Student designers create worlds that transform the University Theatre stage

Book of Days

By Miguel A. Gastelum

Behind the scenes at Fresno State, students are afforded a rare opportunity: the chance to design sets, costumes, hair and makeup, lights, or sound for one of the six mainstage productions each year. Student designers work alongside faculty and staff designers and faculty directors to create worlds that inhabit the John Wright or Dennis and Cheryl Woods stage. 

Students are frequently utilized as assistant designers, but in some cases, they are given the lead position on a design. Such is the case with Theatre Arts seniors Mel Johnson and Caleb Wilson, each bearing the title of “scenic designer” this semester for “Anon(ymous)” and “As You Like It,” respectively. 


For Mel Johnson, this semester brought her first University Theatre mainstage design to life with “Anon(ymous)” by Naomi Iizuka and directed by Gina Sandí-Díaz. 

“It’s an amazing learning experience,” says Johnson. “The difference between just coming up with a design for a class and actually designing for a show is huge. Learning to communicate your ideas in a way that other people can understand is very important. All of the faculty and staff involved were very helpful and supportive of me figuring out what I wanted to do.”

2019-2020 University Theatre mainstage schedule and tickets

Caleb Wilson had designed for the mainstage in the spring semester.

“My first realized mainstage scenic design was for Fresno State’s production of ‘Book of Days,’ directed by J. Daniel Herring,” says Wilson. “He wanted a space that the actors could move in maze-like patterns to create different locations.”

Book of Days
Book of Days

Within the Department of Theatre and Dance, several students are employed in the costume shop, scene shop, and box office. Both Johnson and Wilson got their start in the scene shop, and it was there that they were inspired to try their hand at scenic design. 

“I’ve always had an interest in scenery, and working in the scene shop building sets led me to be curious about the process of deciding what actually needs to be built,” says Wilson. 

“I first started doing theatrical scenic art, painting sets. I loved the creativity that went into the designs and wanted to create things that I would like to paint,” says Johnson. “I’m interested in designs that push the boundaries of scenic painting and create new worlds that haven’t been made before.”

The Department of Theatre and Dance prides itself on creating opportunities for students to design on the mainstage under the guidance of the seasoned faculty and staff. Theatre offers many opportunities for creativity beyond acting, and it is essential that students learn that they can pursue theatre in a different way than they may have originally envisioned.

“I’m not certain I’ll be ready to design for a career just yet, however, I would love to assist already established designers for more experience,” says Wilson. “If I don’t design scenery, I will definitely be a backstage hand on a touring show or a regional theater.”

“I definitely want to pursue a career in scenic design. Whether that’s designing for stores, restaurants, film, or theatre- I’m not quite sure yet, but I definitely have found the field I want to stay in,” says Johnson.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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