The fast-paced comedy “The 39 Steps” is the second production at Cedarville for which a student has co-designed the set. And this year that student is senior Gisela Mullican, a theatre major studying design.
Mullican has worked with theatre professor Robert Clements throughout the design process, as did 2013 graduate Josiah Smith for last winter’s musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Mullican said she thought highly of the opportunity for a student to design the set for a mainstage production but didn’t think it was something she could do. However, as a theatre major, Mullican had to choose a senior project to complete. At the beginning of last semester, Clements approached her with the idea of designing the set for “The 39 Steps.”
“This kind of just fell into my lap and Mr. C was like, ‘I had this idea that maybe we could co-design the set,’” Mullican said. “So I jumped on the opportunity.”
Mullican said collaborating with the show’s director and Clements has played a large role in the set design. Clements would suggest an idea and Mullican would do visual research to develop her own design for the piece that needed to be created.
“It’s been a long process,” she said.
Mullican said she researched the 1930s, in which the play takes place, so that the set could reflect an old theatre. She drew a ground plan of the stage first, built a model of her design second, built a paper model of the design third, and made the loose pieces, such as props and moveable scenery, last.
“She pretty much lived in that design lab for the last half of last semester,” said Heather Barker, a senior theatre major who has worked with Mullican in acting and managing roles. “Even while she was in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as an actor, she was working on the set for ‘39.’ That’s a lot of time.”
Mullican said building the model was her favorite step of the design process and the drawing phase was tough, often leading her to pray for the strength to continue.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the best drawer,” she said. “I’m not the best artist. I made a lot of mistakes. I had to start over on stuff.”
But Mullican said designing the set has taught her the value of hard work and accepting a challenge.
“I couldn’t (quit) knowing that other people were relying on me,” she said.
Mullican estimates she spent over 40 hours designing. Her finished design includes a theatre box on each side of the stage, a brick-wall lining of the back of the stage, lots of props and use of the red curtain.
Eric Rasmussen, a senior theatre major and actor in “The 39 Steps,” said the red curtain is not often used during Cedarville’s performances, so he is excited that Mullican included it in her design.
“I’m super excited to be acting on her set, her premiere set,” Rasmussen said.
Mullican said watching her set come to life is a surreal experience for her.
“It fills me with this overwhelming sense of satisfaction and pride and excitement I can’t even put into words,” she said. “Yet, it is also a humbling experience thinking about all the help that I was given and knowing I couldn’t have done it alone.”
Rasmussen said Mullican’s set is versatile, because the show includes many different scenes that must be performed on the same stage.
Mullican said beginning her design was difficult because she wanted the set to exemplify the high standards to which Cedarville’s theatre department holds its students.
“Initially, it was kind of just an overwhelming thing, because I was designing for a main stage and obviously it was something I’d never done before,” she said. “We take pride in our sets; they’re always well done. We have good designers, so to match that excellence that we’ve seen before, that was kind of an overwhelming task.”
But Mullican’s diligent work ethic allowed her to complete the design with excellence, Barker said.
In addition to designing the set, Mullican also serves as the master electrician for the DeVries Theatre, the Alford Auditorium student supervisor and a student worker in the theatre’s scene shop. Mullican has stage-managed main stage productions and senior theatre projects and acted as Kitty in Cedarville’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
“She’s always juggling like a thousand different things at once, but she’s one of the most respected people in our department because she does so much,” Barker said. “She’s Mr. C’s right-hand woman. There’s so much behind-the-scenes things that people don’t realize, and Gisela is a huge part of that.”
Rasmussen said Mullican is very level-headed and reasonable, particularly in how she approaches executing good ideas.
“She brings a lot of practicality to the theatre department, because we just want to fly away in our thoughts and be like, ‘Oh, we can do anything,’” Rasmussen said. “But she has a very good sense of like, ‘We can do a lot of things and we can accomplish a lot of things, but we need to be realistic about what we can and cannot, should and should not do.’”
Mullican has taken both scenic design courses offered at Cedarville. As a sophomore, Mullican took the first design course, which Rasmussen said is a junior or senior level class. Barker said the second design course was essentially created for Mullican as an independent study because she is so talented.
“She really uses her talent in a way that really glorifies God,” Barker said. “And it’s just awesome to see how she’s grown.”
Barker said Mullican wanted to learn the performance side of theatre, so she expanded her talents by acting in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Mullican said she hasn’t thought extensively about what she wants to do when she graduates, as she has another year at Cedarville. But she said she would like to continue in scenic design and do some kind of mission work through theatre.
Katherine Kerstan, Mullican’s roommate, said Mullican’s willingness to help others is shown in the littlest of things, such as making time for people or making bed lifts for Kerstan when the purchased ones did not meet Cedarville’s safety requirements.
“There’s no one that works harder than Gisela,” Kerstan said. “If you need her, she’s there, and she’ll put her heart and soul into whatever she’s doing.”
Anna Dembowski is a sophomore journalism major and assistant campus news editor for Cedars. She likes nearly anything that is the color purple and enjoys spelling the word “agathokakological.”