Though his introduction to the world of theater came when he was young boy performing Mother Goose plays with his sister in their living room, Will Turbyne refocused his interest in acting onstage to working backstage, as a scenic and lighting designer. This evolution came naturally from combining his love of theater and carpentry. He developed carpentry as a boy building things with his father and grandfather.
Since receiving his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts in theater, Turbyne has worked in theater professionally for over 20 years on around 200 shows. Notably, he assisted in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; worked with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company; and did residential work with interior designers, homebuilders and renovators.
In joining the University of Dallas Drama Department in the fall of 2012, Turbyne adopted multiple titles: affiliate assistant professor of drama, resident scenic and lighting designer and technical director of the Margaret Jonsson Theater (MJT). As designer, Turbyne oversees set and lighting designs for the mainstage production each semester and as Technical Director he manages the MJT.
Consolidating the responsibilities of these positions has its advantages and disadvantages.
“Communication sometimes is a lot easier when I can just talk to myself,” Turbyne said. “But other times you lose the ability to sort of bounce ideas off of another person.”
As a designer, Turbyne’s work often begins weeks before the first rehearsal.
“It starts with the playwright, and it starts with the play,” Turbyne said.
Designs — whether set, costumes, lighting, sound or props — must serve the play. Turbyne said that his broad background of experiences in directing, acting and even playwriting have made him a better designer.
“Theater is a very collaborative art form, perhaps the most collaborative art form,” Turbyne said. “I’m not just working in a vacuum. I’m working with a director; I’m working with a playwright, even when the playwright’s long gone. You’re still working with … his or her story and making sure that that story gets told.”
The design process can take weeks or even months. After researching the theme and time period of the play, Turbyne sketches ground plan ideas, deliberating with the director to determine the scenes’ layout on the set. Then he finalizes the design through renderings, drafts or a model.
“Then I have to take off my designer hat and put on my technical director hat and budget everything that’s going to be built to make sure that we can afford to build it and that we have time to build it,” Turbyne said.
Then the construction begins.
By designing the sets he himself will construct, Turbyne designs what he wants to build. Turbyne especially enjoys finish carpentry and trim carpentry, so the majority of his work tends toward those arts. As his own designer, he has the chance to explore skills he is interested in developing.
“I hadn’t done welding for a decade, and so ‘Candide’ came along and Stefan [Novinski] and I talked about some conceptual issues so far as the direction we might want to go and I said ‘Cool, we’re going to do some welding,’ ” Turbyne said.
Turbyne’s favorite part about his job at UD is the students.
In addition to teaching classes such as Stage Craft, he advises and mentors student designers and student workers.
“The results themselves are not always seen onstage but sometimes they’re in the development of the students,” Turbyne said. “I take great satisfaction in that.”
Turbyne noted a similarity between the collaborative nature of theater and the diversity of the students who work in the scene shop.
“What’s great about UD is that the drama department extends beyond the drama department. Any given year, half my [student] workers are not drama majors,” Turbyne said. “Theater can be for everybody. Not just the doing of it, but the watching of it … Movies are great, but there’s something about watching live flesh and blood in front of you, telling a story. I think there’s something primal about it, there’s something very basic in our DNA.”
See Turbyne’s scenic and lighting designs for this semester’s Main Stage, “Measure for Measure,” April 6-16 in the MJT.