Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Terrence McClellan
Terrence McClellan

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News Release

November 23, 2009

Theater design professor creates
worlds inside worlds

DeKalb, Ill. Friday marks the official start of the Christmas shopping season, but its arrival comes weeks after stores of all sorts transformed part of their spaces into junior-grade North Pole workshops.

Portable walls of red and green, Santa Claus castles, pre-lit Christmas trees and miles of gold and silver tinsel combine to bring joy to the hearts of shoppers – and to open their pocketbooks.

It’s a holly jolly facade that Terrence McClellan knows well.

As a scenic designer of “environments” for not only the legitimate theater but also for corporate communications, McClellan has spent his career traveling the United States and abroad to create the backdrops for everything from actors and rock stars to Fortune 500 executives and the products they hope to sell.

“At my age, not being bored is one of my goals, and this is a good way not to be bored. And I get to travel,” says the professor with a wry sense of humor. “One of the fun things about being a freelance designer is looking for work, and I don’t have to do that anymore, which is kind of sad. I used to go through the phone book, category by category, looking for opportunities that matched my skill set. It was frightening and exciting.”

Now McClellan teaches his craft to Northern Illinois University students while, like many of his colleagues in the School of Theatre and Dance, keeping his feet firmly in the business.

His students learn how the real world works; in one classroom exercise, they are required to design three scenic environments for three different events – a rock concert, a political event and a new product introduction, for example – that take place over three days on the same stage.

For third-year students, it gets even more real: they accompany him on gigs.

“I really like working with students,” McClellan says. “I tell them, ‘You’re not wasting your life here. You can keep doing this for the rest of your life. It’s a career, not a job, and you’re being well trained for that.’ ”

McClellan is the perfect example.

When he graduated from college in the early 1970s, he began working for the Off-Loop Theatres, the Goodman School and the Chicago Opera Theatre, but it wasn’t really paying the bills. He decided to return to school to study architecture: “I had to find a way to buy tires for my car,” he says.

Yet his expenses couldn’t wait for the degree, and he started flipping through the Yellow Pages. His fingers walked upon a listing of “theater for industry.”

He tried it. He liked it. He started taking whatever gigs he could find.

The three men who first hired him rented their office space in a building on Fullerton Avenue, and their landlord needed a designer for her grandson’s bar mitzvah. When McClellan scheduled a meeting, the grandmother and her daughter and the grandson all came with shopping bags full of examples of centerpieces and party favors from other bar mitzvahs they had attended recently.

“They said, ‘It can’t be like this. It has to be better than this,’ ” McClellan says with a laugh.

After settling on a theme of “movies,” McClellan created invitations and pieces for the party that included slate boards, movie cameras and crew sign-in sheets. His wife, artist Kathleen Smigielski, helped. They earned $1,500.

“It was lots of fun, and I was making more money than I would have coming out of school as an architect,” he says. “I like to draw and paint. I like to imagine spaces and create spaces. Eventually someone will build it, and I’ll get to play in it.”

McClellan, whose company with Smigielski is called Scenographix, Ltd., now enjoys a well-developed method to his madness.

Between McClellan and Smigielski are nearly 1,000 projects ranging from design of theatrical scenery and lights and tradeshow booths to illustration of space and special objects.

He continues to meet face-to-face with his clients, who for the past seven years have included the Ford Motor Co., and simply asks them to talk about their products.

“I get their take on how high-end it is. How elegant. How wonderful. I listen to the words they use,” he says. “And anyone who does what I do constantly has to look at things. I ride a bike a lot and just look at things. I keep up on architecture, current industrial design. But mostly I just try to restate what clients tell me but in a common language. I try to tap into a common language we all use.”

People who study and work in theater “probably have the best handle on this,” he adds. “We’re trained in human drama, human connection, that script that turns human situations into something we all can empathize with.”

The environment must not overshadow the product but still must make a strong impression. “I make people look at that new vehicle in a new light – a passionate and supportive light,” he says.

“It’s a pretty strenuous life. There are lots of deadlines. You draw up stuff, and they have to like it. You lay yourself on the line every couple weeks. Sometimes you’re designing for committees, and that’s just dreadful,” he says.

“Everything I do is prototype. I can’t do perfect. I can’t tell you what’s working until it’s done, and that’s exciting. I really enjoy that,” he says. “The projects I always feel the best about are the ones that were the hardest, the ones I wasn’t sure about. I have a fascination with the edge, walking the line between failure and success.”

“Walking the line” is the same approach he took to the professorial life.

He had teaching jobs before NIU, at the State University of New York at Brockport and at the University of Iowa, but lacked confidence that he was providing a good education.

“I didn’t know if I knew what I was talking about,” says McClellan, who came to NIU after professors here sent their theater students to him as prospective employees. “Now I know. This industry is out there – entertainment and corporate communications – and it’s huge.”

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Media Contact:
Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472