The joy of a journey: Alumna Julie Hannaford Rundell returns to UNCSA as production manager for “The Nutcracker”

More than 30 years have passed since Julie Hannaford Rundell graduated from the School of Design & Production with a B.F.A. in Stage Properties. After a fulfilling career in higher education, she returns to her alma mater this year to serve as production manager for “The Nutcracker.”

Though the role of production manager is new to Rundell, she feels wholly prepared—in large part due to her UNCSA training. Below, she reflects on her time in the prop shop and looks ahead to “The Nutcracker” and its exciting move to the Tanger Center. 

Julie Rundell

Julie Hannaford Rundell, Production Manager for "The Nutcracker"

From one school to another

Rundell originally interviewed and applied to UNCSA as a scene designer. But when the Stage Properties program began to take shape during her second year, she quickly became enamored with the diversity of the craft. “Props is one of the most interesting programs because it’s so vastly different depending on the shop, on the prop or on the director,” she explains. Because the program was new, classes could be tailored to her and another props major—the only two students in the program at the time. “Bland [Wade] would build classes around our interests and needs,” recalls Rundell. “He was a great mentor.”

Editor’s note: Bland Wade continues to teach stage properties at UNCSA and serves as Associate Dean.

“One thing I think of often is the spaces we were working in,” says Rundell. “I was a student when we moved from the former Mack Truck building into the former diaper laundering building while the new shops were under construction. We were still able to produce good work in that tiny little space. We figured it out, and we did so with joy.”

After graduating in the first class of Stage Properties majors in 1990, it was almost a given that Rundell would stay in the higher education space she had come to love. 

Julie Rundell

Julie Rundell coordinates with Production and Project Management graduate student Lani Skelley Yeatts.

“Part of it is that my father was a professor and I had always been on college campuses,” says Rundell. Another huge part of her satisfaction came from working with young people. “There’s something essential in mentoring and sharing skills and teaching them that I knew I wanted in my life,” she adds. “I also wanted a family and knew it would be more difficult to do that while working in regional theater.”

Rundell’s partner and future wife, Lighting Design alumna Susan Summers, was attending graduate school in the Midwest at the time. They found themselves at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and never left. Rundell served as assistant properties director and taught courses in the Department of Theatre for 27 years. She spent an additional seven years as the assistant director for career services for the fine and applied arts before retiring.

Engaging the UNCSA alumni community

“We call ourselves [U]NCSA of the North here, or maybe of the Midwest,” says Rundell when asked about opportunities she’s had to work alongside other Fighting Pickles. Indeed, a staggering number of alumni lend their talents to the Urbana, Illinois, community. 

Dance alumna Sara Hook leads the Department of Dance at the university, and Properties Director Adriane "Binky" Donley is also an alumna. Ryan Schultz, a Technical Direction alumnus, serves as technical director of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. His wife, Stage Management alumna Amber Dewey Schultz, is the Academic Programs Developer at the Siebel Center for Design and creates immersive, playful theater experiences. There are countless others.

“It gives us all a common background,” says Rundell of the alumni community. “And the culture has a flare to it, too,” she says, smiling. “We all expect the best for our students… there’s a certain drive and an expectation that people are going to do well. And I think there’s a certain joy that comes along with it, too.”

And the alumni in Rundell’s community represent many generations. “I mentored a student that I sent along [to UNCSA] to study with Bland in the graduate stage properties program,” she shares. “She’s back in town now. And it was really satisfying to feel like my mentor still had things that my mentee could learn from. It was a great moment in my career.”

Embracing a pivotal year for “The Nutcracker”

According to Rundell, kismet is responsible for her return to UNCSA this year. She has stayed in touch with Dean of Design & Production Michael Kelley over the years since they attended UNCSA together, and her path crossed with Dean of Dance Endalyn T. Outlaw while she worked at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before her UNCSA appointment.

As production manager, Rundell oversees the entirety of the show—from scheduling and communication to company management. “It’s a fun, big puzzle to solve,” she says. “This year, it’s about moving around 200 people from campus to downtown Greensboro for each performance… feeding them, making sure everyone on campus knows where the students are at all times, etc.”

It’s a fun, big puzzle to solve... it’s about moving around 200 people from campus to downtown Greensboro for each performance… feeding them, making sure everyone on campus knows where the students are at all times, etc.”

Julie Rundell on this year's production of "The Nutcracker"

But the work is not without its challenges, and scheduling is top of mind for Rundell. Working in a venue not owned by the university means less control in this area. Tanger Center is also home to a local IATSE — International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — union. This means additional considerations are necessary to meet their union agreements. UNCSA will arrive at Tanger Center for load-in on Saturday, December 2, and Campus Night is just four nights later on December 6. Public performances will be held December 7–10, with load-out immediately after the last performance. “It has become a truncated schedule,” explains Rundell. “There are only so many hours in a day, so it makes for a bit of a struggle. But we’ll get there. Part of my job is to keep morale up and make sure people’s needs are met. Do they have enough time off? Do they have food?”

Rundell remains positive.”I’m excited to be back on campus,” she says. “To be with students who are some of the very best, who are so creative and who are passionate about what they’re doing… it’s palpable in the environment and it makes it exciting to be here.”

Though she didn’t work on “The Nutcracker” as a student, aside from a few paint touch-ups, Rundell feels prepared for the task at hand:

“That’s something that my degree helped solidify for me. I became a problem solver. I took those skills and used them in my professional career. And then when I went into career services I revamped them. I was still a problem solver, but of a different set of problems. I’m taking the skills that I have and my knowledge of theater and I’m repackaging them again.”

Mentoring the next generation

As production manager, Rundell has the opportunity to share these skills with the entire team, fulfilling her passion for mentorship. 

“I see myself working closely with stage management and with props. Really, I will be mentoring the company as a whole,” she says. “What attitude do I bring with me to this production and how do I support them? I take that really seriously because attitude and how you handle your interpersonal skills are something that make or break if you get a job. Any time you get to reinforce that to a young person is good.”

Julie Rundell

Julie Rundell discusses props for "The Nutcracker" with Production and Project Managment graduate student Seavor Roach.

And she has sage advice for students:

“Your work at UNCSA sets you up for success in virtually anything you do… you can take your skills and apply them in different ways, and the world can really open up. They’re transferable to so many different jobs. You just have to know how to tell your story about why you’re the best person to hire.”

Continuing, she adds, “And this is a lifetime of learning. Learning how to learn is so important, because there’s always going to be new technology and new ways of doing things. And once you know how to learn you can just keep adding those skills to your toolbox.”

By Hannah Callaway

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November 02, 2023