NMSU’s Theatre Arts Department Shares the Secret World Behind the Scenes
Theatre performances have a way of sparking a variety of emotions. Crying, laughing, remembering—there is simply no limit to the reactions the theatre invokes. When the stars take a bow, the cheers say it all, and whether a theatre-goer realizes it, they aren’t just cheering for the talent of the performers, they are cheering for a team of behind the scenes storytellers who took pages of words and turned them into a world on stage.
Written by Charlotte Tallman
Photography by Donicio Madrid
The Costume Designers
As an assistant professor and resident costume designer in the New Mexico State University Theatre Arts Department, Deborah Brunson knows a thing or two about the layers of a theatre production. “There is a whole secret world behind the scenes during a production, and everyone has a highly-coordinated job to support what the actors are doing onstage. From behind the curtain, you see all that teamwork transferred into magic when the audience is added in,” she says.
Creating costumes is Deborah’s part of the storytelling process, allowing her to provide a visual snapshot of who a character is and their place in the plot. How to do that varies from project-to-project. Sometimes, she is responsible for the design portions, working with the director and other designers on the team to come up with a concept, create designs, select materials, coordinate with the studio, conduct the actor fittings, and fine-tune through the dress rehearsal process. Most of the time, she is involved in the actual producing of the costumes, involving everything from just “shopping” a show to building elaborate period or specialty costumes, which often require extensive patterning, tailoring, fabric dyeing, body modification, embellishment, wigs, accessories, and oftentimes even 3-D elements.
So how does one costume designer do all that? Deborah gives credit to the students. “In our department, most of the work is done by students who are learning the craft as they go along,” she explains. “It is the true definition of hands-on experience and I always feel like they are getting their money’s worth out of their college tuition. The skills learned in this kind of teamwork, problem-solving, and deadline profession will serve them well in any future endeavors.”
Maggie Jane Simpson, a sophomore theatre major with an emphasis in costume design, agrees. “I feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction whenever I see the costumes I’ve either worked on or conceptualized on stage,” says Maggie Jane who plans to attend graduate school to pursue her MFA in costume design. “Costumes are visually stimulating and can work with other performative elements to keep audiences engaged. Costumes are important in the performing arts because they express emotions, thoughts, and ideas that words and physical movement cannot.”
The Scenic Designers
Jim Billings, associate professor and resident scenic and lighting designer at NMSU, has been in the theatre business for over 40 years, 31 of those years at NMSU. As a scenic designer, he creates the environment for a play, and he incorporates lighting into his design to reveal what is meant to be seen, often acting to underscore the action of the play and help provide mood. Neither are short-term tasks.
“As scenic designer, I work carefully with the director and other designers to create this world, then create sketches, model renderings, and draft plans to exactly communicate my ideas to everyone involved. So, in addition to being an artist, a scenic designer is a collaborator, model maker, draftsman, illustrator, sculptor, painter, researcher, and sometimes carpenter and welder. A lighting designer must also be a draftsman, computer programmer, electrician, and technician as well as an artist,” Jim says.
Both scenic and lighting is a collaborative process, one that Jim appreciates. He pays careful attention to all areas of design, appropriately lighting a texture choice on a costume or set that is important in the play, or making sure scenery or costumes are altered by colored lighting as a conscious choice and not a mistake.
“From the beginning of a project, I look at every design as a challenge, and look for the problems or challenges to solve. Every design is different. In fact, I have had the chance to design a show more than once and the design has always been different because of that collaborative thing. There are different directors or actors or other designers involved,” Jim says, noting that design isn’t just about how things look. “I think good design doesn’t call attention to itself, so if you were to see a show I worked on and you came away thinking that was a great set design or lighting design, but couldn’t remember anything else about the show, I would consider that a failure.”
Matt Reynolds, theatre manager and resident lighting and sound designer at the ASNMSU Center for the Arts, juggles a variety of tasks to maintain, operate, and improve the center. On any given day, his attention might be on maintaining schedules for all the spaces; contracting and running rental events; submitting work orders for repairs; planning and budgeting improvements to the facility; tweaking door lock schedules, HVAC settings, and security cameras; serving as safety officer and tour guide; and maintaining inventory. As resident lighting and sound designer, he teaches classes, designs shows, mentors student designers, and serves on various committees.
“Ever since I began working backstage as a teenager, I have watched the magic of theatre and tried to figure out ‘how they did that.’ At first, it was like seeing the truth behind a magic trick, or a spoiler. But now I watch shows and marvel objectively over the technical choices made to achieve artistic goals,” says Matt, who has been in professional theatre for 15 years, working everything from shoestring storefront and university or regional theatre to touring concerts and Broadway shows.
To Matt, technical choices must support and heighten that reality of the show on stage, like reinforcing the time of day with lighting or finding the right piece of music for the mood of a moment. “What’s unique about lighting and sound is that they play on the subconscious rather than the conscious; that is, the audience usually isn’t paying attention to it. This absence of focus allows lighting and sound to play in the emotional world rather than the real world, the imagination rather than the visual. Seeing a character get hanged onstage is shocking and enveloping, but hearing the crack of the neck is what sends shivers down the spine.”