More than 40 universities participate in the National Unified Auditions and Interviews program of U/RTA, the University/Resident Theatre Association, which matches promising students with top schools around the country. For Ariel Benjamin, coming to the end of her undergraduate studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz, the auditions were a chance to find a graduate school—preferably in the west—that would let her continue her concentration in lighting design.
The school that attracted her, however, wasn’t a West Coast one at all. It was the University of Maryland’s School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies in the Washington D.C. suburb of College Park. There she could pursue her MFA in the midst of one of America’s most vibrant theatre communities.
As it turned out, there was another benefit which she couldn’t have anticipated. Also considering coming to Maryland, but in a different capacity, was Broadway lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, whose work she knew from her youthful theatre going as a teenager in Brooklyn.
When he joined the faculty in College Park, MacDevitt had three Tony Awards to his credit. By the time Benjamin graduated, MacDevitt had two more—and Benjamin had a Broadway credit, The Book of Mormon.
Spec’ing Out the School
Of course, when she started looking at schools Benjamin didn’t know any of that. She was drawn to the program at University of Maryland because of its highly concentrated curriculum where the grad students (usually about 17 at a time) specialize in scenic, lighting or costume design while delving into the other specialties to see the interaction between them all. Students in the program also get a chance to flex their skills, designing productions at the University’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and many intern at one of the more than 75 professional theatre companies in the community. This connection to work and community is epitomized by Daniel MacLean Wagner, director of the School of Theatre, and one of the most active lighting design professionals in the area, with affiliations at Olney, Signature and Round House theatres in the Maryland and Virginia. More professional exposure comes from a 20-hour-a-week assistantship through which the student earns a subsistence stipend.
The things Benjamin liked in the program were exactly what attracted MacDevitt as he was looking for a place to teach. He, too, had been a New York-area kid who went to a SUNY campus for his training, in his case it was in Purchase where he studied under William Mintzer. It was Mintzer who introduced MacDevitt to the Washington/Baltimore theatre community. Mintzer lit productions at D.C.’s Arena Stage, and during his time with Mintzer, MacDevitt assisted on productions in Arena’s four-sided house now called the Fichandler and in its proscenium house, the Kreeger.
“I wasn’t a very good assistant” MacDevitt says, who explains that he got into theatrical design because “I vowed never to have to sit behind a desk to earn a living.” He thrives on the excitement when all the various designers gather in a room to work together on a production. It is “the chance to be in that room” that he sees as the real core of the MFA program, and he says that what he’s looking for in an assistant is “someone whose excitement at being in the room is infectious.”
His experience in the Washington community included 10 years designing for the former Harlequin Dinner Theatre, which became the touring company Troika Entertainment. “That gave me the opportunity to design practically all the major musicals and, in fact, gave me my first royalty work.”
MacDevitt’s Broadway work began with What’s Wrong With This Picture. He points out that it “is now on the wall at Joe Allen’s,” referring to the collection of window cards for flop shows that decorate the dinning room of that famous theatre district restaurant. Design work kept him busy and he also began to teach at his alma matter in Purchase. He stopped teaching when his wife, the dancer/actress/director Nancy Bannon, gave birth. “Still I was taking so many shows that I was missing the childhood of my children, so we decided we needed to get further away from New York” he says.
His friend and colleague, Daniel Conway, is an associate professor of scenic design at Maryland. “I called him up and found it is nirvana here. Really well managed, highly focused—and because it is a research institution, I’m not just permitted, I’m expected to do outside work.”
Outside, in his case, meaning designing for some of Broadway’s top shows. He tries to hold his Broadway work to about four shows a year, while carrying a two-class teaching load. “I want to be useful and I can be more useful as a teacher than as a designer. But the more I design, the more useful I am as a teacher—it’s a symbiotic thing.”
Getting the Credit
With the Broadway work still coming, MacDevitt uses five or six grad students as assistants. “As I was doing Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway, they were doing it in class,” says MacDevitt. “Then they came up to Broadway to see how that production addressed the issues they had been grappling with. I try to get across the accountability of a professional designer for the decisions he or she makes—accountability to the property, the team and the audience.”
Benjamin’s stint assisting on The Book of Mormon included the typical in-office tasks as well as the opportunity to witness the interchange with the associate designers in New York, (Jennifer Schriever and Benjamin Travis), plus a one-week stint on-site on Broadway. For the first week of the show’s previews, Benjamin attended each of the previews, sitting in a different location each time so she could report back to MacDevitt on the sight lines for all the lighting effects in this design-intensive show. She spent much of her non-performance time “photographing everything” to document the set up.
And Benjamin wasn’t the only graduate student listed as “Assistant to Mr. MacDevitt” in Mormon’s Playbill. Jonathan Dillard, another MFA candidate that had approached the University of Maryland through U/RTA, had a similar experience on-campus, but his week in New York was the show’s tech week where he witnessed firsthand the final stages of load-in and set-up for this major Broadway musical.
Dillard didn’t need help to discover the University of Maryland, however. He’d done the design of a show at his undergrad school, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It was a regional winner in the Kennedy Center’s National American College Theater Festival. When it came to Washington for a performance at the national festival, Dillard got to know some of the local Washington theatres and wanted to come to the area for his graduate work.
Dillard is now preparing for his wedding and is beginning to find work in theatres in the Baltimore area while Benjamin is finding work in the D.C. area and beyond. She was the associate lighting designer with MacDevitt on the Goodman Theatre’s production of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish and will be repeating that duty when the production transfers to the Longacre Theatre on Broadway this month.
And of course, there’s that Tony MacDevitt won for Mormon. It’s not every grad student that has the pleasure of seeing the work they had witnessed go on to win this year’s Tony Award.
Said MacDevitt, however, “I’ve gotten to the point in my career that the success of those I taught and mentored is as satisfying as personal success. I’d rather see one of them winning a Tony than win another one myself.” But he adds: “Unless, of course, we’re both nominated in the same category—Hey, I’m competitive!”
Hit the Books, Hit on Broadway