HawkStrong: Katie Warden wins first place at Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Region 3

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Headshot of Kate Warden with short hair wearing red lipstick and a black beaded necklace.

There was plenty of “joy and shock” when HFC student Katie Warden learned she had won in her category of Best Allied Design at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Region 3 at the University of Michigan-Flint for her puppetry work in HFC’s production of Robert Lawson’s The Passage.

“It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever gone through. I felt there was no way I could win. This was my first time. There were some pretty tough judges who made all of the nominees feel as though none of us would win. I had plenty of self-doubt,” recalled Warden, a lifelong Wyandotte resident. “In the end, there was pure, unadulterated shock and adulation of hearing my name called out in a crowded room of people who had done this previously, vs. me who had done this only once and was unsure of how I got there.”

Heading to the KCACTF national competition

The youngest of two (her brother Phillip is an HFC alumnus), Warden was awarded the Certificate of Merit in Excellence in Puppetry by the Kennedy Center for her work in The Passage last year. She was one of several HFC students to win a Certificate of Merit.

Warden will be honored at the KCACTF National Conference at the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) in Seattle, WA in mid-April.

“Region 3 winners will head to the conference, which is on the West Coast this year. We will have our work showcased on the expo floor,” she said. “This will give us the opportunity to interview for graduate schools, theatre companies, and have our work shown to people in the industry for jobs. It’s a unique opportunity for students who have designed some cool-looking puppets, props, and set pieces.”

“After having won the regional festival, Katie is now preparing to showcase her work on the national level,” said HFC Director of Theatre Dr. John Michael Sefel. “I really cannot emphasize this enough: For the very first show of this new era of HFC Theatre, we have a student who is being recognized by the Kennedy Center for one of the best Allied Designs in the entire country! I honestly couldn't be prouder of Katie!”

“Fantastical and also realistic”

Warden has demonstrated her talents in drawing, painting, ceramics, writing, sewing and costume-making, music, puppetry, and website design.

“I’ve always been creative. I’ve always done everything from painting to drawing to orchestral violin. I use the left and right parts of my brain and have always found a way of combining them. Art is a form of release for me, something I need in my life, whether it’s making pottery or reading sheet music or combining costuming and sewing with puppetry,” explained Warden.

It was through HFC ceramics instructor Steve Glazer Warden – a fixture in Glazer’s ceramics lab – met Sefel, who recruited her to participate in The Passage.

“Mr. Glazer showed off my eclectic work to Dr. Sefel, which led to a conversation and then a consultation about The Passage,” said Warden. “Dr. Sefel explained to me the artistic feel he was going for; everything had to feel fantastical and also realistic. I agreed to help. I’m just an interdisciplinary student who was willing to work crazy magic into something unique that crossed into the theatre and non-theatre realms.”

Working her “crazy magic”

Warden blended elements of cosplay, ceramics, woodworking, and costume design that went into the creation of two skeletal puppets that became essential to The Passage. She constructed them out of EVA foam, acrylics, elastic bands, and metal screws. Once the framework of the two skeletons were in place, Warden’s skills as a painter and cosplayer came into play, adding layers of texture and depth to each of her creations, bringing them to life on the stage.

“My dad’s power tools were a big help. I had all the tools I needed to make the puppets!” she said, laughing. “This was the first time I really made puppets. Yes, I made oversized ones in high school out of paper mâché with a team of 15. On The Passage, I made two life-size puppets with a team of one – me.”

Warden admitted she had her doubts about her creations.

“I was nervous. It was definitely chaotic. I was flying by the seat of my pants and falling back on ideas that actually worked! I utilized pre-made patterns that gave me the benefit that allowed me to focus on how to make these skeletons,” said Warden. “There was a lot of trial and error involved. There was also a lot of praying that I knew how to make this work. I watched several YouTube videos on professional puppeteers and adjusting it to how best it would work for the production style I was going for; I wanted something sleeker.”

She continued: “In the end, I enjoyed getting to see the final product. I enjoyed seeing everything come together and my creations come to life on the stage. Even though I was under the gun, thinking there was no way I could make it happen, I managed to get them done a week before the production. When you see everything unfold before your eyes, there’s this click – this is why it works.”

Falling in love with journalism and The Mirror News

An alumna of Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte, Warden is majoring in journalism and telecommunication at HFC. Once she graduates from the College at the end of 2024, Warden will transfer to Wayne State University through the Learn4ward guaranteed transfer partnership between the two institutions.

