Scenes by Design highlights York University’s production talent

It may be true that “all the world’s a stage” as Shakespeare claimed – but not everyone wants to be on it. Some prefer to create it. Scenes by Design, an exhibition of the design and production area in York University’s Department of Theatre, highlights the creativity going on behind the scenes long before the curtain rises.

Right: Comedy of Errors costume sketches, costume design by Jenine Kroeplin

Running until April 2, this special display showcases the work of talented students who have artfully stitched together an array of costumes and accessories, designs and sketches, stage maquettes, props and lighting plots from their classroom assignments as well as Theatre @ York’s 2003-04 productions of Big Love, Shakuntala and The Comedy of Errors.

“Many students come into our program wanting to become actors”, said set, costume and lighting designer Phillip Silver, a professor of theatre and dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts. “But they soon realize that there’s so much more to theatre, so many other possible paths in the profession. Once they discover how creative and challenging the design and production side can be, for some students, there’s no looking back.”

Left: Shakuntala, King Dushyanta’s outfit, design by Sarah Melamed

Theatre @ York, the department’s production company, produces three to four mainstage shows each season, and students are involved in all aspects of each production. Working on real-time, real-life shows gives them intensive, hands-on training in the creative and exacting work of stage production: interpreting and creating a physical setting that supports and illustrates what the playwright, director and actors are communicating to the audience.

As members of the creative team, students imagine and build sets and props, devise and operate lighting and sound to set the mood and emotional colour of the story, and design and construct the costumes that will help bring the characters to life. Tools of the trade include the full range of old and new theatre technologies, from coloured pencil sketches, needle and thread, hammer and nails, to digitally-controlled lighting cues and computer-assisted set design.

The design studios, wardrobe and scenery workshops of York’s theatre department rival many of the best professional facilities in Canada, and its Cadillac crew of theatre designers packs an equal punch. The creative imaginations of faculty members Shawn Kerwin, Teresa Przybylski, Elizabeth Asselstine, Peter McKinnon and Phillip Silver have “set the stage” for productions across Canada, including the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, the National Arts Centre, Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and the Canadian Opera Company, to name just a few. Working with these distinguished Canadian theatre designers, York’s production students have the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business.

Right: Shakuntala maquette, set design by Olive Lam

While Theatre @ York wraps up its successful season with this exhibition, many professional companies are revving up with previews scheduled in April, followed by openings in May. Soon, more York production students will be joining their ranks.

McKinnon, who, alongside his teaching commitments at York, is a noted lighting designer and theatrical producer, remarked, “From the beginning of their studies, York production students are accustomed to tackling big shows. In turn, they seamlessly make the transition to professional theatre, easily maintaining the grueling work schedule and standards required behind the scenes at major theatre companies. So, it’s not surprising that ‘Yorkies’ dominate their production floors.”

York theatre graduates who have gone on to successful careers in stage design and production include set and costume designer Charlotte Dean, a veteran of many seasons at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals; Jeff Churchill, assistant head of wardrobe for Cirque du Soleil’s Alegría and his older brother, David Churchill, who is the technical director for the Cirque’s Zumanity in Las Vegas; assistant/lighting designer Arun Srinivasan, whose credits include Romeo/Juliet Remixed, the Toronto production of The Lion King and Danny Grossman Dance Company; Ken Chan, technical director of the National Ballet of Canada; Stratford Festival lighting designer Renée Brode; costume designer Jason Bendig (Mirvish Productions, Toronto Circus School); Elissa Horscroft, technical director at the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival; Alistair Hepburn, associate production manager and Gail Packwood, production coordinator with Mirvish Productions; and Deeter Schurig, associate designer for the Canadian Opera Company’s Ring Cycle.

Scenes by Design will be on view until April 2 in the Joseph G. Green Studio Theatre located on the Keele campus. Hours are 9:30am to 6pm on April 1 and 9:30am to 3:30pm on April 2. Admission is free. For more information, call the theatre department at 416-736-5172.