Playing With Scale

How Designers Use Set Models

'Playing with Scale' exhibition by Eleanor Margolies (curator) and Jemima Robinson (designer) (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

Playing with Scale

This exhibit explores how theatre designers use scale models, through seven productions that appeared on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre between 1977 and 2018. The designers are: Hildegard Bechtler, Bunny Christie, Soutra Gilmour, Jocelyn Herbert, Geoffrey Scott and Anthony Ward. It includes films with some of the designers talking about the models. The designs respond to the unique space of the Olivier, and some make use of its drum revolve, a complex piece of stage machinery. Scale models were also important in the design process for the theatre itself, with architect Denys Lasdun collaborating with directors and designers through models. The physical exhibition was displayed at the Wolfson Gallery, National Theatre from October 2018 - May 2019.

Architectural model of the NT (detail) by Haworth TompkinsNational Theatre

What is a scale model?

A scale model is a three-dimensional representation of a place, room or object, smaller or larger than the ‘real thing’, but accurate in its proportions. Scale models of theatres were used for planning productions from the 17th century onwards, usually in combination with drawings. A 1744 inventory of the theatrical possessions - costumes, scenery and props - belonging to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden includes 'a large model of the stage not finished'. Innovative theatre designers Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) and Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) among others, worked with models to explore theatrical space, using light and form in sculptural ways.  

In theatre, scale models are tools of collaboration. They are used in discussions with directors, actors, scenic artists, prop-makers and designers of light, sound and projection. Although today physical models are often supplemented by digital visualisations and construction drawings, they are still regarded as essential by many creative teams. Designers also make working or ‘sketch’ models to think through technical and creative problems. In British theatre, final models are usually made in a ratio of 1:25 – this means a two-metre doorway is 8 cm tall in the model. Smaller models (e.g. 1:50) can’t include much detail, while larger ones (1:10) are hard to transport. In North America, where feet and inches are the standard units of measurement, models are made in a scale of 1:24, and this is also the scale used in film. 

NT scale rulerNational Theatre

Architects and set designers use ‘scale rulers’ to eliminate the need to calculate every measurement. This ruler, made for the National Theatre, includes key dimensions of the three stages.

Olivier Theatre 'Scheme B' by Denys LasdunNational Theatre

Designing the Olivier

Denys Lasdun was appointed as the architect of the National Theatre in 1963. A Building Committee of directors and designers worked with him on ideas for the Olivier Theatre, the main auditorium. Lasdun’s model-maker, Philip Wood, made hundreds of models of the Olivier at different scales and to various degrees of finish.

Director John Dexter and designer Jocelyn Herbert collaborated closely with Lasdun on ‘Scheme B’, physically cutting up models to experiment with the space and to think about the relation between the auditorium and the stage. Just like a set designer, Lasdun used a scale figure – ‘a human being whose eyes are 5 foot 6 ½ from the ground, just a silhouette’ – to think about how his models would work at life size. He said, ‘I move it around, and I look through that eye of the human being and I find that gives me a very good guide.’ (Quoted in Barnabas Calder, 'Raw Concrete', Heinemann, London, 2016 pp. 293-4.

Olivier Theatre Final Plan by Denys LasdunNational Theatre

The final design of the Olivier was influenced by the shape of the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece, and reflected the Building Committee's ambition that the audience and performers should feel that they were all in the 'same room'.

Olivier Theatre Drum RevolveNational Theatre

The Drum Revolve

The Olivier contains an extraordinary piece of stage machinery that was not yet fully functional when the theatre opened in 1976. The ‘drum revolve’ beneath the Olivier stage was designed by Richard Pilbrow and Richard Brett of Theatre Projects. It is five storeys deep and is made up of four elements that can be used independently or together: the cylindrical drum, a flat rim that surrounds it at stage level, and two semi-circular elevators known as Red and Blue. The whole drum can revolve, turning a disc at the centre of the stage floor. The surrounding rim can turn independently – at a different speed or in the opposite direction to the drum. The Red and Blue elevators can rise and fall separately through five storeys. By coordinating a rising elevator with the turning revolve, a scene can be made to ‘corkscrew’ into view.

