Joe C. Klug, 2020 USITT Rising Star Winner

One of Live Design’s hand-picked “30 Under 30” last year, scenic designer Joe C. Klug now has one more feather in his cap: recipient of the 2020 USITT Rising Star Award, sponsored by Live Design/LDI with a cash award of $2,000, thanks to a recent increase in the sponsorship funding. Under normal circumstances, the award would have been presented this week at USITT in Houston, but as the event was cancelled due to COVID-19, we wanted to honor Klug online. Based in Tucson, he is also an assistant professor at University of Arizona’s School of Theatre, Film & Television.

Live Design: In a nutshell, how did you become a scenic designer?

Joe C. Klug: In a nutshell, I would say I kind of stumbled into it. In high school, I was a musical theatre performer, and had dreams of being a chorus boy on Broadway one day. At the time, I also had crippling performance anxiety, so I was always a ball of nerves when I went on stage in anything but an ensemble role. One day—a senior at the time—Alex Coppaken asked me if I would be interested in helping him with a set after school. Fast forward a couple years and I went to a workshop at Kansas Thespians conference that was given by Josh Cohen and discovered that scenic design was a viable career path. Once I made this discovery, I never looked back. 

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Xanadu at Arizona Broadway Theatre

LD: What is your design process for a project, from research to workflow to collaboration?

JK: I tend to do a significant number of musicals every year. This last year I designed 16. So I have discovered that my process has begun to streamline. I usually tend to focus on shaping the space first. The goal is to create an envelope that holds the show, then I switch to exploring how that envelope opens and how the various elements enter the space as we move from moment to moment. 

I tend to start with a rough white model for every project. My brain does better when I can see it in real life in the model box. My goal is to not only shape the show, but also respond to the dynamics of the space I am working in. Once I have the rough shape, I move into Photoshop and begin playing with the various pieces, color, texture, and refine the choices. This allows me to communicate with the creative team on a more specific level about how I see the show moving and flowing moment to moment. 

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Guys and Dolls rendering for Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre

LD: Favorite or most challenging project to date and why?

JK: I think my favorite project to date has been working on a production of Once at Oregon Cabaret Theatre. It was truly one of those special productions where everything clicked into place and some truly spectacular storytelling happened on stage. Working with Valerie Rachelle as the director was amazing. The passion and clarity she brought to the production was spectacular. The piece was about connecting people from all different walks of life together through music. I loved the honest, vulnerable, and romantic approach Valerie brought to the project. 

Working with Chris Wood (2015 Rising Star winner) as the LD was fantastic. We were discussing the quirks of the space early on and were able to integrate the lighting design with the scenic design seamlessly. The other magical thing was that we both got to respond to one another's work in Tech and make adjustments. Adding additional practical lights to the stage, building in lights in additional places to highlight the work the performers and director were doing. 

LD: How do you foster relationships with directors and other designers? 

JK: It is all about communication! When working with the creative team, my goal is to communicate as much as possible. I tend to send emails to the entire group so that everyone sees everything at the same time and can respond as a group. This allows everyone to respond in real time and together. It can be a very vulnerable moment being that open early in the process, but I find that the return is always fantastic. I have discovered that by sharing every step of the process, I am able to engage in conversations earlier in the process so that the design moves forward as our team’s vision, and not just my vision for the environment. 

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Once at Oregon Cabaret Theatre

LD: What are you working on now?

JK: Currently, I am expanding beyond the world of the proscenium. I was one of the production designers for the University of Arizona SXSW activation in Austin that was to happen in March. I have been working on shaping an in-the-round TEDTalk-style stage in the activation that when not in speech mode, can be used to create a 360° XD experience. The goal being to allow the visitors of the activation to experience a Tucson sunset, monsoon, or a black hole in Austin. 

I am also working with the Arizona Simulation Technology Education Center (ASTEC) to create and shape a series of escape rooms to be used in the Medical School on campus. The project focuses on expanding and adapting the communication styles of the medical industry, by placing participants in non-medical-related spaces. 

LD: What software or computer programs do you use? What is in your digital toolbox?

JK: Oddly enough, I don't tend to be that digital. I am one of those weird young designers that still loves working with my hands, especially since the model is such an integral part of my process and how I see the space. The digital component of my process truly ends up being in AutoCAD and Photoshop. I rough in the design in the model by hand, I draft the pieces, and then I drop them into Photoshop to create the renderings. I love the control that I can have in Photoshop. 

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Ragtime at Garden Theatre

More recently, I have started playing with 3D printing and laser cutting. My workflow with these tools has begun to shift. I tend to rough out the drafting sooner in the process so I can send it to the laser cutter to help move the process along quicker. The 3D printer has been a godsend when it comes to time building furniture. 

LD: What advice can you offer to the next generation of design students?

JK: I would say don't be afraid to say yes and explore different avenues of the industry. Storytelling is storytelling no matter if it is in a proscenium, a small storefront in Chicago, a museum exhibit, or an activation at SXSW. The workflow may change, the terminology may change, but the creative energy will be the same. Don't hold back, say yes, accept the challenge, and discover as much as you can.