Friday, September 10, 2021
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Setting the stage with Chaz Bell

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One of the largest aspects of performance art such as theatre and opera is the set. This is where the environment of the play or film comes in to show the audience where the story takes place and puts the audience into that world to experience it the way the characters do. Technical direction is vital for a successful set, and that is where Chaz Bell excels.

Chaz Bell is a professor of technical direction – mostly stage craft and set building – here at UMKC. He is responsible for creating and building the worlds in which performance art takes place. Chaz is one of the most humble, skilled and passionate designers in the Kansas City area, and definitely in the running for funniest.

How long have you been teaching at UMKC? What classes do you teach?
I first started teaching at UMKC in August of 2010 as an adjunct, then I became an assistant teaching professor the following year. I co-teach an undergraduate course called Introduction to Technical Production, as well as a series of four courses that rotate every two years. Three of the courses are advanced in the use of different materials: woods, metals, alternative materials, and the final course is called Elegant Solutions which deals with creative problem solving [in technical design]. I also teach a two semester course in Structural Design and co-teach a one semester course in theatrical automation.

How did you get into technical direction?
My father was a contractor while I was growing up, so I helped with a lot of construction projects. When I went to Southwest Baptist University for my undergraduate work, a friend asked me to audition for her play. I was a Music major at the time, but had acted in a couple plays in high school. I got cast in her production of “Proof.” While talking to some of the other cast members, I found out I could get paid to help build the sets. I needed that money. Plain and simple.

Why do you like this kind of work?
One of the problems with most commercial construction is you end up doing the same thing over and over again. I can honestly say that every show I’ve worked on has presented me with some new challenge. But my work isn’t just about productions. I love teaching. I get this look from students all the time, especially in my material course. It’s a strange mix of awe and fear. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve just expanded someone’s horizons. It’s the “mind-blown” moment. I love it.

Where else do you work outside of UMKC?
My main duty for the University is as assistant professor, but I have also built the sets for the Conservatory’s Opera program for the last five years. I am also the technical director for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and will be designing the set for their production of King Lear this summer.

What is your favorite memory of working?
Ha. So two years ago I was teaching the Alternative Materials course and we were making castings of our arms. You start by mixing a soft rubber compound and basically paint it onto your hand. It hardens in few minutes into a thick rubber glove that you simply peel off. That is, if you remember to apply the release agent beforehand (No pun intended). Well, one of the students forgot or didn’t use enough, I don’t know. All I know is that we ripped every bit of his arm hair out trying to get it off. But that’s not the good part. The good part came when he used that rubber mold to make a casting of his arm, and when he pulled that casting out it had all his arm hair in it. It was very realistic slash disgusting.

Where did you learn your skills?
Well, I earned my Master of Fine Arts here at UMKC. Most of it I’ve learned here. The rest I’ve just picked up from experimenting.There are so many resources available to people now that you really have no excuse for not being able to solve just about anything you put your mind to. When I first started teaching the coursesthat I had just taken a few years prior, I knew what I wanted to keep of the curriculum and what I wanted to change/add. A lot of the things that I wanted to add I had never tried before, so I started by reading everything I could get my hands on. Watching YouTube tutorials and asking people who had done it all. Then it just takes the guts to try it and don’t give up. I heard it said that you’re not a bonsai master until you’ve killed a thousand trees. I thought that applied to life in general. You can’t let failures stop you from moving forward. If everyone gave up on learning an instrument the first time they played a wrong note, there would be no music. You can’t make it far in life if you don’t figure out how to learn from your mistakes and try again. Take risks. Aim for the moon and even if you miss…..well, have you seen the movie “Gravity”?

Where did you go to school? Did you major in tech design/ direction?
I have my BA in Theatre with a minor in Music from Southwest Baptist University and my MFA is from UMKC in Theatre Technology. My graduate work was in technical direction but my undergrad was a general theatre degree—acting, directing, and design (lights, costuming, sets).

What is your favorite show that you have worked on?
Most fun: I played Orin Scrivello D.D.S. in Little Shop of Horrors.
Most proud of: The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s productions of Midsummer and Antony and Cleopatra in rotating rep.

What is one show that you really want to work on?
For me, with technical direction, it’s not the show, it’s the people that make it special. So I guess I don’t have a particular show that I really want to work on. ,Although on the performing side, I’ve been told I would make a great Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. And I have to admit, that sounds like a lot of fun.

What is one thing you think everyone could benefit or learn from technical design/direction?
That the only things that limit you are your imagination and determination. To do something great, you have to start with a good idea and then have the guts to see it through to the end. Oh and budgets. Yeah, budgets also limit you.

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