Hallway Chronicles: McKenna Ebert

As the first student ever to design a set for a Berkeley production, McKenna Ebert ’18 discusses her involvement with Advanced Theatre Ensemble’s play “Scenes from an Execution” and future theater plans.

When the curtain finally closed on the spectacular “Scenes from an Execution” production by Berkeley’s Advanced Theatre Ensemble, the crowd went wild for everything: the actors, the story and the artistry. Behind the scenes was McKenna Ebert ’18, the gifted senior who masterminded the set design for the play. Shortly after she returned from college interviews in New York City, The Fanfare had the opportunity to interview McKenna about her journey in set design, her role in Berkeley’s theater productions and an impressive award she received for her work and her ambitions in college and beyond.

Mary Ebert
DEDICATED DESIGNER: Besides set designing, Ebert aspires to carry her passion for stage managing into a career.

Q: When was the first time you were exposed to set design?

A: I’d say it was a year and a half–two years ago, really–when I first started stage managing. I started my sophomore year in the winter, and that was when I started going to production meetings, so that’s where all of the designers would come in and pitch their ideas and workshop them with Mr. Marshall. That was the first experience I’d really ever had with design.


Q: What sparked your interest to become involved with “Scenes from an Execution,” and to take on such a significant role in the play?

A: I had been having growing responsibilities in theater for a while. I had been trying out different things, and I did a program at Boston University over the summer where we learned a little bit about design and that process. Mr. Marshall gave me the choice of which show I wanted to design this year, if it was or Les Mis , and I decided I wanted to do Scenes. So it just kind of snowballed from there.


Q: How have your sketches evolved since you began designing the set of the “Scenes from an Execution” production?

A: Quite a bit. My original ideas were very, very different from what it ended up being. I probably have at least twenty different ideas. Some of them were changing so fast that I didn’t have actual sketches for some of the ideas that we would come up with. It kind of started out as two pieces of scaffolding and the upper corners of the stage, and that evolved into the whole set that everybody saw during the production. It was quite the journey to get there.


FREEZE FRAME: Ebert’s talent for set design in “Scenes from an Execution” accurately captured the mood of the play.

Q: In the past, have you ever performed onstage or been involved in other activities? Or has set designing always been your sole passion?

A: I’ve never really been the type of person to go onstage. I played piano as a kid so I did recitals, and I used to dance, so I would do the typical elementary-middle school dance routines, but acting was never really my thing. I knew I loved theater, but I know I definitely did not want to be onstage. It’s not something that I’m good at, so I don’t think I’ve ever really had that experience.


Q: What is your role in the ATE class?

A: I act as stage manager most of the time. I assistant direct a little bit, but basically I’m just in that class because there’s so much rehearsing that goes on in class time. It’s easier for me to interact with the actors during class and after school so I’m not missing out on anything. It also helps a lot with the process because I get to understand a little bit more of what their process is, so how I can help them stage management-wise run shows in a way that I can put things out if they need them, get them fittings for costumes that would work with their schedules, stuff like that.


Q: Last year, you received a prestigious award for your work in set design. What can you say about your experience applying for it, and how it felt to be bestowed this honor?

A: It was definitely surprising. Tech kids in theater aren’t necessarily the most used to getting recognition for your work. A lot of times they’re the unsung heroes of shows. So it was great to finally see all the hard work that I had been putting in get recognized by people, and at least even by Berkeley, being nominated to apply for this. That award was just amazing in itself, and being one of the recipients was amazing, and it was an awesome experience.


Q: Do you plan to pursue your passion of set designing in college? If so, what is the application process like, and what schools are you considering that offer programs in set design?

A: So I’m definitely looking at doing something with theater in college. I’m not quite sure what, if it’ll be design or stage management or directing. I’m just sort of trying things out, and I’m applying to schools like Boston University and NYU that have strong theater programs. A lot of them are Bachelors in Fine Arts programs, instead of Bachelors of the Arts programs, which are not quite conservatories, but not quite regular programs, so they focus a little bit more on theater. Then the process for that depends on the school and depends on the person. Some schools don’t require interviews. A lot of them of do. I had to work on making a portfolio this year, which was very interesting to put together. [At] any job interview, you have your work which you’ve done, you have your resume and you go in and you just tell them why you think you belong in that school. So it’s pretty similar to the rest of the college processes. It’s just a little bit more specific to theater.


Q: What are your hopes and dreams in the future beyond college?

A: I’d just love to do theater for the rest of my life. I don’t really care where I’m doing it. New York would be great, obviously, but there’s so much great regional theater in places like Boston and Chicago. I think I just want to kind of dabble in everything and try out new types of theater, kind of expand away from the traditional, explore different ways of making theater and telling stories.


Q: How has taking on the challenge of designing the set of this play shaped you as a person?

A: It’s definitely made me more organized, and given me a lot of good time management skills. I think it’s helped me think more analytically and critically about choices that I make, because when you’re designing anything, really, you have to have a reason behind every part of the set. It can’t just be like, “Oh, well I put this there because it felt right” or “it looked nice.” It has to have a reason that goes along with the play. It has to have a purpose. It has to have a function. So everything in that set had some kind of function; if it was the walls, or if was the platforms or even the table, and stuff like that. So it was just a lot of going back and being critical of choices that I had made and saying, “how can I make that better? What’s working about this, what isn’t working? Based on the rehearsal process, what do I need to change?” And being able to get rid of things that I was really proud of, and that I really enjoyed. It’s kind of like editing a paper, where you’re going back through and you have to cut that sentence that you love because you know it doesn’t fit with the rest of your paper, so it’s just a lot of expanding.


Q: Do you have any advice for other students hoping to pursue similar aspirations?

A: Definitely go talk to the director of upper division theater Chris Marshall or choral director for middle and upper division Carrie Dietsch or someone in the program. Just get as involved as you can and try everything out. A lot of people are afraid that they won’t do well at something because they don’t have a lot of experience, I know. For me especially going through the college application process, I was afraid because there are some programs at different high schools that are much more technically advanced than we are here at Berkeley. But it doesn’t matter the amount of experience that you have. The quality of the work you do is what really matters. If you love what you’re doing, keep doing it. Don’t worry about if you’re [a] professional grade stage manager, designer or whatever. Because if you’re doing something in college or you’re looking to learn more about something, it doesn’t matter that you know everything because if you know everything, why are you going to school for it or why are you trying to learn something else? Just try everything, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but always keep pushing through until you find what you want to do.