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Combining engineering and arts in theater set design

Alan Flurry

Hannah Fordham, a third-year student from Statesboro, came to the University of Georgia expecting to major in engineering. But the high school percussionist missed missed performing so she added a theater major, started taking acting classes and then discovered set design—where her passion for the arts could draw on her engineering skills:

“Engineering helps me think about things from a practical standpoint,” she said. “Set designers will have awesome ideas of things that look really cool, but then they aren’t functional.”

She recently worked on “Acworth, 92,” which has a car as a central stage prop. In the show actors have fight scenes around the car, dance on the car and lay in the car. Coupled with a small stage, this presented a design challenge.

“If people stand on the set piece, dance on the set piece, if the set piece has to be moved around, how do we make it safe for the actors to use? And how do we make it so it’s not going to break after use after use after use?”

For this project, she made a box on wheels but had to make sure the wheels locked so it didn’t roll across the stage.

“It was making sure that anything someone was going to step on was reinforced so the bottom didn’t break out,” she said. “If it was something they weren’t supposed to sit on, I didn’t reinforce it. But did have to remind the actors ‘don’t sit on the doors.’ The safety aspect is not usually thought of.”

The best advice she got for the project was: “Only go as difficult as you can make something well. Make something simple. Tell people that’s a car. If you try to make a car, that doesn’t look right, they’ll criticize. People are willing to believe what you tell them.”

It’s the advice Fordham followed to make a more abstract version of a car for the production.

Her innovative design work was nominated for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C., where she got to go and take master classes in set design.

Terrific story of a student discovering the best ways to make the most of her many talents. Also a great example of why engineering in the liberal arts learning environment of a major research university is such a necessary combination.

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