By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Picture a bar in a small New England town.
What do you see?
Before Ahna Packard can answer that question, she needs to gather additional information.
How old is the building? Who owns it? What kind of people go there? What role does this business play in the community?
In her mind, every detail matters, from the faded Schlitz advertisement painted on the brick exterior to the power line placement to the candlepin bowling lanes that entertain patrons.
“That’s the start of the story,” Packard says.
Design and storytelling go hand in hand, according to the University of Nebraska at Kearney faculty member, who’s brought countless scenes to life during her 30-plus years as a professional entertainment set designer and theatrical scenic designer.
ROAD TO TINSELTOWN
A Vermillion native, Packard grew up in a creative family – her father taught sculpture and drawing at the University of South Dakota, her mother is a fiber artist, her brother is a photographer and her sister is an animator. She decided to pursue a degree in theater design.
“Basically, theater was a way to pursue art and not have to take classes from my father, because he taught in the art department,” Packard said with a chuckle. “I ended up here out of avoidance of my parents.”
Once she took her first scenic painting class, she knew she was on the right path. “That’s kind of what grabbed me and pulled me in.”
On the “10-year college plan,” Packard took advantage of opportunities to travel and work in locations such as Washington, D.C., San Francisco and the Black Hills before finishing her bachelor’s degree in 1992. She worked as a freelance designer and scenic artist while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in theater scenic design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where faculty members Chuck O’Connor and Sandy Veneziano encouraged her to consider a career in Hollywood.
“We decided that when I finished graduate school we’d give it a shot,” Packard said of the decision to head west.
Packard moved to Los Angeles in May 1997, just days after completing her master’s degree. Her first gig came rather quickly when she was hired to assist with props on a shoot for Elvira, the horror movie hostess best known for her black wig, bold makeup and revealing gown. Then she landed a job on the Paramount Pictures lot as a set designer for the traveling “Star Trek World Tour” exhibit for Paramount Parks. The exhibit debuted in Düsseldorf, Germany, in December 1998 before moving to Austria and Singapore.
With enough hours to join the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 800 Art Directors Guild, a labor union representing artisans and craftspeople in the entertainment industry, Packard was now able to work on network television and large, feature films.
During her time in LA, she was a set designer on “Stark Raving Mad,” an NBC show starring Tony Shalhoub and Neil Patrick Harris, “The Trouble with Normal,” which aired on ABC, the “Star Trek: Nemesis” feature film and all four seasons of the “Star Trek: Enterprise” series on UPN. She also worked on several projects at the Universal Studios theme park.
As a creative problem-solver, Packard enjoys projects that allow her to think outside the box. A couple of her favorite projects were the Argo shuttlecraft for the “Star Trek: Nemesis” movie and the engine room, warp core and transporter system for the NX-01 starship featured on “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
“We used to have a sign on the door of the art department that said, ‘We draw boxes.’ But drawing boxes gets very boring, very quickly,” she said. “I like it when there’s a challenge involved, a problem to solve. That’s when it’s really fun.”
Although every design is different, they all start with a similar process. Packard reads the script, then takes a closer look to identify specific details – location, climate, period, style, character and historical significance. Those all feed into the design. She also analyzes the written words to understand the mood, texture, story and physical requirements of the script.
“A big part of design for theater and film is being able to cut your ego and preferences out of the picture and analyze what the character wants,” she explains. “Who is the character? What’s their background? What are their likes and dislikes? Then you create an environment that would be theirs.”
She was the set designer for that small-town bar – The Mellow Tiger – featured on the Hulu series “Castle Rock” and was part of the design team for the Oscar-nominated film “Nebraska.” Packard’s set designer credits also include the TV shows “Monk,” “The Ex List,” “Detroit 1-8-7,” “Justified” and “Sleepy Hollow,” as well as films such as “The Experiment” starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker and “Teleios.”
In addition to her TV and film work, she’s designed sets for the Omaha Community Playhouse, Nebraska Repertory Theatre, Angels Theatre Company and Black Hills Playhouse, along with shows at USD, UNL and UNK.
SHARING HER KNOWLEDGE
With her children approaching school age, Packard decided to leave the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles in 2005 to raise her family back in the Midwest.
She worked as an adjunct faculty member at USD and UNL for nine years while commuting to design jobs across the country, then accepted a position with UNK’s interior and product design program in 2018.
“I’m a person who takes advantage of opportunities as they arise, and that’s probably what helped me when I got to LA,” she said. “When opportunities arose, I would jump on them. I learned very early on that if the door opened a crack, you stuck your foot in the door so it didn’t close on you.”
As an associate professor, Packard instills that same mentality in her students. She uses her professional background to teach them about the design industry and open their minds to a variety of career opportunities.
Whether you’re working on a Hollywood set, a residential remodel or a commercial construction site, the same tools and skills are applied.
“The only difference is speed and codes,” Packard said. “You’re still looking for the same outcome – good design.”
And you’re still asking the same questions. How old is the building? Who will use this space? What’s their daily routine? Do they have any physical limitations? What’s the weather like?
Packard pushes her students to be lifelong learners, a role she fully embraces as an educator. Inside Discovery Hall, a state-of-the-art STEM building that opened in the fall of 2020, she helps students master the latest technology and oversees a fabrication lab filled with 3D printers, laser cutters, a CNC router and other top-of-the-line tools.
Although her schedule no longer allows her to work on television or movie projects, Packard continues to create theatrical designs. Her latest productions include “The Cake” at Cortland Repertory Theatre in New York, “Arthur and his Friends Make a Musical” at The Rose Theater in Omaha and “The Tempest” at UNK.
“You always have to keep up your skills and remain current,” Packard said. “If I didn’t work on these projects, I would only know the way it was when I designed back then.”
“Plus, it always helps when I bring my work back to the classroom so students see that what I’m asking them to do is what I’m doing myself. It’s not just that I’m torturing them,” she added with a smile. “There’s nothing that I ask them to do that I haven’t done myself or won’t do myself in a design process. I think that’s very important.”
PHOTOS BY ERIKA PRITCHARD, UNK COMMUNICATIONS
Title: Associate Professor, Industrial Technology
College: Business and Technology
Education: Master of Fine Arts in theatre design, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1997; Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre, University of South Dakota, 1992.
Years at UNK: Five
Areas of Research/Specialization: Creative Project and Art Exhibits, Theatre Productions and Entertainment, Design in and for Education.
Courses Taught: Foundation Studio II, History of Design I, Foundation Tech for Design, Foundation Studio I, Design Drawing, Foundation Studio II, Foundation Tech for Design, Design Studio III, Design Technology Applications.
Recent TV and Film Productions: Senior set designer for “Castle Rock,” Hulu, 2018; “Nebraska,” Paramount Pictures, 2013.
Theatrical Scenic Designs: “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Crane River Theater, Kearney; “James and the Giant Peach,” Omaha Community Playhouse; “The Cake,” Cortland Repertory Theatre, New York; “Arthur and his Friends Make a Musical,” The Rose Theater, Omaha.