Costume designer Johnetta Boone (right) meets student Hannah Chalman.

Theatre VCU design students present portfolios for professional review

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From Miami to Moscow and from Madea to Evita, the 15 professional designers invited to review the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Theatre student design portfolios have worked around the world on every character and time period imaginable.

The stage managers and set, costume, lighting and sound designers converged in Richmond during the final week of the spring semester to give professional feedback to more than 40 juniors, seniors and graduate theatre design students. What brought them here? Toni-Leslie James, associate professor and head of design for Theatre VCU in the School of the Arts. A professional herself, James has invited her colleagues to review her students’ work for three years running.

“The kids see us [professors] 30 weeks a year,” James said. “They’ve heard what we have to say. … They need to have another voice in the room. And that’s why we started this. It’s an incredible opportunity for our kids and an incredible opportunity for the School [of the Arts].

“They get to meet people who are actually in the business, who tell them the viability of their work and their growth when they leave the university setting to go forward into the real professional world. And they’re talking to people who have been in it a minute, who are actually working in the industry and it becomes an invaluable opportunity to make contact.”

Almost like speed dating, students met with professionals in their respective fields for 20 to 25 minutes, before moving on to the next reviewer.

This is purely for them to have the experience of speaking to well-known professionals in the business.

The experts included set designers such as New York-based David Caudle, who formerly was a scenic designer at Miami Dade College and has worked on productions such as “Evita,” “South Pacific” and “Amazing Grace,” and Shannon Robert, who participated in an international exchange at the Moscow Art Theatre Conservatory. Costume designers included Johnetta Boone, who has worked on television and film projects such as “The Wire” and “A Madea Christmas,” and Michael McDonald, who has designed costumes for Anne Hathaway, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, among others.

James is happy for the opportunity the event gives her students. In addition to incredible feedback, it is also an introduction to other people who can help them in the industry, she said.

“This is purely for them to have the experience of speaking to well-known professionals in the business,” James said. “It’s invaluable to have everybody in the room because the energy is incredible.”

Set designer Tony Cisek (left) meets with student James Nicholas.
Set designer Tony Cisek (left) meets with student James Nicholas.


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