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John Iacovelli: Reflecting on 30 years of Teaching

Michael S. Eddy • Master TeacherOctober 2020 • September 30, 2020

Iacovelli with a student

Designer John Iacovelli has three major areas to his career—Scenic Designer for theater; Production Designer for film and television; and Professor in design. While very different areas, Iacovelli blended them quite seamlessly over the course of his career. 

He has designed for over 300 productions at theaters across the country including: The Mark Taper Forum, Geffen Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, GeVa, Pasadena Playhouse, The Globe, Berkeley Rep, Magic, Dallas Theater Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Stage, San Jose Rep, San Diego Rep, Walnut Street Theatre, La Mirada Theatre, and Philadelphia Theatre Company. 

His well regarded work in TV and film includes production designs for Beckett Directs Beckett: Endgame with The San Quentin Drama Workshop, The Old Settler starring Phylicia Rashad & Debbie Allen, The Gin Game Starring Mary Tyler Moore & Dick Van Dyke, Ed, Babylon 5, Resurrection Blvd., and Lincoln Heights. He was the Art Director on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and production designer on Ruby in Paradise. He was honored with the USITT Distinguished Achievement Award for Scenic Design in 2018; as well as the LA Drama Critics Circle for Lifetime Achievement in Scenic Design; and an Emmy Award for his design work on Peter Pan Starring Cathy Rigby. 

His work as an educator is no less regarded. A true master teacher, Iacovelli retired from teaching in June of 2019. He was 20 years on the design faculty in the Department of Theatre & Dance, University of California, Davis. He started and helped build the MFA program at UC Davis. He also taught at UC Riverside and was a visiting professor at the Shanghai Drama Academy. Over the course of his teaching, Iacovelli touched a great many lives with his mentorship and guidance. His students are working throughout the industry in theater, film, TV and concert touring. The lengthy list of who went through his studio as assistants includes Kevin Adams; Peter Nigrini; Tamlyn Wright; Joe Celli; Brett Banakis; and Rachel Hauk. He graciously shared his time to reflect on the teaching aspect of his career with Stage Directions.

Designer John Iacovelli (Photo:Daniel Reichert)

What brought you into teaching?
Well, originally, I didn’t want to teach. My mom had briefly been a teacher and my dad had taught art for 30 years in the school system in Reno. I don’t think he was happy teaching, but he was happy being an artist. I was doing a show at the old Los Angeles Theater Center when I heard about a position open at UC Riverside and was asked to apply. I told them that I wasn’t interested in teaching, but the production manager, Marc Longlois, gave me a call. The UC schools, like many institutions, are research oriented. They basically allow you to continue your career as your research. It’s called practice as research. I thought ‘well, if you taught, you gave up everything else that you did’ but Marc explained that I could teach and still do my film and theater work.

I had already done Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and I was designing the pilot for Babylon 5. I had a pretty good film career going and the thing was, especially in the late ‘80s, the economy wasn’t very good. It was pillar to post on every job just to make sure I could pay rent, utilities and put gas in the car. Just like every designer, it seems like you spend more expenses getting the job done than you made on the job. And theater fees were pretty poor across the board. So, they were able to convince me to apply. 

I think because I didn’t really want the job it made me a better negotiator. I told them that I wasn’t going to be the set design teacher, and then also do the props, paint the set, and work in the shop. I will do my work. I will come teach my classes. I will mentor my students, but I will not teach stagecraft. I will teach scenic painting, but I won’t be the scenic artist. They did want me to design once a year, but they allowed me to use that as a class. I asked a lot of questions and in the end they said, ‘John, if you don’t like the job, you can always quit.’ Well, I’m not a quitter, I taught from 1990 until last year; just shy of 30 years.

Tell me about your move to University of California, Davis.
About 10 years later, I got head hunted by Sue-Ellen Case who had come to Davis, which had had a really good theater program in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were looking to rebuild and had a very small faculty at the time. There was a scene design professor there, before me, named Dan Snyder who had worked for Granada Television—who produced Brideshead Revisited and shows like that, in the UK. I don’t know how he did it, but he had gotten the Granada board to give money to Davis to sponsor British directors to come over and created the Granada Artist-in-Residence Program. We got major British directors to come and direct at Davis; really brilliant people. That was the engine that drove Davis for a long time. 

Sue Ellen dangled the carrot asking could I build a graduate program, because they didn’t have one at that time. I told them I’d do this if they gave me money to bring in other designers. I brought in scenic designer David Mitchell who worked with director Kate Whoriskey on a student show. It was kind of a fabulous machine there and was a very exciting place to be for a while. Eventually over the 20 years I was there, the Granada Television money went away. We still kept the Granada Program name and we brought in more Americans like Bill T. Jones who created a new work.

