May 10, 2015

An Accidental Set Designer

 An-Accidental-Set-DesignerBy Ela Schwartz

According to John McDermott, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, “Set design is about space and sculpture, and what the environment says about the characters.” The same can be said of our personal environments. Step into his office, with props and detailed models of sets on display, and you can tell it’s the domain of a set designer at work. But there are echoes of careers past: food made of plaster from his initial choice to become a chef and vintage furnishings from his days as an antique dealer. “Set design is a profession where everything you know can come into play,” he noted.

McDermott decided to return to school, this time to study art history to restore paintings. But a funny thing happened on the way to the art museum. A theatre professor asked him to design costumes for a show. McDermott enjoyed the experience so much that he dropped the art history idea, returned to theatre and finally found his way to set design.

Set-designMcDermott’s designs vary from lushly furnished interiors to minimalist less-is-more abstractions that merely convey a mood. His sets have appeared in numerous Off-Broadway shows as well as productions across the country. His most recent work was Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the Cherry Lane Theatre. While The Revisionist marked the second time he has worked with Eisenberg (who is most known for The Social Network, aka the Facebook movie), he has also worked with luminaries Vanessa Redgrave and Karen Allen.

While immersed in set design, McDermott was also fielding phone calls from Sean Sullivan, Department of Theatre associate professor, coaxing him to come on board as a visiting professor. In 2013 McDermott took Sullivan up on the offer, then joined Adelphi full time in Fall 2014. In addition to teaching, McDermott designs at least one show per semester (Twelfth Night in 2014), and he also mentors students and keeps an eye out for opportunities for them to break into the field. Recently, Joshua Shane ’14 was able to experience being an Off-Broadway production manager.

Drawing on his own past, McDermott often tells his students: “Follow what you’re curious about and try everything. Teaching is a whole new profession I’d never experienced before, and I’m very excited.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of The Catalyst, the College of Arts and Sciences newsletter.

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