Bringing the Magic of Alice in Wonderland to Life

~ By Tony Vessels

Alice in Wonderland is a classic story that many people have experienced in one way or another, either through watching the Disney film or reading the story for themselves. There are many different versions of Lewis Carroll’s classic story. But in all of these various tellings of this tale, there is one thing in common about the world in which they take place.

The titular character always begins her journey by following a fantastical sight of a white rabbit, nervously running behind schedule. As Alice curiously follows the rabbit, she falls down a hole to a brand new world. One filled with amazing sights, sounds, and fantastic characters.

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For Colorado State University’s production of Alice in Wonderland, one of the challenges, and of course a big payoff, is having the various designers and technical team build this fantastical world and bring it to life. CSU is lucky to have some of the best designers at the university level. With award winning students and faculty, bringing Alice in Wonderland to the stage is exactly the kind of challenge for which these talented men and women are suited.

“I really like the initial process when you get the script and you try to figure out how you can best capture the world of the script,” says Roger Hanna, a veteran set designer and recent addition to CSU theatre’s design faculty.

Hanna, a multi award-nominated designer, comes from years of experience in designing sets all across the nation for numerous theatres and universities before joining CSU last fall.

“If you can really nail down the right world for the play,” he continues, “then everything else follows.”

Andrew Killion, fresh off a win at Region 7’s American College Theater Festival for best Lighting Design and a recent CSU graduate, is the lead lighting designer for Alice in Wonderland.

“My favorite aspect [of lighting design] is the ability to play. It’s not just basic lights on/lights off,” he says. “You have the ability to create moods. You get to create the story of the play through the light.”

Joining Hanna and Killion is Alex Billman, senior theatre major and sound designer; John Erickson, senior theatre major and projections designer; Siobhan Gleason, senior theatre major and costume designer; and Mackenzie Cunningham, sophomore theatre major and properties master. All of these designers are incredibly passionate for what they do, and it shows in the work they produce.

Many times, as audiences have walked into CSU’s performance spaces for a show at the University Center for the Arts, they have all been amazed at the first sight they see: the stage. This includes the set, the lights, any sounds that are playing. Before the show has even started, the amazing look of the space has already captivated the audience and won them over.

Alice in Wonderland is no exception. Audiences will walk into the University Theatre to see a breathtaking array of colors and various levels. Though the designs may sound intricate and complicated to talk about, the beauty of it is really in their simplicity. The stage has been redesigned to look like a circle, giving a feeling like “telling stories around a campfire,”  Hanna tells us. All the technical work strives to help naturally guide the audience to accept the world that they are experiencing, and to allow them to be a part of the story being told.

John Erickson has proven himself as an exceptional projections designer, working on shows both at CSU and OpenStage Theatre & Company’s recent production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As an opportunity to combine his two loves of film and theatre, Erickson has latched on to projections design as it is emerging as a new element of theatrical design.

In speaking about his work on Alice in Wonderland, Erickson says, “I actually drew inspiration from the way they used to make the old Disney animated movies.”

Erickson pays homage to Disney’s multiplane filming technique in his design, in which they would move multiple pieces of artwork past the camera at various speeds and at various distances from one another in order to give viewers a feeling of depth.

Techniques such as this are the things that separate Erickson’s designs from others at the university level, along with the fact that projection design is still relatively rare in universities today, adding yet another element that puts CSU theatre above others.

Siobhan Gleason is another seasoned student designer, having developed her skills in costuming. Gleason looked back at the original illustrations done by Lewis Carroll himself to really get a good grasp at who these characters are and connecting with them as real people. From there, it was about figuring out how the reasons behind why they would look or dress as they do.

“I really like putting a lot of detail in the costumes – for me it’s about creating a world from the bottom up,” she says. “A pocket watch could mean a lot for somebody,” she continues. “Or a hat could have a lot of meaning behind it.”

Gleason prides herself on being able to find the details that truly fit with each character’s costumes. This shows when looking at the characters of Alice in Wonderland walk on stage in full costume and being able to really believe each one. Acting is really only part of what brings these characters to life, and Gleason’s work is another piece of the puzzle that truly brings all these characters together.

Alex Billman has one of those important jobs. As the lead sound designer for the show, it is up to him to really complement the world seen on stage by creating the sounds that one would normally hear from such a world (even if it is one as ridiculous as Wonderland).

“It’s interesting because it’s the one not physical part of theatre,” he says with a smile. “With sound you work with the speakers you have to try to make that space alive – I’m trying to take everyday things and bend them a little [to make] the sound you’d expect, but with a twist.”

When watching Alice in Wonderland, one can expect to see a funny, exciting, and charming rendition of this classic tale. Dr. Eric Prince, the director of the production, assures us that this is not the Disney version of the story. Prince has written a brand new script for this production, based on Lewis Carroll’s original Alice story, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. He is confident that audiences will enjoy the fact that this is truly a telling of the original story.

With the combination of genuine comedy, the original telling, great acting, and a fantastic design team bringing the world alive on the stage, Dr. Prince is right to be confident. Bringing this fantasy to real life in front of our eyes is no small feat. It has taken many hours of work from many different men and women. But the final product is a piece of theatre that everyone both on the production team and at CSU should be proud of.

“Anybody’s going to enjoy this show,” Dr. Prince says.

There are many great moments to look forward to in any theatrical production, and Alice in Wonderland is no exception. From the big musical numbers, to bursting out laughing during the mad tea party, or being amazed when a piece of the stage itself begins to turn underneath Alice’s feet, the entire team is striving towards creating a world that the audience can believe in and feel as if they are part of the story.

With a smile, Killion says he loves to design theatre because, “you get to bring the vision of the director to life with your design.” With passion like that, you can believe this show will be good.