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- Remarks from the Chair: The end (of the school year!) is nigh!
- See a slideshow of Shed the Shag Fashions and bid in the Silent Auction
- Donor Profile: Céline Perron '90G
- David Korins '99 designs Annie for Broadway
- Sound designer Amy Altadonna begins a new phase of her career
- Imani Denson-Pittman '06 designs at the famous Ford's Theater
- Amy Levinson '04/'07G shares career insights
Hello all —
We're almost done! Our last day of classes is May 1, and our last mainstage show has come down.
We've wrapped up our 40th anniversary season and I think we did Doris Abramson proud. The productions were high quality on every single level — acting, directing, design, and technology — and our audiences responded with resounding enthusiasm. I thank the dedicated faculty, staff, and students who made this season a huge success. The talent is just overwhelming — it bowls me over every time we end a season and I think back on everything that was accomplished. I feel like we run not only an academic program but a professional theater company, and that makes me extremely proud.
We are working on our 41st season — expect an announcement of our season shows in July!
Before we close the book completely on the season, though, I want to take a moment to recognize a few April events.
First, we were honored to be joined by Carole Gaunt. Although technically a history alumna, writer Carole Gaunt has also become a member of the theater family in recent years. In a discussion with lecturer Chris Baker, Carole revealed that she'd written a stage version of her moving memoir, Hungry Hill, about growing up in the shadow of her mother's death and father's alcoholism. We were proud of host a staged reading on April 12. Directed with precision by Kara-Lynn Vaeni, with hard work by 11 student and faculty actors, the piece drew a large crowd from UMass and the community. The team accomplished an amazing amount of work over their four days together, and we are talking about next steps for this wonderful piece.
The following week, we were honored to have Amy Levinson come back and teach and talk to graduate students and select undergraduates. (Read below for one student's account of the experience). Amy's a true inspiration and a poster child for our BA approach. While she did complete her dramaturgy MFA with us, it's to be noted that she started here as BA student, which allowed her to become fuller theater artist.
And that brings us a Shed the Shag. Wow, what fun we had on Saturday, April 20! Every faculty and staff member, and a few chosen students, walked the runway for our Shed the Shag show and silent auction. Among the guests strutting their stuff were several department members' kids. The way our student designers transformed the poopy seating and the crappy carpets into couture art was phenomenal. It was fun, and I'm so happy that I work with a group of people that are so game to do something, as a family, to benefit the department. It is worth noting that it wasn't just my colleagues in the department, it was our dean, too, who got involved. She wore a beautiful goddess dress designed by Evan Laux '13, and she walked the runway right along with us. Of course, without her none of this would've happened anyway.
If you haven't bid, we are still auctioning off a number of the items. The auction has been extended by one week to allow alumni to bid — visit the silent auction site before midnight on May 4 to place your bids!
Even though we've finished our 40th anniversary season, we are continuing our Shed the Shag campaign. Mama still needs money! If you haven't already, please consider a donation.
And look for new and exciting ways to get involved in supporting us soon...
Over the past few years, we've used our Stages newsletter to introduce you to some people who are supporters of the Department of Theater, who remember their time here when they think about the charitable giving they want to do. For April, we'd like to introduce you to Céline Perron, a loyal alumnus who has donated financially and has had a colorful career in theater.
Graduating Year: 1990
Major: Master's of Fine Arts, Scenic Design
A Favorite UMass Theater memory: Perron, whose first language is French, remembers the way the faculty and students banded together to help her learn English, and recalled being perplexed by Professor Penny Remsen's friendly "What's up?" "I had no idea what's the appropriate response!" she said.
Why do you donate to the Department of Theater? "I felt so happy in the three years that I was there, so blessed… I promised myself that if I was able to make my living in the field (of theater) I would give back." Furthermore, Perron said, she wants to make sure students attending UMass Amherst now have the same opportunities.