Maggie Morgan and Iacovelli

Talk about building the MFA Design program at UC Davis.
I started the grad program at UC Davis by myself and, eventually, I was able to convince the Dean to get two part time professors—Maggie Morgan and Tom Munn. Maggie had done all kinds of huge movies like Casino, as the assistant designer, and she and I had worked together at the Pasadena Playhouse. Tom had just left the San Francisco Opera, having been the main lighting designer there for 25 years. Maggie had come and been one of our guest lecturers for a while. At the time Tom joined the program, we were taking 12 student designers a year, in all areas. It was then that Ming Cho Lee told Maggie, ‘You guys are really a program to be reckoned with’.

I would say that we based our program similar to ones at NYU and Yale, where it was very much based on critiques and on doing projects; it was very rigorous. Not everyone got through it, but all of our students were well-placed, and they all are working. Everyone I know from that program is working in the theater or in film. It was a very gratifying program. I really think we did a great job teaching, I think I did and I know that Maggie did, and Tom did. Now Maggie is the only one left teaching design at UC Davis and she stopped taking design MFA students. When Tom left, and when I left there was no plan to replace us. It’s sad that UC Davis in the end didn’t value us and what we had built. But, for a time, it was sort of a Camelot. It was just a really great place to be. I have no regrets and am proud of what we built with that program during our time there.

How did you balance teaching and your professional work?
When I got a job on a TV show, I would always say, ‘Listen, I have one issue and that is that I teach.’ Usually, producers were very, very supportive. On Babylon 5, the producers rearranged every production meeting. The first AD would come to me first to find out my teaching schedule because they wanted to make sure I would be at the production meetings. I am proud to say I never missed any of the 110 production meetings on that show. I also always made all my classes. In the 30 years I taught, I’m very proud—I know people don’t believe it—but I never missed a class! Now, when I started doing the run of shows I did in New York, that was really rough because it was hard to balance. I had to come back and teach on Saturdays or do something similar, but I had really good grad students.

You also taught and introduced your students to production design.
I always was proud of the fact that I was often a bridge between theater and film for people starting early in their careers and I would hire a lot of them. There’re so many people that are working now and many, many designers that started with me, either as a student or as an assistant. I feel that’s the best part of our profession; as Ming Cho Lee and Ralph Funicello said over the years, ‘We give back and we start other people without any kind of malice. We’re not worried about them taking our jobs. There’s always been enough work for everyone.’ I feel that’s true. I feel like the only thing that sets you apart is if you’re good or bad. If you can do the work or you can’t do it.

Iacovelli with a design model for SILENT SKY at South Coast Repertory. (Photo: Ana Venegas)

Was there one essential thing you wanted to ensure your graduating students had learned as they went into their careers?
What I did was something that the British call pastoral care, which means that, as a professor, I felt it was my responsibility to check up on them. I kept in touch with them, I still do to this day. I think that’s a responsibility of a mentor. You don’t say, ‘Bye bye. You’re graduated. I’m done with you.’ I think if you have this bond when you’re teaching these individuals, they need to understand that you’re not going to abandon them. What I try to leave them with is that, ‘Yeah, call me. I’ll be here for you.’ Sometimes I’ll check up on them or, if I see they’ve won an award or done some great design, I’ll compliment them and sometimes I’ll recommend them. Maggie and I, and others, we also do that with the kids from Design Showcase West or from the Yale Clambake, or any of those places. I can’t tell you how many people that graduated from NYU or Yale that I’ve helped to try to promote into other jobs. 

I remember the production manager from Babylon 5 saying ‘Wherever John goes, you can always find his students.’ On whatever TV show I was working on, it was the greatest thing, to bring in a student. I would always pay them as an intern, as a production assistant. They would see me in action, but  also see how a film gets made. I wanted to demystify it. So much of what theater training was, was about mystifying film and making it sort of unattainable; that wasn’t for us. But, that’s the great thing that I learned from NYU, that, ‘Yeah, this is part of our world. We have just as much as right to be working in film and television as theater.’ I wanted to and did teach that to my students.

Teachers always learn from their students. What are some of the lessons over the 30 years of your teaching you have learned?
Well, I think it taught me to be less severe with my criticism. I always was very careful with criticism; to talk to them and explain that this is not personal. I’m sure people have heard about the kind of brutal criticism that we got at NYU in those days, and I think that’s changed now, but it was really the school of hard knocks back then. I tried to make that different for my students. I had a student taking my class from the art program who was a muralist. We were doing Vincent in Brixton. He had done a fairly conventional white model for the set, that was the assignment, a box set. I told him that it was a beautiful model but what would you do if someone said to you, ‘How do you make this more about the play? How do you make this specific to that play?’ This could be a model for any Ibsen or so many other plays. I was so stunned when he came back, because he had taken the Vincent van Gogh palette and he had started at the top of the set as if the set was almost melting in color and the colors dripped down the set. It was quite an astonishing thing. And I just remember thinking that it was just like what a good director does with us. You just need to make a suggestion. What I learned, especially with students, don’t try to push them too hard, just make the right suggestion, that is the push and they will go far. I think if you talk to any of my students, they will say, ‘John was a good pusher.’ I always tried to push them to be better.

