Scenic Designer Andrew Mannion recently joined the Department of Theater and Dance, taking up Charles Steckler’s position as instructor, studio artist and theatrical designer. He is currently working on the departmental production “The Hunchback of Seville” by Charise Castro Smith at Yulman Theater. The “Concordiensis” sat down with Mannion this past Thursday to discuss his experiences prior to joining Union’s faculty and his vision for the future regarding the growth and changes within the department.
Jenna Salisbury: Prior to moving to New York and joining Union’s Department of Theater and Dance, you worked for a number of years as Assistant Professor of Scenic Design at Western Carolina University (WCU) in North Carolina. Could you elaborate on your time teaching at WCU and your experiences and reflections on their program and how it differs from Union’s?
Andrew Mannion: The program at Western Carolina was a much bigger program, but they were doing too many shows than they could handle and they were also doing a lot of conservative work. And the thing that was exciting about Union was that they were doing more “out there” stuff: they were taking more chances, doing shows that were politically interesting and thought provoking and challenging and exciting.
JS: Are the compelling productions what drew you to Union’s Theater and Dance Department? What other aspects intrigued you and convinced you to join the faculty?
AM: I was really interested in a smaller program, where you have more hands-on experience with students. Here, I can have more time devoted to individuals, which I think is really important in theater. The program here is more of a mentorship program, an apprenticeship where I can take a couple students and teach them and be really hands-on. The program at WCU was much larger, so there was not as much one-on-one time with the students, at least inside the classroom. I did have some one-on-one time but it wasn’t in the classroom, it was just working on productions, which has its benefits and disadvantages.
JS: Aside from WCU, you worked with professionals on large scale productions as well. You appear to juggle between professional and not professional shows. Could you elaborate on some of the productions you worked on prior to coming to Union?
AM: I worked in New York City on some Broadway productions when I was a resident assistant scenic associate at City Center’s Encores! Program. One was called “Orphans,” and I worked alongside designer John Lee Beatty. It was really neat; the design was very interesting. They took a realistic set and made it unrealistic by making all the walls off-kilter, and we made a model of it, which was really fun. I worked really closely with Beatty, picking out wallpaper samples and things like that.
JS: You’ve worked with different levels of actors/ actresses, faculty and theater programs What is unique or different about working with Union’s faculty and students?
AM: The people [at Union] really stood out to me, first and foremost the faculty, who are top-notch professionals which you don’t see in many theater departments. It’s not often that there is a full range of professional faculty. But also, the students are very different. While working in North Carolina, we got a lot of public- school-educated students, and North Carolina is not known necessarily for its education. So we were getting a lot of students who were not trained in art at all, no background whatsoever. While it was really gratifying to see them grow and to expose them to a higher level of education in the arts that they’d never get in their high schools, we were starting at square one. If you start at level zero, you can only grow so much in the span of four years whereas at Union, the students are more educated, so we don’t have to supply that basic knowledge. There is more room for them to grow, we can start at level four and get to level ten by the time they graduate. And they are more diverse; it’s just a different level of education.
JS: You are currently working on Yulmnan’s production of “The Hunchback of Seville.” How does your vision for the set, what you are designing, reflect the story? What have you brought to the set and props that distinguish the important aspects of the play?
AM: This play, which is only a few years-old, is so unique in that the comedy is so dark and hilarious that it’s the kind of play that you can take your own spin on. You can make it a pure farce, or you can make it really dark and deep and heavy. I think we are finding a balance between the two. It’s rooted in a historical period of 1504 Seville, but written in modern language and approaches the subject of the Spanish Inquisition, but there’s also this character, Maxima, who’s the hunchback, so there’s this level of comedy that’s really fantastic. As a set designer, my goal is to determine if we make this a full farce and do we make a very comedic-looking set, or do we go the opposite direction, into a more serious and deep interpretation. We are going towards this realm of realism with the scenic design that is really allowing the actors and their characters to make the farce and comedy, so the set is sort of historically accurate, but not really. The whole set feels Spanish, but we don’t want the audience to be staring at the set, because it’s so short we want the attention to be on the actors, the set can take a little bit of a backseat. My goal is for the set to help tell the story without being distracting.
Mannion hopes to capitalize on Union’s motto of interdepartmental and interdisciplinary cooperation by doing more cross-discipline collaboration with engineers, visual arts and mathematics departments to further modernize the theater program.