GCU's Ethington Theatre dressed up for 2023-24 season

New Theatre Department Costume Manager Cindi Calhoun wants to be authentic to each production but also pay homage to the traditions of the department.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Grand Canyon University’s Ethington Theatre is featuring two new faces in the 2023-24 season.

Assistant Dean of Theatre and Dance William Symington is eager to see the changes implemented by two recent additions – costume manager Cindi Calhoun and technical director Klay Wandelear.

Calhoun, an adjunct professor for the last five years at GCU, wants to put her own stamp on future productions' attire following the retirement of costume designer and instructor Nola Yergen after 20 seasons.

“It's a challenge, but in the best way possible, because the challenge is to now be creative,” said Calhoun, surrounded by several racks of outfits, fabric and sewing equipment.

“You must be authentic to the show and what was intended. But yes, pay homage to our own traditions here. That makes it fun, that creative aspect, digging and building and seeing what you can create.”

Symington is encouraged by Calhoun’s assertiveness, specifically her reorganization of the costume shop, which involved assessing the inventory of about 5,000 costumes.

Calhoun already has designed new costumes for the first show – Agatha Christie classic "Murder on the Orient Express" – which will run Friday to Sunday and Sept. 29-Oct. 1.

“I'm super excited, because when you're doing art, especially, it's really fun and challenging to work with a new group of people,” Symington said. “It freshens things up, right? It is just a different way of doing stuff. So we're absolutely excited about it.”

Wandelear studied under Symington before graduating from GCU in 2015 and is expanding his experience internationally. Wandelear attended the East 15 School in Essex, England, and earned his master of fine arts degree in directing. But he also gained valuable experience in lighting, sound and design.

GCU alumnus Klay Wandelear returns as the new technical director for the College of Arts and Media's Theatre Department.

Wandelear, who grew up in Queen Creek, returned to Arizona to become the technical director at the Prescott Center for the Performing Arts. Those experiences helped him gain a wealth of experience, and he’s destined to make a significant impact in sound effects.

“I’m excited, honestly, to learn from him,” Symington said.

Calhoun, meanwhile, took a grassroots approach to costume design. She handled the costuming when she taught theatre at Maricopa High School, even to the point of teaching students how to sew their own costumes.

At the same time, she would receive input from students on ways to improve the costumes and their presentation.

A similar philosophy is employed at GCU. Calhoun starts with her own ideas on a design board, and input from students expands their costume options.

Calhoun’s previous experience at GCU has enabled her to understand that the program is as much about connecting with people, such as Symington and the students, as much as the classes and facilities.

“We have amazing people here,” Calhoun said. “Getting to see them on a regular basis and work with them and bring out, hopefully, the best I can for them, and they, I hope, do the same for me, too,” Calhoun said.

“I love getting input from students.”

The first show could be a harbinger of what’s to come this season at Ethington. The setting for "Murder on the Orient Express," a novel that became a movie 40 years later in 1974 (the latest Kenneth Branagh-directed version was released in 2017), involves a murder on a train traveling from the Middle East to London in the early 1930s.  

This was near the end of the Art Deco era, providing the opportunity for attractive sets and costumes, Symington said.

Calhoun (left) cuts a dress pattern for "Murder on the Orient Express,” opening Friday at Ethington Theatre, with cast members Peyton Davis (center) and Sebian Carver at the costume shop.

Wandelear has worked in places as far as Moscow as part of a study-abroad program but said there are many similarities in his industry.

“There certainly are some cultural differences, and I'll never find a doner kebab (a seasoned meat popular in Germany and Turkey) that will compare,” Wandelear said. “But people are just the same everywhere you go, so it was not all that shocking. Even going to Moscow is the same.”

Those travels gave him exposure to what he believes will work at GCU.

“I need the freedom to self-regulate,” Wandelear said. “Which theatre provides.”

Symington said GCU’s resources will supplement Wandelear’s skills, which he polished at smaller theatres and will use to teach prospective technical directors.

“This isn't just about doing shows at a professional level for us,” Symington said. “It is also about teaching young people coming up in our business. And he is really excited about that, and I think he’s going to be a great person for that for us because he went through this program. He knows the values that we espouse and the work ethic that we encourage.”

Symington feels fortunate to hire Wandelear because of the demand for technical directors and the prerequisites for the job, such as knowledge of computerized systems and mathematics.

“I'm not surprised, but I'm very glad that we got him,” Symington said.

Wandelear, meanwhile, describes his return to GCU as “wild.”

“I was saying I just picked up my employee ID (badge) in the new Building 18,” Wandelear said. “I remember when this was the old Building 18 that had the costume shop in it, and the building next to it used to be a pool.”

It's a testament to how the Theatre Department continues to evolve, right alongside GCU.

Senior writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]


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GCU News: GCU Theatre season: Sometimes things are more they appear

GCU News: Theatre professor Claude Pensis stages his 40th year at GCU


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