Professional experiences enhance student learning

Madsen's design for "The Addams Family."
Madsen's design for "The Addams Family."

Professional experiences enhance student learning

calendar icon31 Oct 2014    

Lincoln, Neb.--Usually college students can only receive professional experience through internships or after they receive their degree. The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film is giving students the opportunity to work side by their professors on a variety of theatre jobs. One such person would be assistant professor of scene design J.D. Madsen.

Madsen, who came to UNL from the University of Maryland this year, continues to work professionally as a scenic designer for theatres around the country. In the past year, he has worked in Utah as well as Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center, Catholic University and the Signature Theatre.

As a professor, Madsen believes his continued professional experiences are an essential part of teaching.

"I am only as useful to my students as my relevance in the field," Madsen said. "If I'm not working professionally, I'm of little value. I reduce the kind of experiences I can give [my students] and that reduces the [amount] of up-to-date knowledge I can give them about the art form nowadays."

This year Madsen has worked as scenic designer on 10 professional shows. Four of those shows opened at the start of the semester, and he is currently designing "The Addams Family," "Beauty and the Beast" and "One Man, Two Governors." But he doesn't want to keep all the work to himself.

"I want to expose [my students] to how theatre is done in the professional realm," Madsen said. "I try to bring them in as part of the production team, which means that they have responsibilities. They have to answer questions and actually get involved and be part of the process so they can put it on their resume. It helps give them a lot more gravitas and they'll graduate having assistant credits already."

Scenic design graduate student David Tousley is one of them. During the summer, Tousley spent four days traveling with Madsen across Washington, D.C., and Virginia, helping him tech shows, and participate in production meetings with directors.

"As opposed to former years where we might go work on a project after we graduate, he's helping me see how things should be and how things should look," Tousley said. "It's more training, and more learning. He's giving us projects to help us become better designers."

Visiting the Virginia-D.C. area art museums also proved to be a source of artistic inspiration for Tousley.

"[J.D.] was excited to share with me the art museums around the area. He believes that it's important for designers to look at sculptures because we're the ones who sculpt the set," Tousley said. "I was in the middle of designing 'Love's Labor's Lost,' and visiting the Smithsonian was how I got the idea for the backdrop," Tousley said.

Through his integrative approach to teaching, Madsen hopes that other students will be able to better understand what their profession is about.

"Theatre is a passion art," Madsen said. "It's takes a lot of work to do this professionally. I don't think sanity is the goal. Artistic expression, staying relevant in the field and staying busy are the goals."

--written by Emily Kuklinski, Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film