New Theater Professor Emphasizes Collaborative Methods

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As the newest addition to the Swarthmore Theater Department, Professor Matt Saunders comes to Swarthmore full of energy and excitement about his new career. He has extensive experience in set design, designing for companies such as the Wilma Theater, Theatre Exile, and the Arden Theatre Company, and he is also a Barrymore Award-winning actor. When asked about how he hopes to influence his students and the Swat population in general, he replied that he simply wants people to get excited about the design of theater and how strongly that design can influence the work.

“In my experience, undergraduates interested in theater tend to focus merely on one aspect of theater, as an actor, a director, a playwright, a techie, etc,” said Saunders. “Instead, the focus of my classes this semester will be to teach my students to perceive how concepts of theater are portrayed in the overall design of the show. I want my students to learn to think about design, not in terms of the actual engineering of the set or the visual aspects, but as though they were directing the show, and therefore design primarily for action and secondly for the aesthetics.”

Saunders’s appreciation for overall design and collaboration began early in his career. While working towards his BA in Theater Arts at Virginia Tech, Professor Saunders became friends with Whit MacLaughlin, who eventually started the Philadelphia-based theater company New Paradise Laboratories. When Saunders graduated, he followed him there to assist with MacLaughlin’s very active and physical brand of theater based on the Suzuki style. New Paradise Laboratories focused on conceptualized, avant-garde shows in which the entire company would help come up with the concept for the show. This approach to theater in Saunders’s early career would shape his work for more traditional theater as he began to be noticed by larger companies in the Philadelphia area.

Saunders, when describing how he comes up with the vast spectrum of his set designs from the surreal to the hyper-realistic, professes that each new project requires a different approach. He generally meets with the director of a show well before the actors are even cast or techies have been assigned, and the two work extensively to come up with a concept for the show. In cooperation, they do research and what Saunders calls “coffee stained napkin sketches” until they have settled on a few basic images on which to base the entire show. If, for instance, Saunders and the director commit to doing an American Realist show, the set design will focus on trying to recreate real life on the stage. On the other end of the spectrum, if the two decide on an illusionistic approach, the design becomes more abstract and attempts to capture the essence of the show through a few strong images or elements. During the next phase of the process, Saunders creates a scale model that becomes his main tool in the communication of his ideas. He hopes to pass on this collaborative mentality to his students.

Professor Saunders was first introduced to Swarthmore through the Pig Iron Theatre Company, which was created by Swarthmore alumni in 1995. He worked on projects with various Swarthmore alumni and students, including Elizabeth Stevens of the Theater Department. “I was continually struck by the brilliance and perception of each student and alum of Swarthmore,” says Saunders, when asked why he wanted to teach at Swarthmore. In 2006, he became an adjunct professor at Drexel, teaching design within the art department there. He describes this as a time when his work deepened and took on new meaning, mainly because of the dialogue with his students. He was inspired by his students and decided to put his career on hold and pursue a Masters from the Yale School of Drama in order to have a dual career as a teacher and designer. He is excited to be teaching at Swarthmore, inspired by the community and students, and enthused to be able to pass on his experience and skills to a new generation.

This semester, Professor Saunders is teaching Set Design as well as Fundamentals of Design. He will also be involved in the fall production of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, written by Witold Gombrowicza — a show he is excited to be a part of because it will be the first time he is able to revisit a show that he has already designed. Saunders also plans to design costumes for the seniors’ acting thesis. To check out his innovative set designs and find out about the shows he has contributed to, visit MattSaunders.net.

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