Engineering and Theater Meet in "Fun Home"

As producer of the musical “Fun Home,” Sydney Garick found a way to bring engineering and theater together. In the weeks leading up to the show, she encouraged many of the show’s cast and crew to get training at the Center for Engineering Innovation & Design (CEID), where they helped out building the set.

“It’s been really great to bridge these two worlds,” said Garick, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.

The show, the first all-student production of “Fun Home,” was performed for three days this month at the Off Broadway Theater.

The highlight of the show’s set is an LED panel – a floor with programmable lights – which was also Garick’s senior project. It was no easy trick to build it in such a way to fit with the tone of the show, which is based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel and focuses on the author’s home life growing up.

“Part of her father’s thing is that he restores old homes, so it’s very important to the story that it wasn’t something that would look like some weird futuristic technological-type thing - we wanted it to look like wood,” she said. “When it’s off, it looks completely like a wood floor, and then as it turns on, it creates shapes.”

Sometimes the LED lights are used for effect – adding some flash to a disco number, for instance. Other times they take the shape of furniture and other objects.

“Due to the constraints of the space, we couldn’t bring in all the giant props that they use on Broadway, so I wanted to see if I could so something to create the illusion of these giant props,” Garick said. “The piano was the first inspiration for it, since it wouldn’t fit through the doors of the theater.”

It’s particularly critical to a scene featuring the main character singing about a map of her father’s life. “As she’s singing about the drawing of the maps, things start to appear around her and the map appears on the ground as she creates it.”

Nina Goodheart ‘19, the director of “Fun Home,” said the LED panel was “indispensable” to the production.

“It has allowed us to achieve the fluidity and expressionism that are essential to memory plays like Fun Home,” she said. “Beyond the simple logistics of allowing us to suggest set pieces we couldn't afford on a college budget (such as the piano or a moving road), the LED floor was an important representation of the Bechdel house itself. On the outside, it seems perfectly normal – but within, it is crackling with energy and bursting with light.” 

Working with SEAS senior research scientist Larry Wilen, Garick figured out the mechanics of the panel - from how thick the plexiglass should be, to how to make it look like wood while still allowing the lights to shine through (solution: they used Gesso, a translucent paint mixture).

Garick said she hopes to go into a line of work after graduation that will allow her to indulge both her engineering and theater sides. One possibility, she said, is the field of theater engineering – that is, building and designing things for theatrical productions.

“But I also I just really like producing, so I’m trying to figure out the line between building and designing, but also where I get to lead and manage a production team.”