Building a home for 'Frankenstein': SMU student scores chance to design for Dallas Theater Center

Amelia Bransky has designed a stark, encompassing set for 'Frankenstein' — her "favorite monster story."

By Nancy Churnin
Theater Critic

Frankenstein is an old tale, but a fresh adaptation marks the dawn of something new for the Dallas Theater Center — and Southern Methodist University students such as Amelia Bransky.

Bransky has designed a stark, encompassing set for the show — her "favorite monster story," the graduate student says — which debuts at the Kalita Humphreys Theater on Wednesday, Feb. 7. The production marks a new collaboration between DTC and the theater division of the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU, with multiple students performing alongside working professional artists.

"One of my classes was focusing on monsters through art and painting," Bransky says on the phone from SMU. "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was my favorite part. I love that it's written by a young woman. I love how it speaks to humanity about the constant tension of nature and nurture and asks if we're born evil or born good or can be made good or made evil."

With the focus of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus on the male scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, who is challenged by the unexpected aftermath of bringing a male Creature to life using spare body parts and electrical shocks, sometimes people forget that the writer was a woman.

Shelley was an unconventional woman. Born more than 200 years ago to publisher and philosopher William Godwin and his wife, philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, she was educated more than most women of her time. . . .

A native of Northern California who attended California State University of Chico, Bransky knows she's in the minority as a woman in the male-dominated world of set design. Seeing what someone like Mary Shelley was able to accomplish in a society where women were routinely underestimated has been inspiring, she says. Her experience at SMU and now with DTC has further bolstered her confidence and conviction that she made the right choice in changing her college major from acting.

"I grew up in theater, but it wasn't until I was 18 that I realized designing was an option. ... I realized halfway through my undergraduate year that I love designing because I get to collaborate with many parts of the puzzle. I get to work with the director, actors, the other designers. We all come together to solve a problem. It's a joy." . . .

The flip side of a big opportunity, of course, is that the risk is greater. A limited number of people have seen her designs for the theater department at SMU. Bransky will be playing to her biggest audience on opening night. As the first graduate student from SMU designing for DTC, she's aware that what she does will reflect on the merits of the new collaboration between these institutions.

"The great thing about my professors at SMU is that they've encouraged me to make scary choices. It's been great to make those choices safely at SMU. Moving on to DTC, there's more on the line, but I feel empowered from my past design experience to make bold choices."

Russell Parkman, associate professor of scenic design at SMU, isn't worried.

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