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Student Scenic Designer’s Set Gets National Notice

Corey Umlauf ’17 builds worlds. And her worlds are building accolades.

One of her creations, the stage design for La Vida Es Sueño (Life Is a Dream), earned her an honorable mention at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival earlier this month and a gig this summer as an assistant scenic designer at the prestigious National Playwrights Conference (NPC) at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.

“I’m so gratified that she won this, because she’s a gifted collaborator,” said Performing Arts Department Chair Melia Bensussen, who translated Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17th-century Spanish allegory into English and directed the production for Emerson Stage last fall.

“The difficulty with set design is that she can’t just be a painter and come up with an image that matters to her, but she has to integrate all the text and ideas of other designers and the director. She synthesized as well as created,” Bensussen said.

For La Vida Es Sueño, the story of a prince locked away since birth who suddenly awakens one day surrounded by courtiers and questions the reality of his life, Umlauf created a twisting, Escheresque staircase that wound down from the catwalk to the floor of the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre. The effect was to create “just a very confusing, disorienting world through his eyes,” Umlauf said.

Umlauf and her team drew upon the art of the Spanish Golden Age, including the surreal and sinister landscape of El Greco’s Toledo, for the stage design. The multi-leveled staircase posed logistical and safety challenges, even as it gave actors the ability to both communicate with each other and create a sense of bafflement. But it was the most rewarding part of the design, Umlauf said.

“Every part of the process was just rooted in that concept,” she said. “We kind of knew the answer to all the questions we came up with because the artistic statement was so strong.”

This summer, Umlauf will have the opportunity to create more worlds—at least on paper—at the NPC, which focuses on new plays. She will be part of a team that comes up with the design concepts for works that are still in the development process, something she’s keenly interested in.

Her favorite part of the scenic design process is the research and conceptual discussions, she said, because before technical constraints enter the picture, she’s limited only by her own imagination. 

“It’s also really cool working with directors and writers who are so attached to their work,” Umlauf said. “And it’s really cool to turn to a playwright and ask, ‘Why this decision?’ You can’t turn to Shakespeare and say, ‘What’s up with this part of the script?’”

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