New Denzel Washington Chair: From Broadway to the Classroom

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By TYLER MARTINS
Asst. Arts & Culture Co-Editor
Published: September 23, 2013

Scenic designer Christine Jones stunned thousands at the Metropolitan Opera House last season with the  explosion of neon she used in her set designs for the re-imagined production of the classic opera, “Rigoletto.” Starting this semester, she will concentrate on a much smaller audience: the classrooms of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC).

Last spring, Jones was appointed as the third successor of the Denzel Washington Chair in Theater. The endowed chair in theater was created in conjunction with the actor Denzel Washington, one of our campus’ most well known alumnus.

Following the footsteps of stage and screen stars Phylicia Rashad and Joe Morton, Jones’ appointment was a departure from acting and a testament to Fordham’s commitment to the collaboration of theater. “It’s a signal that says that every aspect of putting on a production has equal value,” Jones said. “It’s just a wonderful way of recognizing that Fordham is really serious about their design program as well, that it’s not backseat to the acting program.”

Jones’ leap into the world of design came during her time at Concordia University, when one of her professors nudged her in the right direction. “I was intrigued and sparked by the idea, and I transferred into the design department. It’s just a wonderful thing to study,” Jones said. “I didn’t really know I would love it and want to do it until I started doing it.”

In 2000, Jones made her Broadway debut designing the sets for Julie Taymor’s production of “The Green Bird” and has worked regularly in set-design  since. In 2010, she collaborated with former FCLC professor Michael Mayer on “Spring Awakening,” for which she was nominated for her first Tony Award. The same year, she worked on “American Idiot,”—a musical based on the popular Green Day album—for which she took home the coveted theater award.

Jones recognizes her work with Mayer on these productions as the most memorable moments in her career. “Working on ‘American Idiot’, from beginning to end was just a complete and utter labor of love and joy and craziness,” Jones said of the experience, describing it as “surprising and energizing and soulful.”  Her most recent work on a Broadway set was “Hands on a Hardbody,” which ran in 2013.

Jones is no stranger to the classroom environment. She taught a set design class at New York University, where she received her MFA, an experience during which she learned as much as she taught. Jones described teaching as “an opportunity to reflect on what one’s own messages are, what one’s beliefs are and to hone your own system.”

Immersive theater has been an interest of Jones, who recently conceived “Theater for One,” a portable space designed for one performer and one audience member, which played Times Square in 2010. Some of her upcoming projects include a large-scale site-specific, immersive operatic production housed in the 1940s nightclub the Diamond Horseshoe, in the basement of the Paramount Hotel.

According to FCLC Theater Department Chair Matthew Maguire, some of the consideration in who would be the right fit for this position, “would be the designer who could also work with directors, and playwrights, and actors,” Maguire said, “Christine has that breadth.”

Of course, being the new Denzel Washington chair is not an easy task considering the growing success of FCLC Theatre Department. “Part of the responsibilities of the endowed chair in theater” said Maguire, “is to teach one class and be an active member of the Fordham community.”

Though her class is geared toward those in the design track, Jones hopes that playwrights, actors and directors will learn to “be serious about what kind of theater they want to make, and also take responsibility for being originators of the works that they want to be a part of.”

In her design class, entitled “Theater Animals,” Jones will hone in on “theater that is happening in the city these days,” focusing on immersive theater projects such as “Sleep No More,” “Then She Fell,” “Wanderlust,” and “Improv Everywhere.” She will be focusing on “immersive theater,” a system that looks to place audiences in the center of the action, instead of having them sit in a theater before a stage. Audience members will follow actors around on foot, moving from room to room.

Directors enrolled in her class will “learn how to find a concrete visual metaphor—some sort of embodiment of the theme of the play in space, in this environment, which they work with on a design and collaborative way,” Maguire said.

Playwrights “write with their ears, and they need to write with their eyes,” and Jones will help them “translate from 2D to 3D and that’s immeasurable worth for a playwright to be able to make that leap,” Maguire said.

Collaboration is a keystone of the Fordham Theater program, and Christine Jones subscribes to that notion of community. For her, theater is all about finding those with whom you click artistically. Jones’ advice for those hoping to make it in the theater industry is to “find your tribe.”

“Meet a lot of different people and just work with the ones that you feel an affinity with, people that you want to spend hours and hours and hours a day in black boxes with,” Jones said. “Trust that those relationships and friendships will lead you along the path of the kind of work you want to be making.”