By Nancy Wick, University Week
Alex Danilchik, the School of Drama's technical director, is a man who doesn't like to say no. Scenic design students come to him with crazy ideas: Making pictures magically move onstage, suspending heavy objects that people have to walk under, making actors appear to levitate.
And, writes their teacher, Robert Mark Morgan, in his letter nominating Danilchik for the Distinguished Staff Award, "Alex hears the ideas, invests in the design dreams of the students and puts in all the extra time and effort that is required to make it a reality."
"I don't often say no, but I don't say yes either," is how Danilchik explains it. "I look at the situation and assess it, and then work with the students to find out what it is they're really after. And then we try to make that happen, even though it might not be quite what they envisioned initially.
Danilchik has a long history of making it happen, and it all began with flickering electric candles. This was the early 1980s and he was a UW student in electrical engineering and computer science. But he had a sister who loved theater, and she suggested he take some classes in the drama school just for fun. That led to working backstage, and when a show's prop list included electric candles that would flicker and look like real candles, Danilchik, with his electronics background, was just the man to create them.
"Of course, when you do something like that, they latch onto you and say, 'That's great, do you want to try this?'" Danilchik says. "And I like challenges, so I'd always say yes. Then one of our professors (now emeritus), Bob Dahlstrom, started working with me, and he had a passion for what he was doing that easily transferred to me."
So Danilchik became the drama school's de facto prop master. By 1983 he'd become so immersed in the work that when the school decided to create a half-time staff position, he was the natural choice to fill it. He did that for two years before the position was made full time, and he never did get his degree.
What he got instead was a job that involved constantly creating new objects like the flickering electric candles. "Alex is a little like the TV show character MacGyver," writes Jordan Baker, a scenic artist for the drama school, in his letter of support for Danilchik. "He has an unbelievable ability to put together several unrelated items to form a solution to a mechanical problem posed in a play's staging."
Danilchik worked on props for 15 years, finding or creating everything from exploding pens to fake pig intestines. He was feeling a little burned out with the job when a scene shop staffer left and he was able to move into that position. Now he spends his time collaborating with a team to execute designs for the drama school's shows, and doing some informal teaching along the way.
The teaching can range from showing someone how to use a tool to taking him or her through the whole process of designing a show — from drawing to reality. "I get joy out of that," Danilchik says. "Being able to work with students, collaborate with them is satisfying. They bring their side of it and you bring your side. You put that together and see the result."
Danilchik has been a University employee for 25 years now — laboring till midnight for tech rehearsals, getting up the next morning and coming to work, one show after another through the academic year, building opera sets in summer. But he says he isn't tired of it.
"The thing that's enjoyable is the variety of things we do. Even though we're always building scenery, every show is different. The time period is different, the structure itself, the vision. To facilitate making it happen is fun. The people I work with are great. I get up every morning and I enjoy coming to work."
That's the positive attitude he's known for. Writes the School of Drama's master electrician, Dave Hult, "I'm quite confident that the word 'no' cannot be found in Alex's vocabulary. This is not to say that 'yes' is more prevalent, but, in such a subjective, artistic, interpretive field as theater design, I am inspired by Alex's motto of 'Let's try!'"