What’s in a theme?

Carnival’s most attention-grabbing element, the one hardest to ignore, is Midway. Midway triggers all the senses: There’s the smell of the traditional carnival foods (cotton candy and funnel cake, yum), the sound of side-tent bands and screams from spinning Carnival-goers on rides, and, of course, the sight of the booths. These big, bright, hard-to-miss structures adorn Morewood’s parking lot for three full days, all the while competing for a place in booth history, but they’d be nothing without the cohesion provided by the yearly Carnival theme.

Each year, the Carnival theme sets standards that ultimately manifest themselves only in a logo and the booths, but that’s no small feat when some of the most talked-about Carnival memories deal with the year’s best booths. Some themes pose challenges for booth makers, while others offer more variety in end results.

“ ‘How Things Work’ was a great theme, because it gave a lot of flexibility and you saw a lot of variety in the booth ideas,” said Cara Heller, a senior biology and psychology major. “How Things Work,” the theme for Spring Carnival 2005, inspired booths that ranged from SigEp’s rock and roll booth to TriDelt’s magic booth, not to mention booths explaining the function of the government, diamond mining, submarines, and time.

For Spring Carnival, the years have seen themes that have been diverse in idea, scope, and glitz. Few themes repeat, but this year’s is an exception to that rule — “Small Things Made Large” was also the theme for Spring Carnival 2001. Some themes have been a bit more straightforward, like “TV Shows” (1997) or “Board Games” (1996), and others have been deceptive in the potential of their scopes, like “New York City” (1980). Still, the vagueness of the more recent Carnival themes is nothing new — 1983’s theme was “Some Like It Rough.” And while some themes sparkle in the very images they conjure, like “Hollywood” (1986), others are far less glamorous, like “Literary Themes” (1991).

Each year, the Carnival Committee sets a theme, and each year, booths are built to follow suit. Some organizations have more success following the themes — the past few years have seen consistently strong performances from the Asian Student Association and SigEp, in particular.

Some organizations aren’t remotely affected by the Carnival themes, though. The Activities Board, for instance, can’t plausibly schedule musicians and comedians that fit themes like 1982’s “Lure of the Sea.” “The performances for Carnival are often not influenced by the themes set by Spring Carnival Committee,” said Andrew Moore, a master’s student at the Entertainment Technology Center and former AB chair. Ralphie May and The Shins, for instance, didn’t have too much to do with “How Things Work,” and Demetri Martin and Spoon aren’t exactly “Small Things Made Large.”

Carnival themes may regulate only booths, but booths regulate Midway’s appearance and make Carnival what it is. Besides exercising the creativity of fraternities, sororities, and other student organizations, and sparking months’ worth of laborious, hands-on work, the theme is part of what gets people to come back year after year — or at least to show up in the first place.