Introducing The Drum Revolve, From the collection of: National Theatre
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This film shows the drum revolve in use in National Theatre productions.

How Does The Drum Revolve Work?National Theatre

This animation shows how the four elements of the drum revolve work together. It is shown to designers who are working in the Olivier Theatre for the first time.

'The Plough and the Stars' set model piece by Geoffrey Scott (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

'The Plough and the Stars' (1977)

The second production designed for the new Olivier theatre was 'The Plough and the Stars', by Sean O’Casey. The play is set in Dublin before and during the Easter Rising of 1916. Director Bill Bryden and set designer Geoffrey Scott were taken by actor Cyril Cusack on a ‘recce’, a research trip, to look at the Georgian tenement houses and pubs of Dublin.

Reviewer Charles Spencer commented, ‘Nowhere is the attention to detail more apparent than in Geoffrey Scott’s settings. They evoke the atmosphere of the Dublin tenement with such microscopic accuracy that you can imagine the smell of the place, the creak of the floorboards.’ (Charles Spencer, The Surrey Advertiser, 7 October 1977). 

Unboxing 'The Plough and the Stars' by Paul BurtNational Theatre

In this short film, Geoffrey Scott, designer of the set for 'The Plough and the Stars' (1977) and Bob Crowley, his design assistant on the show, unpack the model stored in the National Theatre Archive. Bob Crowley is now an award-winning designer and has designed over 20 productions for the National Theatre.

Jocelyn Herbert at work (photographer unknown)National Theatre

Jocelyn Herbert

The designer Jocelyn Herbert (1917–2003) created hundreds of designs for productions in theatre, opera and film. She worked extensively at the Royal Court, Old Vic and National Theatre and was known for a collaborative approach to design that respected the contribution of makers as much as directors. Drawings, paintings, set models, masks, sketchbooks and correspondence from her whole career are now held in the National Theatre Archive. Herbert’s archive is an unparalleled resource for the history of theatre design.  In the image opposite Jocelyn Herbert sets up the model for her design for John Osborne’s play 'Inadmissable Evidence', directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Teatr Współczesny, Warsaw in 1966.

Shelves in Jocelyn Herbert's studio by Sandra Lousada (photo)National Theatre

Jocelyn Herbert's studio

This photograph of Jocelyn Herbert’s studio was taken by her daughter Sandra Lousada in 2003. The upper shelves hold many scale models from productions she had designed over the previous forty years.

Scale model armillary sphere by Jocelyn Herbert (photo: Tabitha Austin)National Theatre

'The Life of Galileo' (1980)

Bertolt Brecht’s play 'The Life of Galileo' was directed by John Dexter and designed by Jocelyn Herbert. They had collaborated for more than 20 years and always spent a long time working together with a model, discussing not just the look of the stage but also how the actors could move about on it. Dexter said of their collaboration 20 years previously, on Arnold Wesker’s play 'Chicken Soup with Barley' (1958), ‘We did two weeks talking, looking at the ground plan, playing with bits of cardboard. We had to “sort out the plumbing”, the geography of the place. You do that with any play, no matter how abstract.’  (Cathy Courtney, 'Jocelyn Herbert: A Theatre Workbook' 1993, p. 215). 

Armillary sphere prop from 'The Life of Galileo' (1980) by Jocelyn Herbert (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

Full size armillary sphere

In the play, Galileo uses three-dimensional wood and metal models of the universe called ‘armillary spheres’ that allow the known universe to be held in the hand. The model he shows his young student Andrea in the opening scene has the Sun and planets orbiting Earth, fixed to ‘crystal spheres’. It represents the ‘geocentric’ model of the ancient astronomers. Galileo’s observations with the telescope will require a ‘paradigm shift’: replacing this geocentric model with a modern understanding that Earth moves around the Sun. Herbert kept the prop armillary sphere in her studio.