When Céline Perron came to UMass Amherst as a graduate student, she already knew quite a bit about theater, having graduated with a BFA in Scenography from Concordia University in Montreal. What she did not know, however, was English. By her own admission, Perron, who is French Canadian, had never even read an entire book in the language. Now, she was planning to make her way through a graduate program in an extremely collaborative field in the language.
Two decades later, she is a scenic and lighting design professor and theater chair of an American — read, English-language — college, the Keene State College Theater and Dance Department. She spoke with fondness and gratitude about the way UMass Amherst helped her make her way to her current post, teaching her much more than theater design.
"I got degrees in speaking English and in theater," she said.
Perron came to UMass almost by accident. Her degree at Concordia was in Scenography, but she had an interest in lighting and costume as well. In fact, UMass allowed her to do her thesis in set and costume design.
"This girl does not act! I am strictly backstage," she said with a laugh.
At the time she was studying, she said, graduate school for theater was not really an option in Canada. She hadn't considered it for herself until her mentor at Concordia decided to send her to the annual URTA (the University/Resident Theatre Association) auditions and portfolio reviews in New York. The thought had been to make connections that could lead to Broadway design jobs, Perron said, but instead, her portfolio presentation attracted the attention of 26 graduate schools.
She had no idea at the time that this was remarkable. "I just loved what I did," Perron said, and the idea of graduate school, now that she'd been introduced to it, intrigued her.
She understood enough English to get a good sense of the different programs on offer.
"I knew nothing, so I picked the school that had the best program without any preconceived notions," she said. She was looking for a program with a strong directing component — she feels strongly that a good director is essential to strong design.
UMass Theater was that program, said Perron, who had to take a moment to sit and think, "Do I want to go live in English?" before she accepted.
The language barrier was a big concern for her, but she said faculty, staff and students alike were quick to reassure her. She recalled now-retired Professor Virginia Scott as "amazingly supportive and friendly."
Her fellow students likewise reached out to help her tackle the language barrier with the result that by the end of her three-year stint in graduate school, "I was bilingual!"
As for design, Perron dove right in. When she arrived at UMass, a scenic design student the year ahead of her had dropped out of the program, which meant Perron was designing from the get-go.
"I built myself a huge portfolio," she said.
Two of the shows she remembers in particular were Albertine in Five Times, a story of a woman recalling five pivotal moments in her life. For this show, her thesis project, she designed a geometric dome, and Penny Remsen, the lighting designer on the show, put lighting units inside it.
"It looked like a glowing red moon," she recalled.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, design-wise, was her set for David Mamet's American Buffalo.
"Instead of a large-scale, evocative statement, it was very detailed and realistic," she said.
"I have a lot of good memories tied to the work in the actual theater. I was in bliss!" she said.
That's not to say it wasn't strenuous at times.
"I pulled a few all-nighters, I must admit. It was like bootcamp — only we're not covered in mud, we're covered in paint!"
After graduation, Perron headed home. She had plans to start a production company with some friends, but she had also sent out her resume. Keene State called, she had an interview, and two weeks after she'd arrived in Montreal, she knew she'd be packing again soon.
Keene State, located in New Hampshire, offers a BA in theater, with no graduate program. The program has 60 to 80 majors in theater and dance and puts on about 5 mainstage productions a year. Like UMass Theater, the program prides itself on close relationships between faculty and students, Perron said.
When she thinks about the advice she'd offer new students, whether in her program or at UMass, she said "Do everything! Get involved! If you go through (the major) as a passive observer, you won't get as much out of it. If you are passionate and dedicated, you will get a lot out of it."
It's also, she said, "like living inside a postcard" — New England is an area of which she's very fond, thanks to her time at UMass.
Even if she doesn't make it down to Amherst very often, Perron keeps up on Department news, and said she loved Chair Penny Remsen's orange suit.
She laughed heartily as she heard a description of the way dust billowed from the suit coat when Remsen made her first appearance.
"Oooh, that must be itchy!" she said.
She is here in spirit, though, with her support via regular donations to the department.
