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.”