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Designing ‘Til Her Hands Fall Off

While finishing up part of the set design for the Keuka College spring play last semester, Danica Zielinski broke her hand.

The then-freshman pushed ahead, however, eager to finish her set work and fulfill duties as assistant stage manager for Rabbit, Nina Raine’s dark comedy, staged at the Barn, Keuka’s theatrical performance space.

“I have arthritis and was doing splatter-painting when I heard a crack. But I kept going until I finished and went to the doctor after the set was done.  It hurt, and sure enough, I was in a brace for about two months,” Zielinski recalled.

Perhaps that sacrifice made news that her set design won a merit award, from the Kennedy Center American College Theater (KCACT) Region II festival competition, all the more sweet.

“I was ecstatic,” said the Congers resident.

Red accents enhanced the black themes in Zielinski's set design for Nina Raine's dark comedy, "Rabbit."

“She’d never designed a set before, which makes it remarkable she received that [award] on her first design,” professor of theatre Mark Wenderlich said, adding that Zielinski auditioned for an acting role as a first-semester freshman and he didn’t pick up on her design talents until he observed her drawing during rehearsals.

The KCACT program is “the most prestigious college theater event that there is,” said Wenderlich, noting each regional event features 800 actors and another 400 technicians. Region II include colleges in northeast New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, northern Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Wenderlich serves as a KCACT “respondent” who, like fellow theater specialists, reviews other collegiate acting, production, design, makeup, directing and more and deems chosen ones worthy of professional recognition. The seven regional festivals across the U.S. feed into a national competition for Kennedy Center honors.

Wenderlich said he was impressed with Zielinski’s perseverance and her willingness to work to get the details right.

“I think she’s at the beginning of a promising career,” Wenderlich said. “No first-year students would get this opportunity anyplace else. She’s taking full advantage of it.”

“I’ve done things for high school and afterschool programs, but this was my first serious set design,” Zielinski said. “[The award] was a good confidence booster. I love that the theater department here gives students the opportunity to work in the Barn.”

Zielinski's "Rabbit" set design, for Keuka's spring 2011 production.

Since Rabbit’s entire plot takes place in one night, where the heroine, Bella, is marking her birthday with friends at a bar, just one set was created. It featured a raised platform at the back for flashback scenes of Bella and her father, who is dying,  Zielinski said.

“I found this old photo that was basically people in a bar, set in an old style, very black-and-white. I used it as a jumping point, and conversations with Mark helped to bring that out further. We wanted it to be dark, so we picked a natural black color,” she said, adding that red accents in props, furniture pieces and floor tiles helped carry the themes of sex – “the fun part” – and death.

Zielinski said she enjoys handling several elements of the work herself, not just telling other people how to build it. Getting her hands into extremely precise work like the splatter-painting, for example, is how she rises to her own personal challenge.

Zielinski happens to be studying American Sign Language – English Interpreting with a minor in theater and drama, so use of her hands is rather important to completing her studies. However, her prior injury hasn’t prevented her from diving into set design for Keuka’s next production, Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days, for which she has created a black and white swirled staging known as a “unit set” with a segment for a digital backdrop image to be projected. According to Wenderlich, the audience will sit on three sides of the set, and the action will move quickly between different portions of the staging.

Zielinski's 3-D design for "Book of Days."

Book of Days will be performed Oct. 27-30 in the Barn.

“This is her second (professional) design,” Wenderlich said, adding that over the summer, he realized Zielinski was drawing all her set images by hand. “I asked her if she’d seen Google Sketch – Up (software which enables computerized drawings). I think she spent the next 12 hours straight learning that program and the next morning, I woke up and had a 3-D rendering of the set in my email.”

One of the projected a/v light backdrops for "Book of Days."

According to Zielinski, what began as a hobby is getting more serious as she learns about the technical side of set design. She can definitely see herself contributing to Keuka theatrical performances

“I’m not sure if it’s going to be one of my permanent jobs, because I would like one with ASL,” she said, adding: “I’ll keep doing this until my hand falls off, you could say.”

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