‘Bold Strokes’ celebrates work of alumnus Ezell, renowned set designer

St. Louis native John Ezell is one of contemporary theater’s most influential stage designers. Over the past five decades, the WUSTL alumnus has created hundreds of sets for major regional, national and international companies and festivals.

Ezell’s set design from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” This and other sets by the acclaimed designer will be on display at the Des Lee Gallery through Nov. 22.

Beginning this month, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts’ Des Lee Gallery will present “Bold Strokes and Finesse: The Stage Designs of John Ezell.” The exhibition, which opens at 6 p.m. Sept. 11 with a reception for the artist, will include drawings, models, painter elevations and other material surveying the breadth and scope of Ezell’s work.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Ezell became fascinated by scenery design as a child, peering over the backstage fence at The Muny in Forest Park. In 1954, he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting from WUSTL’s School of Fine Arts (as the Sam Fox School was then known). After a stint in the Army, he enrolled in Yale University’s School of Drama, where his credits included productions of “The Saint of Bleecker Street” and “Anastasia.” He earned an master of fine arts degree in drama from Yale in 1961.

Considered a “director’s designer,” Ezell is known for respecting the playwright’s textual prescriptions while also infusing a sense of eclecticism, scholarship and art history. He was among the first American scenic designers to make extensive use of polystyrenes, vacuum-formed thermoplastics and other experimental material.

For example, his 1969 design for Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” was the first stage setting conceived and executed in polyurethane expandable foam and later was named one of the 10 most “significant American designs of the decade” by the International Theatre Institute of Brussels.

Ezell has spent much of his career focusing on little-seen works — especially so-called “unplayable” plays — by major America’s major dramatists. He has designed a series of important world premieres, including Eugene O’Neill’s unfinished cycle “The Calms of Capricorn”; an early work from Thornton Wilder “The Angel That Troubled the Waters”; and Horton Foote’s acerbic family comedy “Dividing the Estate.”

Other notable shows include George Abbott’s Broadway production of “Broadway” and the television adaptation of O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet.”

In all, Ezell has worked on more than 350 productions for many of the world’s most prestigious venues, including the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Istanbul Theatre Festival, the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. Ezell also has designed for a score of regional theaters, including the Kansas City Repertory, the Milwaukee Repertory and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Ezell has collaborated extensively with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where his credits range from “Almost September” and “Death of a Salesman” to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” His work on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Heartbreak House” was nominated for a Kevin Kline Award for Outstanding Set Design in 2006 and 2008, respectively.

Additional honors include nine Critics’ Circle Awards; the Award for Experimental Television Art at the International Non-Commercial Television Festival in Milan; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Award for Excellence, for his design of the Emmy Award-winning “The Playboy of the Western World.” In 2001, he received WUSTL’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Ezell currently serves as the Hall Family Foundation Professor of Design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), where he heads the theater department’s scenic design area. He also serves as a consultant to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and recently was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“Bold Strokes and Finesse” will remain on view through Nov. 22. Ezell’s longtime colleague, Gene Emerson Friedman, assistant professor of scenic design at UMKC, curated the show, which had its debut at the U.S. Institute of Theatre Technology’s 2007 Stage Expo in Phoenix.

Both the exhibition and the reception are free and open to the public. Regular gallery hours are 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 621-8537.