"When I was at UMass, I was like those people who win the lottery. I felt so happy," she said.
If you were a set designer working on Broadway, you'd probably consider yourself pretty successful in your field. If you were a set designer re-imagining the sets to one of the most well-known musicals of the last half-century, you'd probably feel pretty lucky to get such an interesting creative challenge. And if you got to bring your daughter to the opening night of the new Annie, the aforementioned back-on-Broadway, all-new classic that you designed? Well, then you'd be David Korins, who got to do just that this winter.
"It's such a profound experience to work on a show that is really embedded in people's DNA," he said. "It was an incredible task. I felt a responsibilty to the writers, and a major responsibility to the legions and legions of fans, young and old, to create something that was new and fresh and yet not something they wouldn't recognize."
Work begets work
Korins '99 is a busy man. The design studio he heads has over a dozen Broadway shows under its belt or currently in the works. Korins just did the sets for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang's latest, well-reviewed Broadway outing (fellow UMass Theater alumnus Justin Townsend did the lights). He's worked on plenty of off Broadway and regional pieces, too.The studio also creates pieces for big-time music festivals like Bonnaroo and acts like Kanye West, and has a healthy amount of TV and film credits on the books as well. (See the slide show for some samples of his work.)
Korins likes this mix, which allows him to reach different audiences. He takes on a mix of jobs — some offer more financial reward, while others offer opportunities for satisfying collaborations with other artists. "Your work gets you more work," he said. He has a healthy appreciation for his good fortune. "It's an embarrassment of riches, such an honor. I just try really hard to be thankful," he said.
Korins' career has built steadily since his graduation from UMass, and nearly 14 years after graduation, he still values his time at UMass. "Life is a really long journey, and whatever you pick up along the way never leaves you," he said. What he got at UMass, he said, "is the opportunity to talk and think about my work and to convey those ideas, being able to articulate my ideas to people, and to collaborate."
UMass also led him to Williamstown. Korins started spending summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival while still at UMass. There, the mentoring by professional designers and his increasing experience helped him to build a resume that allowed him to make a living designing in smaller New York houses and at regional theaters before making the jump to Broadway.
"It's a really charmed life in relation to sitting in a cubicle with your boss breathing down your neck," he said. Like other alumni working in the field, he qualified his statement somewhat by admitting that even someone who's fully engaged and very lucky will face financial challenges in this line of work. "I don't have to take any work I don't want to," he said, but it can be a shock how long it takes to get to that point.
From Little Miss Sunshine to Little Orphan Annie
Korins' work on Annie came out of his past work with James Lapine, the show's director. The two men had worked together before, including on Little Miss Sunshine, and Lapine "had become a really good friend," said Korins. When he heard about the plans for the Annie revival, Korins said to his friend, "'I'd like to throw my hat into the ring.' I rarely do that, but we'd had a very fruitful collaboration."
Korins was thrilled to get the call and got to work immediately. He looked at the past production's set to see what they'd done. "It was lavish and beautiful and technically savvy," he said, but "what was greatest about seeing it was that I felt free not to have to do what he did."
Annie is a show that is "wonderful and fantastic for children, but … there's a lot going on there for adults," Korins said, citing the political and economic themes that run through the story and are no doubt more than a little relevant to many parents bringing their progeny to the show. He knew he wanted to strike a visual balance: "not childish, but not high brow."
He discovered a leitmotif in white-on-white die-cut greeting cards — the skyline and building outlines that make up the set have that quality and elements of the set look at various points like pop-up cards and origami.
The scene that perhaps best showcases the set is the one where Annie moves into the Warbucks mansion. As she tours from room to room, she passes through the pages of a flip book.
"The rooms come to her," Korins said, noting that it's also a stark contrast to the orphanage, which is a book with one page.
He also invoked the wonder of The Nutcracker, and its growing Christmas tree, with a massive chandelier that morphs into a tree that features prominently in the design.