Are there moments when you think back that stand out as, “Yes. This is why I teach.”, moments?
Yes. Monday night class. I think if you said to anyone in our grad program, ‘Monday night class’, you’d get a positive response. That was the time that Tom, Maggie, and I taught a group class with all the different disciplines, and we had projects. They went on for hours; sometimes, two hours, sometimes it would be four hours. Because Tom, Maggie, and I, we didn’t see things from the same point of view either, so I think it was really useful. That’s something I picked up from NYU, having had Oliver Smith and John Conklin at the same time—it’s really amazing to have the different points of view.

Iacovelli’s design for UC Davis’ production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Several times I did design shows with student directors. I thought that was rewarding because you could kind of lead them in a way that another student couldn’t. I never believed in the blind leading the blind theory of education—where you have an MFA director, an MFA actor, and MFA designers. I always feel like maybe then the designers should be professionals if it is an MFA director or maybe the director should be a professional then everyone else are students. That was something Dan Snyder realized and we continued by bringing in professionals. If you can get these incredible minds there, then that just opens up so many horizons for people.

One of the best things was when I got the producers award, because it was my vision that created the Film Festival at UC Davis. They really had no film program when I got there and basically, I created this film festival that’s now in its 21st year. I’m very proud of that and a year ago they gave me a nice award in recognition. That was all from the heart. I knew that if I created the Film Festival, that we would get students making films on campus, and now they have a film program that they didn’t have before. I was just so pleased because I really felt that’s what I should have done. That’s what I was put at UC Davis to do, to move the needle forward. I did that in my teaching, I did that in my life, and I did that there.

What’s a piece of advice that you would give a student looking to pursue an MFA in design?
There are three things that you need to look for. You need to make sure that there’s going to be a mentor that you meet before you go to the program that you identify with, that you like, that you know that you can work for. Because that mentor student relationship is everything in education. The second thing you want to look for is, do they have an alumni network? Something like Carnegie has, something like NYU has, something like Yale has, something like UCLA has? Because that will really be important when you get out of there. The third thing is, are you going to be a slave? Are you then going to be the prop master or the scenic artist? Will you be able to build a portfolio? Because the portfolio is the thing that all of us from NYU had. My portfolio, when I came out to LA, that got me every job. So, I think going into an MFA program look at, who are the mentors, who’s going to be your mentor, who are the alumni, what is the portfolio that you get when you get out of there?

How would you sum up what teaching has meant to you?
Well, it gave me a lot of joy. It provided me with a financial foundation where I didn’t have to take shows, especially television shows, that I didn’t want to do. People always joke that I do too many things and that I have too much work. They don’t see the things I turned down. It enabled me to be selective. Also, since I don’t have children, I very much think of many of my students as my children. So, it’s where I had a parental experience. You keep in touch with your students over the years and see their work and where they go. I feel like that for me, that parenting part of teaching was the best part.

I’ve had three remarkable careers. I’ve had a remarkable teaching career, a remarkable theater career, and a remarkable film and television career. It has just been an incredible run and I still have a lot to do. I still want to move into other areas and do other things. As soon as we get out of this pandemic I’ll keep going. We will all keep moving things forward. 

In 2018 Iacovelli was honored with the USITT Distinguished Achievement Award in Scene Design & Technology. Among the congratulations and testimonials were:

“I think that John has perfect pitch, like in music. He has perfect pitch, he is right on, he sees things like people who hear with perfect pitch. And I can’t believe what he accomplishes in a month, let alone a lifetime.” – Doreen Gehry Nelson, Professor and Educator

“The masters program that he really single-handedly crafted for set design at UC Davis. It is more than the two years I spent there, even now I can still call him for advice and support. I am incredibly grateful for that.  I don’t think I have ever met anybody who is so passionate about theater.” – Claire Bennett, Former Student, Emmy nominated Production Designer (Modern Family)

“The expectation of professionals working at a certain level of the university is that you are expected to help network and mentor the students and I think that John is one of the best in the country with that.” – Judith Dolan, Professor at UCSD, Tony-Winning Costume Designer

“He keeps an open mind and he has such a wealth of experience and education. He is extremely well read. He is extremely knowledgeable about styles that have been around for centuries. So when you come to him with a project you are coming to somebody with a lot of depth.” – Michael Arabian, Award-winning Director

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