Production photo of 'Something Rotten!' by Joan Marcus. Provided by Gabriel Firestone.

Making A Scene: Q&A with Alumnus Gabriel Firestone, Scenic Designer

Cincinnati audiences may remember Gabriel Firestone (BFA Stage Design, 2014) for his scenic designs in CCM Opera’s Mainstage production of Owen Wingrave in 2013. After graduating from CCM’s acclaimed Theatre Design and Technology program, Firestone went on to design scenery for Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional and international theatre productions. Working alongside award-winning scenic designer Scott Pask, Firestone most recently served as the associate scenic designer for the first National Tour of Tony-nominated musical Something Rotten!.

Gabriel Firestone. Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

Gabriel Firestone. Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser.

Firestone isn’t the only CCM alumnus involved in the national tour. Something Rotten! is produced by Kevin McCollum (BFA Musical Theatre, 1984), and onstage performers include alumni Joel Newsome (BFA Musical Theatre, 1989) and Pierce Cassedy (BFA Musical Theatre, 2012). A fun fact from Firestone’s time at CCM: the house he lived in on Wheeler Street in Clifton was actually passed down to him from Cassedy, along with his sofa set. “CCM really is an extended family,” Firestone says.

We caught up with Firestone to talk about his experience working on Something Rotten! and what life has been like for him since he graduated from CCM.

What is it like working in scenic design for the first National Tour of Something Rotten? What does a typical day look like for you at work?
As Associate Scenic Designer for the Something Rotten! first National Tour, my job was to work along-side Scott Pask, who designed the highly successful Broadway production, and effectively translate the original design of the scenery and props into one that could be taken out on tour. There are many different physical and logistical constraints when a production is playing a wide variety of venues, and making sure the set will look just as good on the road as it did on the stage at the St. James Theatre in New York was critical.

I don’t believe there is such thing as a “typical day at work” — my responsibilities with the tour changed as the design progressed. The beginning stages involved lots of modeling and sketching. Later, I was drafting and documenting how all of the scenic pieces moved onstage. I spent a few weeks running back and forth between the scenic shops who built and painted the scenery and drops, giving notes and making sure everything was looking and functioning as it should. Finally, I spent a month out on the road with the show, overseeing as the various elements finally came together in the theater, and reacting to any last-minute changes. Each day was a different and exciting challenge.

What has been your most challenging scenic design project and why?
While every design presents its own set of challenges, one of the more interesting ones I’ve encountered involved transferring a design I did for Red Light Winter in New York City to the National Theatre in Warsaw, Poland. The set in New York was a small, drab room with three crumbling plaster walls and the suggestion of a ceiling — all grounded in realism. Due to limitations for the re-mounted production, we couldn’t use our scenery overseas. Although it might not seem like a huge challenge, the creative team had to reconcile the telling of this story, where the constricted environment itself becomes a major player, with the comparatively spacious bounds we were given in which to work. We reconfigured the staging and design in a pretty remarkable way that didn’t detract from the story, but rather added to the audience’s understanding of what happens to the characters in the brief moments after they leave the room we no longer represented so literally. The sometimes one-dimensional characters suddenly became multi-faceted, and what was lost in the way of aesthetic realism was replaced by much more emotionally driven performances. It was a fascinating production to have been a part of.

Do you have a specific CCM memory or experience that you would like to share?
A favorite memory of mine was going through the design process for CCM Opera’s Owen Wingrave as part of the year-long centenary celebration of Benjamin Britten’s career. Due to a directorial change, all the work had to be scrapped and we started over from the beginning. It was exciting to re-envision the piece under the lens of a different director, and to figure out what changed and evolved from the previous iteration. Although we as a creative team were working within a truncated amount of time, I think the design ended up being every bit as bold and grand as we had imagined. The first time you see the scenery, which takes months to realize, assembled on-stage is always a magical experience; it never grows old.

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Do you have any advice for current or soon-to-be graduating CCM students?
My advice to somebody who’s soon-to-be graduating is to be patient and not to believe he or she is above getting people coffee for a while, so-to-speak. As a young theatre arts professional, there are an endless number of opportunities to get one’s foot in the door, but the people who get those jobs, keep those jobs and grow in those jobs are the ones who have a great attitude every day, show up with a smile and don’t mind supporting the team in ways sometimes deemed menial. In an industry where we spend so much time working in large groups, you can quickly earn a lasting reputation as somebody who is passionate and dependable, and when it comes time to take on more advanced work, your name will be the first one considered. Don’t be disheartened if it takes a while to make the right connections.

And also, try to find some balance in life between success in a career and a personal life. Both are more fun and fulfilling when there is a sense of balance between them.

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Something Rotten! photo by Joan Marcus; provided by Gabriel Firestone.

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Kevin McCollum talks to CCM musical theatre students at a master class.

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer Kevin McCollum Joins CCM’s Faculty as Distinguished Visiting Professor

Peter Landgren, dean and Thomas James Kelly professor of music at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), has appointed leading Broadway producer Kevin McCollum to the position of Distinguished Visiting Professor. McCollum’s initial appointment will be for three years and will become effective in August of 2015.

Alumnus and Distinguished Visiting Professor Kevin McCollum.

Alumnus and Distinguished Visiting Professor Kevin McCollum.

