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In Place with Phillip Franck

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Inside Neely Auditorium, Phillip Franck, associate professor of theatre and chair of the VU Theatre department, works with faculty, staff and students during tech week for a recent production of The Country Wife. Tech week activities include installing the play’s set, hanging equipment from the lighting grid above, focusing lights to illuminate a scene and create a mood, and timing sound elements. For each of the department’s four productions, Franck conceptualizes and designs sets, lighting and sound in collaboration with the director, costume designer and technical director.

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Neely Auditorium was built in 1925 and originally served as Vanderbilt’s chapel and meeting place. It was redesigned in 1976 as a black box theater, but its gothic arches and columns remain part of the department’s classrooms, offices and workspaces. “Neely is really an interesting place to work,” Franck says. “It’s funky as frog fur. I give credit to the college for making it so professional. It would be tough to find a small theater as well-equipped as Neely.”
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For tech week, Franck sets up a worktable mid-auditorium and directs the installation of lights, sound and sets. During performances, lighting is managed from a booth above the audience.
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When he started as a theatrical lighting designer, Franck says, light changes were managed using analog equipment. Now Franck designs lighting plots on a laptop and coordinates with the professional computerized lighting and audio system. For The Country Wife, the computerized board executed changes for 154 lights.
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Franck teaches Theatre 212 Scenery and Properties and Theatre 213 Lighting and Sound, courses that explore the design aspects of theatrical production. Students do most of the production work on shows. Senior psychology and theatre major Elise Masur (center) and first-year student April Philley (right) touch up paint.
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To indicate the precise spot he wants a light focused, Franck uses a spear he discovered in the overflowing prop room. It allows him to view adjustments from a distance and indicate locations for modifications to the light beams. After he started using the spear, students insisted he obtain the companion Viking helmet.
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Much of the behind-the-scenes theatrical magic occurs in the dark, during both tech week and production. Franck’s glow-in-the-dark hardhat allows him to be seen and protected in case a student drops something from the lighting grid more than 22 feet above. The professional grid has a working load capacity of 22,000 lbs. of equipment.
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Franck designed The Country Wife stage to face the audience in what is known as proscenium style. Neely Auditorium accommodates any stage size, shape, placement or presentation.
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The Country Wife set uses Franck’s creative lighting and shadows to create mood and provide flexibility for scene setting. The experienced lighting designer also designs for professional theaters, including Tennessee Repertory Theatre.
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Senior Tyler Weaks (left) assists technical director Nate Otto (in red bandana) adjust the set. Weaks works as a staff carpenter in the department’s scene shop and plays Sir Horner in the play.

photo credit: John Russell

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