Figures for 'The Life of Galileo' (1980) by Jocelyn Herbert (photo: Tabitha Austin)National Theatre

Model figures at 1:25 scale

These flat cardboard figures designed by Jocelyn Herbert were intended to be used when working with set models. They are drawn and painted on card, some with plasticine or coins to help them stand upright. The small figures are full of life, with characters shown in mid-action, leaving the details of the costumes for larger drawings on paper. This production of the play required 105 separate props, including globes, telescopes and other scientific instruments. The scale models of furniture and props for 'Galileo' are made of many different materials including wood, paper, metal, clay, plastic, fabric, solder, paint, glue as well as found elements such as twigs and coins.

Priest costume design for 'The Life of Galileo' (1980) by Jocelyn HerbertNational Theatre

Scale figures for 'The Life of Galileo' (1980) by Jocelyn Herbert (photo: Eleanor Margolies)National Theatre

Model figures at 1:25 scale

Costume drawings for these characters can be viewed on the next pages.

Costume design for priest with carnival mask (1980) by Jocelyn HerbertNational Theatre

Costume design for ballad singer and child (1980) by Jocelyn HerbertNational Theatre

Sketch: opening scene from 'The Life of Galileo' (1980) by Jocelyn HerbertNational Theatre

Jocelyn Herbert's sketch of the opening scene

The sketch shows Galileo lifting and turning his student Andrea as he sits on a chair, to demonstrate the motion of the earth in relation to the sun. He says: ‘For now we know – everything moves!’ (National Theatre Archive JH/4/63). James Hayes, the actor who played Federzoni in the 1980 production of 'Galileo', later recalled its opening moment. James Hayes: 'I’ll never, never forget the opening image when the audience came into that theatre … There was a huge armillary sphere hanging here, and this very beautiful wooden floor, then the music started and way, way in the distance the light came up on a very simple platform which was on tracks, with tables and scientific instruments on it, and in the centre of it was a copper basin on a three-legged stand, and Michael Gambon was standing there, naked to the waist, with his young assistant, young Mark Brenner. And that’s the way this play opened, this sphere flew out and this truck came down – and you knew you were in for a great evening.’ 

Figures at 1:50 scale for 'Square Rounds' (1992) by Jocelyn Herbert (photo: Eleanor Margolies)National Theatre

A model at 1:50 scale

For Tony Harrison's play 'Square Rounds', which he directed in 1992, Jocelyn Herbert made two models: one for the production team at a scale of 1:25 and a smaller version for Harrison to use when planning the movement of the cast. In an interview with the oral historian Cathy Courtney, Jocelyn Herbert explained: 'Tony used to come round here...and we'd go through the play with the set. I made all these little figures of everybody. I was making the bigger model by then and he had the little model to play with. He had all the people in his office. I'd say, look Tony, if we do that, we can't do this, and that won't work. And then we'd figure out a way to do it differently'. (Life Stories interview with Jocelyn Herbert by Cathy Courtney British Library C968/38/01).

Figure at 1:50 scale for 'Square Rounds' (1992) by Jocelyn Herbert (photo: Eleanor Margolies)National Theatre

Figure at 1:50 scale for 'Square Rounds' (1992) by Jocelyn Herbert (photo: Eleanor Margolies)National Theatre

Technical diagram showing the construction of the towers for The Comedy of ErrorsNational Theatre

'The Comedy of Errors' (2011)

This production of Shakespeare’s comedy about two sets of identical twins, directed by Dominic Cooke and designed by Bunny Christie, emphasised the feel of a teeming city, moving from the docks to a city centre of shopfronts and alleys. The performers scampered up and down ladders and staircases inside tall towers, leaning out of windows to call down to people on the street below. Rather like the characters, the buildings are twinned and have secrets to reveal. The collaboration with production managers and engineers was crucial in planning how to execute a ‘kinetic design’ that required filmic orchestration of moving scenery.

