Setting the stage

Mar 3, 2004 at 12:00 am

Katy Monthai likes to get her hands dirty. As a senior scenic design student at Wayne State University, she does everything from painting to sewing, from carpentry to welding. But these days, it’s another talent that’s earning her recognition: artistic sensibility.

Last month the United States Institute for Theatre Technology awarded Monthai the W. Oren Parker Award for Scene Design, a national award that recognizes one undergraduate student each year for excellence or outstanding potential in scene design for the performing arts. Charles E. Williams established the award in 2002 to honor W. Oren Parker, the author of several acclaimed books, including Scene Design and Stage Lighting, a well-respected text now in its seventh edition.

“I love creating my own world,” Monthai says. “And [scenic design] is a combination of arts. You’ve got painting and drawing and model-building and carpentry and metal work … just everything.”

Most surprising, perhaps, is that Monthai has mastered these skills in just three years.

During an interview with the slim 24-year-old at the WSU scene shop, Monthai admits, “I never had even a drawing class until I got to college here.” After graduating from Franklin High School in Livonia, where Monthai sang in choir and helped build a few theatrical sets, she enrolled at Schoolcraft College and then transferred to WSU to study scenic design.

The portfolio Monthai submitted for the USITT award concentrated mostly on her recent set for Jackie and the Beanstalk at the Hilberry Theatre, a children’s show in which her main concern was to capture the attention of a theater full of youngsters. “The director wanted a sense of magic, we wanted something really fun and colorful,” Monthai says. “I tried to figure out what I really liked about the story when I was younger, and I kept coming back to how I used to stare at the pictures for the longest time, so I was just like, the pictures are really what the kids identify with.”

Over the next few months, Monthai studied the art of paper engineering so she could re-create the pop-up books of her childhood. She read them, wrote to the people who create them, and constructed books of her own. Then she hit the power tools. “It’s different making something out of paper and making it out of luauan [the thin wood used to build sets],” says Monthai.

But the results were worth it. The most elaborate of Monthai’s three-dimensional illustrations involved a book laid on the floor that opened to produce a giant beanstalk. A trap door beneath the stage allowed for Jackie to literally “pop out” from the pages and climb to the sky.

“The house manager told me that every single day when they opened [the first pop-up book] at the beginning of the show that the audience just started clapping,” Monthai says.

As the recipient of the W. Oren Parker Award, Monthai will receive a monetary grant and a complimentary trip to the National Theatre Conference in Long Beach, Calif., next month. There, her work will be displayed among other exhibitors including Walt Disney World and the Yale School of Drama.

Professor Fred Florkowski, who nominated Monthai for the award, says her recognition is well-deserved. “She has such a variety of strengths, especially for someone her age,” Florkowski says. “Creativity on demand.”

Last semester, Florkowski, who also serves as the technical director at the Bonstelle Theatre, invited Monthai to design the set for a graduate show there, a rare opportunity for an undergrad. He describes her set for Dream on Monkey Mountain as “a textural, evocative, abstract look at the jungle of Trinidad.”

Another project was the dark comedy Fat Men in Skirts, which Monthai designed for WSU’s Studio Theatre. Monthai remembers student director Eli Magid’s frank admission upon recruiting her. “He came to me and was like, we need a set and we have no money,” she says.

“I was trying to figure out what we were going to do, because it took place on a desert island and then it went back to the city, and so we decided to go with something a little bit more symbolic.”

On a $20 budget, Monthai created a centerpiece suggesting a plane wing stuck in the sand, and then built movable furniture out of old suitcases. For a play about being shipwrecked on a desert island, Magid says, the set was perfect.

Aside from her conceptual skills, Monthai has also served as property designer, technical director and scenic painter, often undertaking two positions on a single show. “I love coming up with the ideas for [sets],” she says, “but I like implementing those too. I love the painting of it and the sculpting and that kind of thing.”

After graduating this May, Monthai will attend two weeks of classes at the Moscow Art Theatre before going to graduate school in the fall.

Florkowski warns that the professional theater world is a tight community to break into. “But,” he says, “if your skills are there, it’s recognized.” With a national award now under her tool belt, Monthai is well on her way.

Ronit Feldman is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]