John Iacovelli has gone from graduating art school to working on the number-one show on television to becoming a stage design professor at UC Davis.
Iacovelli’s interest in art design began at a young age.
“When I was a child, I played with puppet theatres. The whole family helped me out,” Iacovelli said. “I was interested in the actual space of the theater. My father was also an artist so there were a lot of art materials in my home.”
Iacovelli graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1984, alongside such people as Ang Lee as well as Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln.
“It was a very good class, and the alchemy of the students is as important as the quality of the teachers,” Iacovelli said.
While attending school there, Iacovelli took classes from people like Broadway designer Oliver Smith (West Side Story, My Fair Lady), causing him to become interested in stage design.
Since graduating, Iacovelli has worked on many projects on television, film and stage. His stage shows have played at the Pasadena Playhouse, the McCarter Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum.
Some of his film and TV credits include four episodes of “The Cosby Show,” all five seasons of cult sci-fi show “Babylon 5” and art direction on Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.
So how does someone go from Hollywood to teaching in Davis?
“I worked at UC Riverside for 10 years and I have been working here for 13. I was headhunted to design the design component of our MFA program,” Iacovelli said. “Some of my students from this program have worked on ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’”
Iacovelli goes on to comment about the demise of the program.
“Sadly, we’re graduating the last of our specialists now. It’s sort of sad for me because I came here to design that program, and now it doesn’t exist anymore.”
Those who have worked with Iacovelli realize the opportunities he has created and how many will now miss out on them.
“It’s really sad and difficult to see John embrace students because the paths he made to help them are dissolving,” said Travis Kerr, a graduate student in scenic design who works very closely with Iacovelli. “Whenever I work with John, it’s always a whirlwind of exciting things that happen. I will have fun and work my ass off at the same time.”
Kerr has worked with Iacovelli on shows at the Pasadena Playhouse, the Aurora Theatre and the Odyssey III.
“This summer, we were working at the Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival. We built the show up here and we were constantly going back and forth. John would draft even more shows, apologize to me and then say that it was for my own good,” Kerr said. “He’s a fantastic mentor, facilitator and friend all in one. Basically I feel like he’s often going to bat for me.”
In addition to working with stage and art design students, Iacovelli teaches a couple of classes as well.
“The thing I enjoy the most about UC Davis is the actual interaction with the students. Undergrads have a unique hunger for learning that graduate students sometimes don’t have,” Iacovelli said.
This quarter, Iacovelli is teaching an advanced film study class for undergraduates, Drama 115.
“He has a lot of hands-on experience and knowledge of how the film industry works and how to make a movie,” said Danilo Becerra, a third-year film studies major who is currently taking Drama 115.
Becerra takes the class with Cameron Congdon, another third-year film studies major.
“I think he has one of the most important characteristics in an educator, and that is passion,” Congdon said. “He really enjoys what he teaches, and it’s cool to get that perspective from someone in the field.”
JOHN KESLER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.