From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Theatrical scenery is that which is used as a setting for a theatrical production. Scenery may be just about anything, from a single chair to an elaborately re-created street, no matter how large or how small, whether or not the item was custom-made or is, in fact, the genuine item, appropriated for theatrical use.
The history of theatrical scenery is as old as the theatre itself, and just as obtuse and tradition-bound. What we tend to think of as 'traditional scenery', i.e. two-dimensional canvas-covered 'flats' painted to resemble a three-dimensional surface or vista, is in fact a relatively recent innovation and a significant departure from the more ancient forms of theatrical expression, which tended to rely less on the actual representation of space and more on the conveyance of action and mood. By the Shakespearean era, the occasional painted backdrop or theatrical prop was in evidence, but the show itself was written so as not to rely on such items to convey itself to the audience.
Our more modern notion of scenery, which dates back to the nineteenth century, finds its origins in the dramatic spectacle of opera buffa, from which the modern opera is descended. Its elaborate settings were appropriated by the 'straight', or dramatic, theatre, through their use in comic operettas, burlesques, pantomimes, and the like. As time progressed, stage settings grew more and more realistic, reaching their peak in the Belasco realism of the 1910-20's, in which complete diners, with working soda-fountains and freshly-made food, were re-created onstage. Perhaps as a reaction to such excess, and in parallel with trends in the arts and architecture, scenery began a trend towards abstraction, although realistic settings remained in evidence, and are still used today. At the same time, the musical theatre was evolving its own set of scenic traditions, borrowing heavily from the burlesque and vaudeville style, with occasional nods to the trends of the 'straight' theatre. Everything came together in the 1980s and 1990s, and continuing to today, until there is no established style of scenic production and pretty much anything goes. Modern stagecraft has grown so complex as to require the highly specialized skills of hundreds of artists and craftspeople to mount a single production, and it is impossible to tell at this time where things may lead.
Types of scenery
Constructing theatrical scenery is often the most time-consuming part of a show, apart from memorizing lines. This is why many theatres have a place for storing scenery (such as a loft) so that it can be used again for another show. Since the next show is often unknown, non-temporary theatres will often construct certain types of scenery that can be easily adapted to fit a show. These types include: