Set designers do not have an entire studio to work with--just one stage, and for every scene that takes place in someplace different the set must be quickly transformed. Sometimes there is only one, basic black backdrop. But in the best plays, there is at least one backdrop canvas painted to suit the atmosphere called for by the script.
For example: In the play "West Side Story" written by Arthur Laurents and composed by Leonard Bernstein--the set designers will want at least two drop canvases. One for the street or ally where the fighting takes place, and another the dance, there should be a well painted setup, perhaps on rollers that can be brought in during a blackout to represent Doc's workshop, and another to represent Maria's room. A stairwell and two-story platform should be built to represent the building Maria lives in. And the set design should be executed in such a manner that the scenery can be changed quickly, in the dark, and without a sound.
In the play "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck there is a similar conflict, there are several scenes, therefore several sets are needed. First, there needs to be the set by the river. The set designers also need a set designed to be their workplace, somewhere they can be shown outdoors in the fields, bailing hey and talking with the other workers. There also needs to be a set design representing the men's bunk. There needs to be a set design to represent the barn, and a set design for outside the house where the men are playing horseshoes in the final act.
Of course, scenery involves much more than painting and building sets, sometimes the audience has to use their own imaginations, too. Some one woman theatre shows or one man shows involve nothing but the blackness of the empty stage behind them. If there is interaction or physical objects implied--it is up to the actor to make that clear. "Zoo Story", by Edward Albee, for example, works best without anything--maybe a simple backdrop, but no much.
On the other hand there are plays like "Noises Off" by Michael Frayn, for example: which is a play within a play. Here is how it goes: Act one is dress rehearsal the character who plays the director sits in the back of the house--hollering directions at the actors who are playing actors and getting more and more frustrated. Act two is the opening night of the play--but we only see the play from backstage, watching the characters almost miss their cues and barely make their entrances. Therefore the entire, two story set must be able to be turned around between acts. Act three is closing night of the play, so the set is once again facing front. The challenge is mostly on the construction crew but the set design also calls for very different lighting in the second act--which must be also well thought out.
Anne Clarke writes numerous articles for websites on gardening, parenting, fashion, education, theatre and home decor. Her background includes teaching and gardening. For more of her articles on education please visit Acting and Set Design