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Friday, October 22, 2021

Pulling back the curtain on theater design

When you see actors on stage reciting their lines under the glamorous limelight, did you ever think about the design, aesthetics and planning that goes on behind scenes?

UC Davis’ Master of Fine Arts program in the Department of Theatre and Dance offers a particular emphasis on design that teaches students how to hone their skills in an interdisciplinary context. The program encourages an exploration of various mediums through music, video, film, architecture, lighting and costume design.

 For current MFA student Kara Lynn Branch, who received her undergraduate degree in London studying fashion design, the conscious choice of pursuing costume design was a gradual realization for the art.

“I studied fashion design for my undergraduate degree in London,” Branch said. “During this time, one of my fashion design professors was involved in designing for the theatre and I had the opportunity to help him during a production.  I have always loved theatre, television and movies and I was hooked from that point. I am also very interested in art and history and this profession combines all of my interests.”

Branch has been directly involved in the costume design process in past productions including Elephant’s Graveyard, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Who Are You?, as well as the upcoming production of The Who’s Tommy.

The MFA program works to meld the design, directing, acting and choreography in a collaborative and interdisciplinary fashion. From the very start, the program pushes students to interact with these four areas in a cohesive process. Students are required to design four paper projects with up to 65 costume renderings per quarter of their first year.

“Within the process of an actual production, it remains essential that communication is maintained between all parties involved within a production,” Branch said.  “During the class that we take together as a group, we put together smaller, more devised pieces for class which really helps in this process.”

But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this program is the opportunity students have to work with professionals in the business.

John Iancovelli, who is an Emmy award-winning artist and designer of renowned productions such as Peter Pan, currently teaches for the MFA design program.

For Iancovelli, inspiration comes from a varying outlet of resources and collaborative work between design and the other MFA programs.

“The process starts first with the directing program,” Iancovelli said. “It’s an important component to the whole group of young theatre professionals we train. The director is a kind of benevolent dictator and it is important to be in step with this person who has the overall vision for the show. So I get inspiration from working with the directors and looking at research that will infuse the design, books, photos, architecture, etc.”

The program mutually benefits students and faculty. Daniel Jordan, a senior undergraduate dramatic arts major, was able to learn a lot about the real workings of the theatre world through Iancovelli on a personal level when they took a trip to Los Angeles to learn about the film industry.

“Iancovelli is so giving, and willing to help out the students that are passionate about theater,” Jordan said. “I’ve learned more about real-world theater workings – not craft, but how the industry works – because of him. We learned about all the work that goes in beforehand and how many small specific things goes into a production from the date of a picture, or even what directors or companies tend to expect from a designer.”

Through collaboration with students and faculty, the vision of design bleeds into many other areas that allow individual students to shine in their own ways. For Iancovelli, perception is the key to how a student approaches the profession to gain the most they can out of it.

“It is a great journey for the right student,” Iancovelli said. “The combined emphasis helps all students in different areas to combine their ideas and to see the world from another perspective. I can see that everyone grows in this collaborative way and in some cases we have seen students switch from being a scenic designer to a costume designer or take on another area. I think this cross-disciplinary approach makes everyone better.”

For more information about the MFA program in design, visit theatredance.ucdavis.edu.

UYEN CAO can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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