Korins' seven-year-old daughter, Stella, became a touchstone of sorts to the production. "Would Stella Korins understand and be awed by this," was a question he and his fellow designers frequently came back to.
Her love for snowglobes also influenced the design, and it's at her insistence that one important design element made it into Korins' design. When Annie has first come to Warbucks Mansion, there's a big tapdance number that, in the original, was done on a staircase. Korins, wary of the cliché, didn't design a staircase.
Stella objected. Annie is the poorest kid in the world getting adopted by the richest guy in the city, she pointed out to her dad, and the design needs to show that contrast. Without a staircase, Korins junior informed her dad, "it's so not fancy enough!"
"She was right," Korins said.
Amy Altadonna's career as a sound designer started with a misunderstanding.
It was a fortuitous mistake: it ultimately led her to change direction from music to sound design and to her new position as Lecturer of Sound Design with UMass Theater.
An avid musician and composer who studied clarinet and trombone, Altadonna had played in the pit orchestra for musicals in college. She didn't make the cut on one production, but she loved being part of the process and asked how else she could help.
They asked her if she wanted to do "electronics" and Altadonna, who didn't know much about the tech side of theater at the time, said, "that sounds fun," imagining cool gadgets to tinker with. Turns out they had said "electrics" and she wound up hanging lights. It wasn't what she'd pictured, but she liked it, and she learned all she could about working on a tech crew.
"I felt like I was really contributing, like I was part of a team," she said.
Working in electrics was a skill set that came naturally to her, and soon after, she was serving as Master Electrician for a student production at her alma mater, the College of William and Mary.
Still, she graduated from college at loose ends. She was working at a college bookstore when she ran into a friend who needed a sound designer for his thesis production of Polaroid Stories and asked her if she would take the job. Hungry for a new challenge, she said yes. It was hard work, because she was learning aspects of the job even as she was creating her design, but she eventually assembled the strong soundscape the show demands.
"To this day, it's one of my top five favorite sound designs. I was not thinking inside the box because I had not identified any sort of a box," she said.
She quickly realized that even more that playing or composing music, Sound Design was her calling.
"It's taken my skills and given me a venue in which to use them," she said. Altadonna likes having something — a play, a director's vision, a design team's ideas — to serve as her inspiration.
Her work was well-received and got her more gigs, taking her from Virginia and the DC area, where she designed at William and Mary, American University (The Who's Tommy, Orpheus Descending and Spelling Bee), and even Colonial Williamsburg, to New York City and further afield. "I moved where the jobs took me," she said.
"Apparently she had very strong ideas on what the set was going to be," he said. They had a long conversation about the set, and some of her suggestions are being incorporated into his design.
Altadonna studied sound design at Yale University, but she did not teach there. "You don't interface with undergrads," she said, focusing on production work instead. However, as Altadonna started getting gigs as a sound designer, she found herself working with students and coaching them along the way. She led weekly classes at the Professional Performing Arts School. Eventually, she came to the realization that teaching was offering an irresistible new challenge.
"I was starting to get to a point where I was comfortable (with sound design)," Altadonna said, "and comfortable is not a place I am comfortable being."
However, communicating her knowledge about sound design to students, she said, "invigorated my mind and my intellect."
"Teaching is the hardest thing I've ever done, but it came at such a perfect time," she said.
Her goal isn't solely to create sound designers.
"If no one I teach ever becomes a professional sound designer, but they learn to trust their instincts and to take initiative, it's worthwhile," she said.
Altadonna's thrilled to have found a place at UMass Amherst. "I cannot believe how smart these kids are! They're really just powerfully attuned to theater by the time they get to my class. They're good to work with," said Altadonna. She feels equally warmly toward her colleagues, who are mentors to her as she settles in to her job. "I've been made to feel like a member of the family."
Altadonna's sound design work can be found here.
