Growing Artists

First year MFA Scenic Students

UMKC’s Professional Scenic Design Training Program is renowned for its course of study, which includes a multi-disciplinary approach including design and rendering training, firm foundations in historic precedents and professional ethics. Designers who have graduated from UMKC work in New York City, at major regional theaters and opera companies, and even at Disney where graduate Alexander LaFrance (MFA Scenic Design 2016) won the highly competitive and coveted design internship and has designed there directly after he graduated. 

But our track record is not the only thing that attracts students to UMKC. The newest class of graduate scene design students, who come from a variety of backgrounds, came to UMKC to become not only better designers, but better artists. I interviewed the new class and asked them about their artistic backgrounds and why they chose UMKC over other programs. 

Kelli Harrod (MFA Scenic Design 2019) came to UMKC from a fine arts background. Originally, Harrod studied to be an architect. Then one day she discovered the world of scenic design: “Ifigured out there was this world of technical theatre where I could do both painting and drawing while designing and building architectural forms!”  

Harrod kept up with her fine arts training, getting a B.F.A. in studio art, and then decided to go to the University Resident Theatre Association’s annual recruiting conference to apply for M.F.A. theatre programs. While there she received several inquiries, from those interviewing her, as to why she didn’t pursue an undergraduate theatre degree. While several were perplexed about why she had not chosen a theatre major, another school was excited for the unique perspective she could bring to the table. That school was UMKC.

“Gene Emerson Friedman [UMKC Associate Professor of Scene Design] told me that UMKC is a school for people who have a much broader perspective on art, rather than just focusing on the theatre itself”, Harrod said during our interview. 

Rafael Toribio (MFA. Scenic Design 2019) comes to UMKC from California, where he was trained as a folklórico dancer. While working for a dance company, he started working as a scenic carpenter as well, working his way up to master carpenter and then technical director. But he didn’t want to just build other people’s sets. During our interview he said, “I wanted something more to play with; I wanted to design!”  

So Rafael started to build his portfolio, and then went to URTAs and talked to UMKC. I asked him what drew him to the program, and he responded: “I’m going to school to learn scenic design specifically, not general theatre. They’re willing to teach me art skills like drawing, rendering and life drawing. Being from a dance background, that is something important to me.” 

Austin Aschbrenner (MFA Scenic Design 2019) agreed: “The UMKC scenic design program is as close as one can find that is like going to a fine art school without leaving the theatre world!” 

Aschbrenner, who hails from Arkansas, came to UMKC to study scenic design and technical direction. He has worked for the Santa Fe Opera and designed for New Ventures Theatre in Baton Rouge before coming here. “Most schools want you to stick to one discipline. UMKC was one of the few that offered the possibility to learn more.”  

I asked Gene Friedman what UMKC offered potential students that drew such a variety of students, even though they have a singular goal. He answered: “It is our mission and mandate; at UMKC we offer real plays, with real directors, and real budgets, in real theaters.”

This focus on artistry helps each student realize a design that is his or her own, while building the flexibility to navigate all design challenges in any project for stage, film or themed entertainments. This new class, though from differing backgrounds, came to UMKC for exactly that.