Theatre dept. commissions help for visual effects

By Katie Smith, A&E Editor

Newman’s Theatre Department is getting an important two-week loan from a theater in Cleveland, Ohio: a theatre professional with the ability to help bring Newman’s production of Dante’s “Inferno” to life.

Stephen Chipps, an artistic director for his own theatre company and friend of Director of Theatre Mark Mannette, has been in Wichita for a little more than a week and will leave on Tuesday.

He was commissioned by Mannette to build costumes and masks for “Inferno,” which will be performed next week during Lit Fest.

Mannette has spent 10 years developing his translation of “Inferno” into a play for the Newman, and his script has at least 139 characters mentioned by name. Chipps said that he does not have to make masks for every character, but he keeps adding more each day.

Mannette said he met Chipps through a mutual friend, Nick Johnson, who is the Director of Dance at Wichita State University. Johnson had worked with Chipps on creating his puppets and masks for WSU Contemporary Dance Theatre’s portrayal of Dante’s “Nightmares & Dreams.”

Mannette said that the Gerber Institute issued him a grant that he has used to bring in a guest artist, a co-director and a dance director. He’s also used some grant money on projector rentals.

Mannette said that he is looking forward to seeing the entire thing come to life. But he’s most curious about a few specific characters Chipps has been working on.

“I’m most excited to see how the centaurs function,” Mannette said. “He’s promised three operational centaurs.”

Chipps said his mornings usually start out with supply shopping. He said he comes in between 10 and 11 a.m. and works on crafting creatures until close to midnight.

“For a work like Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ you just can’t  go to the costume shop and dig out centaur body costumes that are functional,” he said. “You can’t dig out angel wings that are mechanically articulated.”

Chipps said he likes to reuse materials any way he can. He described himself as a pack rat. Many objects that he had stored away, he brought along with him for this project.

He said that he would harvest materials from other shows to create pieces. While he said he does have to make a supplies trip daily, most things have been recycled from previous creations.

“We were scroungers. ‘Oh there’s a dumpster out back. I see a bicycle sticking out of that. Let’s use the wheels,’” he said. “I save odds and ends.”

Most of the creations that will be seen on stage have been crafted by Chipps himself, but this week he has had a handful of helpers in and out, mainly from the theatre classes.

“It’s kind of impractical for one person to do all of this… in two weeks,” he said. “They’re coming in an hour here or there to help out with all the little stuff. There’s just so much of it.”

Chipps said that he is excited that he has gotten to explore so many different skill sets while working on this project.  Back home, he has worked on parade floats, haunted houses, community art programs, and has taught in schools and in the community. He said that getting to work on this project allows him to practice all of the skills he has learned, and even some that are new, on a practical level.

“I have lots of different skills to apply to the project at hand. One of the things I’m interested in is just trying to get my fingers in and use all these skills that I’ve acquired over the course of 35 years and put them to bear on a whole art project, like this,” he said.

Chipps said he did not attend college and immediately jumped into his theatrical career after graduating high school.

“There are little tricks of the trade. I didn’t go to college for any of this. I think I just acquired enough tricks over the time that you learn the trade,” he said.

Students can catch Dante’s “Inferno” live on stage next week at 7 p.m. March 5 - 7 and 2 p.m. on March 8 in the Performance Hall.

“This is 10 years in the making. The whole thing is a lot of work. I think it will be rewarding to see what I imagined come to life,” Mannette said.

PHOTO: Katie Smith, A&E Editor