Audi­ences enjoying the student-directed play “Woyzeck” this spring will see the debut work of Renée Sur­prenant, set designer and tech­nical director. Sur­prenant is working with the cast and crew to build a set rep­re­sen­tative of the frac­tured mental world of the play, using mirrors and screens to com­prise most of the set.

With the retirement of Dave Grif­fiths, tech­nical director in theater arts and 40-year veteran of the Tower Players, Hillsdale needed a replacement capable of fitting and filling his role in the theater department. Sur­prenant was hired in December, and she’s up to the chal­lenge.

“It’s always exciting to come some­where new,” Sur­prenant said. “It’s a little nerve-racking knowing that he’s been here for so long.”

“The hardest part for her and for us is the teamwork aspect,” Pro­fessor of Theatre George Angell said. “Our team has been in exis­tence for a decade. We really know how to work together. We respect each others’ work and count on each other to get things done.”

He has con­fi­dence in her ability to design Tower Players’ pro­duc­tions as well as fulfill all her other respon­si­bil­ities.

These will include, in addition to four theatre pro­duc­tions, assisting with dance recitals and Opera Workshop, super­vising stage con­fig­u­ration for trav­elling pro­duc­tions using Markel Audi­torium, and teaching Theatre Pro­duction — from the per­spective of set design.

“She was hired because she’s a great designer,” Angell said. “She’ll be working to get things done. She’s a really good fit with our stu­dents — she’s got a great rapport. Her per­son­ality also meshes really well with the rest of the department, in which she’ll be working as a prin­ciple team member on shows.”

Working on “Woyzeck” will give Sur­prenant a chance to work with the team while Grif­fiths is still in the shop, so she’ll be able to see how things have been done and get in touch with sup­pliers. The German expres­sionist play is also an exciting chal­lenge for Sur­prenant in terms of subject matter and artistic freedom.

“[German expres­sionism] really gets to the root of messed-up, psy­cho­logical humanity and where humanity has failed,” she said. “As an artist, that’s inter­esting, and I think that as a subject for a play it really gives you a lot to create some­thing on your own.”

Sur­prenant and the rest of the design team want to embrace the broken, abstract nature of the play by cre­ating a set that will portray the uncom­fortable actions of the char­acters as hon­estly as pos­sible.

“We’re doing this car­nival theme, fun­house mirrors that distort the char­acters you’re seeing,” she explained. “I think it’s sculp­tural in a metaphorical sense, so the whole things will look like a piece of art.”

To create this abstract world, Sur­prenant has avoided looking at his­torical sources from when the play was written, opting instead to take her texture and color inspi­ration from artwork from the same time period and artistic movement.

“When you sit in an audience and look at the stage, every­thing you see that’s physical, that con­tributes to your enjoyment of the show, was the work of the set designer,” Angell said.

Sur­prenant enjoys how set design com­bines cre­ativity and tech­nical skill, two things she’s always excelled at.

“I’ve always been inter­ested in building and being cre­ative,” she said. “My favorite two school sub­jects were always art and English. Finding theater was the perfect cross-grain of being able to be crafty and build things and the English lit­er­ature per­spective where you’re reading plays and ana­lyzing them and inter­preting them.”

Sur­prenant grad­uated from the Uni­versity of Rhode Island with a degree in theater, and recently attained a graduate degree in pro­duction design from Michigan State Uni­versity.

“I’ve always really enjoyed theater,” she said, “but it was really that con­nection with the art of set design, I really like the whole process. I was just amazed that there was a job that actually incor­po­rated all that.”


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A senior from Long Island, New York studying English, McCaffery is a student columnist on the Collegian Opinion page this year. He is also editor-at-large for The Hillsdale Forum campus magazine. McCaffery completed an editorial page internship at USA Today last summer. email: | twitter: @cmccafe