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Department of Theatre and Dance

  • Professor Lisa Martin-Stuart poses with students.

Professor Lisa Martin-Stuart's Next Act

Q&A with Professor and Department Chair Lisa Martin-Stuart, who will leave the University after a 24-year career at the end of June.

For the past twenty-four years, there hasn’t been a main stage production here at the UofSC Theatre program whose look and style hasn’t benefited from the talents of Costume Design Professor Lisa Martin-Stuart.  In the same vein, there have been few students whose academic and professional careers haven’t been touched by Professor Martin-Stuart’s guiding hand.

Lisa will be making a dignified exeunt this month from both the University of SC and her position as Department Chair to take on a teaching position at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (where her husband, Todd, has been teaching for the past two years).   Associate Professor Robert Richmond, who has served as Associate Chair for the past two years, has been elected to become Department Chair and Artistic Director of the theatre program.

Before saying goodbye to such an important member of the Theatre and Dance family, we asked to sit with Lisa, so we could find out just what the last two-decades-plus have meant to her, and what Gamecock treasures she’ll be taking into her next adventure.  Below, she reminisces about what first drew her to designing for the stage, the teachers who inspired her, and how much she values collaboration in the act, and art, of creating theatre.

Thanks for doing this, Lisa.  Let’s start at the beginning.  Where did you grow up and how did you get into designing for theatre?

I mostly grew up in Gainesville, Florida from about age six and all through my secondary education.  My dad had retired from the Navy and ended up teaching at the University of Florida, so that really became our permanent home.  So, when it came time for me to go to college, the University of Florida was there, but I really wasn’t quite ready to do that.  Instead, I went to the community college for a bit, thinking that I would major in art education, since I’d always done art in school, but really my heart wasn’t in it.  I’d discovered theatre in ninth grade.  I took a drama class, and an extra credit assignment was to go to a dress rehearsal for Barefoot in the Park, which was playing at the community theatre there in town.  That’s the first time I have in my memory of going to a live theatre event, and I was enthralled with it, mostly because at the intermission for each act break -- and this dates it  -- they had a strobe light going, and the stage crew would come out and move the scenery, so it had that strobe light effect, and I wanted to do that!  So, I then signed up to be part of the next play, so that I could be on the stage crew and do my strobe light moment, thinking they must do that for all of the plays.  Well, the next play was Henry IV, Part I, and obviously there was no strobe light.   I’ve been waiting for my strobe light effect ever since then!

I loved doing it.  I did everything with the Gainesville Little Theatre {now Gainesville Community Playhouse} – it was just down the street from my house, so my parents would let me go.  I was the turntable revolver on Henry IV, Part 1, and from that moment on I worked on every show, either as backstage crew, props, light board operator, and I would help sew the costumes although I didn’t actually do any costume designing at the time.  Then, since there was no drama club at my high school, I started one with a group of friends from the high school who also worked at the community theatre, and I was actually in those shows.  I think I was the only person that was in every single play.  In my senior year, we did Hello, Dolly, and I decided I needed to design the costumes for that play because the costumes had not been taken care of like I thought they should have been.  So, I designed the costumes, and I really did enjoy that part of it.  And, then I started doing more costumes at the Little Theatre. 

By the time I graduated from high school, I was going to the community college a little bit, but working at the Little Theatre almost full time, and I really sort of let college go.  Then, I saw this article in the newspaper about a new professor in the theatre department at the University of Florida, and she was a costume designer.  They had this picture of her with mannequins and costumes and I said to myself, “Oh my God, that’s what I want to do.”  So, I went and met with her and signed up to start my BA in Theatre at UF, concentrating on costume design and costume construction.   I was probably the only undergraduate to design for the main stage more than once, and even a musical, which was pretty special.  My professor was named Gwenyth West, and Renee Jensen was the costume shop manager, and from both of them, I learned to really love the craft and just everything about it.

