St. Olaf College | News

Student’s scenic design work earns ticket to national conference

Ben Olsen
Ben Olsen ’13 earned a scholarship to attend the United States Institute for Theater Technology’s national conference next week. Photo by Braden Larson ’13

Ben Olsen ’13 will head to this month’s United States Institute for Theater Technology National Conference in Milwaukee thanks to a scholarship he won in honor of his scenic design work.

Olsen received the scholarship at the USITT Regional Conference for his set design from Three Sisters, a play that the St. Olaf College Theater Department produced last spring.

The four-day conference will bring together a number of theater professionals, graduate school representatives, and vendors. In addition to attending sessions focused on topics like scene painting and theater planning, Olsen will also interview with representatives from scenic design fellowship programs.

“I hope to commit the next one or two years to expanding my skill set in the scene shop by working with a professional theater company,” Olsen says. “These fellowship programs would treat me like a professional collaborator as I learn to paint backdrops and use more involved stage technology like automated scenery.”

Olsen majors in English as well as architecture and design, a program of study he developed himself through the college’s Center for Integrative Studies. He has found that designing theater sets draws extensively on both of these disciplines.

“Scenic design is cradled in the arms of literature and architecture,” Olsen says. “It Involves both interpreting a text and visualizing it in spatial terms.”

When working on a set design, Olsen must also draw on the full breadth of academic disciplines that he has studied at St. Olaf.

“Theater is about everything but theater,” he says. “You need to have a grasp on art history, philosophy, literary criticism, and the tools of an architect. All these fields enhance the final product, since so many ideas go into one design.”

To illustrate his interdisciplinary approach to scenic design, Olsen talks about his most recent work, the set for The Tempest, which will serve as the capstone project for his architecture and design major.

Olsen began by analyzing Shakespeare’s text, paying particularly close attention to references to the vegetation and landscape of the fictional island. He then looked for images that resembled this reading of the island, which led him to the work of Winslow Homer, who is best known for his watercolors of seascapes and maritime subjects. He proceeded to dig deeper into art history, tracing Homer’s influences back to painters working in Shakespeare’s day.

In addition, Olsen read through literary criticism of The Tempest in order to figure out the power dynamics and characterizations in the play and allowed these bigger themes to influence how the play is staged.

The final product of all this research, drafting, and model-making can be seen in April, when the St. Olaf Theater Department will produce The Tempest using Olsen’s set.