'The Comedy of Errors' set model (detail) by Bunny Christie (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

'The Comedy of Errors' final model 

Final model for 'The Comedy of Errors'. Two towers swing outwards and unfold to move from the docks to the city centre. A third tower slides forward and back, one side representing the Abbey, the other luxury apartments. Model made by Verity Sadler and Ellen Nabarro.

Designer Bunny Christie on 'The Comedy of Errors'National Theatre

In this short film, Bunny Christie talks about her work on 'The Comedy of Errors' and how she uses the model.

'Antigone' white card set model by Soutra Gilmour (photo: Soutra Gilmour)National Theatre

'Antigone' (2012) 

Sophocles’ tragedy was given a modern setting by director Polly Findlay and designer Soutra Gilmour: curved concrete walls enclose a military control centre. In interview Gilmour said, ‘All my work endeavours to respond to the chosen space, in conversation with the text. In that sense it’s always site-specific, whether I am in a found space, West End proscenium theatre or the Olivier. It’s a dialogue with the place, a relationship with the materials and – hopefully – a releasing of the energy between production, space and audience. The Olivier is a modern interpretation of an Ancient Greek playing space, a direct conversation between actors and the audience, so its most valuable playing area is the downstage triangle between the outer sightlines and the centre of the drum. The most important discovery for me was uncovering the ‘jaws’, the low curved concrete walls Lasdun designed that sit half on the stage and half in the auditorium. Often these are covered up in order to hang lights but they have a crucial role in bridging the threshold between stage and auditorium. Exposing them shrinks what can feel a huge space by visually pulling the stage into the audience’s space. It becomes a shared space.’ 

'Antigone' final model (2012) by Soutra Gilmour (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

'Antigone' final model 

Detail of final model for 'Antigone', designed by Soutra Gilmour. The company made research trips to the Churchill War Rooms and a nuclear bunker in Essex, as well as looking at films including ' Dr Strangelove', the 1964 Cold War satire, and 'The Lives of Others', a film set in 1984 East Berlin. In this detail of the final model Creon, the ruler of Thebes, oversees his control centre.

'Antigone' final model (detail) by Soutra Gilmour (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

'Antigone' final model (detail)

Model made by Aaron Marsden and Katie Lias (2012) with additional model-making by Nina Patel-Grainger (2018).

'Antony & Cleopatra' model (2018) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: Dan Radley-Bennett)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' (2018)

Director Simon Godwin and set designer Hildegard Bechtler discussed how to move fluidly between the many locations in Shakespeare’s play and how to create distinct, contemporary worlds for Egypt and Rome. A two-sided wall revolves, sailors climb onto deck through hatches in the floor and a ship’s hull spirals into view like a shark’s fin slicing through water. In interview Bechtler said, ‘The model is part of the journey with the director – it helps to decide which road you want to go down. It’s a place to experiment and dream without the anxiety and pressure of the real thing. Experimentation is crucial, and takes place almost to the end of the process. Only physical models let you bring real materials – wood, canvas, brass – into the space. It’s a painterly approach: even a purely architectural set works through texture and a model gives so much back.’

'Antony & Cleopatra' model (2018) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: Dan Radley-Bennett)National Theatre

Working with photographer Dan Radley-Bennett, Hildegard Bechtler created a scene by scene ‘storyboard’. This was used as a reference by the director and lighting designer and by the technical departments when planning scene changes. The storyboard was also shown to the actors on the first day of rehearsals, alongside the final model.

'Antony & Cleopatra' model (2018) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: Dan Radley-Bennett)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' model (2018) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: Dan Radley-Bennett)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' model (2018) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: Dan Radley-Bennett)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' model (2018) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: Dan Radley-Bennett)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' model (2018) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: Dan Radley-Bennett)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' final model (Egypt detail) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' final model

Detail from the final model for 'Antony & Cleopatra', designed by Hildegard Bechtler. The wall shown in the photograph rotates. On this side, representing Egypt, there are textured tiles glazed in vivid turquoise, a pool and sun loungers. 

