The Making of a Musical

June 17, 2024

By Jessica Firpi ’11

Final dance number of The Prom at Rollins College
Photo by Scott Cook.

A behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Prom reveals the transformative impact of purpose-built spaces that empower our students to shine.

Theatre major Rachel Kalski ’25 is beaming. She stands tall on a dressing platform in the new Tiedtke Theatre & Dance Centre’s Costume Design and Technology Lab while getting fitted for her costume—a steel-blue prom dress designed by Kelsey Grace Kidd ’25, student costume lead for The Prom. A recent Broadway hit, the musical comedy tells the story of a spunky, small-town high-schooler who connects with four eccentric actors from New York City after the PTA threatens to cancel prom to prevent a same-sex couple from attending.

While placing pins to mark the dress’ new hemline, Kidd listens intently as Kalski talks through her movements on stage for the final number. The two theater artists realize almost simultaneously that the next time Kalski will be wearing Kidd’s expertly tailored costume will be on opening night—the moment just around the corner that they’ve all been working for.

Since opening in fall 2023, the 16,165-square-foot Tiedtke Theatre & Dance Centre— which was made possible by a $5 million gift from Philip and Sigrid Tiedtke and generous support from Sally K. Albrecht ’76—is already strengthening Rollins’ role as a leader in performing arts education.

The center combines cutting-edge technologies with intimate spaces that foster hands-on learning, radical experimentation, and student leadership. Classrooms dedicated to design and technology, dance, acting, and directing are equipped to help students create work uniquely their own and sharpen their skills on the stone of experience. Above all, the new facility creates much-needed cohesion for the department and allows students to realize productions at the historic Annie Russell Theatre on a whole new level.

With the musical The Prom closing out the Annie’s 91st season, we’re breaking the fourth wall, so to speak, to show you how the various elements of production—lighting, dance, costuming, acting, directing—all come together on stage and have been enhanced by the spaces in the new facility.

So take your seats—the curtain is rising on a new performing arts era at Rollins.

Student set designer Juliana Melendez ’25 (center) and theatre design artist-in-residence Lisa Cody-Rapport (right).
Student set designer Juliana Melendez ’25 (center) and theatre design artist-in-residence Lisa Cody-Rapport (right).Photo by Scott Cook.

Making a Scene

The set designs and props quite literally set the stage. Student set designers like The Prom’s Juliana Melendez ’25 use drafting programs Vectorworks and Procreate to design their visions and build a mini model to scale before getting approval from the directors. Using sophisticated equipment like a 17-by-32 moving painting wall for accessing backdrops, student designers, painters, and carpenters work with senior theatre design artist-in-residence Lisa Cody-Rapport and technical director Robert Miller to turn digital renderings and hand-drawn sketches into fully realized, moveable worlds.

For The Prom, student prop master Avery Anger ’25 worked alongside production manager Lauren Cushman to source or create every prop. From a master Excel list of 92 line props, Anger and Cushman found, thrifted, purchased, and repurposed everything from coffee makers and chairs to plastic champagne glasses filled with colored epoxy to mimic the real thing.

Right photo: Production manager Lauren Cushman (left) and student prop master Avery Anger ’25Photos by Scott Cook.

Melendez—who is focusing her major on technical theater—aims to pursue theme-park design, so Rollins was a natural choice, with its top-ranked program, proximity to the best theme parks in the world, and expert faculty like Cody-Rapport, who worked as a scenic artist at Walt Disney World before coming to Rollins.

“What’s unique about Rollins’ approach is the hands-on problem solving,” says Melendez. “I don’t have to know everything. I learn by doing.”

Student associate lighting designer Zoe Henry ’25 (left)
Student associate lighting designer Zoe Henry ’25 (left).Photo by Scott Cook.

Lighting the Way

The lights in a theater production are essentially another performer without which the show could not go on. Using software programs Vectorworks and Lightwright, the lighting designers create systems for each focus position in the theater, including front, back, and side wash. From adjusting color using gels to shaping light with stenciled circular disks called gobos, every aspect is meticulously chosen and controlled by the lighting crew, who strategically employ warm or cool colors on opposing sides for a realistic look. The crew works daily for weeks installing lights in an immense electrical operation before compiling a cue list and finally programming every single light during tech week.

