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Theater Design Goes Underground

A team of SDSU MFA students are finalists in Walt Disney Imagineering’s 2014 Imaginations competition.
The abandoned subway station in New York City that became the centerpiece for the SDSU team's proposal. Photo by: John-Paul Palescandolo & Eric Kazmirek.
The abandoned subway station in New York City that became the centerpiece for the SDSU team's proposal. Photo by: John-Paul Palescandolo & Eric Kazmirek.

A team of students from San Diego State University entered Walt Disney Imagineering’s 2014 Imaginations competition with the goal of landing jobs or internships. But it became so much more than that.

Through collaboration and creativity, they created a fictional world that will resonate with them for the rest of their lives.

The four graduate students — Ryan Grossheim (third year, scenic design), Gabrielle Heerschap (second year, technical direction), Mason Daryl Lev (third year, scenic design) and Jordyn Smiley (third year, costume design) — are all in SDSU's Master of Fine Arts Theatre Design and Technology program.

Of 230 teams that entered the competition, the SDSU team is among six finalists who will travel to the Glendale, Calif. headquarters of Imagineering this week to present their projects to Imagineering executives and interview for internship opportunities.

Creating an experience

The team has been working together since August. Their task: “to select a large and densely populated urban area and design an experience that temporarily or permanently transforms the city for the enjoyment of its citizens and visitors. The experience must take advantage of existing infrastructure, and may be above, below or anywhere in between existing development.”

They said they knew right away that they wanted to do something with the New York City subway and started looking for a unique angle. They were captivated when they found an image of a station that was designed to be the architectural gem of the New York City subway system, but had been closed for more than 65 years.

Beneath the streets

“It’s this masterpiece of architecture that no one can see,” Grossheim said.

The station, which lies beneath City Hall, was built in 1904 and became the centerpiece of the team’s proposal for the Imaginations competition. Putting their own imaginations to the test, Grossheim, Heerschap, Lev and Smiley created a story line for a fictional experience that would allow people to explore inaccessible historic spaces beneath New York City.

The initial presentation included three short essays explaining the concept of the experience as well as colorful concept art — 3D digital renderings of each location, sketches of costume designs, plans for the construction and painting of the time-traveling train car, and graphic art to advertise the new attraction.

“This was an opportunity to highlight who you are and what you do,” Heerschap said. So the team poured all of their creativity into creating the concept for this underground tourism destination, highlighting their individual talents in the process.  

Immersive experience

“We really became attached to this project,” Smiley said .

“We were almost sad to finally turn it in — there was so much more that we wanted to do,” continued Lev.

Theirs was not the only subway-themed entry, said Soledad Boyle, the internship program manager for Disney Imagineering. “It is really a merit to the quality of their entry that theirs stood out among other similar themes,” she said.

Boyle also said the judges were looking for an immersive guest experience. “By using the old subway in New York, they were able to create a highly immersive experience … their presentation was very high quality and was very appealing.”

Fleshing it out

In November, the team was thrilled to find out they were finalists. Not only would they have the opportunity to meet Imagineers and interview for internships, they would also be able to take the project a step further.

Since then they have continued to develop their concept, fleshing out the story, enhancing their artwork and creating greater depth to their original designs through research into the technological and historical components of the experience.

They have also been meeting every week with Imagineer mentors who have provided feedback and advice, helping them prepare for the final presentation in Glendale next week. 

Whether they win or not, says Grossheim, “getting to share the project one more time is reward enough.”

A panel of Imagineering judges will apply the same criteria to the finalist's entries as they would to their own work. Teams will be judged on their ability to collaborate across different disciplines and backgrounds; the mastery of their individual skills; whether the project provides an engaging guest experience; a good understanding of the local and tourist market in the chosen location; the ability to tell a compelling and engaging story; and knowledge and passion for the Disney brand and Walt Disney Imagineering. 

Unique competition

Imaginations is a design competition created and sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering with the purpose of seeking out and nurturing the next generation of diverse Imagineers.

Walt Disney Imagineering does not plan to build any of the projects from the competition. It is purely an opportunity to evaluate the creative and collaborative skills of the team members as they consider them for future internship opportunities. 

Other teams competing in the 2014 competition are from California Institute of the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, Savannah College of Art and Design, University of California Los Angeles and University of Pennsylvania. 

The winners will be announced on Jan. 31.

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