The Making of CalArts’ Halloween Party 2023

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A tradition since 1972, CalArts’ Halloween celebrations have become legendary. What many might not realize is that there’s a dedicated class and a team of creative minds behind the scenes, working tirelessly to bring this annual production to life.

The Halloween planning process kicked off in late April with a call for themes and collaborators. By early June, the summer class Halloween Production Team began, providing the foundation for the event’s development. Led by Assistant Director of Campus Life Cheyenne Knehans and Director of Events Abigail Salling, 23 students engaged in story development exercises to weave together elements of their designs with characters and plotlines. Another class offered in the fall, Themed Events Practicum, included 25 students working on the Halloween project. The months of hard work culminated in a night where the campus transformed into a visually stunning and thematically immersive space.

This year’s theme was Ethereal Convergence, which was conceived by creative director and Student Union President Grace Hlavacek (Theater BFA 24). An invitation to discover spooky secrets and forbidden witchcraft, the story behind the 2023 theme centered on Cosmina Robshaw, the great-granddaughter of Ashfield Robshaw, owner of the magical and mysterious Robshaw estate. The Halloween production team transformed the Main Entrance, the Main Gallery, and two side galleries into themed rooms of the estate.

Prior to the party, CalArts orchestrated an exclusive industry walkthrough with companies such as EA Games, Preston Productions, Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Studios, Adirondack Studios, Open the Portal, Thymele Arts, and Sony Themed Entertainment. This event provided a unique opportunity for the creative and production teams to unveil their work. The comprehensive showcase highlighted students’ contributions in production design, scenic design, costumes, lighting design, music, and animation, tracing the journey from initial concept to implementation.

Over email, Hlavacek gave 24700 a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Halloween party, and some of the challenges and triumphs in bringing the event to life:

24700: Walk us through your creative process when approaching a new project. How do you go from conceptualizing ideas to bringing them to life in a tangible form?

Hlavacek: My creative process for Halloween this year was pretty different from what I typically do/what you see from the standpoint of a student in the theater school. Usually I get to work from a script or story that has already been written and my design would be something that would expand that world. My role as creative director was totally different because it was my job to create that story and world for other designers to help expand. My approach definitely started with looking at the audience for the event, in this case, CalArts students. One thing I was keenly aware of was that CalArts hosts a wide range of students, some that want to see a scary, gory halloween experience, and some who may have never even celebrated Halloween, let alone know what it is. My goal was to create an experience and world where the audience could engage in whatever level they felt comfortable with. Personally, that led me down the rabbit hole of witches and celestial beings as it is such a vast ideal, but also relevant to so many current students. You can view that full story here!

As far as taking that idea and bringing it to life, that was mostly the work of my team, not me. I had the privilege of working with over 15 designers, managers, and performers who were all dedicated to bringing a specific part of the story to life. For example, we had two wonderful actors who worked with a costume designer and a fellow actor to bring to life our main character, Cosmina Robshaw, as the MC for the event. I also got to work with several designers dedicated to bringing to life the environment in which the story is situated.

24700: What was one of the most challenging aspects of your job as creative director for this year’s event?

Hlavacek: One of the most challenging obstacles with this year’s Halloween was really that it was our first one in a sense, because we were back inside for the first time since the pandemic. There was a lot of pressure with that. First off, no one on the design team had seen what an indoor Halloween experience was, so I think it was a bit more challenging to figure out how to design, and also how to get people on board. While I loved all of the experiences I have had working on the Halloween productions, they were hard during the pandemic because we were all not only still learning so much about how to design, but then on top of that how to design outside and fill such vast spaces. Those factors really led a lot of my fellow cohort to not be interested in working on Halloween because it’s a giant undertaking.

When you’re two weeks into being at the school every night until 1 am or 2 am, it’s hard to feel like the work is worth it or even manageable, and so the hardest part for me was making sure that my team was still motivated and felt supported as we got caught up in the hard work the weeks leading up to the event.

24700: What’s one of your favorite memories or moments from working on this year’s event?

Hlavacek: I think my favorite memory from this year’s event was watching the Midnight Summoning being performed for the first time during the industry walkthrough. With the Summoning [a short 2-3 minute performance piece that featured actors and musicians, supported by video, lights, and audio]  being the main base of the story for the event, it was just incredible to see. On top of that, it was also my first time experiencing the Summoning and getting to see it with others who were experiencing the entire story for the first time was so exciting. To me that moment was really when I realized that we had brought the story and world that I had written over the summer to life. Seeing it on stage was just such a beautiful and relieving moment of like ‘Oh my gosh we actually did this,’ which felt great when you’re running on four hours of sleep!

To learn more about the story behind the 2023 Halloween party and the team who brought it to life, check out the CalArts Halloween website.

Want to learn more about CalArts’ Halloween? Check out the Office of Advancement’s Beyond the Blue Wall podcast episode.

CalArts Wild Beast | Image by California Institute of the Arts
PUBLISHED BY Elizabeth McRae

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