It has been a banner year for Professor Jane Cox, whose latest honors include a 2016 Drama Desk Award nomination for her lighting design work on the Broadway revival of The Color Purple and the Ruth Morley Design Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women. On July 1, she took on a new role as Director of the Princeton University Program in Theater.
Cox came to Princeton in 2007 to teach an introductory lighting design course, initially just every other year. A growing community of student designers and a push toward more ambitious design in productions led the Program to steadily expand its course offerings to include lighting, costume, sound, and scenic design. The latest addition to this curriculum is THR 400 / VIS 400: Advanced Theatrical Design, which Cox co-taught with set and costume designer Anya Klepikov in Fall 2014 and 2015, and will co-teach again this fall under the new title of Theatrical Design Studio.
Cox explains, “We have these introductory classes where you learn a bit about the visual world and the storytelling possibilities of lighting design, but the leap from a class like that to doing your own lighting or set design for a full production can be huge.” She describes guiding three fall seminar students through that leap for the Lewis Center’s Spring 2016 production of Elektra in this short video:
The inaugural class of Advanced Theatrical Design students in fall 2014 included Wesley Cornwell ’16, a co-honoree for the 2016 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts, the Lewis Center’s highest honor for a graduating senior. Cornwell came to Princeton as a classical violinist and singer, but he was immediately drawn to the eclectic production of Der Bourgeouis Bigwig and asked director Tim Vasen if he could join the production team as an assistant stage manager. It was Cornwell’s first time working with Cox and Klepikov, who designed the set, costumes and lighting for the show.
“I stumbled my way into this work, fell in love, and now I can’t stop. It’s an addictive, thrilling process,” he says.
He studied set design with Riccardo Hernandez and sound design with Robert Kaplowitz and was in the process of seeking out opportunities for further study when he learned of the new Advanced Theatrical Design course offering. Cornwell’s work in the course included a monumental set for the Spring 2015 Program in Theater production of Spring Awakening.
“The thing that makes design so exciting at Princeton,” Cornwell says,”is the combination of academic rigor and creativity that’s required. There’s more competition and demand for student design now that the Program in Theater is offering this level of training, and while Princeton isn’t a conservatory or technical theater school, we’re studying with faculty who are working on Broadway and winning awards left and right.”
Cornwell intends to pursue a graduate degree in theater design after cutting his teeth in the New York theater world next year.
Professor Robert Sandberg, who has taught playwriting, acting, and dramatic literature at Princeton for over twenty years, has seen design instruction in the Program evolve firsthand. “There are more resources for students to get a greater deal of mentoring and support in this field than ever before,” he says. “The students in these courses are thinking about design in a more sophisticated way, and as a result they’re raising the level of the design work on campus. It’s customary to see that kind of training and mentorship only in a graduate program.”
At many universities, Sandberg says, “It’s often the case that faculty decide what gets produced and they direct the shows, but at Princeton our entire season is student-driven.” For the first time, he says, senior thesis proposals submitted by certificate students from the Class of 2017 include two by designers. “They will recruit directors and actors to partner with,” says Sandberg, “But in each case, the design is a driving force.”
One of these rising seniors is Julia Peiperl ’17, who developed her skills in a costume design course taught by 2016 Drama Desk Award winner Anita Yavich. Peiperl also designed independently for theater productions by student groups including Princeton University Players, Princeton Shakespeare Company, and Grind Arts Company. In her sophomore year, she created costumes for Hero, an ambitious senior thesis production in the Program in Theater. “I was thrown into this crazy, high-flying aerial dance piece,” she recalls, “and all of a sudden I was working with a professional set designer and a professional music director.”
Peiperl took Advanced Theatrical Design in Fall 2015, and created costumes for Elektra. She credits her Princeton coursework with building her skills and process as a designer, explaining, “This guidance has helped me to radically increase the quality of my work, and the quality of the research that’s going into my work.”
For her senior thesis, Peiperl will design the costumes for, and act in, a collaborative exploration of gender and sexuality in the works of Sondheim – as well as working in the role of costume designer for two Program in Theater productions, Lobby Hero and Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, and assistant designing for the spring musical. She also will design for Princeton Shakespeare Company (Ubu Roi), and Theater Intime (California Suite) this year. Peiperl is working this summer at New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theatre and hopes to pursue an MFA in costume design after graduation.
Costume design sketches by Julia Peiperl and production photographs from Elektra:
One afternoon in late Fall 2015, Cornwell — along with Fall 2014 workshop veterans Erin Valentine ’16 and Sydney Becker ’17 — returned to Advanced Theatrical Design to offer peer critiques on a presentation of works in progress for Elektra by Peiperl and classmates Casey Ivanovich ‘17 and Doug Ashley ‘16. “There’s a great sense of community and camaraderie and continuity that’s developed between years,” Cornwell says. “We’re all doing different things, but we are thinking about making theater in some of the same ways. So we can bounce ideas off one another, and consult and even question one another.”
Becker says, “The course allowed me to immerse myself in the experience of being a designer and helped me to arrive at the decision to pursue this work professionally. ” Her senior thesis, British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, will be staged in January 2017, with Becker working as lighting designer, set designer and dramaturg. Set during the late 1980s in revolutionary Romania, the play blurs the lines between design and performance, according to Becker. “There are entire scenes without a single word exchanged between the characters onstage,” she explains. “Setting is just as much a character as any performer,” a perfect challenge for a risk-taking designer.
As Cox assumes the role of Director of the Program in Theater, it will be exciting to see how the University’s theatrical design community continues to grow, as well as how a designer’s perspective will come to bear on other aspects of instruction and production.
“A designer is traditionally a go-between, between the director and playwright, and all the folks who are making theater like the head carpenter, the person who hangs the lights, the people who make the costumes,” Cox says. “I would love to continue to support the collaborative spirit between students, faculty, and our wonderful production staff here at Princeton. That’s very important to me.”