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 artist 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 settings 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 of 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 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 meet 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.

Ex) sample student works: costume design

Ex) sample student works: scenic design