A decade ago, Laura Hernandez stepped into another world.
Terrifying sounds, sights and smells overwhelmed the senses of the then-preteen. The roar of a chainsaw. The scent of rotting fruit. The heat of fire from outdoor pyrotechnic displays.
A musky, dense fog filled the air, leaving each step forward uncertain. Then, she heard the sound of her own scream as a character jumped out to deliver her first scare at Halloween Horror Nights, an annual event at the Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood.
That memory remains indelible for Hernandez, who is graduating as part of Cal State LA’s Class of 2021. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre, with an option in design and production, and finished with a 3.9 GPA. The 21-year-old Boyle Heights resident hopes to start a career in themed entertainment, helping create worlds like the ones she loved getting lost in growing up.
“There was just something about the environment that you are in, the smells, the characters that are around you, the way you walk through and are sort of another character in that space,” Hernandez said. “With themed entertainment, everyone gets to participate and you get to design for all the senses. It’s fascinating.”
As far back as she can remember, Hernandez has been drawn to art, loving how she could bounce between new projects and new subjects and had the freedom to explore and experiment. “I like how there is no right answer,” she said.
Elementary school started messy and hands-on with crayons, pastels and clay. By high school at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet on Los Angeles’ Eastside, Hernandez had shifted to digital creation and film.
But she missed designing physical spaces and developed an affinity for theatre design while at Pasadena City College, where she helped construct and paint in the scenic shop for productions like Cabaret and Urinetown.
After transferring to Cal State LA in fall 2019, Hernandez quickly found a home in the Department of Theatre and Dance, serving as an assistant stage manager for Angels in America and a prop master for Bloodless.
When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, the department faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of producing compelling shows completely virtually. But the faculty, Hernandez and her fellow students stepped up, producing an innovative production of War of the Worlds, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and adapted for the theatre by Ben Hernandez.
The production tells the story of a group of Los Angelenos dealing with issues of racial and social injustice in the wake of the November 2020 presidential election, all while alien beings from Mars invade Earth and COVID-19 ravages the globe.
Hernandez served as the production designer for War of the Worlds, playing a key role in making the story come alive virtually for audiences.
She started out storyboarding the production design by hand, spending late nights putting mechanical pencil to sketchbook paper and drawing potential scenes. While working, Hernandez listened to a playlist from a friend, featuring musical scores from sci-fi films such as Overlord, Arrival and Signs to tap into the emotions she wanted audiences to feel from the production.
Under her design direction, the production depicted decimated hospital hallways, gory alien bodies, devastated city streets and more. The theatre program used Open Broadcast Software or OBS, a video streaming and recording program, with Zoom to create the production, all with actors safely performing from their homes.
“Tonight I witnessed proof that the [new medium] of virtual theater is being transformed in the minds and hands of young people whose vision of what could be knows no bounds,” Shari Barrett wrote in a review of War of the Worlds for Broadway World.
Hernandez received honorable mention for excellence in scenic design in recognition of her design work on War of the Worlds at the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The festival is a national program involving 18,000 students annually from colleges and universities across the country.
“I just felt like I wanted to scream, I was so excited to tell my family,” Hernandez said of when she found out she had received the national recognition. “I guess it finally hit me that all of that hard work had paid off.”
She also received the Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas Award for the scenic design for the production. The awards are given to students who show potential for success in their chosen area.
Hernandez said being part of Cal State LA’s Department of Theatre and Dance helped her open up socially, allowing her to form lasting friendships with classmates while providing her with vital preparation for the real world.
She praised the theatre faculty, especially professors like Daniel Czypinski, for treating her and her fellow classmates as professionals and inspiring and encouraging her to continue to pursue her passion for storytelling.
“What makes Laura such a unique and talented artist is her desire to innovatively connect with the human soul in every design,” said Czypinski, an assistant professor and faculty technical director in the Department of Theatre and Dance. “The theatre department at Cal State LA is fortunate to have her as a student alumna, and I have been truly blessed to be able to contribute to her education and watch her thrive.”
This summer, Hernandez received a scholarship to attend a six-week crash course from The Essential Art Department, which aims to provide real-world, hands-on insight into working in art departments in the entertainment industry.
Participating in the program is a full-circle moment for Hernandez. The program’s leaders and co-founders are Brandi Creason and Jamie Bartkowicz, designers who have worked on Halloween Horror Nights.
“It’s been exciting because they teach us how to transfer our art skills across different platforms, from theatre to film to theme parks,” Hernandez said. “This program bridges the gap between a college education and the professional field.”
After the program, Hernandez plans to pursue internship, mentorship and job opportunities in the production design field while preparing to apply to graduate programs in production design, scenic design, technical direction or set decoration.
Her ultimate dream is to work in production design for Halloween Horror Nights. Hernandez also wants to see more women represented in leadership roles in the themed entertainment industry. “Hopefully, one day I can be a part of that,” she said.
Hernandez is the second in her family to earn a college degree, after her brother. As Hernandez reflects on graduating, she said she feels immense appreciation for her parents’ unconditional support as she pursued her degree and now begins to launch her career.
“They could have forced me to choose a career I dislike, but instead, they gifted me an education that they never had,” Hernandez said. “Their personal experiences as Mexican immigrants have taught me to be receptive to opportunities, to be resilient in a society that might toss me aside, and to work hard to make my dreams a reality.”
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.