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Competition: Ready.Set, Charlottesville

An open international contest has been launched to design a modular $10,000 opera stage in Charlottesville, Virginia (Deadline: 31 March)

Open to students, architects, artists and set designers – the two-stage Ready.Set competitions seeks proposals for a low-cost, versatile and durable stage system which can be easily demounted and reassembled for travelling performances by the Victory Hall Opera (VHO) across the historic city.

Proposals for the innovative structure must be strong enough for at least 30 performances and 10 assembly cycles while also being capable of being constructed by two people within eight hours. The winning proposals will also be shared online so smaller artistic groups can also use them to produce contemporary mobile sets.




According to the brief: ‘VHO, in partnership with VMDO Architects of Charlottesville, VA, is inviting entries for a modular set design competition. VHO challenges all assumptions about the presentation and interpretation of opera, and is seeking a set design that will rethink what a set can be.

‘As more opera and theater companies are producing smaller-scale, experimental work in alternative or “pop-up” venues, with minimal production budgets, the challenge remains to utilize contemporary, effective design that can not only fit into alternative venues, but can also enhance them visually and acoustically.’

Victory Hall Opera

Victory Hall Opera

Victory Hall Opera

Charlottesville is a small city of around 40,000 inhabitants which has played a major role throughout the history of American politics and culture, including as the site of recent riots surrounding the removal of a Confederate statue.

For more than 40 years the settlement has hosted the internationally acclaimed Ash Lawn Opera, which continues to draw audiences from around the world. VHO is a troupe of 12 singers which is now in its fourth season of performances and is led by the performers Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson and co-founded by Maggie Bell.

VHO provides the main performance for Charlottesville’s annual Tom-Tom festival which has been held every April since 2012 and celebrates the rich diversity of artistic talent in the local area.

Judges include Gordon-Stewart; Ethan McSweeny of the American Shakespeare Centre; Sara Brown, director of design at MIT Music and Theatre Arts; and Robert Long of the Theatre Consultants Collaborative. Three finalists, due to be announced on 11 April, will receive $1000 to further develop their designs.

An overall winner will be announced on 15 July and will receive a $2,500 top prize. The winning scheme will be constructed over the summer and have its debut as the set for VHO autumn production.

How to apply


The deadline for submissions is 31 March


Students $80
Professionals $13

Contact details

Victory Hall Opera
P.O. Box 72
VA 22902


View the competition website for more information

Q&A with Miriam Gordon-Stewart

The artistic director of VHO discusses her ambitions for the competition

Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Why are your holding an international contest for a new modular set design for Victory Hall Opera?

VHO faces a challenge that many other small theatre companies face: How to create a compelling set design that will enhance an alternative venue on a small budget. This is an ideal challenge for designers who may have a yearning to be involved in theatre, or to design for theatre in an ‘unrestricted’ way (an evocative aesthetic, but not for any specific show). By offering this competition both locally and internationally, we seek the best ideas from a variety of theatrical and architectural design backgrounds: whether in Europe, Australia, America or elsewhere, theatre and design practitioners vary dramatically in their exposure to alternative theatre, and their experience of contemporary design. This challenge allows for solutions to come from differing perspectives; three entrants will then have the chance to work directly with VHO in adapting their design to our needs.

What is your vision for the innovative new set design?

Acoustic enhancement and versatility are key. Our company, like many others, performs in a wide variety of venues, most of which are not traditional theatres. Common venues might be converted barns, bars, warehouses or community halls. The winning design will spark our own performers’ and directors’ creativity as we find new ways it can be reformed and reused. The challenge lies in supplying such great versatility within an inspiring, contemporary design aesthetic. With Ready.Set, we are looking towards a future where low-budget theatre is no longer dependant on drab wooden platforms and hand painted flats. We envision troupes, casts, or even classrooms of students being inspired to create and to remake their theater spaces in endless ways.

The theatrical process can be rough on sets too, so durability is important. In looking for a permanent modular set, we are also concerned for the level of waste in our industry: so many pieces are created for a single production and then discarded due to a lack of storage capacity. Ready.Set designers should consider easy storage, and tourability in their entries.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

This competition is open to big or small firms, to known and unknown designers. Design teams and individuals are welcome to apply as international entrants, but we encourage local entrants to apply too. With a jury comprising some of America’s leading innovators, this is a rare opportunity to make a name in this niche, but ever-growing world of indie-opera and -theatre.

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville

Source: Image by Martin Falbisoner

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

There is the potential for the winning design to become available to other companies worldwide via download. Picture your winning modular set being created by schools, universities and small opera companies across the globe. There can be only one winner for this competition, but Victory Hall Opera and our partnering companies are always seeking innovative designers for individual projects. There may even be a new home for VHO on the horizon.

Are there any other modular set design projects using you have been impressed by?

The short answer is: no. The motivating force behind this competition was its uniqueness. and the absence of any similar model being in use, or available for purchase. We live in a time of kits, of individualized choices, of a-la-carte options. Rather than creating beauty from scratch in a blank space, starting out with some strongly designed pieces can be liberating. A modular set design could provide the building blocks for stunning creations, just as a basket of farm–to-table ingredients becomes a dish, or a wardrobe of fascinating clothing items creates an outfit. We see the Ready.Set as our own long-term investment in our own aesthetic, and our creative metamorphosis. This will be a worldwide first. The possibilities are genuinely thrilling.