'Antony & Cleopatra' final model (Rome detail) by Hildegard Bechtler (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

'Antony & Cleopatra' final model 

When the wall rotates, we move to Rome, with dark polished marble, abstract sculptures on plinths, a giant video screen. Model made by Patrick Cahill.

White card development storyboard for 'Exit the King' by Anthony WardNational Theatre

'Exit the King' (2018)

In Anthony Ward’s design for 'Exit the King' by Eugène Ionesco, directed by Patrick Marber, the actors are brought close to the audience by placing the whole set on the front half of the revolve. A red carpet runs down the centre aisle of the auditorium, linking stage and audience. At the end of the play, the walls sink down on the elevator and disappear, leaving the carpet and throne suspended above the abyss. The throne slowly glides backwards into the darkness. Anthony Ward worked with design assistant Luke Smith, creating dozens of models at different levels of detail as the design evolved over the course of a year.

'Exit the King' set model (detail) by Anthony Ward (photo: James Bellorini)National Theatre

'Exit the King' final model

Final model for 'Exit the King', designed by Anthony Ward. Three thrones stand in front of a dilapidated palace wall. An ominous crack runs down the wall. Model made by Luke Smith. 

Scene change digital visualisationNational Theatre

A pre-visualisation from the NT Drawing Office to plan the disappearance of the set in 'Exit the King' designed by Anthony Ward.

'Playing with Scale' - pencil exhibit - showing a pencil at a variety of scales by James Bellorini (photo)National Theatre

The life of a set model

Up to two years before opening night, a designer receives an invitation to design a production. Months of research and conversations with the director follow. A production manager discusses early white card models - accurate in scale but without any surface finish - with the designer to think about feasibility and cost. A 'white card' presentation usually takes place about six months before the first performance. About eight weeks later the final model,  complete with indications of colour, texture and materials, is shared with members of the production departments. The model is measured to create construction drawings; propmakers and scenic artists use it as a reference in the studio. Actors usually see the model on the first day of rehearsals, and it often remains in the rehearsal room until the fit up. Once the production has opened, the model can be used in touch tours for blind and partially sighted audience members, in education workshops or at fundraising events. After the end of the production, the model is offered back to the designer. Selected models are acquired by theatre archives such as the V&A or by the National Theatre Archive. 

Credits: Story

For more information please visit the National Theatre Archive online

Exhibition Credits for the original exhibition

Curator, Eleanor Margolies

Exhibition Designer, Jemima Robinson

NT Design Associate, Katrina Lindsay

Drawing Office, Alan Bain and Dan Radley-Bennett

Graphic Design, Jamie Malcolm and Jen Dennis

Production Manager, Kyrie Feltham

Exhibition Team, Perri Blakelock, Róisín Devine and Judith Merritt

NT Archive, Erin Lee, Malcolm Mathieson and Anastasios Tzitzikos

Filmmaker, Paul Burt

Thanks to:

Hildegard Bechtler, Tina Bicât, Thea Brejzek, Barnabas Calder, Bunny Christie, Lizzie Clachan, Jane Collins, Cathy Courtney, Bob Crowley, Jocelyn Cuming, Bill Dudley, Soutra Gilmour, Eileen Hogan, Sophie Jump, Eleni Katsiani, Sandra Lousada, Niall McKeever, Adam Nee, Tom Piper, Geoffrey Scott, Jess Staton, Michael Vale, Grace Venning, Anthony Ward.

The Trustees of the Jocelyn Herbert Archive

Eames Office LLC

Theatre and Performance Design (Routledge)

British Library


NT Learning is supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Eleanor Margolies was a Jocelyn Herbert Fellow of Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Graduate School, University of the Arts London.

This exhibition was the outcome of the Jocelyn Herbert Fellowship (2016–18) and forms part of a collaboration between the National Theatre and Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon. The exhibition at the National Theatre was funded in part by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders in this exhibition. If you have any queries contact

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