Professor Anya Klepikov practices what she teaches
By Lance Airasian | Thursday, April 2, 2020
By Lance Airasian
Thursday, April 2, 2020
UMass Department of Theater Professor Anya Klepikov practices what she teaches. A seasoned scenic and costume designer with a national profile, Klepikov’s designs have graced productions such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mourning Becomes Elektra (Florida Grand Opera), and Kingdom of Earth. This past February, she worked as a costume and scenic designer on a new production of Balanchine’s Firebird for the Miami City Ballet. Klepikov utilizes her talents and draws from her many experiences in the field to help teach students about scenic and costume design. I had the privilege to interview Klepikov about her involvement in the upcoming Firebird ballet, her experiences in other jobs for ballet, theatre, and opera, and how she applies all of that to her teaching here at UMass. Here’s what she had to say.
—Lance Airasian ‘23
How did you first get involved in your craft as a scenic/ costume designer?
I think that everyone has a different path to scenic/costume design. Mine was through being a pianist and my love of literary analysis and a flamenco hobby that was a big part of my life between college and grad school. I arrived at theatrical design because it seemed like a way to be involved with music, literature, movement, and visual decisions all at once. I tried it and liked it.
As a professor at UMass and an esteemed set designer/costume designer for the theater world, how do you take the experiences and strategies that you acquire in the field and incorporate them into your class/lesson plan?
Sometimes I just show students the photos of my work and share stories about the challenges and discoveries in my productions. Other times I directly incorporate a project I am working on into my curriculum, in which case it becomes a dialogue between the work I’m doing on a show with a real director at a professional theater and the theoretical work that my students are doing in the classroom — both feed each other. In that case, I am sharing my process with the students, down to emails from my director, and all of the vicissitudes that come with collaboratively designing a show. I believe this makes the design process more alive for the students. Additionally, there is the sphere of learning which happens outside of class. My students have the opportunity for a closer encounter with professional practice through assisting me.
How does being in a research university like UMass Amherst allow you to branch out and do your own professional and creative work?
For starters, my professional and creative work is my research. I am here to teach the thing I practice professionally. The university supports the notion that my teaching is informed by my professional practice, and I certainly believe that my professional practice is enriched by my teaching. I feel I have become a better designer since I started to teach and have had to reflect on my process in order to share it with my students, not to mention the accountability that the student perspective brings to one’s work. I can tell you that it is far scarier to share my work with my students than with the audience and with the critics. If a critic doesn’t like my work, I know exactly where I agree and disagree with them. With students, there is the expectation to inspire, which is a rough bar to fall short of. Practically, my department makes every effort to support my professional activity which does not always neatly line up with the academic calendar, and so a certain amount of acrobatics is required on everyone’s part to make it possible for me to do this work outside of school. I am extremely lucky to have my colleagues’ support.
How is the designing process different between all the types of shows that you have designed for? How do the moving parts of specific types of shows in opera, theatre, and ballet change your design strategy?
I would say that every single process is different. What affects that is not so much the genre you are working in—although admittedly, theater, ballet, and opera all have wildly different cultures and different processes – but also how big or small the company is, who is running the room, and most importantly, who the immediate collaborators are – I’m referring to the director, the other designers, and the head tech staff, i.e. the technical director and the costume shop manager. So, more than the infrastructure, which has a dramatic effect on the process, it’s the humans who make one process so different from another. Notice I didn’t mention the material at all! – that’s like the last thing that matters, ironically. My design strategy is always the same: in the limited amount of time until opening night, I try to get and respond to the feedback of my collaborators, and have as many conversations as possible so that we are all on board with each other’s ideas during the process, and have a sort of personal relationship built up by the time the rubber meets the road during tech (ed note: technical rehearsals, which happen shortly before opening, are when all the design elements from scenic to sound are incorporated into the work) when all the elements come together for the first time, and we have to make big adjustments quickly and together to make it all work.
When working on a historic ballet like Firebird, and remaking it to be your own, how did you balance respect for the original work while also injecting your own creative spin on the project?
This project was indeed a fascinating balance between respecting the legacy of the piece while also expressing my own creative voice. George Balanchine, with some help from Jerome Robbins choreographed Firebird for his young company, The New York City Ballet, in 1949 and used drops by Marc Chagall and costumes by Barbara Karinska. It never set foot outside of New York City because Chagall’s backdrops are works of art and cannot travel. When Miami City Ballet’s Artistic Director, and formerly a Balanchine Firebird herself, Lourdes Lopez, decided to have her company dance Balanchine’s Firebird, she had no choice but to create a new production around the existing steps. I was hired to design the scenery and costumes. I watched the archival video of the Chagall production a million times to make sure that my designs really supported and amplified the movement of the dancers, and revealed visually the music of Stravinsky. I tried to not get distracted by the visuals of that production because I wanted to encourage my own authentic response to the music and movement. While our production looks nothing like Chagall, it shares with the original production the colorful and dreamlike palette of a fairy tale. It is also unmistakably Russian in that the visual world is inspired by some Russian folk handicrafts the aesthetic of which echoes the Russian folk melodies in Stravinsky’s score.
How was it to work with your UMass student assistants on the scene, Calypso Michelet (current MFA student for scenic and costumes) and Sean Sanford ‘19 (scenic design)? How did you choose these two students? What made them come up? Why are they so beneficial to your team?
Both Calypso and Sean assisted me during the summer in my studio, and not just on Firebird, but on everything else I was working on, including costumes for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont and scenery for The Wolves at Syracuse Stage. Later Calypso actually joined me in person in Miami for technical rehearsals of Firebird. Calypso and Sean have their individual talents and strengths, but both share a hunger to learn more about design, a no-nonsense work ethic, and total focus. Sean spearheaded the use of technology from Cricut hobby cutter to laser printer and iPad to draw and build the trees of the scenic forest. Calypso helped with model building, and the Research and Development process of the Firebird’s costume through laying out decoration on a dress form and many other tasks. Calypso then supported me in Miami: she is studying both costume and scenic design, and so I was able to leave her with the costumes while I was dealing with scenery and vice versa. She also was my eyes during the last few stressful hours of touching up our showdrop. I was onstage with a brush poking at the drop – because there are some brushstrokes you can only trust yourself with — and Calypso was thirty feet away in the house, with some perspective, telling me which part of the drop needed more color.
Were you ever concerned about making the ballet relevant for a modern day audience?
I definitely thought about whether this production is relevant to a modern day audience and its concerns. Relevance is an important issue for me because I usually work in theater, which has the capacity for being a bull horn of political statements, challenges and insights. In plays, actors behave very much like regular people, and so relevance is often helped by overt visual similarity between things onstage and things in life. The theater, of course, uses words. Ballet, however, is different, because no one speaks, everything is expressed through an exaggerated gestural language, and the ballerina is en pointe. As such, ballet is extremely metaphorical and more broad, but the feeling it aims to conjure is extraordinary. And so, when I worried about relevance, because this was all a beautiful fairy tale, I had to remind myself that nothing is more relevant than the battle between Good and Evil, that Love is a theme that doesn’t go away, as doesn’t Love for the Impossible, and that sometimes faith in Magic is what gets us through.