Theatre design professors set the stage across Ontario

Professors in the Department of Theatre are as busy designing for the stage as they are teaching, with a number of shows this winter on major stages in three Ontario cities.

Professor Teresa Przybylski is responsible for both set and costume design for the production of German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa. With artistic director Peter Hinton at the helm, the show runs Jan. 12 to 30 on the NAC’s mainstage as part of the theatre’s 40th-anniversary season.

Right: Teresa Przybylski

Considered by some to be the greatest play of the 20th century, Brecht’s masterwork, penned in several versions during the Second World War, tackles issues of struggle, opportunism and survival. The plot follows a resourceful mother who plays both sides of a war for personal profit and to keep her family together. Starring Tanja Jacobs as Mother Courage, the cast also includes York theatre alumna nisha ahuja (BA Spec. Hons. ’05).

Przybylski’s designs – which she has been developing off and on for the past eight months – pay tribute to the principles underlying Brecht’s own presentations of his works. Except for a dramatic red sky, the scenographic elements are minimal and understated. In keeping with the Brechtian approach that emphasizes the constructed nature of the theatrical event, some of the stage infrastructure, such as lighting towers and beams, remains exposed to the view of the audience.

Przybylski’s set includes nine pianos specially built for this production. They are used not only for the musical segments of the show, but also to create various locations and to change the architecture of the stage.

Highlighting the contrast between the military, civilians and victims of war, Przybylski’s costume designs for the play are loosely based on the period in which it is set: the time of the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), one of the most destructive conflicts in European history.

Professor Phillip Silver is the set and lighting designer for The Light in the Piazza, directed by Robert McQueen, running at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre from Jan. 30 to Feb. 21. This multiple Tony Award-winning musical, with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, tells the story of an unexpected love that crosses the barriers of culture, language and circumstance.

Left: Phillip Silver

The show is presented by Acting Upstage Theatre Company, whose founding artistic producer, Mitchell Marcus (BA Hons. ’04), is a graduate of York’s Fine Arts Cultural Studies Program. Marcus’ arts administration studies are serving him well as he juggles a show or two a year with his own company and the demands of his role as associate producer of theatre, dance, film and music for Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts & Creativity.

Silver says he is having a great time working for a former student. “The show has the feel of an intimate chamber opera, with beautifully lyrical music,” says Silver. “We’re building a simple, neutral set and using innovative lighting and furniture changes to help the scenes travel in and around Florence and Rome. Mitchell’s company is building a reputation for smart choices, compelling shows and great casting. The company is one to watch.”

Professor Shawn Kerwin has packed her 2009-2010 sabbatical leave with productions – including three opening in the next three months.  

Kerwin is designing sets and costumes for the world premiere of And So It Goes, the latest work by one of Canada’s best-known living playwrights and member of the Order of Canada, George F. Walker. This Walker-style drama, directed by the playwright, will be on stage Jan. 30 to Feb. 28 at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. It tells the story of a husband and wife in a rocky relationship who turn to a radically unorthodox therapist to keep them from going over the edge.

Right: Shawn Kerwin

Hard on the heels of this production comes a second world premiere for Kerwin in Toronto: Tarragon Theatre’s Communion, written and directed by yet another of Canada’s most renowned and prolific playwrights, Siminovitch Prize recipient Daniel MacIvor. Kerwin is designing the costumes for the show, a comedy about motherhood, love, God and the meaning of life, that opens March 3 and runs to April 4. 

Kerwin rounds out her triumvirate with a 19th-century classic: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s spirited, playful look at love and life in the English countryside. Kerwin is the set designer for the production, directed by Susan Ferley, running at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., March 10 to April 3.

“I feel very privileged to have two of Canada’s leading playwrights ask me to collaborate on their new works,” Kerwin says. “To have the chance to work on a classic period story in one of Canada’s most beautiful regional theatres at the same time makes for a trio of wonderful design opportunities – though having them unfold somewhat simultaneously does give me a real challenge! But it’s my pleasure to work with a range of wonderful artists on stories that cross different centuries and dramatic styles.”

Visit the Department of Theatre Web site for more on the program and its faculty.