After I graduated from Florida, I decided to pursue a graduate degree at NYU, so I was there for a year.  It was the early 80s and a very difficult time in NY then, so I was really poor and also I didn’t really like the curriculum there.  It was design only, so there was no interaction with actors or directors, and I really missed that collaborative part.  They only produced one show a year, which one student out of the third year class would design, so I knew that, while I felt I was competent to do it, it might be a long-shot that I would be that one designer in my third year to get that chance.  I learned a lot there.  I learned I didn’t like living in NY, I learned I didn’t like that program, I learned a lot of drawing techniques and I learned draping and pattern development with some master drapers and learned to perfect my techniques.  But, I decided to leave the program and finish out my degree at the University of Texas at Austin.  At the time, the head of the program was Dr. Paul Reinhart, a real pioneer in the study of costume design.  His expertise was Costume History, and I became his graduate assistant for two years, where I really learned to love that field in particular.  I also knew at that time that I wanted to pursue an educational theatre background, so I finished my degree there, and after getting a job doing summer theatre at the University of Northern Iowa, I got a job teaching at Furman University, where I taught and designed for three years.  Then, the University of Florida called, and they were developing a new tenure-track line for a Junior Designer, and I applied and got the Costume/Props position.  I was there for three years, and then decided I wanted to freelance more, so I worked in professional theatre at the Asolo and Hippodrome Theatres while doing some film work.  By that time, Todd and I had already met, and decided we wanted to get married, and he decided to come to graduate school here, so I came up with hopes that I would get some over-hire work.  There was a teaching position open, so I applied and I’ve been here ever since.  The job was a tenure track position in costume design, so this was my first time teaching an MFA program as well as developing an undergraduate design program, and running the shop at the time.

What was the energy of the department like then?

We did a lot of shows.  I think back now and I wonder how in the heck we did all of the shows we did.  There were three shows each semester, and sometimes more than that, because there was the MFA Directing program that Jim Patterson ran, and depending on how many students were there other smaller shows may have been put on the schedule.  One of the things that I felt we had great need for then was a production calendar, and so I helped develop the first calendar so we could get everybody on the same page.  We did a big Summer Rep program back in that the period, and there were fewer support staff, which was the difficult part.  There was a technical director and two staff in the scene shop, only one staff person in the costume shop, no staff for lighting.  Drayton Hall was a new space, as it had only opened in ‘88, and of course Longstreet was still being used.  We didn’t have the BTW Lab space, the CPE, the dance building… There wasn’t even a dance degree, it was only a minor and it had only two faculty members in that area, Susan Anderson and Melody Schaper, who also worked in the theatre program, teaching Alexander Technique to the MFA actors.  We didn’t have a PR person at all.  It was a lot of people sharing a lot of work, and it was hard, I think.  But there was a good energy and excitement about it.  A lot of the MFA students did a lot of the extra work; people like Jayce Tromsness (MFA, ’94) were doing a lot of work outside [of their studies].

What led to you taking on an administrative role?  

That’s a good question.  Back in that time, all faculty members were supposed to advise undergraduate students, and that would be a mix of theatre majors and non-majors -- they would just spread them out. Ann Dreher was the head of Undergraduate Studies, and kind of divided up who got however many advisees.  My office was right next to her, so I would go to her all the time to have her help me understand what was, at the time, a very confusing system.  I wanted to make sure I would get it right, because it’s a heavy responsibility to put on a young teacher.  You’re advising somebody for their career, whether it’s theatre or not, and I really didn’t want to mess anything up.  So I really paid attention and learned a lot from her. I really loved it, and partly that’s because I struggled as an undergraduate.  I had a period of time where I was doing more theatre than my schoolwork, and I ended up being on academic probation.  I had to go talk to the Dean [at UF], who was also a good friend of my father’s, so it was very scary.  But I learned a lot from that.  You might be doing what you love to do, but it can really tank your GPA really quickly if you’re not paying attention to classes like “Power and Violence,” the social science course that I failed.  But with the help of some good advisors and some good teachers, I quickly turned my GPA around and got off of probation.  That was an eye-opening experience to really realize the importance of mentoring students and teaching students and how much you can really affect the life of a student.  I think that because I had really good people who helped me, I kind of wanted to do the same thing.  Then, a few years later, Jim Hunter asked me to take over as the Head of Undergraduate Studies, and while at first I was a little concerned, I ended up loving it.  Then when he became Chair, and asked me to become Associate Chair, it just seemed like a natural fit, since the Associate Chair helps to guide the curriculum and the academic part, which seemed like an easy transition to layer that into the new administrative responsibilities.  What it did mean was that it was harder to be in the shop, and I really missed that because I really do enjoy that part of the training process - being in the shop and being hands-on.   The chair position made the shop work even more difficult to do, so I really missed that a lot.

Looking back on your career advising and guiding so many students over so many years, do you think that the process of guiding a student has changed any, in terms of either the students themselves or what’s available to them?

There’s a lot more available.  In the old days everything was on paper and students had to walk around with cards; it was such a difficult system on students.  But in some ways, they had more responsibility, and sometimes I think with everything being online now, a student can lose the sense that they still have to be responsible.  This is something that I think Lakesha Campbell, Robert Richmond and David Britt are very good at — helping students realize that just because at the click of a finger you can add or drop a class, you still have to be responsible for understanding your curriculum.  It’s still the student’s responsibility to understand how the curriculum works.  Our job as advisors and mentors is to help them plan the best use and choice of their academic career and not just look at it as filling in holes on a piece of paper, but to look at it more holistically.  What it is that they want to do with all of this, and how it all interconnects.  When I get students that can interconnect what they’re learning in their acting class with what they’re studying in their philosophy class, and apply it to a show, or apply a period and a style to a history class, that’s what is really exciting. 

