Student set designer Alexandra Grabow talks love of design, process for TDPS’s ‘70 Scenes of Halloween’

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Alexandra Grabow/Courtesy

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The UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, or TDPS, hired a group of Bay Area professionals for its design team on its upcoming production — with the exception of one. That exception is senior theater and art practice double major Alexandra Grabow — the only student designer for the show.

Grabow is in charge of set design for the production, “70 Scenes of Halloween,” which will open Oct. 11. The play, written by Jeffrey M. Jones, is based on the story of him and his wife, Joan, on Halloween, dealing not only with ghosts and ghouls but also with the idea that their marriage may be failing. While the rest of the members of the design team have student assistants, Grabow is the only student taking on a lead designing role for the show.

Now something she sees herself doing as a career, designing was not always Grabow’s life plan.

I was super into marine science (growing up) and I thought I was going to do that,” Grabow said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “But then I took this art class my senior year of high school — and I’d always been crafty as a kid but had never really pursued it —  and I took this class and thought, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.”

Hesitant to major only in art, Grabow set out to find a supplemental major or minor. She initially tried out architecture, which she found not to be quite the right fit because of the permanency that comes with the territory. This led her to the theater department, where she discovered she could still design and build, but on a temporary level.

“I loved the beginning of (architectural projects) — the research and the sketching, the start,” Grabow said. “So I looked around for something else and realized maybe I do want to build and create things, but temporarily. That’s how I fell into theater. It’s still the same, but it’s still so different.”  

Since finding her place in the theater department, Grabow has assisted on multiple projects and took the lead on set design for TDPS’s last production, “All in the Timing.” While “All in the Timing” had an entire production team of students, “70 Scenes of Halloween” brought in professionals.

Grabow’s advisor, however, offered her the opportunity to design sets anyway. She jumped at the chance. Despite being on the same level as the professionals involved in this production, Grabow says she still sometimes notices the difference in experience.

I didn’t really think about it at first, like ‘oh I’m just going to be doing this studio show.’ But, it really hit me all of a sudden, and I realized I was not looking at other peers, even though I’ve worked with (these professionals) in the past,” Grabow said. “I love that they’re treating me professionally, but there (have) been times where I’ve been very confused. I don’t think they realize it because I’m in this professional setting, but there (have) been times of not knowing what they’re talking about and I’ve been honest about it. I just ask a lot of questions.”

As for her process, Grabow has a structure that she sticks by to create her designs. This starts with reading over the script three times.

“I read it for the first time just to read it, for context. The second time is to catch what I missed, to really get an understanding,” Grabow said. “The third time is the longest. I sit down and take notes on when a person enters, exits. I make a log of all these entrances and exits and take note of when weird stuff happens.”

After her three reads for “70 Scenes of Halloween,” she brought in her notes to talk through logistics with director Christopher Herald, before beginning her sketches. This led to her creation of a 1/4-inch scale model, complete with molding, doors and furniture, which she presented at the first rehearsal. This is when most designers would step back and wait for their work to be built, but Grabow has a unique position in that she is actually involved in the building of her sets.

“Along with scenic design, I’m also involved in scenic work, in terms of construction and painting — I work in the TDPS shop as a work-study student,” Grabow said. “So I’m also side by side with the technical director, building the sets that I designed. It’s really fun.”

Also working for BareStage Productions  — she is simultaneously designing the set for “1984,” which will be premiering in the same week as “70 Scenes of Halloween” — Grabow has a consistent stream of design projects that she works on throughout the year. With this kind of schedule, Grabow experiences moments of overwhelming stress yet ultimately, is reminded of how much she loves pursuing design.

“I go through phases because I get the offer and I’m excited. … Then, you get going and you run into issues — one time I was talking to my roommate and (I) said, ‘I’m never designing again,’ ” Grabow said. “But then, the set started coming together these past few days, and I know all I want to do is design. Give me another one.”

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].