A distinguished alumnus of the University of Cincinnati, McCollum (BFA Musical Theatre, 1984; HonDoc, 2005) is the Tony Award-winning producer of RentAvenue QIn the HeightsMotown the Musical and many other acclaimed Broadway, Off-Broadway and touring productions. Earlier this spring, McCollum received two more Tony nominations for his current productions of Something Rotten! (Best Musical) and Hand to God (Best Play). He also received 12 Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, including Outstanding New Broadway Musical, and nine Drama Desk nominations, including Outstanding Musical.

As a Distinguished Visiting Professor at CCM, McCollum’s influence on the college’s students and programs will be broad, focusing his work on musical theatre, although his entrepreneurial expertise will also be applied to aspects of auditioning, career development, arts administration and more.

Through this new appointment, McCollum will also work with faculty and administrators to develop a new musical theatre incubator program at CCM. A collaborative venture between CCM and Alchemation, McCollum’s Broadway producing office, this incubator will be designed to support the creation of new musical theatre works, utilizing McCollum’s entrepreneurial expertise and CCM’s abundance of talent.

“We are very excited to bring Kevin back to CCM as a member of our faculty,” says Dean Landgren. “Kevin is arguably the most accomplished and successful producer working in theatre today. Given his diverse background and his proven expertise in the business of the performing arts, his presence on our faculty will enhance the already world-class training that our students receive.”

“CCM was an essential part of my professional training and I am thrilled to return to such a top-notch institution,” says McCollum. “There are many things that attracted me to this position on CCM’s faculty; Peter Landgren’s bold leadership and openness to collaboration, the level of excellence found in the faculty, the highly accomplished young artists and the state-of-the-art facilities of my Alma Mater. I am proud to be counted amongst the internationally renowned faculty of this great institution. CCM has a longstanding commitment to presenting new works, and I am equally proud to help develop a program that will usher in the next generation of musical theatre artists.”

Speaking of the significance of an incubator program for musical theatre, Landgren explains, “Keeping with the University of Cincinnati’s proud tradition of cooperative education and experiential learning, this collaboration with Kevin and Alchemation will present our students with extraordinary opportunities to hone their craft while working to develop future theatre classics. Developing Broadway’s blockbusters-of-tomorrow with CCM’s stars-of-tomorrow is a win-win.”

Kevin McCollum (center) with CCM Musical Theatre's Class of 2015 after his seminar at Pearl Studios in New York.

Kevin McCollum (center) with CCM Musical Theatre’s Class of 2015 after his seminar at Pearl Studios in New York.

About Kevin McCollum
With a career spanning 25 years in the theatre industry, Kevin McCollum remains one of the most prolific and successful producers on Broadway today. He has received the Tony Award for Best Musical for In the Heights (2008), Avenue Q (2004) and Rent (1996), which also won the Pulitzer Prize. He produced Motown the Musical (Broadway and National Tour), The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, which won five Tony Awards, Baz Luhrmann’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme in 2002, [title of show] in 2008, the touring and Broadway productions of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the off-Broadway hit De La Guarda, the recent hit revival of West Side Story and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

In 1995 McCollum co-founded the Producing Office, and has since created Alchemation, a theatrical and media producing company committed to new work. In addition to his training at CCM, McCollum earned his Master’s degree in film producing from the Peter Stark Program at the University of Southern California.

In 1995, McCollum received the Robert Whitehead Award for Outstanding Commercial Theatre Producing. In 2005, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cincinnati. He is represented on Broadway this spring with the original musical Something Rotten! and the New American Play Hand to God. His wife is actress and fellow UC graduate Lynette Perry-McCollum (BM Musical Theatre, 1985).

About Alchemation
Founded in 2012, Alchemation is a theatre and media company under McCollum’s leadership. Productions under the Alchemation banner include Motown the Musical, Something Rotten!Hand to God and the third season of theatrical web-series Submissions Only. In the summer of 2013, McCollum entered a joint venture with 20th Century Fox to develop titles from the Fox catalogue into stage properties.

About CCM
Nationally ranked and internationally renowned, the University of Cincinnati College- Conservatory of Music (CCM) is a preeminent institution for the performing and media arts. Declared “one of the nation’s leading conservatories” by the New York Times, CCM provides life-changing experiences within a highly creative and multidisciplinary artistic environment.

CCM’s educational roots date back to 1867, and a solid, visionary instruction has been at our core since that time. The synergy created by housing CCM within a comprehensive public university gives the college its unique character and defines its objective: to educate and inspire the whole artist and scholar for positions on the world’s stage.

CCM’s faculty and staff and its state-of-the-art facilities make possible the professional training and exceptional education on which CCM believes the future of the arts relies. The school’s roster of eminent faculty regularly receives distinguished honors for creative and scholarly work, and its alumni have achieved notable success in the performing and media arts.

More than 150 internationally recognized faculty members work with students from around the world, specializing in the areas of Composition, Musicology and Theory; Electronic Media; Ensembles and Conducting; Keyboard Studies; Music Education; Performance Studies and Theatre Arts, Production and Arts Administration.

The largest single source of performing arts events in the state of Ohio, CCM presents nearly 1000 major public performances each year, ranging from faculty and guest artist concerts to fully supported opera, musical theatre, drama and dance productions.

For more information about the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, please visit us online at ccm.uc.edu.

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