Looking back over 23 years and being involved in so many productions at the University, what are some that stand out for you?

You know as much as summer theatre was sometimes kind of a pain, some of my fondest memories are especially doing some of the children’s shows during Summer Rep, especially some of Jayce Tromsness’ shows.  You’d have a script that was an original, so you really had to be creative in a way that was going to pull kids in, but also entertain adults, and do it quickly on a really tight budget.  Of course, I’ve always enjoyed working with Robert -- we worked together while he was doing the Aquila Theatre Company, and then when he came here.  He always puts a different spin on the concept, so really it’s a very great collaborative experience of creating a special world.  That’s something I teach my students all the time, this idea that we’re creating a special world that only exists in this two hours and fifteen minutes, and the people exist only in this environment.  And Robert really has a unique way of creating that special world and being a part of it.  Really, I have enjoyed working with all of the directors that have worked here.  I’ve also enjoyed seeing students grow and thinking back on some of the young students that I’ve worked with and where they’ve gone to.  I think of people like Mindi Penn (MFA ’97), who founded Atlantic Stage in Myrtle Beach; and Mike Colter (BA, ’98), when you see him in a big film it’s so exciting to think about what he was like as a young student.  And then of course my design students, too -- I’m really proud of how far they’ve come.  They’re all working in all aspects of film television and theatre as professional designers theatre educators and costume artisans.


Is there any advice you have for Robert Richmond about stepping in as Chair of the department?

That the university is full of support, and the Dean’s office is also there to support.  That’s one of the biggest things that I learned, and would impress upon him the most.  To never feel afraid to ask for help, because you know situations do come up.  We are in a business where we are working with peoples’ lives and futures, and students or faculty can, in a moment, be in crisis, and as Chair they come to you for help.  You might not be equipped to help in that moment, but there’s a lot of assistance from the university and a lot of support from the Dean’s office, to help you do your job the best.  The other thing is to try not to take it home with you every night.  You’ll take it home some nights, but it will be here tomorrow.  And, again, you’re never alone in it.  Within the department, too.  Really, a lot of people with a lot of breadth of knowledge are here to make it all work.  It’s a big huge machine that has a lot of moving pieces and parts in it.

Are there key hopes you have for the department as it goes into the future?

I think one of the hardest things in our department, and I know Robert and our faculty realize it, too, is that we are so spread out across five buildings.  I guess the dream would be for us to all be housed in a beautiful, state-of-the-art performing arts facility; but, more important than the performing arts part of that facility would be the academic community side of it, too.  So that we can be in hallways together, see what others are doing.  Right now we all live a little bit in isolation as to what the other person is doing sometimes, and that can sometimes be detrimental to the health of the whole.  Plus, students don’t get to see all the faculty, all of the time.  If they’re in one place, they might see two or three faculty quite a bit, but then there may be faculty that students can go through their whole career and not even get to know. I find that a little bit counterproductive to the ideas of community and collaboration and company, which are what performing arts should be about.

What will you miss most about working at the university?

The people -- meaning the collaborative faculty and staff, and the students.  Seeing people grow from their freshman year to their senior year, and how much they develop in that time, is so exciting.  I love seeing students at commencement in May, and just thinking about how much they’ve grown.  So, that’ll be hard.  And, just the friendships that I’ve made with a lot of the faculty that I’ve worked with over the years, particularly my colleagues in the costume shop  -- Arpina Markarian, Spencer Henderson and Valerie Pruett -- they’ve all helped to grow our costume design program.   But I know we’ll keep in touch.

What will you miss the least

The bureaucracy parts that can sometimes take just so long to get… something… moving… forward!  And, you know, the toilets not working.  Those kinds of things that every place has.

What’s next?

I am very excited that I will continue teaching, so the thing that I will miss the most here I will still get to do.   And, in some ways, I’m hoping in a more relaxed atmosphere.  I’ll be an adjunct faculty member at Miami University of Ohio, teaching in the College of Creative Arts, teaching classes for art students, fashion students and theatre students.  I’m also going to design a show for the theatre department there in the fall.  So really, everything I love the most I can keep doing, it’ll just be in a colder situation; but I’ll be living with my husband, which will be very nice.  I’m excited about it.   The thing I really love about the college is that they are all housed in the same vicinity, so you really do see your colleagues and work with them, and that’s very exciting to me, so I’m very eager to be a part of that new community. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.