Years before Imani Denson-Pittman began working as the assistant set designer on Hello Dolly! at Ford's Theater in Washington DC, he had wanted to visit the theater where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
"I'm a huge history buff," Denson-Pittman said in an email interview. "I wanted to see the box and touch the wood."
Little did he predict that one day, he would be working at the very same theater. In fact, the box that he had wanted to touch played a key role in his work.
Denson-Pittman came to work on the production through his collaboration with set designer and 2009 Helen Hayes nominee Adam Koch.
The two began working together in 2008.
"Adam and I met in a bar in the winter of 2007. We talked about everything but theater until about three hours into the conversation when one of us asked what the other did," Denson-Pittman said. "The following January, he asked for help on a show he was designing. That's where it began. There was no real decision on if we should continue working together. It just happened that way."
When Hello Dolly! was added to the list of projects for 2013, Denson-Pittman originally had mixed feelings.
"When I found out about Hello Dolly! I wasn't all that excited about it," Denson-Pittman said. "I'm not a huge fan of old-timey musicals. I had seen the film, but that was only last summer."
However, the people involved in the show, and the location swayed his feelings about the project in a more positive direction.
When I found out who the director was (Eric Shaeffer, Artistic Diector for Signature Theater in Arlington,VA) and where it was going to be held, I got really excited," Denson-Pittman said. And then, there was the box.
"A huge challenge was the Box. The actual box itself can't be altered or covered," Denson-Pittman explained. As if that weren't enough, the box is not even in the house, but instead sits above the stage. This meant that Denson-Pittman and Koch had to incorporate the box into the set design.
They came up with a plan to use the stage-level boxes that the famous box sits on top of as entrance and exit points for the actors. This way, the famous box could be accepted by the audience as an extension of the actor entrance below it.
"Eric Schaeffer wanted to have a very pared down show," Denson-Pittman recalls. "That's where the set came from. There are locations within the show that are represented by carts that are on tracks as well as a light drop for the Harmonia Gardens."
Denson-Pittman was well-prepared for the project.
"I always use skills I learned from the Dept. There isn't one show I have worked on since graduation that I haven't utilized something culled from a class I took," Denson-Pittman explained. "On this particular show however, I owe everything I did to Miguel. I find myself hearing his voice in my head asking me all those questions he did in class about painting, or how often to change the blade on the exacto knife, or does this serve the purpose of the story?"
Denson-Pittman has come a long way since his childhood dream of coming to the Ford's Theater. Neither the time nor the experience he has gained has dulled the excitement of making that dream a reality.
Amy Levinson '04, '07G, Literary Manager and Dramaturg at LA's Geffen Theatre, came back to her alma mater last week to visit and chat with gradaute and undergraduate students about her work. Alissa Mesibov '13 was one of those lucky enough to be in the room and wrote about the experience for Stages.
As Amy Levinson '04/'07G described her first encounter with renowned playwright Donald Margulies, the students listening to her account shared in the thrill of meeting such a renowned figure.
"For my masters thesis, I translated a Yiddish play, God of Vengeance. I'm all excited, because it looks like they're going to publish my version. I see that Donald Margulies has written a version of it. Skip to two years later, and Donald's in the theater for the first time, and I'm like 'So, Mr. Margulies, you did God of Vengeance. We completely bonded over the fact we've done this obscure Yiddish play," she said.
These encounters with the famous of the theater world have become familiar territory to Levinson. As literary manager and dramaturg at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, she has worked with the likes of not only Margulies, but also Neil LaBute and Neil Simon.
For the undergraduate dramaturgy students in the room, Levinson represented not only what they hope to do, but also who they are now. Levinson spoke about her experiences with dramaturgy as an undergrad.
"Funny enough, I was sitting in this room [FAC 201] when I discovered it [dramaturgy]. The professor's name was Virginia Scott," she said. "I took a theater history class that was taught from a dramaturgical perspective, and I had no idea what it was… Then the light turned on, and that was it. I didn't want to do anything else."
Levinson offered innumerable and invaluable tokens of advice on becoming a dramaturg to the students.
