After three years working at Hillsdale College, Renee Surprenant is leaving to continue to teach, design, and work in professional theater on the East Coast.
Surprenant, the visiting assistant professor of design and technical director in theater arts, has designed and created the sets for 12 shows during her time at Hillsdale. She credits her time at the college for learning how to teach others in the art she loves.
“I’m always leading these students in how to help me create my art, and it takes a lot of letting go sometimes, and when you do let go, it can be a great experience,” Surprenant said. “I’ve learned how to be a leader and also a collaborator with my students, so it’s a fine line, but my time at Hillsdale has been very good for my development that way.”
Each set on which she worked brought new challenges, Surprenant said.
“I love that I get to do so many projects that I’m passionate about,” Surprenant said. “For me as a theater artist, it’s not so much that there’s one show I’d love to design…It’s always more about working with a director to come up with a unique production with a unique design. Then within that, I get to do these art and creativity projects. I get to paint backdrops, which is one of my favorite things, and work those into designs. I get to do all sorts of building, set creating, and techniques. I get to play with those, which has been a great exploration for me as an artist.”
After completing her graduate degree at Michigan State University, Surprenant came to Hillsdale to replace Dave Griffith, the former designer and director who had worked at Hillsdale for about 40 years. Professor of Theater James Brandon said Surprenant was a refreshing addition to the department.
“It’s good to have your artistic family change a little bit every so often, so bringing Renee in was useful in that regard,” Brandon said. “We’re going to miss her. It’s always tough to make transitions. I understand why she’s leaving and certainly want the best for her.”
Michael Beyer, production manager and lighting director, said he’s enjoyed Surprenant’s youthful energy and has appreciated her talents.
“As a designer, she is a very, very talented painter and very, very talented designer — she has brilliant ideas,” Beyer said.
Brandon said he admires her technical skills but also the way Surprenant doesn’t allow limited time and resources to cripple her creativity.
“You’re working with limited time, limited budget, and limited student workers, where what can you achieve in a five-to-seven-week rehearsal period is limited,” Brandon said. “The fact that you don’t let your creativity be stifled by that reality is really important, and it’s something that will serve her well moving forward.”
Surprenant said she is able to pick something special of which she is proud from each of her dozen shows, but it’s impossible to pick a favorite. From working with a senior designer to create an expressionist design for “Woyzeck” in spring 2014 to painting “The Taming of the Shrew” backdrop for “Kiss Me Kate” this semester, Surprenant said she’s been able to explore her artistic abilities.
“I take a lot of pleasure in the small things that make up a set,” Surprenant said. “Other set designers might design the whole set, but they don’t necessarily build or paint it. I like that side so much, as well, so being able to do both of them has been a lot of work at times. It’s been exhausting, but I enjoy it, too.”
Surprenant said the Hillsdale theater department was a great fit for her for the past three years.
“I love the creative work I do and the department personalities in the faculty and students,” Surprenant said. “I think we meshed really well together, and I felt like the work I did was appreciated, and I was able to bring people along with me as I did it, and I really enjoyed that.”