MFA theatre part I: Exploring tech, design and management at Illinois

By Sidney Madden, Staff Writer

Megan Coffel’s days are split between putting in graduate hours, managing schoolwork and working on production. As one of the two new first-year graduate lighting design students in FAA, she is still getting acclimated to her schedule.

“I don’t know what I do all day,” Coffel joked. “I just do whatever my calendar tells me to do. My Google Calendar is my life.”

Busy schedules are the norm for many design, technology and management students in both the graduate and undergraduate programs called Level 21. Level 21 — named for the sum of KCPA’s six levels — encourages and cultivates collaboration by its students.

“If you add all those levels up, it gives you 21, which is a name intended to indicate a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts,” said former co-director of Level 21 John Boesche in their intro video.

Because the three-year master of fine arts program is so specialized, the class size is small. Lighting design has a total of six students and costume design and technology has 12. Getting into the design, technology and management graduate program is competitive and the application process is not traditional.

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Interested applicants can apply directly to the school by submitting portfolios and scheduling interviews with the department.

However, graduate school applications are expensive and many of these interested applicants choose to use the University/Resident Theatre Association as a platform to meet universities.

URTA sets up conferences to connect applicants with universities several times throughout the year in cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Applicants set up their work and portfolios in a large room and quickly leave.

University representatives then walk around and take notes on individuals whose work interests them. They indicate prospective candidates to the URTA coordinators who set up interviews the following day.

Costume design co-chair and seasoned recruiter Olga Maslova said it’s a two-way street between the applicant and the department: It depends on if the program suits the potential student and if the potential student will work well with the department.

“We are looking for originality,” Maslova said. “Someone with a drive, a passion. Not necessarily a skill set because that’s why they’re here. If a person knew everything, why would they need grad school? But we are looking for someone with a thirst for knowledge, openness and a certain balance of both ambition and humility. We like ambitious people. I think it’s more about the chemistry.”

However, new costume technology head Rose Kaczmarowski refers to URTA as the front door method of application — there are other routes.

Maslova explained that they reach out to colleagues in the industry, scout out talent at summer stock theater and reach out to underrepresented communities.

Coffel and her classmates are already hard at work preparing for the various productions this season, ranging from plays to musicals to operas to dance exhibitions. Each one of these shows offers different design and technical challenges to students, something professors keep in mind when assigning students to work on different shows.

“We start lining up students that would be right for those projects based on what projects they’ve done already, who they’ve collaborated with already if the projects are realistic or fantastical,” Kaczmarowski said.

The following year’s season is announced around the holidays and designers begin conceptualizing the fall’s productions in the spring.

Kaczmarowski attributes the need for such a stringent schedule “so we can produce the same level of shows while continuing to educate at the same time.”

This fall’s season includes performances by the theatre, lyric opera and dance departments. Level 21’s work will be seen in “An American Daughter,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “La Bohème,” “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade” and “November Dance.”

Kaczmarowski, who is first-year faculty, is excited for the year ahead and the work they’ll collectively produce as a department and a company.

“So far from what I’ve observed in the two shows I’m going to be design-advising for next semester are the directors are true collaborators,” she said. “They have this desire to take information from everyone from the lighting designer to the scenic designer because everyone is telling a story and that’s an emotional story. No matter if your specialty is costume design or sound design or a director, we’re all on this journey together. The best collaborations are when everyone can kinda gel.”

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