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Designing ‘Guernica’

Analise Lipari | Wednesday, February 25, 2009

One aspect of “Guernica,” the latest Mainstage production of the Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) Department at Notre Dame, which might go unnoticed to the untrained eye, is its list of credits, and one of the show’s top design credits goes to a student. Kimberly Mering, a senior FTT major from Baraboo, Wis., is the set designer for “Guernica.” Mering is taking on the project for her senior thesis in FTT.Designing the set for “Guernica” has been a challenging and collaborative task for Mering. “In order to design the set, I had to work from the script and in discussion with the director and other designers to come up with a design that works for the show and in the space where the piece is being performed,” Mering said. That space, the Philbin Theater, is known as a “black box” theater, a versatile facility in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center that functions as something of a blank slate for each new production. The set itself, Mering said, draws its inspiration from the interaction between man and nature, a theme that runs through the production.”The set is based on the idea that while humans intrude on natural settings, causing dissonance in something that should be beautiful, eventually nature is able to restore itself by overwhelming the intrusion,” she said. Her design incorporates a variety of “natural looking elements,” including sand, rocks, water and seashells. Still, the human touch lingers on the environment Mering has designed.”There is human ‘stuff’ all over the place,” she said, blending and eroding into the larger landscape surrounding it.The process of designing was a difficult one, Mering admitted, and unlike her previous challenges on other productions. “Designing and building was tough,” she said. “I never realized just how much goes into getting a design from that first reading … to up-and-running by opening night.”But it was really rewarding to finally see everything as it came together after months of work.” Designing the set for “Guernica” presented another layer of pressure for Mering, as the project is effectively her senior thesis, the culmination of four years of work in the major. Mering said that while the design is now a cohesive whole, the process of working towards that design had its twists and turns.”I knew I wanted to work on a creative project,” Mering said. “What really excites me about theater is the chance to be part of a collaborative process that results in something as beautiful as ‘Guernica.'” Through the careful guidance of several members of the FTT faculty, Mering decided to take on the set design of a mainstage show, leading to her position as the “Guernica” set designer.If students are wavering in their decision to see “Guernica,” Mering said the play will no doubt interest them long after the final curtain falls.”It’s a very tragically beautiful show,” she said. “You’ll walk out thinking about something you saw or heard happen to the characters.”Mering’s history with FTT is a long one; she first encountered the department during her freshman year, acting in the mainstage production of “Wings.” After that early foray into acting, however, she found herself more drawn to the technical side of production. “Since [“Wings”] I’ve been mostly behind the scenes,” Mering said. “I’ve been the Assistant Set Designer on a few shows [2008’s ‘The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,’ among others] and the Light Board operator on ‘The Mousetrap.'”As an employee of the scene shop at the Performing Arts Center, Mering has also helped build the sets for major FTT productions for the past few years.Mering actually came to the University with the intent of studying political science. But early involvement with on-campus theater productions got her hooked, and by her junior year, she had declared FTT as her major. Mering said the department’s faculty were her strongest influences during her undergraduate career, leading to her work with “Guernica.””They’re supportive and excited about what they do and what we students do,” she said. Ultimately, the power of theater is what’s kept Mering involved these past four years, from that first role in “Wings” to her senior thesis.”Just having the chance to be a part of a live performance in any capacity is very rewarding,” she said. “Live theater is such a powerful medium, and the more I learn about it, the more I realize how much this is true.”