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Thursday, October 18, 2012 - Behind the Scenes: Designing Spring Awakening
by Gillian Ellis

The Tony Award-winning show Spring Awakening will be our next theatre production, but Associate Professor Fred Love who is directing says, “We are not replicating the Broadway production. It is a re-imagining, and the ideas and work of my team of student designers are an integral part of my stage direction. Their ideas are very specific and they have worked through challenges and obstacles to produce the triumph this work represents.”

As audience members enter the theatre, they will get their first impression of the production from the set, which was designed by senior Theatre Design and Technology major Amy Brooks. Tech and design students attend a bid meeting at the end of every school year to pitch for the work they want the following season. Amy has worked as the charge scenic artist on other OU productions, including last year’s Grey Gardens. She says Spring Awakening is her first full main stage student design job. “I thought it was the most abstract, creative and difficult show. I wanted to challenge myself.”

Conceptually, she wanted to reflect the archaic and harsh viewpoints of the authority figures in the play and found herself drawn to the arched windows of a traditional European boarding school. Her set is mostly black, white, gray and blue, with the appearance of stone and wood, but it is designed to provide contrast with the show’s rock music and the much more contemporary lighting design. And it will be built to allow maximum freedom of movement for the actors playing the roles of the teenagers struggling with their sexual awakening in this repressive environment.

As she dug deeper into the script and focused on solving the problems she read there, Amy found herself scaling back her original design to make sure it was not getting in the way of the actors. She also worked with Professor Love into the rehearsal phase, to make sure her design was offering him what he needed as he blocked the play. And she worked with Assistant Professor Jeremy Barnett on refining her technical drawings, and with Technical Director Brent Wrobel on, for example, using the right materials, to make sure her design moved from page to stage in an accurate and safe way.

The costumes are a bridge between the old and the new in the show. Student designer Rachel Buechele has the two adult characters in tones that match the set -- black, white and gray, because she says, “They have created a world that is drained of information.” For the young characters, she wanted something that would match “the vibrant music and the vibrant lighting” but still had a period feel that grounded the costumes in the late 19th century. She went to the bid meeting with a mood board that showed pictures of period clothing but had a loud-colored filter over it. That concept has carried over into her final execution of the design. Audiences can expect to see period silhouettes on the young characters, but in modern, bright colors.

Rachel is a Theatre Design and Technology major who has worked in other areas of design, but costume is her first love. She credits both OU’s costume design expert Leslie Littell and costume shop supervisor Michelle Hathaway with mentoring her through this and previous projects, but Rachel has been sewing since she was 8, when her mother taught her the basics because her grandmother wanted her to learn the skill. Throughout her childhood she worked on sewing projects in 4H, and in middle and high school she focused on art, but it was not until she was about 16 that she realized that she could use these skills in the theatre. She says being an artist would be a problem for her because she hates to give away her art but the theatre is perfect because, “In the theatre you’re sharing your work.”

The show’s score, the rock songs of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, is much shared on YouTube and elsewhere, and many readers will already be familiar with this modern element of Spring Awakening. Theatre Design and Technology major Laura Camposeo has contributed her own work as lighting designer to help create this world of contrast and conflict. Her lighting will turn what may initially be seen as a confining place into a kind of playground where the young people in the show can act and sing in an abstract world of their own.

Laura says she begins her design process with thinking about the mood she wants to create. It was a kind of mood PowerPoint that she brought to the bid meeting to help her get the job. Then she says, “You have to make what you promised the director happen. That’s the technical part.” And she adds, “There is always some adaptation that needs to happen once you start to build.”

Laura, a senior, credits Brent Wrobel, Jeremy Barnett and Associate Professor Kerro Knox as mentors for this project. Much of her previous lighting work was for the dance program, but she says she was especially drawn to Spring Awakening because of the way the story resonates with almost everyone. “We’ve all been teenagers,” she says. “We’ve all been through first love and first heart break. It’s so important to get the message out for people to get support and stop bad things happening.”

Stopping bad things from happening within the production is stage manager Laura Gist, a junior Design and Technology major. In addition to managing the space during rehearsals and performances she also acts as a kind of project coordinator, and has a long list of tasks. She schedules and attends all meetings and rehearsals and reports on each one. She will also attend and report on each performance. Throughout the production process she acts as a kind of central communications hub. All questions are directed through her and if she can’t answer them, she should know who can. It’s her job to make sure each actor knows their call time for rehearsals and fittings, as well as performances. She also has to ensure everyone submits a bio and a headshot.

In fact, she’s as much a manager of people as of space. She has ample opportunities to work on her management style as she coordinates a cast that has some roles double cast and still more students working as designers. Among them are Josh Williams, sound designer; Chris Neville, props master; Jaclene Wilk and Shauna Rae Hazime, hair and make-up designers; and Eric Eby, assistant stage manager.

All of these student design professionals in training, as well as the student actors in the cast, are working long hours, to perfect their art so that they can, as Rachel says, share it with you. Spring Awakening opens on November 8 and runs through November 18. Find complete performance listings here. Find complete ticket information here.  And remember our last production, Police Deaf Near Far, sold out. Don’t wait too long to get your tickets!

Disclaimer: Spring Awakening contains mature themes, brief nudity, sexual situations and strong language. It is not suitable for children under the age of 17.

Photo: Spring Awakening designers (left to right) Rachel Buechele, Amy Brooks, Laura Composeo and stage manager Laura Gist. Photo by Gillian Ellis

Below: An original sketch for the set design of
Spring Awakening by Amy Brooks.