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Inside the Arts: The scene shop prepares for Dance Ensemble show

Justin+Thomas%2C+associate+professor+of+scenic+and+lighting+design%2C+examines+the+set+for+Dance+Ensemble%E2%80%99s+%E2%80%9CSalt+Marsh+Suite%E2%80%9D+set.+Photo+by+Sarina+Lincoln.
Justin Thomas, associate professor of scenic and lighting design, examines the set for Dance Ensemble’s “Salt Marsh Suite” set. Photo by Sarina Lincoln.

On any given day in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, you will find Eric Sanning ‘89 and Kate Baumgartner ‘15 hard at work in Grinnell College’s scene shop, a bright and open space complete with two lovable therapy dogs.

Sanning, the College’s technical director and Baumgartner, the department’s post-baccalaureate fellow, form the team behind the scenes that brings every theatrical production to life through their leadership and work in the shop.

Currently, Sanning and Baumgartner are assisting in the production of Salt Marsh Suite Dance Ensemble/ACTIVATE, the Grinnell College Dance Ensemble’s spring production. The piece is a collaboration with installation designer and scientist Carol Burch-Brown, choreographer Ann Kilkelly and the ensemble’s Professor Celeste Miller, theatre and dance.

Sanning says Burch-Brown’s vision which is inspired by climate change includes a lot of visual imagery:“There are a multitude of projection screens, there are four very large projectors that are projecting on these gigantic moveable walls.”

This weekend the scene shop staff, composed of 12 dedicated students, will enter into technical rehearsals for the show where they “put all the pieces of the puzzle together,” according to Sanning.

“All of them show up wanting to be here and wanting to work and wanting to learn and do which is great; it makes our job fabulous,” said Sanning.

With their help, Sanning and Baumgartner produce all technical aspects of the show.

Sanning said of his position: “I take the vision of designers and move it from paper vision into reality. I’ll do a whole set of detailed drawings on how we’re going to build and execute what they’ve envisioned.”

Justin Thomas, associate professor of scenic and lighting design, examines the set for Dance Ensemble’s “Salt Marsh Suite” set. Photo by Sarina Lincoln.

Some negotiation is required to bring a set to life because of the limitations of space, time, and resources, but Sanning said it’s all part of the creative process: “I prefer to say I’m in the ‘yes business,’ not the ‘no business.’”

When it comes to the shop, the bulk of the job is impressive. As Sanning put it, the staff works on “pulling props, building tables, building platforms, flats and pools and ponds and stairs or hanging lights, focusing video projectors, testing wireless microphones.”

As Baumgartner said, “just anything.” When the staff is in the middle of a complicated production, the workday can last as long as 14 hours.

“We are not short of things to do. We are always busy. It’s a job that requires a lot of multitasking,” Sanning said.

Although recently preoccupied with “Salt Marsh Suite,” the shop often works on multiple productions at a time. Sanning characterized the recent weeks of singular focus as “rare.” While the work is tough, it’s also rewarding.

“This is definitely one of the aspects where sometimes you hear students say, ‘Oh my professors were awesome, my classes of course were fulfilling, this is why I was at Grinnell — but the thing that I am going to miss, the thing that was maybe my family — was working on productions. … We’re pretty lucky here that we get to do this educational thing that isn’t so much tied to your academic grade point average. I think what we have is pretty special,” Baumgartner said.

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