Sheryl Liu’s work space in UC Irvine’s drama design lab is home to stacks of hardbound books on everything from the Palace of Versailles to African masks; drawers full of ceramic beads and tubes of glitter; and photos of style icon Anna Wintour.
The decor could be described as dorm room meets “Project Runway.” A mini fridge sits next to a precision cutting tool. A plush couch provides respite on late work nights. The spot, which Liu shares with three others, is as much a home as her off-campus apartment.
A third-year scenic design M.F.A. student in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Liu has spent countless days and nights here completing her thesis – a replica of the “La Traviata” set – and creating sets and costumes for the Jose Limon Dance Company’s revival of “The Emperor Jones,” a job she won in a competition open to North American student designers.
Her UCI course work on “Salome” and “La Boheme” has been selected for the 2011 Prague Quadrennial, the top international stage design exhibition, which runs June 16-26.
These are significant achievements for a graduate student in her mid-20s, yet the Taiwan-raised Liu never envisioned a career in the arts. She took chemistry and pre-veterinary courses at college in Taipei, before switching to drama.
“When I was growing up, I would pick stray animals from the streets – three-legged dogs and such,” Liu says. “I just wanted to help them.”
Taipei lacked a theater culture at that time, and her family encouraged her to pursue medicine. But Liu had a passion for painting and drawing; the arts appealed to her in a way science did not.
She studied acting, directing and stage design and discovered that she had a talent for bringing operas, plays and musicals to life onstage. Liu earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at National Taiwan University and applied to several M.F.A. programs in the U.S. A Pittsburgh native, she selected UCI because of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ highly regarded scenic design program.
“I try to respond to the text and music in an honest way,” Liu says of her creative process. “I think of how I can visually support the storytelling in a way that doesn’t distract the audience or confuse the actors.”
This understated approach can be seen in her all-white, paper-cutout backdrops for the drama department’s 2010 production of “Into the Woods.” Liu’s work for the 2011 staging of “The Crucible” featured a black curtain with a splash of yellow paint. The visceral, abstract design reflected her emotional reaction to the play.
“The Emperor Jones” – loosely based on the Eugene O’Neill tale of an African American fugitive who becomes a Caribbean dictator – was Liu’s first high-profile, professional job. The Jose Limon Dance Company invited arts institutions in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. to enter their most talented students’ designs in a competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I think they picked me because I have strong ideas and know how to execute them,” Liu says. She studied the art and fashion of West Africa and the Caribbean and tried to envision what an emperor with this background would look like.
Designing for a modern ballet production meant considering movement and comfort. “The costumes have to look good for the stage, but they also need to work with the choreography,” Liu says. “The fabric needs to have enough stretch so the dancers can move their hands and legs without feeling restricted.”
At UCI, she juggled school, projects and productions with frequent trips to New York to meet with suppliers and purchase materials for “The Emperor Jones.” Her spring break was spent navigating the snow-filled streets of Manhattan, picking out fabrics, beads and buttons.
The show ran June 8-12 in the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at New York’s John Jay College and received positive reviews from critics.
“The performance went well, and the set and costumes were in good shape after the touring schedule,” Liu says of the premiere. “Many people in the audience said they really loved the designs.”
Luke Hegel-Cantarella, assistant professor of drama and head of UCI’s scenic design program, adds: “The Limon Company is one of the most important dance companies of the 20th century, and ‘Emperor Jones’ is widely regarded as a masterwork.
“It’s the kind of plum design job than an experienced New York designer dreams of. … I can’t wait to see where Sheryl goes in the next few years.”