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Donyale Werle Puts Green Design Center Stage

Scenic designer/environmental advocate Donyale Werle is the recipient of the 2018-19 Dickinson College Arts Award. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Scenic designer/environmental advocate Donyale Werle is the recipient of the 2018-19 Dickinson College Arts Award. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Acclaimed scenic designer works with students, in and outside of class, during artistic residency

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

You may not be aware of her name, but if you are tuned into the world of theatre—whether Broadway, Off-Broadway, regionally or internationally—you’ve likely experienced her planet-friendly influence and work. Donyale Werle is a celebrated scenic designer who’s helping to revolutionize an industry not only through her artistic vision but also through environmental advocacy. She came to campus recently to share her vision and insights with students and faculty as the 2018-19 recipient of the Dickinson College Arts Award.

The Arts Award was created to recognize and celebrate the achievements of individuals or groups that have made outstanding contributions to the creative or performing arts. As the newest Arts Award recipient, Werle joins the company of playwright/screenwriter David Mamet, musicians John Cage and Barry Snyder, artist Sue Coe, dancers Twyla Tharp and Trisha Brown, actor Julie Harris and poets W.H. Auden, Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost. 

In addition to producing an immense and impressive body of work—her Broadway credits include Peter & the Starcatcher (2012 Tony Award), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2011 Tony nomination), In Transit and Allegiance—Werle is an impassioned advocate for women in the male-dominated field of scenic design and also for sustainable practices in her field. As cofounder of the Broadway Green Alliance, Werle travels the world trying to transform the ways the theatre industry sources, uses and disposes of raw materials. Every design she has created for more than a decade takes sustainability into account, and this value is at the heart of her work.

Students learned to work quickly and creatively during a timed green-design exercise. Photo courtesy of Josh Bennett '20.

Students learned to work quickly and creatively during a timed green-design exercise. Photo courtesy of Josh Bennett '20.

Werle’s April 17-19 residency at Dickinson included classroom visits, labs and shared meals and receptions with students and faculty in theatre, art and sustainability classes and programs and a Clarke Forum seminar on the ethical sourcing and recycling of materials. On Friday evening, Werle presented her portfolio publicly, delivered a Q&A about her career and formally accepted the award.

Josh Bennett ’20 (theatre arts, music) was among the students who interacted closely with Werle during a theatre-design class. After Werle spoke briefly about her work in sustainable design, Bennett joined fellow students in a timed green-design exercise, using recycled shipping boxes and cereal boxes to construct a scaled model for a staged version of The Muppets Take Manhattan.

“This was a really amazing experience, and it was super-helpful to me,” says Bennett, who plans to put what he learned to work as he embarks on a collaborative set-design project. “Donyale really inspired us to take a look at using found and recycled materials to create many of the elements not only as a way to spend less of our budget, but to generate an aesthetic of found and recycled materials, which could add another layer of depth to the piece.”

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Published April 19, 2019