We’re excited to share that Sung Ho Kim and Heather Woofter, Co-Directors of Axi:Ome llc of St. Louis and Professors of Architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), are serving as the Scenic Designers for our upcoming production of wUNDERland. A hip-hop spin on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, wUNDERland tells the upside-down tale through a completely new lens. Audiences will be amazed at the dazzling costumes, contemporary music, cutting-edge hip-hop choreography, and creative scenic design.
We spoke with Carmon Colangelo, Ralph J. Nagel Dean of the Sam Fox School, and Heather Woofter, director of the College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, about our collaboration with Axi:Ome for wUNDERland’s scenic design. They shared insights into how the Sam Fox School partners with organizations in the St. Louis community and what has been happening behind the scenes with this project.
How does the Sam Fox School support creative institutions in St. Louis, and what is the importance of WashU’s relationship to the community?
Colangelo: As a School, we are committed to addressing issues of social equity and access and exploring opportunities for our community of architects, artists, and designers to engage with the St. Louis community, including through the curriculum and through faculty research and practice. Our Office for Socially Engaged Practice is a resource to support collaborative, socially engaged practices across our disciplines, and to fulfill our institutional responsibility to citizens and communities here in St. Louis and around the world.
There are so many incredible cultural institutions in St. Louis, and one of our great assets is how well people work together. Across the university, we’re always thinking about how our different schools work together, and how we can work with community and partner organizations to have a positive impact.
Heather, tell us how you and Sung Ho got involved in the scenic design for wUNDERland.
Woofter: We had an intuitive connection with COCA, even before COCA’s building renovation and expansion. In addition, Erich Mendelsohn’s ideas behind the original building correlate with COCA’s sense of community and gathering, interior and exterior, beauty in the natural world, and through the art of form. We are also passionate about COCA’s mission. The organization has been a life-changer for many students of various backgrounds—creating a community around the arts. It is what motivated us through the entire design process.
Could you walk us through the scenic design process—from initial concept to getting ready for opening night?
Woofter: We attended wUNDERland in 2015 and had an incredible memory of that original performance! To get started, we first wanted to understand Anthony “Redd” Williams’ vision and hear his perspective—how he planned to create a series of moments that heightened what the choreography would say about the story.
Then, we began thinking about creating space, concepts, and ways to reinforce the dancers’ movements. Our architectural backgrounds kicked in, and we were fascinated by the wUNDERland concept of distortion, scale, perspective, and different perceptions of events.
We looked at precedents of other stage sets to consider how we might think about a technique as we explored feasible design solutions while staying within budget. We then created 3D drawings on the computer to simulate the size and scale of designs in the space. We recently attended our first rehearsal, which was so much fun! Now we are eager to see how the stage set and dancers come together.
Were there any unique design challenges for this project with complex creative solutions? If so, what were they?
Woofter: Yes, the throne! The object was 3D modeled in distortion, yet we needed to adjust for ease of construction, shifting our construction methodologies.
Many ideas arrived from the collaborative team’s vision, so we tried to remain flexible to realize adjustments in the field.
What has the process been like transitioning from architecture to designing for the stage?
Woofter: We approached this project as architects but tried to consider the core responsibility of creating the set design meant to complement the dancers, not to be center stage, rather part of a larger story.
COCA’s Pre-Professional Division Theatre Program students will have the chance to work on this design during tech, adding the finishing touches. What advice do you have for them as they continue to explore theatrical design?
Woofter: One key aspect of the work exemplified strongly at COCA is this notion of collaboration. You have to think as a team, establish trust, and have team-oriented goals. It’s essential to understand one another’s assets and learning opportunities in building strengths that go beyond the individual.
What is COCA’s importance to the St. Louis cultural scene?
Colangelo: COCA is a force in our community—I see it as one of the anchors. COCA gives access to experiences in the visual and performing arts to people of all ages and all backgrounds. That exposure to the arts is so powerful for young people, especially in areas such as architecture that are underrepresented within typical school curricula. St. Louis needs more of it.
What makes COCA a great partner for Axi:Ome?
Woofter: We participated in forming COCA’s mission during the expansion, the theatre’s design, and the design direction of the building. In this next phase, we want to do as much as possible to support COCA’s future evolution, and being a part of this vital organization is a cherished activity.
Thank you to Dean Colangelo and Heather Woofter for taking the time to speak with us about our collaboration with the Sam Fox School and Axi:Ome for wUNDERland’s scenic design. We can’t wait to see the final design on stage!
Axi:Ome Design Team:
Co-Director: Heather Woofter
Co-Director: Sung Ho Kim
Project Coordinator: Jae Bum Byun
Project Intern: Yulia Morina
Project Intern: Kevin Mojica
wUNDERland Carpenters and Technical Team for Scenic Construction: