Just like med students learn on cadavers, you have to let them butcher it a little bit."

Rob Murphy

When designers double as guest or faculty artists at universities, a professional scenic designer might provide renderings to a student director. A student lighting designer may illuminate a pro’s costumes. When pros work with students, does it spell trouble or triumph? What are the challenges and rewards?

"On the most important level, there’s no difference," says Dan Ostling, who teaches at Loyola University. When he did sets for a student director on Amadeus and lights with student design collaborators for A View From the Bridge, he invited students into his decisions as he would any other collaborators. "You have more experience than the other person, but you can’t play the professor card unless there are safety issues or issues of not showing up," Ostling says. When he stresses deadlines with students who don’t always have "a realistic idea of the length of the process," he sets small goals; these are not assignments but colleague-to-colleague requests. Ostling feels free to give suggestions to student colleagues. "When I work on any production, I don’t limit myself to what I think about the set," he says. "If there’s something that strikes me as not the best solution, I feel free to talk about that as one artist to another."

A View From the Bridge at Loyola University; photo: John Flak

Sometimes, however, when pros expect students to behave as colleagues might, they face disappointments. John McDermott recently was a guest artist at Princeton, where he designed sets for an undergraduate directing thesis project, Angels in America. He created a "translucent box painted like the universe" with five doors through which furniture could be moved to set scenes. When the doors were closed, the world "could be intimate and claustrophobic," until the angel crashed through the back wall.

The student McDermott found did more homework than many professional directors, knew what he wanted each scene to have, gave clear instructions and was never dictatorial. Nevertheless, McDermott found the experience unsatisfying. The student didn’t take the design model to the first rehearsal or explain what the design would be. "He never said he liked something or didn’t like something. He didn’t tell actors when they did a good job, either."

Karl Eigsti, who teaches scenic design at Brandeis, as well as heading the design department, feels "the director/designer relationship is an awkward one in general." On the one hand, the director has the ultimate authority, and on the other, the designer is expected to be a fairly independent creator, a collaborator not just a service. "So when you’re working with someone who’s just feeling their way, there can be a little tension in the relationship if there is disagreement." Sometimes, when inexperienced student directors collaborate with his student designers in the graduate program at Brandeis, he sees "people of good will experiencing difficult times because they’re nervous."

Students in the Shop

One problem is that budgets and crew resources are limited, which keeps students from achieving results they might have in a professional shop. "Having said that, we do have very talented people, especially in the area of scene painting. In many respects, I get better quality scene painting [at Brandeis] than I get at some [professional] shops," Eigsti says. "You can’t compromise artistic integrity because of limitations of budget or space or time or crew. It’s a juggling act to still produce something of quality, something you [the student] can keep in your portfolio and look back and view it and think, ‘It looked great.’"

"It's good to have to stop and explain things you might not be asking yourself."

Jon Gottlieb

At San Francisco State University, undergraduate acting students build sets, hang lights and run boards, and they cut, stitch, and drape. That’s wonderful for theatre majors, who are exposed to all aspects of theatre art. But is it limiting for designers who rely on them to realize ideas?

Todd Roehrman, who designs costumes at regionals up and down the West Coast and teaches at SFSU, doesn’t think so. Since he arrived in 1996, he has done five shows at the school. "I haven’t changed my ideas to accommodate what I think the shop can accomplish. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but my philosophy is if I present them with the challenge, they’re going to find a way to accomplish it. I don’t try to dumb down my work or compromise my ideas," Roehrman says. Partly because the staff member who runs the shop offers strong support and supervision and Roehrman works in a hands-on way with students, they do succeed.

Most design opportunities go to students. While he mentors fledgling costume designers, his colleagues mentor students in other design areas. That means when he serves on an artistic team with students, a pro is on hand to help the students work through any issues that arise. Artistic team meetings tend to be longer and more frequent at school, something Roehrman could do without—"I really hate production meetings at any level," he says.

The school also offers an MFA in design and technical theatre. "The MFA students tend to be older and tend to be more focused on the work. There’s a different level of energy when they work on a show," says Roehrman, adding that sometimes undergraduates are struggling with extra-artistic issues, such as being away from home for the first time.

Spotlight on Students

When lighting designers work on student productions, many focus on the learning process, not the finished product. Rob Murphy points out that no investor or theatre will meet financial ruin if a college show flops, but students will lose their investment in their education if they aren’t allowed to fail. "Just like med students learn on cadavers, you have to let them butcher it a little bit," he says. Unlike students of scenic design who can work with models or sketches, student lighting designers see their work for the first time when others do. "I find that kind of fun. Once students get it, you see them light up." Sure there’s a plot, "but that’s like asking a piano player to practice on paper."

When Murphy collaborates on productions with University of Michigan students, he finds he has to do more explaining. "You could say something in 15 words, and a professional would run with it and fill in the gaps. Here, you have to take baby steps."

Measure for Measure at University of Michigan; photo: David Smith Photography

Shannon McKinney is used to designing lighting for commercial musicals that are "all about product." When she did a stint as a guest artist at the University of Denver, she was delighted to find that students could take more chances, and so could she. "I was encouraged and even sort of expected to think more experimentally," she says.

When the focus is on training and teaching, the process is slower, more drawn out, and that gives professionals more time to make changes than they normally do. Even when she has time at a regional theatre, "I wouldn’t do that to the staff," McKinney says. At a university, the students benefit from going in new directions.

"I’m used to having one or two production meetings before we go into tech," says McKinney, who enjoyed having more frequent meetings at University of Denver. When she does a professional show—she recently did Grease and West Side Story in Chicago—she might not show up until the first run-through. Student stage managers and assistant directors need more time in rehearsal as well as in discussion, however, and because she comes to those rehearsals she can be helpful to the director. "I can say things like, ‘If we put this actor here we can have a special that isolates her.’ "

With student labor, there’s also a larger work force. If McKinney needs an extra followspot operator, an extra operator she gets. On the other hand, that operator is unskilled and requires patient attention. Although she says she believes this ranges widely, the universities at which she’s worked—Northwestern, where she was a student, and Roosevelt University in Chicago as well as Denver—have nicer and more modern equipment than [some theatres] that haven’t upgraded for 10 years."

Richard Riddell, who chairs the theatre department at Duke University, agrees that process is more important than product on college shows, but that doesn’t mean he lowers his standards. Although he adjusts to the abilities of students, "you need to set out very similar expectations. That approach helps students learn about professional standards."

In a liberal arts undergraduate program, Riddell often teaches student actors to understand how "light works onstage so they can learn to make the most of it in terms of their movements." He asks them to observe and write about the process, and sometimes he makes them part of it. Recently, he stepped onstage and asked a student actor to light him, then switched places and lit the actor, who now had an appreciation of what it means to focus. He asked a more advanced student to write cues. An acting student who served as his intern recently returned to Duke to appear in a workshop based on Little Women. "There was a moment when we stopped, and she looked up and found the best place onstage to stand in the light," Riddell saw, and at that moment, he realized how much she had learned at the tech table.

Jon Gottlieb mentors sound design students at Cal Arts, but he rarely finds himself on artistic teams with them. Although guest directors work on student productions, faculty designers don’t want to take slots away from their advanced students. But on rare occasions, some projects require a professional. Two years ago, for instance, the school did an actorless puppet piece based on the works of the French poet Noverina that involved projection and manipulation of facial images with a computer and the aural manipulation of various poetry pieces. Theatre of Ears features three wireless speakers on remote-control cars that change the aural environment, which is also partly created by a surround system. "I took a look at this project and realized I should do the sound design myself," says Gottlieb, who did the functional sound and manipulation, collaborating with Gregory Whitehead, an aural artist. The show went to the Henson Festival in New York last year and to three festivals in France this summer.

A student lighting designer and student assistants completed the team. Gottlieb says these students interacted with professional artists who came to the piece with differing visions and worked things out and were able to observe and participate in a complex collaborative process. Gottlieb says he learns, too, whenever he works with students. "It’s good to have to stop and explain things you might not be asking yourself," he says, adding that his student assistant provided some refreshing solutions and suggestions for Theatre of Ears. "The beauty of working in an educational institution is that they become hotbeds of creativity." In general, he thinks students may get more from him when he mentors them than when he collaborates with them. "When you have to get down to the brass tacks of designing a show, there comes a point, even when you have great assistants, that you have to lock yourself in a room and do it yourself."