, or using a collage technique. Figure drawing croquis and line drawings of theatre spaces will be provided.

The final portion of this project is a written explanation of design choices. Students must describe their experiences and ideas while reading the script, defend their design choices, and reflect on the challenges they faced during the design process.

Students must submit research images as a PPT file, designs/sketches as individual JPEG files, and writing as a PDF.

Time Required

Students have 4 weeks to complete this project. Most of the work is done outside of class time, though there are designated class sessions for discussion, critique, and presentation.

The first week should be focused on reading and research, the second week should be spent on scenic design work, the third week should be spent on costume design work, and the fourth week should be spent on written reflection.

Required Materials

All three scripts are available online at no cost on

Students who wish to work on paper will be provided with paper and colored pencils. Students who wish to work digitally will be provided with a link to a browser based digital drawing tool. Students are welcome to provide their own materials/software if they wish.

Figure drawing croquis and line drawings of a theatre spaces will be provided as drawing tools.


This project can be done with 4 individual deadlines for each portion (research, scenic, costume, writing), or with 1 major deadline for all pieces.

If the timeline for this project is shortened, certain portions can be removed. For example, the instructor can elect to focus only on one design discipline, or eliminate the rough sketches and move directly to color renderings.

If the course is online and asynchronous, the instructor can eliminate or alter discussions and critiques. Blog posts and discussion boards are appropriate alternatives for allowing students to view work and provide/receive feedback.


Students are evaluated using a detailed rubric. Rubric categories include formatting, research images, scenic design, costume design, and written work. Each category is worth between 5 and 15 points, adding up to 100 points.

Formatting is graded based on following instructions for file types, organization, and MLA style.

Research images are graded based on organization, quantity, and labels. All images of artists paintings must be labeled with a year and a title.

The scenic design is graded based on neatness, attention to the needs of the script, and clear influence of the artist’s style. Because many students do not come from an art background, the scenic design is not graded based on artistic ability.

The costume designs are graded based on neatness, attention to the needs of the script, clear influence of the artist’s style, and influence of historical dress research. Because many students do not come from an art background, the costume designs are not graded based on artistic ability.

The written portion is graded based on communication of how the designs met the needs of the script and how the designer used their research images to inform their designs. The written portion includes several sections which are each graded separately, including a paragraph about the theatre space, their design choices, and their overall experience working as a designer. The written section is a chance for students who do not feel confident in their drawing abilities to fully express their design choices.

Students will be able to view their rubric scores and written comments about successes and areas for improvement.

Student Design Examples

Student Designer: Tiffany Dang
Student Designer: Tiffany Dang
Student Designer: Tiffany Dang
Student Designer: Tiffany Dang

Student Example – Writing Portion

Final Project | Introduction to Theatre

By Tiffany Dang

I chose Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” by Charles L. Mee because I am familiar with this artist, and his stories about struggle. I enjoy Van Gogh’s impressionistic style and his use of bold and bright colours. I thought the play was descriptive of the different landscapes that Vincent paints, and it portrays the mood of the characters effectively. The story was intimate, and as a reader, it felt invasive to observe the brotherly relationship between Vincent and Theo. However, the play was written in a stylistic approach. It was confusing at some parts to understand the purpose of some characters, such as the man covered in charcoal, or the pushcart man. It is likely they serve as a metaphor for Vincent’s inner thoughts and feelings.

The type of theatre I chose for this play is the thrust theatre. The thrust theatre is the median between the proscenium and the arena stage, and they both draw elements that would be effective in my design concept. The thrust theatre is a way to frame the stage, similar to a frame to a painting. The thrust provides a slight distance between the audience and the performer since the audience acts as the observer to Vincent’s life. In addition, the thrust design provides some intimacy between the performer since the audience is surrounded by 3 sides of the stage. This stage allows insight into Vincent’s life during even the most vulnerable moments between himself and his brother. For instance, when Vincent mentions that he now takes bakes two times a week, or when Theo encourages Vincent to continue painting. It is important for the audience to feel engaged and immersed in the action while still maintaining some distance from the action. Types of action will include dialogue from the pushcart man as he rolls across the stage, or the surrealist woman who sings and dances. Another advantage to the thrust design is the ability to do backdrop changes and other scenic effects. This is favourable for the design concept and the frequent scene changes that will occur.

