Behind the scenes with student designers, directors running The Dolphin Show’s ‘Matilda the Musical’


Michelle Sheen/The Daily Northwestern

A team of students behind the scenes contribute to every aspect of ‘Matilda the Musical.’

Alexa Crowder, Assistant Copy Chief

If you have the chance to see The Dolphin Show’s production of “Matilda the Musical” this month, take a moment between the high-energy musical numbers and quirky, inspiring story to look up. You’ll see an intricate false proscenium — the part of a theater that frames the stage — the product of 100 hours of digital drafting and the manual labor of about 25 people.

This process was engineered and led by Communication sophomore Juan Barrera Lopez, who serves as one member of a multi-faceted team that runs the show behind the scenes — from design to construction to real-time cues.

Barrera Lopez’s responsibility as a technical director is to turn the designers’ ideas into a tangible reality on stage. For “Matilda the Musical,” he said this process required 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of wood for the hanging set pieces alone.

“A group of incredibly talented artists (gives) you their ideas and how they want the show to look and feel,” Barrera Lopez said. “You help them get there and figure out what is realizable with the budget we have, the materials we have and the skill we have.”

A backstage crew is necessary for every campus production, and some students, like Communication sophomore Melanie Ahn, study the discipline academically.

A theatre major focusing on scenic design, Ahn is an assistant scenic designer for The Dolphin Show’s musical. She has also been a lighting designer for ReFusionShaka among other student dance productions.

Ahn said her childhood experiences influenced her interest in pursuing theatrical design as a possible career.

“I grew up in a lot of different places and moved around a lot, so I was always around different scenery,” Ahn said. “Being very cognizant of how those different places and floor plans and areas and neighborhoods affected me is what drives me and makes me so interested in this design world specifically.”

Designers find their way into the craft through a variety of paths. While she started Northwestern primarily involved in the fashion world, Weinberg senior Annalise Biesterfeld said she realized she could merge her extracurricular passion for theatre through costume design.

This year’s Dolphin Show is Biesterfeld’s biggest project to date. As the lead costume designer, they are responsible for dressing 30 actors with an average of four costumes for each.

Biesterfeld said “Matilda the Musical” provided an opportunity to play with color contrasts: The set is black and white, the lighting is colorful and the costumes incorporate aspects of both. The schoolchildren wear muted white and gray uniforms accented with brighter, personalized accessories.

“It’s really fun and kind of a twist on the uniform, because in this world, children are not really given a lot of freedom in how they dress,” she said. “We saw this as a little symbolic way to bring in youth and fun and happiness.”

Biesterfeld’s creative process started with “inspiration design planning” for each character’s style, pulling ideas from Pinterest, paintings, objects and clothing. Then, along with their assistants, they sourced all of the costume pieces from Amazon, Etsy and the actors’ personal wardrobes.

For Barrera Lopez, technical theatre is a rewarding process, especially — in his case — when it comes to ensuring the stage is safe.

“Someone needs to make sure that the site is safe, and that’s us,” he said. “It’s nice to know that you’re doing that in the background. No one will see you, no one will know you’re there. But it needs to happen and it’s really gratifying to know that it’s working.”

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Twitter: @AlexaCrowder

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