Bringing the Audience’s Imagination to Life

July 9, 2016
This week on iAt we are featuring people who have unique and fascinating jobs. We finish our series today by featuring Eric Van Wyk, theatrical designer and stay-at-home dad.

Give a brief description of what you do in your job.

My job as a theatrical designer is interlinked with being a stay-at-home dad half of the time when my wife Andrea works as a pediatrician. Being involved in the joy and nitty gritty of child raising has been integral in growing as a playful, attentive artist who often creates work for theatre for young audiences. My theatrical design work involves designing scenery and puppetry for theatres and ballet companies around the country. The puppetry design often involves creating and building the objects here in my studio and then shipping them to the theatre. Peppered through my work has been creating new puppetry work.


“Aslan” Photo used with permission.

What has given you the greatest joy in your work? What has been the hardest?

The greatest joys are the imaginative bookends of the theatrical process. The beginning sparks with the first paper stroke to suggest a world or a character, the flash of imagination that gives legs to an idea or an exhilarating collaborative meeting. Then it culminates with a puppet coming to life for the first time, a world onstage opening up before an audience and communities bonded together by live theatre. The joy is also in the practical work of design coalescing imagination, story and metaphor into one event.

The hardest part is the sheer volume of details that is involved with renderings, draftings, research, gathering samples, creating mock ups and then meeting a deadline while continuing to listen to the work, the story and the idea that set this show moving. The other challenge is “having an ear to listen.” Listening to the work as it unfolds in it’s apex of unknowns is challenging. For instance, standing in the middle of half finished puppet parts and wondering how and if a 12 ft tall giant will come together and be alive. The other big challenge is budgeting one’s time and balancing creative work with the needs of family life.

What is one thing you’d like others to know about your job?

Often my job feels like a net that pools ideas, techniques, stories, people, visual movements and humanity into one event. For instance, when I was fortunate to build a life size Aslan puppet it distilled a knowledge of the Narnia Chronicles, anatomy of lions, drawing, painting, turning hiker’s backpacks into puppet bases, sculpting natural materials to forms, coaching 3 actors to become Aslan and even using Christmas ornaments to make lifelike eyes.

A formative experience was studying one summer with Sandglass Theatre in Vermont who articulate theatre as materials and metaphors; that an object’s materials give it character and it’s ability to imaginatively connect to an audience through story and metaphor. Puppetry and scenic design are inherent metaphors of the real and the suggestive, giving worlds to words and enabling the audience’s imagination to come alive in the theatrical context. This is practical in seeing cloth, wood and paint becomes a portal to view a story in, and yet suggestive in that we imagine this event as real in feeling pain, joy, laughter and mystery.

Theatre and puppetry are thereby both bound and brought to life by the elements that support it. For instance, how a puppet walks ties into how it’s leg is made, controlled and the weight of those materials. That walk connotes character, mood and creates in the audience a sense of being alive. A scenic design


“The Big Friendly Giant” Photo used with permission.

both provides both a realistic frame and an emotional context for how the story unfolds. It becomes the legs that help carry the story. That a work of theatre is tied to the elements that create it suggests a pattern or design in making things new; that we as people are also connected to the patterns and design that shape our lives and communities.

How have you experienced Christ’s presence in your job?

The opportunity to learn about the joys and challenges of humanity in story and figures through design is both humbling and eye opening. Design work is strongest where I am listening to the work and my collaborators while getting out of the way to let the elements come to life. That the work is strongest when my own sense of control goes away is a testament to the presence of Christ. That his work in creation and the creative act thrives when we let go to be vessels of imagination, creativity and the desire to make anew. That there is indeed a design that lies underneath the rich and layered stories our human frames inhabit in this creation also speaks to the presence of Christ.

Theatre design involves both unpacking and bringing dimension to a story; a fleshing out and bringing an event to life in layers of symbol and metaphor. This discovery and fleshing out of the Lord’s creation is a joy to be a part of as an artist. For instance, I have had the experience to learn about a horse or a giant not just as a picture or data, but to suggest it through cloth, aluminum, wood, steel, leather, paper and a host of other materials. That the glory of creation is in all these materials with unique properties and to reshape those materials into a symbol coming to life reveals the glory Christ has endowed in creation that we as image bearers get to discover and reshape.

I often am struck by the sum of elements that enables a puppet to come to life. These different materials designed to work together would be incomplete without its complement. In puppet joints there is often a stop and a pull; creating both boundaries and freedom of movement. This seems to echo the Christian life as well as be a picture of human society, and Christ working in all things to create that balance in us and his world.

About the Author
  • Eric Van Wyk graduated with a Fine Arts Major from Dordt in 2002 and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland-College Park in 2007. He has received a Helen Hayes award for the scenic design of The BFG and two Jim Henson Foundation Awards. Design credits include Children’s Theatre Co., Imagination Stage, The Washington Ballet, The Cinicinatti Ballet and Open Eye Figure Theatre. He has three children that continually inspire his love of objects and his very encouraging spouse Andrea. He is based out of La Crosse, WI and recently started WonderStruck Theatre Co. that seeks to create imaginative theatre for all ages.

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  1. Eric, Go in the Lord with your work of puppetry. I am glad to hear you take part in caring for your children. Children are a source of creativity and see things differently than adults do. I always appreciated young children.

    1. Thanks Pam for your comment. Watching our children has certainly been an eye opener to staying playful and present in life and has opened my art in ways I had not thought possible. It is also good perspective on one’s work. Children have an remarkable barometer of staying imaginatively engaged which is a lovely gift of inspiration.