Set Designer Colin McGurk ’06 Taps Lehigh Education

Colin McGurk ’06 explains the process and technical and artistic attributes that go into set design with the students, alumni, faculty and staff who attended the backstage tour and performance of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and MurderClick here to see more photos.

Traveling across the country as an associate scenic designer with the touring Tony-award-winning musical comedy A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Colin McGurk ’06 returned to his alma mater for a one-night performance in Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall on November 5. The play was part of the university’s Guest Artist Series supported by generous alumni and friends. Prior to the show, McGurk led a backstage tour of the set and stayed for a post-performance reception to talk about his successful showbiz career.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for the students.” said Bob Teufel ’59 ’91P, longtime Zoellner Arts Center benefactor who was pleased to see the integrated mix of students, alumni, administrators, and faculty at the event. “It was very well done.”

McGurk’s love for theatre started in high school where he was an actor. He came to Lehigh as a mechanical engineering major but said he “was a frequent engineering refugee in Zoellner.” When he was spending long hours as manager of the paint shop or working on theatre projects such as designing the set for Inherit the Wind, he realized that set production and theatre was a career he wanted to pursue. As a set designer, he could take the engineering that he learned and apply it to the technical aspects of the theatre.

“I wasn’t doing my engineering homework. I was in the shop doing other projects for my classes but doing them well beyond what would have garnered an A-plus. It was fun,” said McGurk who earned a bachelor of arts degree in theatre.

McGurk earned his master’s in fine arts degree in 2011 from the University of California (UC) San Diego and met fellow UC graduate Melpomene Katakalos, a professor in Lehigh’s theatre department who specializes in scene design, at an alumni function. During and after graduate school, McGurk began to work alongside award-winning theatre stage designer Alexander Dodge on a variety of shows including A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

The “set-within-a-set” design on the Baker Hall stage works well with traveling from city to city for one-night performances.

When modifying the scenery for touring, McGurk researched the various performance venues to determine how it would universally work in different theatre houses. When he saw that the Zoellner Arts Center was on the tour, he contacted Katakalos to let her know he would be returning to his alma mater. Katakalos worked with Erica Hoelscher, theatre professor and department chair, and Andrew Cassano, administrative director of the Zoellner Arts Center, to organize the backstage tour where McGurk explained the design and construction process used to create scenic elements. He discussed the play’s “stage-within-a-stage” design and likened it to 19th century toy theatres that had multiple components and backdrops that moved into place for scene changes.

“When Colin contacted me, I was happy to bring him to campus to meet our students and give us a tour of the set backstage,” said Katakalos. “I think it’s such a great opportunity for our students to not only meet alumni who are at the top of their game, but to really get a close-up look about how professional theatre functions both backstage and behind the scenes. It was so exciting for our aspiring theatre artists to see him in action.”

McGurk said he was eager to return to South Mountain to provide insight and advice to Lehigh theatre students about his career in the business. “I’m hoping I can show students that you can actually have a career in this business, that it is viable, and what the opportunities are,” he shared.

Hoelscher said that although this is McGurk’s first time back to campus since graduation, many other theatre graduates have returned to South Mountain to offer words of advice to aspiring performers and designers.

“We have done projects similar to this in the past where we had groups or individual alumni return to Lehigh to talk to students, including offering career advice,” said Hoelscher. She added that the department of theatre also connects students with theatre alumni to seek one-on-one mentoring.

-Kendall Coughlin ’19

Photos by Lisa Apazidis ’19

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