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Behind Every Great Scene, Somewhere Off Stage, a Set Designer

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As a young girl, she dreamed of being a park ranger. Or a Great Mouse Detective (the animated mouse version of Sherlock Holmes). She loved spending time outdoors, especially with animals, and enjoyed dressing up her dog and making up stories.

Many years later, that fun-loving, imaginative young girl produced the elaborate set designs for “Pippin,” “Translations” and “Urinetown” — three of Goshen College’s recent main stage productions. To this day, however, Maryn Munley would not call herself “creative.”

“My older sister was very artistic,” says Munley. “She was an art major, and she always seemed incredibly talented and visually in tune, and I was more into animals. Given the choice, I would still pick a dog over a box of crayons.”

Munley refers to a moment at Mundelein High School in Mundelein, Ill., as the beginning of her set design career. She was asked to help out with set design in her high school’s production of “Dancing at Lughnasa.” She painted and learned set design tricks like how to make a plain, flat wall look like a brick wall or how to make a believable building out of plastic foam, assorted metal pieces or piping.

“I never thought I was artistic at all, but it turned out I was pretty good at that type of thing,” she said. “I would be like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know I could do this. I’m surprised this works!’”

She enrolled at Goshen College in the fall of 2008, drawn by Goshen’s small but successful theater program. She took an array of classes she was interested in — many of them theater classes.  In her sophomore year,  she declared a theater major with an environmental science minor.

Originally, Munley was interested in theater for the acting. In  high school and college productions, she had many acting roles – such as Maria in the college’s production of “Twelfth Night”– and genuinely enjoyed her time on stage. However, she realized she had a deeper connection with theater design.

“Being in front of an audience is exhilarating,”  Munley said, “but you could cut that part out and I wouldn’t be hugely upset.”

Munley did have doubts about her decision to major in theater. She doubted whether the major was right for her on those days after she spent nearly 16 hours in the theater. She doubted her choice of major on those days when she thought about the future and wondered where a theater major was going to take her.

Even now Munley would have almost enough credits to double major in environmental science and theater,  but as a senior about to leave for a Study-Service Term in Cambodia, it seems it’s too late.

But Munley is not the type of person to dwell on the “what if’s.” She looks back on her four years in theater, and sees how the years have developed her as a designer and as a person.

“Theater design is so collaborative,” Munley says. “If I were to do just what I wanted to do in set design, it may look cool, but it may not work (for other people)…You learn to be flexible with your own ideas.”

Along with learning to understand and collaborate with other people, like the directors, for example, Munley says she has developed her own organized system of designing a show — a system that has been established only after years of being involved with theatrical productions.

She described the process of designing a Goshen College main stage production from start to finish:

1) Read the script many times; start getting ideas from the script; break down the script into scenes.

2) Write an artistic statement stating goal as a designer, and a second statement stating the plot goal.

3) Begin researching; gather images from the Web and share ideas with the directors, spawning conversation.

4) Build a white model (a small three-dimensional model representative of the stage); later on in the process, build a color model.

5) Create a ground plan (a layout of the walls, platforms, doors).

6) Draft the set (create elevations, structural plans); attend weekly design meetings.

7) Assist on construction of the set.

8) Paint the set.

9) Furnish with set dressings (extra pieces on walls, set details) and set props (any immovable props).

10) Finish with minor details and touch-ups to the set.

“There is definitely a part of me that wants to hyper-focus and do everything,” Munley admits. “But there is no physical way I could do it all. … I would compromise my design so much, just because there wouldn’t be time.”

On the “Urinetown” stage at Goshen College, in the foreground, Brett Conrad and Emily Grimes. Photo courtesy of Goshen College Public Relations.

Thankfully, theater is a collaborative art, and Munley did not have to work alone. She recently completed her senior show project as set designer for the fall main stage, “Urinetown.” She said that she recognizes, more than ever, her need for assistance from many people.

Andrew Moeggenborg, technical director and assistant professor of theater, provided advice while making sure that Munley’s designs were safe and efficient. Doug Caskey, professor of theater, provided guidance and encouragement for Munley to explore her design ideas. In addition, the cast and crew of “Urinetown,” as well as the master carpenter, Alan Smith, devoted many hours to building and painting the set.

“I really don’t see how my design could have been realized without any of these people,” Munley said.

Despite the many challenges of her work, Munley wants to continue to be involved in the drama of theater after graduation.

“Maybe theater education…maybe some work non-profit,” says Munley, sounding increasingly unsure of her future plans. “I have also thought about arts administration…going to grad school…Maybe I need to have some crappy jobs in order to motivate me into finding a good career.” At that, she laughed.

Whatever the future may hold, she is quite certain about a few things: she wants to take a year or two to do service abroad and she wants a dog. The rest of her life is  open and undecided, a prospect that both scares her and excites her.

Caskey is thankful for the hard work Munley has done for past theater productions. He does recognize, however, that the world of theater outside of Goshen is very competitive and would be “a pretty big wake-up call.”

“If one wants to get hired more than once,” Caskey said, “you have to deliver and keep things on track, week after week.” Caskey said he is confident Munley would do just that, whether in graduate school or in theater.

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