"It is our job to make sure the writer's goal is conveyed through the director's point of view," Levinson told the students. "You have to make sure you really know the director's point of view, so you can communicate it as clearly as possible, while still communicating the central idea of the play."
After 15 years with the Geffen Playhouse, she has served as an artistic associate, literary director and a resident dramaturg. Since a great portion of her job involves reading plays, she has developed a system of making one of the more difficult decisions her job involves: deciding if a play should be considered for production.
"I decide to put a play through solely based on if I've read 10 pages, and I want to read page 11."
It is a simple, but perfected system. With so much of her job revolving around new play development, Levinson found it difficult to find a negative side of her position.
"On my worst day, I read plays for a living. That will never get old for me."
In our bid for artistic world domination, we've got a few places you can find us online.
If you haven't yet, head on over to Twitter and facebook for updates, behind-the-scenes sneak-peeks at our productions, special event information, and opportunities to win free tickets!
Feel free to friend, follow, like, and send your friends and followers our way — as the start of our season gets closer, there'll be opportunities to win tickets to our productions!
Rob Corddry '93 acts in four upcoming productions. The films Pain and Gain and Rapture-Palooza, premier in April and May respectively, while the ABC TV film Spy, is currently filming. Meanwhile, Corddry will return to ABC's Happy Endings to reprise his role as the Car Czar in an episode entitled The Ballad of Lon Sarofsky.
Three of this year's five Lucille Lortel nominations for Lighting Design of a Play have studied with lighting design professor and current chair, Penny Remsen. One-time exchange student and former guest lecturer Jane Cox is nominated for The Flick and Ben Stanton '99 is nominated for Belleville and Murder Ballad.
Christine Crowley '68 is the board president of the Boerne Community Theater near San Antonio, where she acts, directs, and does public relations.
Professor Milan Dragicevic played the lead in an upcoming short film, SEED, directed by Hampshire College Professor and former technical director for Pixar Films, Chris Perry. The film "is a story about a dystopian post-agricultural world where giant agro corporations control the world's dwindling food supply," Dragecevic wrote. Graduate students in costume design Emily Taradash and Elizabeth Pangburn are on the crew. Dragicevic will also be playing Lovborg in Hedda Gabler at the Northern New England Repertory Theatre Company.
Two students will be going to Shakespeare and Company this summer. Devon Drohan '13 will be a props artisan and serve on the changeover crew, while Alissa Mesibov '13 will be a dramaturg for Mother Courage and Her Children and a communications associate. Alissa is also the dramaturg of the UK-based Entita Theatre production of Turbulence, a physical theatre adaptation of The Tempest, which will be playing at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Arielle Herold '14 will be a stage management intern at Bard SummerScape's world premiere of a new adaptation of The Master and Margarita. She will be working under recent American Repertory Theater assistant stage manager Taylor Adamik.
David Korins '99 recently did the scenic design for Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on Broadway, starring Sigounery Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielson.
Department friend and parent Kevin Maroney recently had a romantic comedy, Skin Deep, run at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield.
Bill Pullman '80G is currently playing the fictional President Dale Gilchrist on NBC's new comedy, 1600 PENN. Pullman was also recently featured in the documentary, The Fruit Hunters, which chronicles what it is like to search for rare and exotic fruits around the world.
Joe Salvatore '97G recently directed the National YoungArts Foundation's annual gala performance in Miami. He also will be creating and directing the U.S. Presidential Scholars in Arts Performance in June in addition to receiving a commission from the Gloucester County Cultural and Heritage Commission of New Jersey to create an interactive theatre piece for the Red Bank Battlefield and Whithall House, which played key roles in the American Revolution.
Peter Tolan is the producer for Rake, an upcoming television show on Fox about a lawyer based on an Australian show of the same name, as well as being the executive producer of NBC's upcoming Brenda Forever. He is also the writer for comedian Jim Gaffigan's new television show entitled Gaffigan.
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