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The Magic Maker: Mitchell goes from Disney to W&M

  • Setting the sceneSteven Mitchell brings his experiences working with Disney World, Disneyland and Nickelodean into the classroom.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas.

    Setting the scene
Although Steven Mitchell grew up in Orlando, Fla., he can't remember ever wanting to work for Disney World as a child, nor can he even recall how many times he actually visited the theme park.

"It was just there-I imagine if you grew up near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, you wouldn't go to it every week," Mitchell explained, leaning back in his chair in thought.  "But I suppose it was always there that I should work for them."

Work for them, he did. Though Mitchell-known to William & Mary's theatre department as "Mitch" due to an abundance of "Steves"-now works as the College's Scenic Designer and teaches courses, his resume details a list of companies he's worked for that would fulfill anyone's childhood fantasies.

After studying set design at the University of South Florida: Tampa (he later received a graduate degree from California Institute of the Arts at Valencia), Mitchell worked for Disneyland in California on float designs and live theme park shows.  His work appeared in spectacles like the Mickey Mania and Aladdin parades, as well as the Duke Ellington Review.  It was also at Disney that he worked with a familiar, frilly icon.

"Disney had leased the rights to Mattel's Barbie and wanted to produce a live stage show," said Mitchell.  "It was funny because everyone would argue over if we were getting the Barbie pink just right.  Her car and her shoes had to be perfect.  We had to consider things like how Mickey and Minnie would appear next to Barbie, and how she couldn't be represented too promiscuously.  There was a lot of concern over what she was wearing, and a lot of fights."

Since Mitchell worked for Disneyland's Live Entertainment department, he worked on the original Imagineering campus with the designers, architects and engineers who internally designed rides and shows for the parks.  The facility had two cafeterias, a bowling alley and an enormous bookstore.

"It was two years of getting paid a lot of money to just come up with crazy ideas," Mitchell said.

From California, he traveled back east to New York City, and worked primarily on planning sketches and shows for corporate events.  Pharmaceuticals and car companies, as well as giants like Home Depot, wanted elaborate shows to roll out a new product or boost company morale, and set designers were the primary providers.  Xerox alone spent $10 million dollars on an event in Germany that Mitchell worked on, he said.

"They would rent out the Sheraton Ballroom in Vegas or a hotel in New Orleans to put on a huge stage show for their new product or drug," Mitchell explained.  "And they would spend millions, literally millions on a [product] roll out.  One company even hired Cirque De Soleil to come down from the ceiling, dancers and a full orchestra."

Mitchell also worked for Nickelodeon for a year and a half as they started their studios and helped art direct shows like "Clarissa Explains it All," and the opening of the Slime Geyser out in front of the studio.   Before coming to Williamsburg, he moved back and forth between the east and the west coasts several times, and bounced between Disney, Nickelodeon and Universal Studios.  Teaching had crossed his mind before, but it wasn't until late last year that Mitchell decided to take the plunge.

"It wasn't really a natural progression, but rather a last-minute decision," he said.  "I was down in Florida and was not really interested in continuing to work in the theater where I was. I was interested in teaching so I began to look around for something I might be able to do, and on a whim I called [the College's theatre department] and asked if the position had been filled."

He describes teaching as being "challenging" and "completely different" from the work he's done in the past, but he enjoys working with his students. Wearing his professor hat, he teaches scene painting and fundamentals of design.

His time at William & Mary, however, has stretched and challenged his creativity and ingenuity in unexpected ways, he said.  Mitchell said his greatest obstacles are those that he encounters while trying to design for the College's theatre productions on a budget.  He subscribes to the mantra of "beg, borrow, steal" in constructing and designing the sets.  Many of them are the product of materials that have been reused several times over, and he tries to minimize the amount of actual construction.

"It's amazing how quickly you spend money now that materials are so expensive," he said.  "It used to be that $25 would buy you a really nice gallon of paint... but now $25 buys you a really cheap, bad grade of paint.  You have to go up to about $40 or $45 a gallon."

With a huge stage and full backdrops to paint, it's easy to see why crunching numbers and stretching supplies has become an even more important aspect of his job.  His goal both for the October production of "Damn Yankees" and his most recent project, Chekov's "The Seagull" is, in his own words, "To come up with as many different looks as possible for almost no money."

Mitchell  designed four different looks for "The Seagull," all the while trying to convey a sense of locale and not overwhelming the play with scenery. 

"There are a million ways to design a set," he explained.  "Sometimes it depends on the director's vision, the limitations of the space, and budget and materials, or even how you interpret the intention of the script.  It varies from designer to designer."

Even though Mitchell's current job involves teaching and working with young adults, he still finds himself under the spell of the same enchanting world of children's entertainment.  If he one day grows restless of teaching, he has a clear vision of what path he might take.

"I'm drawn to the more exaggerated, light, popular entertainment-that's just how I am, and that's probably where I'll end up," he said.  "If I don't stay teaching, I'll probably work at a children's theater or back at Disney or Universal.  For all of the downsides of working for a big corporation, you still get to do fun stuff.  You get to play with a lot of big toys!"