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ISSUE 119 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/2/2005

Festival visual design dazzles

By Tom Lubanovic
Graphic Editor

Friday, December 2, 2005

Christmas comes but once a year, and for most of that year at St. Olaf people are making elaborate plans for the festival for which St. Olaf is so famous. It is a large production, involving six conductors, five choirs and the St. Olaf Orchestra. Before the show can begin, however, the sets and programs must be designed.

The work starts in January. The set designer Judy Swanson ‘57, who enlists her entire family to help in the construction process, works with Pastor Bruce Benson and the five ensemble directors to come up a new theme each year.

With such a knowledgeable group, “things emerge, sometimes real quickly,” Swanson said.

After letting the ideas rest for several months, the theme will evolve or certain pieces of literature will be incorporated and different visual ideas will be evaluated.

People need images to incorporate into their worship, and many media pieces create an inviting space out of what is normally a gymnasium.

Colors and images are important throughout the room. Banner hangings are placed over the doors opposite the stage to make the entire room thematically coherent.

These additions also give the choirs an opportunity to enjoy the set, since most of the visuals are to their sides or behind them.

The evolution of the set begins with different phrases and sketches. Eventually a decision is made, such as this year’s overarching theme, “O come to us, Abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.”

After an idea is approved, Swanson begins designing set backdrops and programs, creating a color swatch to give a particular impression. This year’s set uses many rich, dark hues of purple, blue, green and orange, which emphasizes the theme of light and life.

The backdrop is based on an abstracted “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with large shapes of clouds and fields. The theme of light is emphasized with sun and star imagery, with some constellations subtly tucked away in the backdrop.

Swanson uses these designs in the audience’s programs as icons to show the theme.

Another part of the many-layered theme includes plants and growth as a symbol of life, including the pomegranate, a Middle Eastern fruit with Biblical symbolism.

The program, originally made by paper cut-out, is scanned and combined with lettering before being sent to the printer. This lettering is also hand designed and edited until it is just right.

In the last weeks preceding performances, the oversized Styrofoam letters used for the set are cut out from scrap sheets and painted by Swanson's son, Noel, in her garage. She finishes work on the program and banner hangings.

Many other groups, including the lighting team and facilities workers, do their part to get Skoglund ready. Sharing time with basketball players and physical education classes, these groups move all of the necessary equipment on stage, using cherry pickers to get to the ceiling and lowering giant light supports.

These efforts will be appreciated and admired during this weekend’s performances. The set requires an incredible amount of work, rivaling the hours that choir members spend in rehearsal.

If this is your first time attending the concert or you have never been particularly attentive to the visuals, take a look at the colors and set work before the music begins.

“This year the imagery is more beautiful than ever,” Swanson said.

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