Because of the pandemic and that stagnant period of time before vaccines were available, I (like most people) suffer from an affliction where I occasionally find it difficult to differentiate between the year 2020 and 2021. For nearly seventeen months, The Stark Center, as a physical space, was closed to the general public as well as The University of Texas student population. During that time, The Forty Acres was seemingly hushed as the vast majority of students, faculty, and staff left campus and relocated to complete their work and studies at home. This semester, that all changed. With access to vaccines that protect against the virus, students returned to campus and The Stark Center re-opened. Now, as the fall semester reaches its conclusion and another challenging year winds down to its final weeks, I want to celebrate the return of students to The Stark Center and highlight two of the major projects that were completed inside our space.

Deane Swanson is a lecturer in the Kinesiology and Health Education Department here at UT and he is a good friend to The Stark Center. Before joining the faculty, Deane worked for ESPN as a Senior Director for Event Operations, managing the X Games as well as the ESPY Awards Red Carpet in Los Angeles. He is an event management guru and a skilled cultivator of relationships, which was on display in 2014 when he oversaw the launch of X Games Austin, relocating the event from LA to its new host city. One of the courses that Deane teaches is KIN 355: Media and Public Relations in Sport. Each semester, the final project assigned to the students is to stage a mock press conference.

KIN 355 students stage a mock press conference in The Stark Center lobby.
KIN 355 students stage a mock press conference in The Stark Center lobby.

To plan and prepare for the mock press conference, the students were divided into four groups with the specific roles of League PR, Team PR, Production, and Operations. They produced step-and-repeat backdrops and presentation slideshows while also coordinating with Cindy Slater for use of The Stark Center as an event facility rental. They visited The Stark Center for a dress rehearsal that allowed them to get some familiarity with our space and resources. A week later, they returned. The students set up the Stark Center lobby to the specifics of the production team and then enacted the full press conference, playing the parts of different stakeholders: from professional athletes, business executives, and city council members on an announcement panel to a crowd of journalists ready to ask difficult questions. Deane also invited industry professionals to attend the final production. The students were able to mingle and meet with each of the guests in their assigned groups and, after the mock press conference, the professionals provided praise and feedback for the students. The press conferences were wonderful this year and it was refreshing to see The Stark Center act as a hub of student engagement and learning, once again. The scope and detail of this year’s press conferences, which includes real time issues such as the on-going pandemic and public health measures, is truly impressive. So, I’d like to say thanks and bravo to Deane and the KIN 355 students.

After the mock press conference, KIN 355 students listen to feedback from industry professionals.
After the mock press conference, KIN 355 students listen to feedback from industry professionals.

While The Stark Center’s collections and exhibitions emphasize sport and physical culture, I take pride in the fact that we are often a major resource for the art community. One of the lesser-known facts about The Stark Center is that (before the pandemic) a substantial portion of student visitors were often undergraduate students in visual arts courses. We draw them in with the diverse array of bodies we have on display throughout our space. From the Farnese Hercules and the Battle casts to the photographs in the Weider Gallery, Muscle Beach, and Strong Men / Strong Women, there is a plethora of nude or nearly nude models in excellent poses ready to be sketched. Even better, they don’t charge! In 2019, The Stark Center’s connection to the art department included hosting Wyatt Ramsey’s graduate thesis, “A Work in Progress,” which drew inspiration from Eugen Sandow and the world of Physical Culture. This year, we opened a new sculpture exhibit called “Degrees of Fitness / Sporting Bodies” featuring the work of David Deming and his son Michael Deming. But this semester, for the first time ever, we welcomed students from a different artistic medium: film.

Many big-time film productions have been to The Stark Center to film interviews and other content for assorted projects; however, when Ted Kim and Daniel Onderdonk reached out to us, it was the first time that students in the university’s prestigious Radio-Television-Film (RTF) program were interested in filming scenes in our space. Cindy and I met with Daniel and Ted, who told us that their project was a short film, written and directed by Daniel (essentially his senior thesis) with Ted acting as producer and assistant director. The short film is called “The Exhibit,” and it follows a famous visual artist as he navigates an absurdly epic odyssey in the final ten minutes before a showcase of his new work opens at a major gallery.

On the set of "The Exhibit" (written and directed by Daniel Onderdonk)
RTF students filming a scene for “The Exhibit”
(Written and Directed by Daniel Onderdonk)

The primary obstacle in their production was finding a gallery or museum that would allow them to film interior scenes in an existing art exhibit. Once Cindy and I had a clear understanding of Daniel’s vision, we were happy to oblige. The first day of shooting took place on a Sunday, while The Stark Center was closed. Daniel and other crew members brought up their equipment while Ted, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite film producers, set up a craft services table and organized parking for the crowd of extras needed to fill the scene. There was a great turn out and everyone seemed to be putting forth tremendous effort, from the lead actors to the production assistants. After some re-writes and additional dialogue, Ted and Daniel asked if they could return for a second day of filming and we granted them access on Monday, December 6th. Ted and Daniel returned a third day on Tuesday December 14th, to film their final credits sequence: a tremendously clever idea with Wes Anderson-esque execution that involved recreating Stark Center gallery labels with individual credits for individual members of the cast and crew.

I have not yet seen any of the footage, but I know that a rough cut of “The Exhibit” made its classroom premier on Thursday, December 9th at the Texas Union theatre. Ted tells me there was thunderous applause. Daniel plans to have a more ambitious premier of the final cut some time next year as he submits “The Exhibit” to film festivals across Texas and the U.S. When I have full details of where and when Daniel’s final cut will premier, I’ll promote it on our social media accounts for anyone interested.

Daniel looks the part of a young auteur; he is especially thoughtful or pensive, often pressing a finger to his lips or chin while considering his vision. Ted is inherently likeable, always positive, and his enthusiasm is infectious, especially on set. After ordering deli trays of sandwiches for the cast and crew, he took a head count and proclaimed, “All right! I think I ordered enough, so everyone can have seconds!” Both men graduate in May and I wish them the best of luck as they pursue their passions.

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