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Part of New Worlds
Student Leah Benson-Devine explores opportunities and gains responsibilities designing sets and costumes in the UMD Theatre community.
Leah Benson-Devine has had some unique experiences as a design and production major while earning her B.F.A. in Theatre at UMD's School of Fine Arts. Whether she is in class, working on stage crew, or designing sets and costumes for theatre productions, Leah loves the creative challenges of scenic and costume design.
“I love being part of productions, and I think it’s the best way for me to express myself,” Leah, a sophomore, says. Her theatre involvement has kept her busy, she continues, “My freshman year, I did all but two of the shows, which is really unique because a lot of college students don’t get that experience. They get maybe one show by their junior year.”
Leah goes on, “It was a little overwhelming to get used to college and then go straight into a show, but I think it was the best way to get me into the theatre community. It was really challenging because I was adapting and getting used to a new place while basically having a full-time job workload on top of class. I think it really made me go, 'I made it through that year, and I know what I want to do.' It made me determined to see it all out and then one day get to work at a professional theatre.”
During the 2016-2017 Theatre Season, Leah worked as a costume designer on She Loves Me and a set designer on Disney's The Little Mermaid. For She Loves Me, she recalls, “I styled most of the ensemble women, which was really fun because the 1930s was still like, you put a hat on, you put gloves on, you get ready to just leave your house and not even go anywhere special.”
For Disney's The Little Mermaid, Leah states, “We had a very hands-off designer who let the two students make the decisions and do the work.” She describes her responsibilities, “I got to work on the grotto, the perch, paint the bathtub and the archways. Making the decisions was really challenging for me because I had never been in that position before, but it was a really good experience and pushed me to be better.”
Audiences saw Leah’s hard work and artistic challenges in Ariel’s grotto and Scuttle’s perch, both designed by Leah, which she describes as a rewarding experience, “It’s weird to think of human junk as treasures, which it is to both of them, so that was a really fun mindset to get into.”
Painting is another favorite part of scenic design for her. “It was fun to paint the 'under the sea' stuff because it was all bright colors and sparkles in the paint,” she says. “I liked making the world, and I liked the little details. The little things that make it seem less like a set and more like a place.”
Growing up, Leah went to the theatre with her mother, a tailor at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minn. She remembers, “I went to see theatre productions more than movies when I was younger.” Sometimes she would even see pieces she recognized on the actors, she says, “It was really cool to be like, 'hey, that it was in my dining room at one point in time but now it’s on stage on a person being something.'”
This exposure to the theatre arts and her mother’s ever-changing projects at work fascinated Leah, “My mom made costuming seem very, very magical, which it really is because you’re making somebody into somebody else.”
When deciding what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, Leah discovered an important part of her personality, she says, “I can’t sit still, and I can’t do the same thing every day. My mom never sat still, and she always had something new every day.” Scenic and costume design presents Leah the ability to switch tasks every day if she wants to and exercise her artistic muscles, too.
This summer, Leah has a couple of opportunities to build more designing skills. One is the annual Medora Musical in Medora, N.D., where she will be a costume stitcher. The other is at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis. She states, “I’ll be working on Hair or Annie Jr. with high schoolers and elementary kids, and I’ll be working on costume coordination which is more figuring out where you want to rent things from and which things you want to rent, less building things and more finding what you want from preexisting costumes.”
Leah hopes to work in Europe as a scenic and costume designer after she graduates. She doesn’t have a preference for where she works in Europe, but she says, “The idea that you can travel twenty minutes and be in a different country, I find that really fascinating, especially with all of the cultures that are all separate, but they all mix and merge. and it just seems like a really cool environment to do theatre in.”
Wherever she is, Leah has found her way to create, design, and express her artistic vision in our busy world.