“I’ve really been able to hone my skills in technical theater,” says student associate lighting designer Zoe Henry ’25. “Rollins has given me the ability to learn and mentor others. Both of my lighting teachers at Rollins have encouraged me to take the lead on certain aspects of a hang, giving me leeway to advise and teach my peers.”

The Tiedtke Centre has been revolutionary for lighting design students, who now have at their fingertips the innovative Yeager Light Lab, which allows them to fine-tune storytelling via a 1/6th-scale working model of a theater. Theatrical and lighting design courses utilize the lab, enabling students to see what their designs look like under stage lighting, explore the impact of light on mood, create lighting cues synchronized to music, and undertake projects like lighting a scene from The Scottish Play.

“It’s been amazing to witness the growth created by the lighting lab, and I feel as though we’ve only begun to tap into the space’s potential,” says Henry.

Rollins theatre students rehearsing for The Prom
Photo by Scott Cook.

Making Moves

The state-of-the-art dance studio features professional flooring with floating subfloor and multipurpose marley overlay, natural light streaming through giant arched windows, top-of-the-line sound and AV equipment, and the professional finishing of full mirrors and barres.

Besides serving as an invaluable rehearsal space, the dance studio also hosts workshops on improvisation skills, audition technique, and hip-hop dance for theater-focused student organizations. Additionally, the dance composition course utilizes the space to choreograph original work for the annual Expressions dance concert.

“We can fit a small audience in the space as well as invite guest artists to teach and choreograph,” says Missy Barnes, Rollins’ director of musical theatre.

With dance director Robin Gerchman on sabbatical this spring, local professional choreographer Adonus Mabry staged the musical numbers for The Prom, talking through ideas with Barnes beforehand. As dance captain, Lillian Morrow ’27 not only assisted in teaching the choreography and served as a dance partner to the choreographer for partnered moves but also helped the actors improve their technique and polish the big dance numbers, investing hours creating instructional videos of herself performing the choreography.

“Taking what you learn in the classroom and then experiencing that in a practical application is what allows actors, dancers, directors, and designers to really deepen their understanding of the craft,” shares Barnes.

Costume design and production artist-in-residence Allison Crutchfield (left) and student costume lead Kelsey Grace Kidd ’25
Costume design and production artist-in-residence Allison Crutchfield (left) and student costume lead Kelsey Grace Kidd ’25.Photo by Scott Cook.

Dressing the Part

The 2,400-square-foot Costume Design and Technology Lab houses a costume shop with capacity for thousands of garments. In addition, the space boasts seven high-tech sewing machines, dedicated fitting rooms, a draft room, and much-needed storage space, allowing the costume designers access to an array of fabrics, tools, and materials.

“Tiedtke is laid out really well, with amenities that enhance our productions, like a 20-gallon dye vat and private dressing rooms,” says Kidd. “It makes it easier to design and experiment with a variety of styles.”

Students working in Rollins College's Costume Lab & Design Studio
Photo by Scott Cook.

Taking inspiration from films like But I’m a Cheerleader, Kidd used Procreate to design hundreds of pieces for 24 performers in The Prom. Bringing her designs to life, like in all other productions, involved pulling garments from costume inventory, thrifting and purchasing new pieces, and starting from scratch, pattern to garment.

Under the guidance of Kidd and Allison Crutchfield, artist-in-residence for costume design and production, students on the costume studio crew did everything from sewing beads, adornments, and rhinestones by hand to tailoring and steaming the garments.

“This space has enhanced opportunities for students and allows for new creative decisions,” says Crutchfield. “Theater itself, especially working in the costume shop, teaches skills that make you a better person—patience, problem solving, and teamwork.”

Photos by Scott Cook.

From the Classroom to the Stage

The directorial process typically starts more than a year before showtime, with the annual musical traditionally serving as the season’s final production. Although each director follows a unique process, the first step is to meet with the scenic and costume designers to formulate and solidify the show’s vision. From there, the director engages in casting, workshopping characters with the actors, discussing dance choreography, and staging dialogue scenes, working collaboratively with students and faculty at all stages of production.

