June 2017

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June 2017

News & Notices

Member Spotlight: Kevin Rigdon

Michael MaagQ&A with Kevin Rigdon, scenic and lighting designer, professor, and VP of International Activities for USITT.

You’ve had a great career, how did you get your start?

I hadn’t planned to be a theatre person. I was in high school studying music and I had a wake up call in my junior year…I realized that I was a horrible musician. I’d always been involved in some kind of theatre whether it was making puppets or creating theatre in the backyard. I grew up doing creative and inventive things. My mom’s father and her brother were handy people. I grew up with all of that. Life conspires in certain interesting ways and offers you opportunities and the real challenge in life is whether you recognize an opportunity or not and whether you’re willing to take that opportunity.

I grew up in the Detroit area and then moved to Minneapolis. I got my parents to take me to the Guthrie and then I got my teacher to take us as students to the Guthrie. That had a real impact from early on going from the Avon Players to the Guthrie Theatre.

Meanwhile my father took a job in Chicago, so we moved to a city called Highland Park where I went to high school. The drama teacher there was a very good friend of a man named Jim Bacham the property master of the Guthrie. I got to meet Jim during a field trip and I remembered seeing a lot of his work growing up.

Going into theatre was really a natural turn for me. I was handy, and back then kind of equated designer with technician. I decided I was going to go off to college and become a designer, which lasted all of one semester. When I was in school the theatre professor for design was on a sabbatical and the visiting professor was a man by the name of Terry Gunvordahl who was a McKnights Fellow at the Guthrie, so I had seen Terry’s work. He brought Jim Bakkom down to Iowa to do a masterclass. Jim asked me, “why are you here?” I said, “Well I’m going to school. I’m going to get a degree in theater;” and he goes, “Nahh.”

A week later I got a letter from the Guthrie theatre to be a design and production intern. I worked at the Guthrie for a season. I was an assistant scenic designer. I worked in the prop shop. When that ended, I ended up going to the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis and worked in the prop shop there. At the same time, I got a phone call from Gary Sinise. I went to high school with Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry and when we were in our senior year, we started this thing called Steppenwolf Theatre. In 1976, Gary and Jeff were all done with college and they decided they wanted to get the theatre back together again, so I went back to Chicago and became the resident designer at Steppenwolf Theatre. I continued to do that until 1997. I designed scenery and lighting for almost every show. I designed a new theatre. It was a real home for me.

So, I got my start in theatre because I s*cked as a drummer. Luck played a huge part in my career, but you must be careful and not take away from the willingness to do it and the hard work that’s involved in it.

What made you decide to become an educator after such a successful career?

I was in Chicago with Steppenwolf theatre still. Columbia College in Chicago was one of the great safety nets for theatre arts in the ‘80s. A lot of us working in the Chicago theatre got an opportunity to teach. I found that when I did that, that I was good at it and enjoyed it. I went from teaching at Columbia to DePaul university. I taught lighting back when they had a graduate lighting program., I also taught BFA seniors in lighting design. John Williams, who was a longtime lighting design faculty member at Northwestern University passed away and there was a job opening. I applied and didn’t get it, because I didn’t have a degree of any kind. I had met one of the students who was a grad student at Northwestern and she was on the search committee. Although they didn’t hire me, I ended up hiring her as my assistant. She worked for me for a few months and said “I’ve learned more from you in these three months than I have in three years at Northwestern.” She was the one who gave me the confidence that I could teach.

I came to this from the “earn as you learn” school of theater. Along came an opportunity in Houston, Gregory Boyd who is the artistic director at the Alley theatre and I started working together in the 1980s and in the late 1990s we reconnected in a big way and I did a lot of shows for the Alley Theatre. There was a retirement at the University of Houston. We made a deal that if I took that position at U of H he’d bring me on as an associate director of the Alley Theatre. I applied and got the job and promptly moved to Houston. I went from visiting assistant professor to a full professor with tenure and I now hold an endowed chair. All that with one semester of college.

When I started teaching I was terrified, I didn’t know what to do! Sydney Burger gave me the best advice “Just tell them what you know.” A lot of the qualities that make us good designers and collaborators can also make us good educators.

Can you pinpoint your design style?

I believe that for a designer to survive, we must be chameleons. If you have strong identifiable style, I think that you may have a very short shelf life.

I’ve tried very hard to be responsive to any specific show and not have any individual style. I’m inspired when I see brilliant, bold design work. When you see these international exhibitions, it’s just a reminder that there are other ways to see the world around us.

Any advice for aspiring designers?

At the end of the day you must be curious. You must be curious about the world you live in and how people react to situations. You must be able to turn things upside down and inside out.

My art is often inspired by my photography in that I tend to look at the world through a 300-mm lens. There’s something brilliant about seeing a huge, wide landscape but then narrowing it down to the specific in the field of vision that is arresting and catching your attention. Design is all about distilling and finding those specific ideas.

Peter Hall told me that my work is like a sauce reduction. You put in a lot of different ingredients and what I do as a designer is boil it down and edit it out until there’s very little left in the pot, but what’s left in the pot is incredibly flavorful and incredibly powerful.

How did you get involved with USITT?

I was first involved with USITT in 1978. I went to the conference in Phoenix. I met this incredible group of people, who I still know today. The sad thing is I went away from that. I spent the next 30 years hell-bent on creating a career and lurching from project to project. It was hugely rewarding but I didn’t have a lot of time for other things in my life. In 2008 when the conference was held in Houston, I was asked to do the keynote address, which I did. It put me back in contact with the organization. There were a lot of friends I knew who were more involved than I was. I ran for the Board of Directors and got involved. I felt like I had something to give back and more importantly, I had the time.

Suggest a USITT Member for the Spotlight!

If you know of USITT members whose work should be in the Spotlight, please feel free to suggest them. Contact Lynne Dundas at lynne@usitt.org.