On set for Ondine

by Teresa Lynch

As graduate students, sometimes we feel a teensy bit overwhelmed by the amount of work we take on each semester. Certainly professors do as well. Within this general context,  it is refreshing to find students and faculty spending many of their precious spare hours volunteering. And that’s just what Professor Steve Krahnke, MS student Garrett Poortinga, and PhD student Stephanie Brehe have been doing of late.

Steve discussing tech with members of the crew of Ondine

Specifically, the trio has been working with the theatre program at Bloomington High School North, one of the two local high schools here in Bloomington. As with arts programs in many public schools, BHSN’s theatre program is underfunded. But, rather than fade away, many years ago theatre teacher Francesca Sobrer saw it as an opportunity to get creative. After an introduction by a mutual friend, Francesca welcomed Steve on to help with the program as a volunteer because as he says, he “had been a set-designer longer than [he] had been anything else.”

The ensuing collaboration has provided the high school and the larger theatre-going community of Bloomington a rich and diverse program that Steve says “has become famous for doing really, really big productions with really complicated scenery and having a lot of people involved. It’s a lot of fun.” The three just wrapped up their work on Ondine, an early 20th century play by Jean Giraudoux that tells the enchanting tale of the knight-errant Hans who meets and falls in love with Ondine, a water sprite.

Steve has been working with the program for thirteen years and from time to time has invited graduate students to assist with the technical demands of the program. “One of the things that I really like about this and I think it a real advantage for graduate students like Stephanie and Garrett is to get to know, even on a limited basis, the kids before they even become undergrads. It gives you a better sense of the trajectory and the learning slope. And you realize how smart some of these kids are even in high school. Because when they get to college, they have so many pressures and so many directions, it’s easy to start thinking of them as not being particularly smart, but it’s because they’re distracted by all these new things. But, the core is really smart and totally engageable. I mean, these kids can really focus and that’s what’s so rewarding about it.”

Part of the set design for Ondine

Garrett and Stephanie joined the tech crew effort this semester working on set alongside and lending their expertise to the high schools students. Specifically, Garrett has been working on sound design. His job has been primarily to oversee and guide the technical efforts of one of the high school students who will run the sound during the live show. Garrett’s prior experience has not been primarily with live theatre, per say, but he has extensive experience in live performance set-up with the audio-visual performance group, Savage Henry. Other work he has done within the Telecom department has also given him helpful experience that he puts to good use when assisting the BHSN theatre program. Specifically he says that “being here teaching or being a student in the studio, you’re sitting at a sound board, you’re playing sound effects back as things are happening live in the studio, which I had done plenty of times before. We had live studio audiences for those. It’s pretty much the same thing except it’s a television studio instead of a theatre.” In particular, he says he has also found that “there’s a deficit of sound designers and operators in Bloomington, Indiana. And that I really like doing it.”

Stephanie has used her years of theatre know-how to assist the program with light design, a job that not only requires a significant amount of physicality, but an enormous amount of time on set. Francesca noted that she “really appreciate[s] people coming in and teaching the kids and lending their expertise. Stephanie’s expertise is very extensive and she’s already repaired some things which is a huge help to us … the amount of time she has dedicated is really incredible.”

A cleverly designed tree made from fabric that has been used in many plays including Ondine

Doing these sorts of things makes for what Steve says is, “a really interesting way and a valuable way to connect the academic life to the social life in ways that are unpredictable …  it just makes you seem like a whole person. It’s difficult for graduate students to widen out their lives … but I think it’s important to try to do it. It’s also important to have people who are suggesting that you need to be a person.”

Theatre as an art is cosmopolitan, making it somewhat akin to our field. As Steve sees it “that’s kind of the nice thing about theatre is that it has an organic quality to it so that you can take whatever skills you have and to a certain extent translate them into completely different areas, whether it’s teaching or organizing events or even organizing yourself. There are things that apply …  and why it’s so important to support these kinds of programs.”