Theatre arts major Kaila Cohen ’25 served as the associate student director on The Prom, working alongside Barnes. Cohen provided thoughts on casting, gave notes to actors, and even directed two scenes.

“One of the things I loved about associate directing this show was that Missy treated me as her equal—a collaborator and artist—while also acknowledging that I was a student learning,” shares Cohen. “This hands-on experience has allowed me to bring together all the areas of theater that I’ve been learning about. Directing has taught me the importance of trust, teamwork, confidence, storytelling, and creativity.”

Among the new spaces in the Tiedtke Theatre & Dance Centre is the dedicated acting/directing room, which provides more space, rehearsal furniture, and creative freedom to explore when staging scenes.

“The new spaces allow for a more effective, efficient, and communicative production process,” says Barnes. “Having everything so close together is helpful for bringing all of the design and performance elements together to tell one cohesive story. We can rehearse choreography in the dance studio while another group of actors is rehearsing music or scenes, and Kaila and I can use the acting/directing classroom. A space this amazing just inspires me and the students to keep doing better and better.”

While faculty direct shows at the Annie, productions at the Tiedtke Centre’s Sally K.—Rollins’ Second Stage—are directed, designed, and performed entirely by students. The 1,900-square-foot, custom-built black-box theater features brand-new sound and light boards along with pull-out seating risers that enable layout transformations—an ideal canvas for imagination and experimentation.

“The experiences I’ve had as a theatre major have prepared me to take on a show on my own,” shares Cohen, who will direct Nowheresville in the Sally K. next spring. “Pursuing that opportunity certainly wouldn’t have been possible without my experiences on The Prom and the support of my peers and professors in this department.”

Tough Acts to Follow

Rollins’ theatre program has prepared scores of graduates to take center stage in their meaningful lives and productive careers—whether it’s in the field as actors and directors or in adjacent creative roles that require key skills like communication and collaboration. Hear from a handful of grads about how their experience in the theatre department gave them what it took to follow their dreams.

Christopher Fitzgerald ’95

“My adventure in the theatre department was a true communal work-study experience. On one hand I was exposed to all elements of theater: history, stagecraft, directing, acting, all helping to lay a foundation of learning. On the other, I had this unique opportunity to make theater for a paying audience. At Rollins, I explored many different artists, writers, and styles, which has been similar to my own career trajectory. I really credit Rollins for my flexibility.”

Christopher Fitzgerald ’95
Broadway Actor, Three-Time Tony Nominee
Waitress, Wicked, and Young Frankenstein

Mariah Haskell ’22

“My current role at Universal is a true combo of my majors in theatre and computer science. Show engineering at a theme park is essentially a permanent, immersive, theatrical experience. My hands-on experience with all technical theater specialties and having a basic understanding of lighting, sound, special effects, creative vision, and overall show design has allowed me to excel at my job. Between one-on-one time with professors and mentors and the tight-knit community, Rollins provided me with the opportunities and support system I needed to be successful.”

Mariah Haskell ’22
Associate Engineer of Show Controls, Universal Creative

AnnMarie Morrison ’20

“Theater directing is all about collaborating with teams to create the best end result on a budget and on deadline. That’s a lot like the project management work I do. [Directing professor] Thomas Ouellette was an incredible mentor to me. When I have a difficult situation now, I still think back to his advice, which largely informs my management strategy. My job now is to empower my teams to do their best possible work with the scope, schedule, and budget we’ve been provided.”

AnnMarie Morrison ’20
Agile Scrum Consultant, Deloitte

Kathleen Capdesuñer ’17

“At Rollins, I found a cohort of people and a faculty of people who really believed in me and allowed me to take the risks I needed to take artistically. And when I directed my first black-box production as a junior, that helped me build a portfolio that led to the Roundabout directing fellowship [in New York City]. Overall, I was able to see on a larger level what I was drawn to as an artist. I didn’t want to do theater that was just entertaining—I wanted to do theater that could educate, inspire, and change.”

Kathleen Capdesuñer ’17
Lead Producer, Grassroots Pro-Choice Theatre Initiative

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