At Wayne State, Warden plans to major in journalism and telecommunication. Once she finishes her bachelor’s degree, she would like to pursue a master’s degree in costume design. Warden previously earned an associate degree in general studies at HFC, and also completed coursework in website design.

“I was working in website development,” she said. “It was becoming less and less about programming and all the creative aspects. I was doing more cybersecurity and wasn’t fulfilled creatively.”

At HFC, Warden is the editor-in-chief of The Mirror News, HFC’s student-run newspaper. She has been involved with the newspaper since 2019 with past positions ranging from freelance writer to layout editor. It was HFC English instructor Dr. Peter Kim, who is also The Mirror News faculty advisor, who encouraged Warden to work at the newspaper.

“Dr. Kim said I was a good writer, something nobody ever told me throughout my life when I was in school,” she said. “I joined The Mirror News as a freelance writer at first and fell in love with it!”

“Because I had the wonderful opportunity to have Katie as a student in the Honors Colloquium on Detroit that I teach, Katie has been one of the most hard-working and dedicated students I have known,” said Kim. “Katie would go on to represent HFC at the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND) Conference, presenting as a student scholar. She later represented the College at the Michigan Community College Press Association, winning several awards. I have always admired her tenacity and grit and her creativity and ingenuity. Her work on the skeleton puppets for The Passage demonstrates all of those qualities, and I am so delighted she is receiving such well-deserved recognition.”

Being a Mellon Fellow was challenging and rewarding

Warden was also involved with the Henry Ford II Honors Program and the Mellon Research Scholar Fellowship with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As a Mellon Fellow, Warden worked under U-M Assistant Professor of Theatre and Drama Sarah Oliver. They created a Textile Movement Database.

The starting point for the project was creating five decades of outfits, with each outfit then being made from five different fabrics that would be used to showcase not only how fabric moves, but why certain fabrics are used for certain designs. She assisted Oliver in creating outfits from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Her main tasks were to help prepare the fabric by steaming or ironing, laying both the fabric and the pattern out, cutting the fabric pieces and organizing them for easy assembly, serging raw edges to prevent fraying or stretching, and sewing the final pieces.

Warden was also responsible for creating a document of terms and searchable words to be implemented into the database once it was finished. This consisted of researching various fabrics and textiles and other sewing-related terminology. She wrote two separate presentations: The first for USITT in 2022 and the second for U-M UROP presentation day. For the latter, Warden was awarded a Blue Ribbon of Excellence.

“Working under Professor Oliver was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I could have hoped for,” explained Warden. “Each portion of the project pulled my skills from website development to my love of costuming and sewing. She developed my skills for putting together presentations and databases since I was required to help create a mockup of what the finished database would look like for the two presentations. My researching and note-taking skills for creating the terms list that would be utilized in the database and my sewing skills grew in leaps and bounds.”

She continued: “Professor Oliver also pushed me to see that following a passion project and costuming could be a viable option for my future career. Without having worked with her, I don’t know if I would have been open to working on a theatre project. Working in tandem with her allowed me to see more than just a fleeting view of a behind-the-scenes look into the worlds of theatre and costuming. I was often exposed to U-M’s Department of Theatre and Drama, but she brought me up in such a way that it made my work for The Passage feel like something that I could confidently work on.”

“A very creative individual”

Outside HFC, Warden runs her own business called Hex’s Craftworks, which includes a pottery line that pulls inspiration from fantasy and nature. She is also a member of the proposal team for Global Solutions Group in Oak Park. Her ultimate goal is to work for a theatre magazine.

“As an instructor, it is always fun to watch Katie as she comes into the ceramics lab almost every day. Sometimes, she is dressed to work with clay, while on other days she looks like she is headed to an important business meeting, but can't let go of ‘the mud,’” said Glazer, laughing. “She is a very creative individual, so it is always fun for me as an instructor to see what she is going to make next. She is also fun to talk to, as she speaks quite well, and she can be quite outspoken about things, as she has no fear of expressing herself.”

HFC Chairperson for the Department of Communication and Media Susan McGraw taught Warden in several media communication arts classes during the 2023-24 academic year.

“She's always creative, whether she’s analyzing films, performing on the microphone, or developing script concepts,” said McGraw. “I haven't met a student who is more fearless, whether she thinks she is or not. In one of our classes, there was an option to creatively represent a character from a film (in Warden’s case, it was 2001’s Spirited Away). Katie didn't just wear a T-shirt with a person's face on it, she actually created and handmade a full costume of Haku that was of high enough quality to be used on a film set. That's how good she is."