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Northwestern graduate student designs set for existential slasher comedy

Andrea Michelson, Reporter

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On a stage just 20 feet wide, Northwestern graduate student Arnel Sancianco was tasked with bringing a world of horror to a college dorm room.

The play, “Hookman,” premiered at Steep Theatre on April 20 and runs through May 27. The existential slasher comedy was written by Lauren Yee and directed by Vanessa Stalling.

In the play, a college student, Lexi, is haunted by the memory of a car accident that killed her best friend as well as an urban legend her mother told her about the Hookman, a hook-handed man who hides in the backseat of cars. The play is anchored in Lexi’s dorm room, but multiple scenic elements transform the college backdrop into a horror setting.

“From the get-go Arnel had really great ideas in how to make all of those worlds really fluid in terms of how we transition in and out of them, and also how to make them feel very surreal, which is part of what the main character in the play is going through in dealing with trauma,” production manager Catherine Allen said.

Sancianco said he was drawn to set design when he took a class at University of California, Irvine. His first design was an eight-inch model for the musical “Rent,” and though the design was not up to par with his recent work, he said he was drawn to the opportunity to create a world onstage.

Allen said Steep is one of Chicago’s many storefront theaters with small spaces and tight budgets. The production team was aware of these constraints but refused to compromise its vision, Allen said.

For Sancianco, adaptability was especially crucial in designing the car scenes. Three separate scenes depict a car accident that haunts the main character throughout the play, he said.

“It’s sort of an accident that the car comes out of her closet, but it becomes this monster that’s in her closet,” Sancianco said. “The Hookman is that manifestation; he’s like the captain of that ship. It’s a perfect metaphor that just worked for this play.”

Sancianco said he designed the dorm room with the nuances of each character’s personality in mind. In production meetings, he said he wanted to curate the props the team got from donations and thrift shops. He chose details like desk organizers and posters to reflect the traits of each character.

Sound designer Jeffrey Levin said these minute details are especially valuable within the horror genre. He said horror movies commonly feature detailed soundscapes to prime the audience for jump scares, and visual details achieve the same effect.

“Even if you’re not so closely trying to determine what exactly is on that poster, you’re still in a real dorm room,” Levin said. “So when something scary happens, it hits you harder because you’re so focused on what you’re seeing.”

Sancianco said he especially enjoyed drawing on his own college experience. He said his set was inspired by his own college dorm room and the dorm rooms of his old friends.

He added that theater communicates issues to the audience in a way that cannot be accomplished through film, particularly as the theatermakers and audience share a common space. This unique connection with the audience is one of the most rewarding parts of his job, he said.

“There’s something about being in that same room and sharing a ceiling with a character, and experiencing that connection that I think is important in theater,” Sancianco said.

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