Breaking Boundaries with Design at University of Maryland’s ‘Spring Awakening,’ Which Opens February 28th by Emily Schweich

Brian MacDevitt. Photo by Mike Ciesielski.
Brian MacDevitt. Photo by Mike Ciesielski.

He’s won five Tony Awards for lighting design and worked on acclaimed Broadway productions, including The Book of Mormon and Death of a Salesman. He’s worked with icons like director Mike Nichols and actors Daniel Craig, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz. But esteemed Lighting Designer Brian MacDevitt says that the highlight of his professional life is happening way off-Broadway – directing University of Maryland students in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ production of Spring Awakening, opening February 28th at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, in College Park, MD.

MacDevitt has worked as an associate professor of lighting design at the university since 2009, and Spring Awakening marks his D.C. area directorial debut. He is joined by co-directors and celebrated choreographers Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig.

“We’re excited about it because initially . . . they were choreographing, I was directing, and then we merged it together,” MacDevitt said. “They’re experts in dance, and I’m more of an expert in theater, so we kind of find ourselves taking the leads in those two things, but it’s really open, and it’s been working great.”

Zac Brightbill (Melchior Gabor) and the cast sing “Left Behind.” Photo by Dylan Singleton.
Zac Brightbill (Melchior Gabor) and the cast sing “Left Behind.” Photo by Dylan Singleton.

Based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, the musical features book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. While meeting with the play selection committee, MacDevitt grew excited about the musical because it highlights timeless issues that are still relevant to teenagers and young adults today, including abortion, rape, suicide, homosexuality, and child abuse.

“I felt like the students could play their age – or almost their age,” MacDevitt said. “They’re really playing middle teenagers, but I just felt like they have the experience, the life experience, to play these kids.”

As a student at Purchase College, MacDevitt studied with Broadway Lighting Designer William Mintzer, who challenged him as a mentor and teacher. Now, MacDevitt is able to pass on his knowledge to students in the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies.

“The biggest thing I teach is what my mentor taught me . . . . Analyze a play and speak with your heart about it, come up with ideas that support that point of view and have a really strong point of view that you can base your choices on,” MacDevitt said.

Third-year MFA candidate Rob Denton has worked closely with MacDevitt while studying at the University of Maryland and is the show’s lighting designer.

“He could easily win if there was a mayor of [the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center],” MacDevitt said of Denton. “I don’t think anybody could get more votes than Rob. He’s a person who’s talented and helpful, and he’s kind of a dream grad student.”

Denton has worked with MacDevitt on several professional productions, including the national tour of The Book of Mormon.

“We’ve become very close over the past three years, as both a mentor and a friend,” Denton said. “We respect each other as artists and people in the industry, and not just as student to faculty.”

Denton said that MacDevitt has taught him how to further ground his designs in research and that their close relationship has allowed for a more open exchange of ideas.

“I totally trust [Denton], and I think that we will already have a shorthand, because he’s worked with me on shows,” MacDevitt said. “He’s been with me in the trenches . . . in tough situations.”

By featuring directors with backgrounds in lighting design and dance, Spring Awakening reflects the intersectionality of design and performance in theatre.

“It’s a different thing for us to do here, and I think it’s exciting and breaks boundaries of what people think design is,” Denton said, adding that MacDevitt’s experience with lighting design gives him a unique perspective as a director. “He’s not afraid of making a change and experimenting with things, which I think is part of theatre.”

Jenay McNeil (Ilse Neumann). Photo by Dylan Singleton.
Jenay McNeil (Ilse Neumann). Photo by Dylan Singleton.

MacDevitt himself said he enjoys having a greater hand in the production. “I feel really grateful and happy – grateful that the people in performance here trusted me with the project, and just so happy doing it. It’s really been invigorating.”

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Spring Awakening plays February 28th through March 8, 2014 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Kay Theatre at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard), in College Park, MD. For tickets, call (301) 405 -A0RTS (2787), or purchase them online.

Post by Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.


  1. I am thrilled for Brian & Denton & the photos of their work are extraordinary! Brian’s mentor, friend & fellow artist, Bill Mintzer, would be equally thrilled & I bet he’ll be there in spirit with the production. I send my best to all involved.


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