Technical theater seniors create vibrant sets
May 25, 2023
Senior Mark Hsieh joined technical theater his senior year, but that didn’t stop him from creating intricate set designs that brought productions to life. His experience with theater started with church plays at Whittier Christian High School. Although Hsieh wasn’t involved personally, he knew people who were.
“Some of my best memories were made connecting to the people in the sound booth with lighting and projections,” Hsieh said. “Theater is a place I found community in.”
Hsieh struggled during his first years of high school. In second grade he was diagnosed with ADHD.
“Freshman through junior year I was really disorganized,” Hsieh said. “I had lots of missing assignments and was struggling to keep up with my peers.”
It wasn’t until junior year that Hsieh started medication, after which he realized he could be responsible and make important decisions.
Hsieh directed his newfound motivation towards technical theater after seeing the 2022 production of Matilda. The prop and set detail inspired him.
“What really excited me was seeing how much care people put into researching and designing their sets,” Hsieh said. “I love it when a production puts their hearts into the story that they’re telling.”
Hsieh joined MADE (Mechanical Arts Design Engineering) his junior year, a program which applies physics to create bio-mechanical models. The program also helped him think through problems step-by-step and apply basic engineering skills. Hsieh incorporated these concepts into his set designs; Hsieh is most proud of his design for the iceberg in The Skin of Our Teeth.
“I wanted to create something dynamic and 3D,” Hsieh said. “I started by creating a skeleton. It had to be on wheels since it would be moving across the stage. I also had to think about space for actors since Marco [LaRosa], who played the mammoth, would be on the iceberg.”
Hsieh’s biggest contributions was his work in Bright Star. The musical relied on set pieces that could be reused for multiple scenes and changed quickly. Hsieh solved this by placing every piece on wheels, including 6 walls, a cabin, and a double-sided desk. Hsieh also designed the backdrop by tracing the image used for promotional posters and painting it the matching color scheme.
For his work in Bright Star, Hsieh was nominated by both the Orange County Cappies and the JRAYs.
Hsieh will be attending Cal State Long Beach this fall. Although he is going in undeclared, he is leaning towards a degree in human health and services. Hsieh hopes to join the CSULB theater program, trying his hand at costume design.
“I’ve had very supportive friends who have always been there for me,” Hsieh said. “I want to stay connected with the theater community. They’re just brilliant people.”
Senior Janae Pease first participated in theater performing in middle school musicals. Her friends often got lead roles, but her stage fright kept her in the background. To stay connected with friends, Pease enrolled in technical theater freshman year. Starting as a set crew member, Pease is now a prop designer and stage manager.
Pease’s first experience with prop design was in the 2020 production of Matilda, and it would be her only experience for a while. “Sophomore year we were online so I didn’t do anything,” Pease said. “Matilda and The Little Prince were my introduction to really thinking about what I want to do.”
FUHS Theater director Michael Despars praised Janae’s dedication. “Janae is the only prop designer I’ve ever had who has them ready for rehearsals,” Despars said. “She puts a lot of time and energy into that, and it definitely shows.”
Pease was motivated to become technical director her junior year, taking on the position passed down by her friend and former stage manager, Savannah Worrell (class of 2022). Pease credits Worrell with her introduction to stage management.
“I didn’t think that I would be a good stage manager, let alone a good leader,” Pease said. “But I was able to take what I learned from Savannah, incorporate it into my process, and make it my own.”
As stage manager, Pease heavily relies on her communication and problem-solving skills. She organizes the backstage area, teaches actors about the props, and troubleshoots when problems arise. During rehearsals, Pease marks every movement that actors and set pieces make in her own master script.
Pease’s communication skills have also helped her connect with others in theater. “With theater, you get a lot of new people coming in,” Pease said. “It’s really helpful to learn about those people. When you see them around the quad it’s a recognizable face, not only for me, but for them, too.”
Pease doesn’t just organize the props on the stage. She organizes people as well. “I manage the actors when Despars can’t,” Pease said. “I’m there for the cast to have someone to go to, someone they can ask questions when they feel comfortable.”
Despars also commended Pease for being effective yet kind as a stage manager. “In the professional world, the stage manager is running the show,” Depsars said. “Janae finds a really good balance between getting the job done, being compassionate, and knowing how to talk to people.”
Bright Star was the first musical Pease called cues for, meaning she times lights and sounds to go off at the right moment. Not only did she pay extra attention to timing, but she also dealt with the adjustment to the newly refurbished Fullerton Auditorium. The fly system– a rigging in which set pieces are brought down from the ceiling– added extra safety concerns.
Even while directing traffic behind the scenes, Pease also designs props. Her use of real food for props means more work for her, but results in a more convincing experience.
“It’s difficult because I have to think about actors’ allergies and how to clean up on stage,” Pease said. “It’s a lot of work to make it look as real as possible.”
Pease’s personal favorite prop is Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake in Matilda, which has earned her many accolades in theater competitions. Other food props of hers include sandwiches and potatoes in The Skin of Our Teeth and “alcoholic” juice cocktails in Bright Star.
Pease pays close attention to detail when designing props. “The bookshelves for Bright Star have books with the dated 2006,” Pease said. “No one will see them, but I will know. All it takes is one judge or Cappies member to say ‘that doesn’t actually exist in this time period.’”
Stage management has encouraged growth in Pease’s personality. “Before, I was really introverted,” Pease said. “I didn’t wanna speak up. I just went with everything even if I didn’t agree with it. Now, I’m definitely more willing to step up.”
Recently, Pease won a scholarship for stage management and qualified for nationals in prop design at the 2023 California State Thespian Festival. For her work in Bright Star, she received one Cappies nomination and two JRAY nominations.
Pease will be attending Fullerton College and majoring in technical theater. She hopes to work in professional film for prop design and stage management.
“I started out with being an actor and working with my friends,” Pease said. “Now I get to work behind the scenes and help create characters that are memorable to the audience.”