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YEARS AGO I HAD youthful aspiration of a career in theater stage design. If blame be necessary (though it isn’t), it was the influence of National Thespian Society and dear Miss Dougherty, our high school drama teacher around whom we formed a clique hanging out in the school’s Radio Room. Among other perks, this gave an alternative to Study Hall, one in which we could listen to records while “studying.” 

A relic of this aspiration is my copy of Doris Zinkeisen’s Designing for the Stage.

Designing for the Stage, by Doris Zinkensen, The Studio Publications, 1938.

Doris Zinkeisen. Doris was a highly regarded painter of English society. Also, she and her younger sister Anna gained commissions for more commercial activities, including the murals in the Verandah Grill of RMS Queen Mary. The sisters also contributed murals to the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1940.

A Queen Mary Tidbit: Wikipedia notes that “The largest mural was damaged during World War II by gunnery officers tacking charts to the poster board covering the mural. After the war, Zinkeisen restored the mural and reportedly painted a mouse in the mural so there would always be a mouse on the Queen Mary, a dig at Cunard, which prided itself on having no rodents on their ships.”

Doris Clare Zinkeisen, 1898–1991, Scottish theatrical stage and costume designer, painter, commercial artist, and writer. Self-portrait, 1929. Image from National Portrait Gallery.

Zinkeisen is best known as a theatrical stage and costume designer, with many British productions to her credit. She also designed costumes for the only American film she ever worked on, the 1936 version of the musical Showboat. 

On Stage Design. “This little book,” Zinkeisen wrote of Designing for the Stage, “is not intended for those  experienced in theatrical design, but it represents an attempt to explain the elements to those whose interest in the subject exceeds their knowledge.”

Precisely me, decades ago and now.

Scene Changes. Zinkeisen observed, “…. before curtains were thought of, various devices were employed by the management to distract the audience’s attention while the simple scene changes of the time were in progress. Lights and mirrors were flashed, a sudden blast blown on horns, or—surely most efficacious of all—a commotion was deliberately started at the back of the theatre!” 

Model stage showing proscenium, false proscenium, and revolving stage. This and other images from Designing for the Stage. By the way, all of this book’s photos are “tipped-in” plates, printed apart from the text and affixed later.  

Zinkeisen said, “The revolving stage or turntable—the idea of which originally came from Japan—is not fitted to all theatres, though it is quite possible to fit one temporarily if required without tearing up the whole flooring of the stage.”

Scissor Stage. Another quick-change option she described is a scissor stage consisting of three separate platforms. One resides at stage right, another at stage left, each with inboard downstage pivot. The third platform resides upstage and rolls forward to come into play.

A scissor stage.

Scenery Walls. “Flats,” Zinkensen explained, “are the basis of most scenes where large expanses require to be built…. The most usual height are 18 ft., 20 ft., and 24 ft.” 

Such height is helpful in fulfilling sightline requirements of audience sitting high in the house, in balconies and the like. 


Costumes. “Bodies have not changed in shape;” Zinkeisen noted, “only the fashions change according to the amount of plumpness or slimness that happens to be in vogue. And slim or plump, there invariably must be many who are unfashionable. The portrait painters in each era have always very discreetly added a little plumpness where necessary or reduced unfortunate generosity of line.” 

Above, a showgirl. Below, a 1900 silhouette.

Zinkeisen confessed, “It is always a pleasure to design clothes for the showgirls, the mannequins of the stage. Chosen for their tall, slender figures they do not—thank heaven!—possess those anatomical peculiarities so often disfiguring their more eminent colleagues, which are beyond the power of man to conceal.” 

Or even the power of a talented woman like Doris Zinkeisen. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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