Designing alumna comes full circle with UE's 'Cripple of Inishmaan'

Friday's opening of "The Cripple of Inishmaan" marks scenic designer Kristin Ellert's first freelance commission in the University of Evansville's Shanklin Theatre, but she's no stranger to the space.

Ellert's design transforms the stage into the rocky, windswept coast of Ireland in 1934, when Robert Flaherty really filmed "Man of Aran," a fictional documentary about a way of life that no longer existed.

Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan" ffers its own fictional account of several villagers, including a crippled young man, who spin eccentric stories to get cast in the film and escape the tedium of their daily lives.

The university's stages are friendly, familiar spaces for Ellert. The Minneapolis native struck her first marks as a designer while an undergraduate at UE.

By 2005, the year she graduated, she had designed two main stage shows in Shanklin Theatre and a May Studio production that went on to play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Ellert still was a junior when she created the scenic design for Mark St. Germaine's "A Plague of Angels," a new drama that went on to win a national showcase in the 2004 American College Theater Festival in the nation's capital.

As a senior, Ellert designed two Shanklin Theatre shows — Robert Schenkkan's "Handler" and Pearle Cleaves' "Flyin' West."

Those credits helped set the stage for a career that took her to the University of California at San Diego, where she worked in the La Jolla Playhouse while finishing her master's degree. Her designs included "Hoover Comes Alive," a rock musical about President Herbert Hoover, and projection designs for "Restoration," a one-woman comedy that went on to a production at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Ellert returns to Evansville after living and working two years in New York, where she kept busy primarily as an assistant designer. She recently has moved to Bloomington, Ill., but plans to continue traveling to wherever she needs as a freelance designer.

She was designing in New Hope, Mich., when she got the call for "The Cripple of Inishmaan" commission, she said.

The project brings her full circle, working with director R. Scott Lank, who also directed her first UE show, "A Plague of Angels," nearly seven years ago. In a way, it feels like "there's never been any time between these shows," she said. "It's like we've picked up right where we left off."

In another sense, however, "it's totally different, now," she added. "I don't feel in any way like a student, now."

Now she's challenging a group of UE students to execute her fluid design for space without straight lines.

"I really wanted to break the planes in any way I could," Ellert said.

Most productions use several distinct settings for the show, but Ellert and Lank wanted to simplify and focus with UE's production.

Their goal was to create a space that reflected the sense of an island, but no particular spot, explained Ellert: "It's all rock, sky and mist.

"I want it to feel emotionally like an island, to let the audience experience how large that sea and sky are."

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