Student Designers Take The Stage

by:  Allie Herryman at 04/15/2010

One of the most valuable aspects of the partnership between the Huntington Theatre Company and Boston University is the opportunity for students to work closely with the Huntington’s professional shops and artisans. I sat down with second-year MFA candidates John Traub and Mary Ellen Stebbens to talk about how this collaboration worked for them in the process of designing the upcoming opera Susannah. 

John is studying set design and technical production, and is the set designer for Susannah. “What’s interesting about this particular opera is it has a lot of history,” he said. Last week he and all the designers had a chance to meet with composer Carlisle Floyd and singer Phyllis Curtain, who played the title role in the world premier. “It was great to meet them and get their blessing,” he added. 

When working on design for opera, Traub said he begins with the score, analyzing the music and trying to see what’s going on in each scene. In this case, the analysis took him in a very realistic direction. “A lot of what we do in the theatre is pushing the limit and going wild. Realistic is nice for a change,” he said.

Mary Ellen Stebbins, a lighting design student and lighting designer for Susannah, echoed this idea. “It’s a realistic opera so the lighting has to be realistic,” she said. “The fact that we wanted it to be realistic meant that there would have to be a cabin. There would have to be a roof on the cabin, and I would have to light under it.” 

But both Traub and Stebbins said they were up to the challenges presented by the project in part because they felt supported by the Huntington staff. Traub explained that, “When we’re involved with the Huntington Theatre Company there’s a lot of input on a professional level. We work very closely with the Huntington Theatre Company and with the Opera Institute. There’s a huge collaboration on all levels.”

Stebbins said, “We work alongside the shop 24/7. We’ve already established a personal relationship, so doing something big and scary isn’t as big or scary because you already have a relationship with the people you’re working with.”

But she was quick to add that working with professionals means that she needs to be on top of her own work. “If it was my friend (I was working with) I might not be as circumspect. It’s a reminder to cross my T’s and dot my I’s because it is going to cost man hours (if I don’t).”


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