January 14, 2022
Enter Stage Right
CMU alumnus heads to global stage design exhibition
By Pamela Wigley
Christian Fleming is used to designing stages. Now, he’ll have to get used to being on one.
Fleming, who earned his undergraduate degree in directing in 2012 and master’s degree in scenic design in 2020 from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, was selected by World Stage Design (WSD) to showcase his work at the upcoming 2022 exhibition and conference in Calgary, Canada, in August. The New York-based scenic and costume designer will be among 15 other emerging scenic designers who were hand-selected from among 14 participating countries to participate in this prestigious global event that takes place every four years.
“It’s a welcome affirmation as we return from the industry going dark,” Christian says. “I am excited to be part of an international event celebrating innovative theatrical design and excited to see the other shortlisted designers’ works.”
“I love to tell a story through design and appreciate how the program at CMU is structured to push beyond the technical elements that make up performance design. The program challenges students to think critically about how to use those elements to effectively tell a story for the audience.”
The Milwaukee native caught the theater bug early, and it dawned on him as his interest progressed throughout high school that he could make a career out of something he truly loved. He was inspired by his high school drama teacher, Claire McCain, at Homestead High School in Mequon, Wisconsin.
He was grateful that his family supported his desire to work in the theater, too. As he neared time to prepare for college, his research led him to Carnegie Mellon. After graduating and spending five years working in the industry, Christian returned for his graduate studies. The program, he said, allowed him to hone his craft while solidifying who he is as an artist.
“I love to tell a story through design and appreciate how the program at CMU is structured to push beyond the technical elements that make up performance design,” Christian says. “The program challenges students to think critically about how to use those elements to effectively tell a story for the audience.”
His talents were put to good use during his time at CMU, where he had the opportunity to work with Pittsburgh Opera. The experience gave him the chance to see what it was like to design in a professional environment and collaborate with a professional team. Ultimately, it led to the WSD exhibition. His work during the second year of his MFA studies on Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “afterWARds: Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined” was the project that led to his selection for the Calgary event. He gave a nod to the team he worked with on the production“afterWARds,” especially the production’s technical director Sean West who served as the production’s technical director.
“Without him, I don’t know that the production would have been possible. It was an ambitious idea, and Sean was vital to figuring out how to bring it to life,” Christian says.
He also credits his CMU drama professors, highlighting Narelle Sissons, Dick Block and Anne Mundell, who he said inspired him as educators and mentors.
“At CMU, I found joy in the process,” Christian says. “For students who are there now, I advise you to soak up as much as possible — there is so much exciting work happening globally. Creatively feed yourself and discover innovative work happening here and abroad. Everything you see impacts and informs your artistic development.”
He also drew inspiration from fellow School of Drama alum Leigh Silverman, who now works in New York as a director. She offered three points to Christian and his classmates, and he refers to them still.
“She said that your career is based on talent, the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and the ability to stay in the game and be relevant,” he says. “That last part is the hardest and most important. Maintain your connections, build your network and stay top of mind.”
His own advice to students also focuses on building a reputation and moving forward.
“Get your name out there,” he says. “You want to make sure people know you and know your work. Use your alumni network. One project will lead to another and so on.”
Christian’s work was also recognized this year with the 2021 United States Institute for Theatre Technology Scene Design Award sponsored by Rose Brand. Now, he relishes the honor of being showcased at this year’s WSD exhibition and looks forward to new opportunities and increased visibility as he continues to push the breadth of artistry.
In Calgary, Christian will have the opportunity to expand his network and be inspired by the innovative work showcased. The exhibition will feature emerging designers like Christian, as well as established designers from around the world. Lectures and master classes are open to all attendees, and Fleming looks forward to learning more from the palette offered.
“It’s like going to an art museum, and very exciting to have your work exhibited,” he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing all these wonderful examples of my peers’ work, and learning from them. I’m tremendously grateful to be chosen.”