Master designers mentor students through charrett process

Victoria Morgan critiques student designs for the ballet The Wizard of Oz. Photo by Jae Shanks
Victoria Morgan critiques student designs for the ballet The Wizard of Oz.

The term charrette (the French word for cart) dates back to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 19th-century Paris.  It can be defined in two ways: a trip on a cart for a criminal facing the guillotine or a session during which focused design students rigorously work to beat the clock on arts projects being pulled on a cart  the final product then being critiqued by a master artist.

Luckily, UMKC Theatre has been experiencing the latter since 1994, when Hall Family Foundation Professor John Ezell planted the first seed by bringing in Mary Zimmerman to work with MFA design students in this intensive format.  Many award-winning guest master designers have followed over the past two decades, including David and Karen Shulz-Gropman, Fiona Shaw, Eldon Elder, Ralph Koltai, Ricardo Khan, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Willa Kim, and George Tsypin. 

David and Karen Shulz-Gropman, production designers and Academy Award nominees for the film Life of Pi, found the UMKC charrette experience to be stimulating and rewarding. They stated, “Professors John Ezell and Gene Friedman have organized and structured an ideal learning environment.  For us, the chance to collaborate with the design students on the charrette was so refreshing, a true gift.”  

The charrette process is an action-packed endeavor, with students creating and presenting their designs to the master artist within a matter of days.  Starting with research which quickly evolves into preliminary ideas before flowering into final conceptual creations, the process is invigorating for both students and masters alike.  David and Karen Shulz-Gropman both say, “The opportunity to have full concentration on a single design project is a dream.  Add to that the imaginations of your students’ mentors: Lindsay Davis and Victor En Yu Tan, as well as the students’ peers, and we are in a tank with no limits.”

The 2015 charrette master was Victoria Morgan, artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet, challenging the students in the development of a new narrative ballet based on the illustrations used for the 1905 edition of L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wizard of Oz.  The process led not only to immeasurable academic growth for the graduate students involved, but also to professional work for Alexander LaFrance (MFA Scene Design 2015).

MFA lighting design student Ethan Newman couldn’t believe how much he learned from his first charrette in 2015.  “I’d heard so much about the process when I made my campus visit that it influenced my decision to attend UMKC.  I was floored by what it did for me.  The collaboration, the encouragement (not only from the famous charrette master, but also from my professors and peers), and the focus: every part of the experience helped me to grow both as an artist and a theatre professional.”  

Jae Shanks was impressed by how the charrette was able to incorporate her studies in sound design.  “I was excited to show Victoria Morgan what a sound designer could bring to a ballet.  Even with a symphony providing the music, I was able to give her an idea of what else could be done to enhance the production.  She was very receptive and provided encouraging feedback to all of us.”

UMKC Theatre’s charrette is a total immersive experience and is often accompanied by readings, classes, or different events that will inform or inspire the students to be able to do their best work. Said Gretchen Halle, costume designer, “With my dance background, working with Victoria Morgan from the Cincinnati Ballet was wonderful. I especially enjoyed participating in her ballet class which combined conservatory dancers with design students, so that designers could better understand the dancer’s experience.” 

“Yes!” offered scenic and costume designer Zoe Still, “and it is an eye-opening experience to see how much you can get done in such a short amount of time. The experience forces you to trust your instincts.” 

Added Max Levitt as a summation of the 2015 charrette, “At the end of the day, after having worked so closely with one’s peers, it is wonderful to be able to walk away feeling that everyone I study with is exceptional.” Mission accomplished for another Master’s charrette

by David Ruis & Collin Vorbeck