Set Designer Dani Vanasse Talks about Her Craft and the Scholarship that Helped Her Along the Way

Mar 7, 2024 / Blog
By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

Independence High School grad Dani Vanasse (‘19) was always fascinated by design and decoration. As a child, she loved watching home renovation TV shows and creating house plans to share with her mom. And as an avid reader, books often spun into movies in her mind’s eye.

Now she’s sharing her unique vision and living her dream as a professional scenic designer.

Since graduating last May from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BFA in Technical Theater, Vanasse has been busy designing and working backstage on various productions in Charlotte and beyond.


(2019 Gordon Hay Scholarship recipient Dani Vanasse)

Her recent set design credits include Matthews Playhouse’s production of “Around the World in 80 Days,” Theatre Charlotte’s “Baskerville,” and West Virginia Public Theatre’s production of “The Mountaintop.” She’s also had other gigs along the way, ranging from carpenter and set dresser to assistant stage manager.

“I've been very grateful to find as much work as I have, so recently out of college,” she says.

But a career behind-the-scenes wasn’t always something that she imagined for herself. Vanasse got her first taste of theater as a performer—something she enjoyed doing throughout middle and high school.

When Vanasse took her first tech theater class sophomore year, however, something clicked. Alongside performing, she started taking on backstage responsibilities, and delving deeper into the art of scenic design through an independent study in tech theater with her teacher Richard Dills. (He’s now at Providence High School).

By senior year, Vanasse was designing sets for the school’s mainstage productions. And she realized the joy she experienced creating new worlds on stage could also be a career path.

“Once all the pieces fell together it felt like it made so much sense,” she says. “... I just hadn't really connected all those dots before then.”


(Matthews Playhouse’s production of “Around the World in 80 Days" - Photo by Tom Henderson Photography)

How the Gordon Hay Scholarship helped

To achieve her dream, Vanasse knew she would need some financial assistance. She applied for the Gordon Hay Scholarship, an award administered by Blumenthal Arts, that supports students pursuing non-performance based careers in theater with funds for special learning opportunities, equipment or technology needs.

It was a game-changer for Vanasse, since finances at home were tight.

“Oh my gosh. It was such a blessing to me when I got it,” she says.

It helped cover the cost of a new computer to replace the “old dinosaur hand-me-down” laptop she had inherited from her sister. (That one would automatically shut off if she adjusted the screen and couldn’t open any file bigger than 10 pages without crashing, Vanasse says, with a laugh.)

Once she arrived at the university, she consulted with faculty and fellow students to determine what kind of computer would best support her coursework and design projects.

“I ended up getting to purchase a MacBook and that has opened me up to so many things,” Vanasse says. “...I use it for everything.”

The scholarship also covered expenses like sketching and design modeling software, as well as lumber and other construction materials for hands-on lab classes. Vanasse could focus on her studies without worrying about those extra costs.

“I have been so grateful for the opportunities that it has brought me, and without the scholarship I can't even imagine how different my college experience would have been because it really was a huge aid to me,” she says.

She advises other students who are wavering on whether to apply for this or other scholarship opportunities to go for it. (You can find links with more info on the Gordon Hay Scholarship and other awards managed by Blumenthal Arts at the end of this story.)

“I remember back in high school going and presenting my portfolio to the panel and even that alone, if I hadn't gotten the scholarship, still was such a great experience,” she says, “because I got that chance to present my work to a group of adults that I didn't know and that… boosts your confidence.

“It lets you get notes back on how to speak about yourself, and your work, and how to hold yourself in a professional manner. So, I think just the whole foundation of these scholarships is so great and has really been beneficial to students…”

A worthwhile experience at UNCG

Vanasse says her experience at UNCG was just what she’d hoped for. Professors helped enrich her designs and were available when she had questions. Outside of class, she honed her carpentry skills through a work study job all four years in the campus scene shop. That experience was invaluable, Vanasse says, and gave her a deeper appreciation of the construction process and what makes for a successful design.

She also had the opportunity to assistant set design under the guidance of her award-winning scenic design professor, Randy McMullen, on “A Musical Adaptation of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It,” as well as earn top billing, herself, as set designer for several university productions.

“My favorite thing to work on are the plays where it doesn't really have to be super set in stone what the location is,” she says.

That’s because Vanasse believes those productions allow for the most creativity.

“I love to take… an abstract and immersive tone to my design,” she says, “so whenever I can play with that I get really excited.”

Her all-time favorite design was her final college production—“The Passion of Antígona Pérez,” a Latin American take on the Greek tragedy “Antigone.” Vanasse’s design included a giant fragment mirror, shaped like an anatomical heart, angled above the stage to lend a 1984-inspired (“Big Brother’s always watching”) feel to the production. It gave the audience a bird’s-eye view of the stage.


(UNCG's production of “The Passion of Antígona Pérez”)

She and the other creative team members also loved that people in the first few rows could see their own reflection throughout the play. That “really isolated people and kind of brought them into the show and it made them feel like they were under the spotlight, as well,” she says.

It’s a project that also illustrates well Vanasse’s own advice to other up and coming designers: Dream big, she says; always remember you’re creating art, and be open to collaboration.

“You never know what ideas someone else will bring to the table that'll really help motivate you and the rest of the team,” she adds. “Because when everyone's working together, that's when the best product happens… and you just create magic.”


Know a student who could create magic with the right kind of support? Please share the links below with more information on these Blumenthal Arts’ scholarship opportunities.

The Gordon Hay Scholarship Fund awards up to two $10,000 awards to qualified recipients for special learning opportunities tied to pursuing a career in a non-performance area of theater. The scholarship is open to high school seniors, college freshmen or sophomores in the Charlotte, NC and Knoxville, TN region. Application deadline is March 25, 2024.

The Mary Doctor Fine Arts Scholarship Fund awards up to $40,000 to two high school seniors planning to pursue undergraduate studies and a career in an arts discipline. Applicants must live in the Charlotte area, have significant financial need, above-average ability and great interest in an area of the arts. Application deadline is March 25, 2024.

Blumenthal also administers the Spirit of Service Scholarship for high school seniors currently participating in the Junior Ambassadors program. Four students selected annually receive scholarships of $1,000 - $1,500 to aid with expenses during the first year of higher education. Application deadline April 16, 2024.