Lavahn Hoh “literally wrote the book on theatrical special effects” and designed the sets for Elephant’s Graveyard (pictured). (Photo courtesy of UVA Drama Department)
If you attended University of Virginia drama department’s production of Romeo and Juliet you saw something truly beautiful—and I don’t mean a tender rendition of Shakespeare’s most famous tragic love story. I mean the set. An intricate multilevel combination of stairs and faux cast iron flourishes interwoven with seeming miles of flowering vines, tall turn-of-the-last-century street lamps, and ragged fly drapes implying dangling Spanish moss all washed in a humid haze of luscious pink, blue, and purple lights. It was stunning.
Though the overall production was good, the scenery stole the show for me. (Having spent 12 years married to a scenic carpenter, five of which he co-owned the largest scenery shop in the mid-Atlantic, I know a few things about set design and construction.) Scenic design student Jeffrey Kmiec’s set showed off like a prima ballerina, spinning about the stage, posing and offering a statement. It was a high-quality professional set—a surprising find at the college level.
UVA’s atypical scenic success is attributed by Tom Bloom, chair of the drama department and head of the master of fine arts scene design program, to the exceptional people involved. “Where we are in the high caliber of our sets is credited to David Weiss and LaVahn Hoh. These two men set the bar for our program,” he says. Weiss who along with Hoh, literally wrote the book on theatrical special effects and teaches a course on the subject, established UVA’s design and technology program in 1974. It also helps to have superstar students. Bloom attends events like the University Resident Theater Association auditions to actively recruit extraordinary students. “We look for the best,” he notes. Students are accepted and work closely with the staff in a three-year rotation.
Kmiec, a recent MFA Drama graduate, was recruited to the school in this way. In addition to Romeo and Juliet he designed Pippin, Glass Menagerie, and Troy is Burning at UVA but had already earned some professional cred with set designs for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Illinois Central College, and for a summer youth arts program outside of Chicago. He was attracted to UVA by the ample opportunities the department offers, which make him more marketable in a seriously competitive business. “UVA’s graduate drama program is unique in that it offers its designers an opportunity to design five main-stage productions over the three-year course of study,” he says. “This combined with excellent teaching opportunities, both in the classroom and in production laboratory, offers a well-rounded degree.”
UVA’s Graduate Drama program is turning out high-quality talent like Jeffrey Kmiec who designed the set for Troy is Burning (pictured). (Photo courtesy of UVA Drama Department)
Kmiec, who will be designing for the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival this summer, is in good company as far as employed alumni are concerned. Sara Brown, a 2005 graduate, is a member of the faculty in MIT’s theater department. She has worked for such prestigious companies as Bang on a Can (Evan Ziporyn’s House in Bali presented at October 2010 BAM Next Wave Festival) and with Jay Scheib on World of Wires at The Kitchen in New York. 2002 graduate student Jenny Sawyers won best scenic design at The Kennedy Center College Theater Festival and was hired the next day to be an associate designer for award-winning Broadway set designer Santo Laquasto. Pretty impressive.
“They can really drill down into a discipline in their major,” says UVA drama’s technical director Steve Warner, who oversee’s the scene shop at the school. It doesn’t hurt to have a fat budget and two tricked out theaters—the Culbreth, a traditional proscenium arch style theater and the Helms a versatile black box theatre. (A third, the Caplin, a thrust stage, is currently under construction.) The Culbreth has a new state of the art computerized rigging system making the raising and lowering of “flying” set pieces easier. The Helms has a 16’x16′ trap space under the stage floor which facilitates actors and props entering and exiting from below. Soon a Kuku six access CNC router (Cav-bot), which is paid for by the School of Architecture, will be installed in the Department of Drama’s prop shop for collaborative use. This will allow students to draw things in 3-D on a computer then watch as a robotic arm carves it to scale out of foam facilitating more accurate prop and set execution.
Kmiec sites interdisciplinary work, like working with architecture students to create set pieces, as the magic that makes scenic design a worthy artistic endeavor. “It is in those collaborations—where you can see the idea turn into reality—that for me the real theatre happens,” he says. However the magic happens, in UVA’s theaters, it happens with mind-blowing sets.