After moving back-and-forth – between the East and West coasts, and between theater stage design and historic preservation – Sean O’Skea has settled into his role at SOU as a professor of scenic design, which he’s held for the past 13 years.
O’Skea became interested in scene design after taking drama classes in high school and realizing he was more interested in creating evocative environments than in performing. To that end, he worked toward a bachelor’s degree in theatre at the University of Portland. But he started to have a change of heart while working on his graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, deciding to work instead toward a master’s degree in historic preservation.
“My degree in historic preservation was a bit of a rebellion against working in theatre,” O’Skea said. “I had worked my first year in grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was really having second thoughts. I’ve always been interested in history and architecture, and so jumped into the program at Ball State.”
He worked in Indiana for about a year as a historic preservationist but found after moving back to the West Coast that historic preservation work is rarer than it was on the East Coast.
“While I was trying to find more work in historic preservation, I kept getting offered design jobs and adjunct teaching in theatre, and after a while I just sort of found myself back in theater full-time again – so I went to the University of Portland to finish my MFA,” O’Skea said.
“I was accepted for a tenure-track job at Alfred University in New York,” he said. “So we moved back across the country. I was at Alfred for three years when my wife was offered a fantastic job in PR for Microsoft. Our life has been alternating between my school and jobs taking us east, where we were never really happy, and my wife’s jobs bringing us back to Oregon.”
In Oregon, O’Skea spent a couple of years raising his daughter as a stay-at-home dad, before applying for teaching jobs at nearby universities – including SOU, where he was eventually hired.
“My wife has always dreamed of living in Ashland, and Southern Oregon felt very familiar to my Sonoma County (California) childhood home,” O’Skea said. “(SOU is) big enough to have a real college experience but not so big that you get lost. Ashland has the best of both worlds – great culture, progressive community, much that you’d find in a big city, but we are minutes away from some of the most beautiful landscapes in the nation.”
“I was impressed with the department and hit it off with the faculty, I met some students that were really excited and committed to their studies and we decided to just go for it.”
O’Skea teaches courses in the SOU Theatre Program including elements of design, which introduces the digital and hands-on processes of design; scenic design, which explores the principles of scene design in enhancing theatrical performances; computer-aided design, which focuses on digital modeling and rendering techniques in the creation of physical artistic spaces; and drafting, which examines the techniques of drawing stage scenery and properties.
O’Skea uses a direct teaching style, assigning projects in his classes that get his students to develop the technical skills required in set creation. He advises students to be determined if they want to find academic success.
“Self-motivation is essential; your professors can only be your guides, you have to take the lead on your learning,” he said.
O’Skea enjoys gardening and traveling, when not working. While much of his travel to the East Coast is for work, he also vacations with his family during winter breaks – recently going to England and Italy. His travels help inspire his work as a scene designer.
“Everything influences my designs and as most of our travel is to historically juicy places I spend a lot of time filling sketchbooks and taking reference photos,” he said. “It drives my wife and daughter crazy as we will be walking somewhere and suddenly I’m not there and they find me half a block back taking a photo of an interesting door knocker or a picturesque cracked wall, or something.”
O’Skea has published “Painting for Performance: A Beginner’s Guide to Great Painted Scenery (Routledge-2016),” an educational book that focuses on giving beginners the terms and techniques to paint stage scenery.
Story by Blair Selph, SOU Marketing and Communications student writer