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A backstage Wonderland

A new musical about Lewis Carroll’s created world is debuting at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, giving USF students a rare chance to intern behind the scenes of a large theater production.

Like Carroll’s classic tale, “Wonderland: Alice’s New Musical Adventure” takes place in Wonderland – an ever-changing and often frightening world inhabited by eccentric characters like the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts.

In the musical, Alice Cornwrinkle, a descendent of Carroll’s protagonist, Alice Liddell, juggles motherhood and a career as a children’s novelist in busy Manhattan. When her daughter Chloe falls into the mysterious Wonderland, Cornwrinkle must travel into the puzzling parallel universe after her.

Months of preparation and planning went into producing the show, said Tara McNamara, publicist for the center. And USF students were involved as interns.

Because of union rules, the interns were not allowed to physically work on the production and could only observe the professionals, but they said it was still worth the experience.

“It was one-of-a-kind,” said Kristen Kochanick, a theatrical design major.

The USF senior worked with Eddy award-winning set designer Neil Patel, whose designs have appeared on HBO and at Disneyland California, according to his Web site.

Kochanick began working on the show in October with the props department. She said her work at USF, including the production of “The Doctor Is In!” resembled the professional setting of the center.

Kochanick was able to observe the prop department and different techniques to create illusions on stage at major productions. Because of her position as an intern, union regulations restricted her from physically touching or working with materials.

She said the most interesting material in the design was a double-layer mesh material that covered much of the set. During the musical, images are projected onto the screen.

“(I enjoyed) seeing how different materials can be used on scene design that I never thought could (work),” she said.

USF costume design major Kari Rohlwing helped intern with costuming.

“I think it’s the fabric,” she said about what fascinated her. “I would touch everything. (Fabric is) a wearable art.”

Like Kochanick, Rohlwing said that though she gained valuable insight through observation, working around regulations often complicated her experience – sometimes she was only able to hand safety pins to seamstresses – and limited the ways she could help.

Rohwling said she worked on theater productions prior to “Wonderland” and has also performed on stage. However, the experience at the center was good because she prefers being behind the scenes.

Plus, one of her role models, Tony and Eddy award-winner Susan Hilferty, was head costume designer for the production. Hilferty’s past costume works include “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Spring Awakening” and “Wicked.”

One day, Rohlwing listened at lunch as Hilferty shared her experiences working on “Wicked,” including ideas and concepts behind the infamous black dress worn by Idina Menzel in the role of Elphaba.

Rohlwing explained that costume designers often keep a book they call a “Bible,” which includes materials like preliminary costume sketches, measurements for every cast member, important phone numbers and everything in between.

After looking through Hilfery’s “Bible” for “Wonderland,” Rowling said, “I was surprised to see the renderings were so simplistic.”

She said there were parts of Hilferty’s original concepts in the final production pieces. However, she was amazed how much had changed from the beginning of production.

The show, which opened Nov. 24, will run at the center until Jan. 3 before moving on to Houston.

Kochanick and Rohlwing were two of five students who interned with the show. Both said they plan to continue working in show business after the show wraps.

“It’s nice to see how quickly everything goes when everyone works together,” Rohlwing said.