This design concept explores the somberness of Vincent’s internal struggles and the contradictions of the colourful portraits and images that he paints about the outside world. In the play, Vincent is located in an asylum. He keeps in contact with his brother, Theo, through exchanges of letters. Vincent expresses his struggles as a painter and the feelings of dread that comes from his depression and anxiety. Therefore, the design pays tribute to his paintings as well as his dark lifetime. Vincent will be located center stage. He will not physically interact with anyone on stage since the other characters are figments of his thoughts. Rather, Vincent is enclosed in a box-like structure. This structure portrays a gloomy interior since he has felt trapped in his life and is trying to overcome it. In this play, Vincent would describe painting for days without leaving his room. The yellow structure comes from “The Yellow House,” where Vincent briefly lived in Arles. In the interior, there are dark floors and an easel with a painting that he is working on. There are no opaque walls in this interior space so the audience would be able to see Vincent from all 3 sides of the stage. The exterior space that surrounds Vincent is a field that is derived from “Farmhouse in Provence.” It mimics Vincent’s tight brushstrokes and warm colour palette. Outside, there is a window backdrop. This window backdrop is a way for Vincent to see the outside world without being there. The shape of the window is inspired by “Bedroom in Arles.” As described in the play, the frame is made of wrought iron and the curtains are “water-green.” This window also acts as a way for the audience to see what he is painting. This technique was inspired by the musical “Newsies” (2017) where the performer was writing and it was projected to a billboard, so the audience can see. The projections will be dynamic, much like Vincent’s impressionistic style and how he creates paintings using his memory to soften reality.

The three costume designs that I have chosen are Vincent, the push-cart man, and the naked man covered in charcoal. I did not choose to do Theo’s design since he is not seen on stage, and his letters to Vincent are being communicated through his voice only. For Vincent’s design, there are loose and baggy fits. He wears an off-white shirt with an old yellow vest and brown corduroy pants. I chose yellow for the vest because I think it would be interesting to go against the blues of his portraits and it would match the frame of the room structure. He does not wear a hat because he will be indoors, and I wanted the audience to see his iconic red hair. On his clothes, there are paint stains to show that he is constantly painting. The next costume is the man with the pushcart. I interpreted this character as a version of Vincent if he did not have the funds to support his painting career. As described in the play, the pushcart holds all their belongings such as clothes and furniture. This design is inspired by the farmer’s outfit in “Noon, Rest from Work.” The character wears a wrinkled and blue shirt with brown overalls since he would be considered poor. He wears a black felt hat as it was a common style. The last costume is the man covered in charcoal. For this costume, the performer wears a nude bodysuit since the play describes this character as naked. They have blood on their head, and it drips down onto their body. They are also covered in charcoal from head to toe. I took inspiration from Vincent’s “superior” Delacroix because Vincent compares himself to him many times. In Delacroix’s paintings, there are smokey shadows and darker tones. This costume could represent Vincent’s troubled past, indicated by the bloody head and the “dirty” charcoal. Overall, costumes design together have small hints of the primary colours and they are not overpowering the colours of the scenery. The rest of the outfit is muted or have natural tones.

Overall, I found that the design process was an enjoyable way to deeply analyze the play and become creative since it was not written in a straightforward approach. Because of that, the designs of the play can take realism elements as well as stylistic elements.  I found the most challenging is the costume design portion since I have never done it before. However, it is helpful to think about the colours, textures, and shapes of the costumes as they embody the character’s personality and help tell the story. I enjoyed the set design portion since it was an opportunity to explore Vincent’s surroundings. Also, I enjoyed researching Vincent’s work and incorporating his paintings into my designs. In conclusion, my experience with this project did give me more insight into the work that goes into reading the script and designing the costumes and the set. I found myself going back and forth between the script and all the designs simultaneously, similar to the collaborative aspects that go into theatrical productions.

Student Example – Using Projections In Scenic Design