The theater industry is among many that have been badly hit when the pandemic forced industry closures starting last year. Despite this troubling turn of events, theater artists like Manhattan-based scenic and costume designer Christian Fleming never lost hope that we will return to being able to gather en masse for live performance. Now, as the theater industry’s marquees are slowly turning back on, Fleming’s designs captured the eye of the USITT (United States Institute for Theater Technology, Inc.) award panel, which recognized his artistry, creativity, and promise as an emerging designer to watch with 2021’s USITT Scene Design Award sponsored by Rose Brand.
As a young designer who had only recently graduated with an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama when the industry shutdown began, entering a crippled industry did not dim his spirit and love for theater. “Graduating into an industry shutdown has been a challenging experience and caused me and many of my peers to question and reflect on how we will collectively help the industry realize we exist when things return,” Fleming noted. “It is amazing to have my work recognized and a welcome affirmation that even though the industry is dark, the future is bright,” he added.
Fleming’s work was recently seen at Pittsburgh Festival Opera (Rusalka), Pittsburgh CLO (Game On), and Pittsburgh Opera (Afterwards: Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined). He was designing a production of Turn of the Screw the Britten opera when the country went into lockdown last year. His work was exhibited at the USITT Virtually Anywhere Conference and at Design Showcase West.
“With every production, I invent storytelling solutions that create context, establish focus, and activate the audience’s imagination,” Fleming revealed.
He has a deep sense of understanding of the impact of every design choice he makes on the story being told. Fleming in particular views his work as visual storytelling—considered choices that help create clarity for the audience.
“My experience as a director arms me with an intense appreciation for the process, an intimate understanding of how to tell a story and use all the elements available to a production, and a critical eye to be able to see when something might be exciting, but isn’t contributing to dramaturgical clarity,” he reflected.
With the theater industry poised for Broadway’s re-opening, Fleming hopes that the shutdown offered a moment for reflection.
“I hope that this shutdown will lead to a revitalized return where the industry addresses and eliminates the systemic barriers and inequalities that have created such hardships for the working artists that make the industry function. The recent backlash against Scott Rudin (Broadway producer, who has had to step back due to allegations of bullying) shows a shift occurring within the industry towards supporting the artist. Importantly, the We See You WAT movement has done amazing work to expose the racism faced by BIPOC artists and demanding substantive change. We need greater equity and representation on design teams and of the stories produced. I’m excited by the potential and will do my part to ensure this reflection transforms into revitalization.”