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UMKC Theater Design Students Draw Inspiration From Visiting Artists

For the past 16 years, University of Missouri-Kansas City graduate students in theater design have participated in an intensive professional training exercise called a charette. Visiting artists from the profession visit the university to both encourage and critique the students, who are given five days to design the set, costumes or lighting for a production that will never really open.

Drawing inspiration

On the last weekend in February, 19 UMKC graduate students huddled over drawing tables with colored pencils or protractors or swatches of fabric. It's day two of a challenge to design sets, costumes and lighting for a theoretical production of the musical Hairspray. Students like Uldarico Sarmiento and Lauren Roark describe the grueling nature of the process.

"It's been called 'draw 'til you drop' in the past," Sarmiento says, "so we're pretty much working all day and sometimes all night to get the designs done."

"They've been called a dance marathon before so you are literally drawing, drawing, drawing, and then at the end you have this beautiful product to present," says Roark, a costume design student. "It's all about the process, and about exploring with these masters a new way of working and a new way of approaching a project."

A French toast

The design project is called a charette, and originated in the 1860s with architecture and art students at Paris's esteemed Ecole des Beaux Arts. John Ezell, UMKC Hall Family Foundation Professor of Design, explains the term and why he thought charettes were needed at the university.

"The reason it's called a charette is because that's the French word for a wheeled cart and students would carry their their homework between their student ghettos and home and the school," says Ezell. "It occurred to us when we were founding this program that this would be a good technique for students who wanted to be professional stage designers. so if we can get really renowned artists of the theater to come in and work with our students. Even for just four or five days, it would be a great advantage for them."

This year's visiting artists are David Gropman and Karen Schulz Gropman. David was nominated for an Oscar last year for his production design of the film Life of Pi, and they recently collaborated on August: Osage County. David and Karen agree that their purpose is to both enlighten and inspire.

"I'm not going to say we're masters at what we do," Gropman says. "But we have a couple years experience (and) imparting that experience and those instincts we have to the designers here.

"We started in set design classes just like these kids. And also I think it's partially meant to set an example: how you go from there to starting a career to hopefully having some longevity in the business."

The big ideas

"They're at a point now where they're learning their craft - the drawing and drafting and all that - but they should think as boldly as they possibly can," says Karen Schulz Gropman, who met her husband, David, while both were graduate students at Yale.

"This is a place and a time in their life to explore how big their ideas can be. Then you learn to work with others and make those ideas realized designs."

At one point that Saturday morning, David Gropman consults with costume design student Max Levitt, who points out how a recent spread in Vogue magazine relates to their charette assignment to design a virtual production of Hairspray.

"Isn't that just wonderful how things line up with real life?" Levitt says. "It's just thrilling." 

Gropman praises Levitt's work then says, "I would caution you a little bit, Max.  Not that you shouldn't have that vision or those concepts or dreams but then you have to sort of imagine, for the director, how that's going to morph into something that's going to make sense for them onstage."

John Ezell says that on the fifth day, individual student presentation are usually followed by the uncorking of champagne. As to why Hairspray was this year's assignment, it's because the Gropmans designed that film as well.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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