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Theater design professor creates worlds inside worlds

Black Friday marked the official start of the Christmas shopping season, but its arrival comes weeks after stores of all sorts transformed part of their spaces into junior-grade North Pole workshops.

Portable walls of red and green, Santa Claus castles, pre-lit Christmas trees and miles of gold and silver tinsel combine to bring joy to the hearts of shoppers – and to open their pocketbooks.

It’s a holly jolly facade that Terrence McClellan knows well.

As a scenic designer of “environments” for not only the legitimate theater but also for corporate communications, McClellan has spent his career traveling the United States and abroad to create the backdrops for everything from actors and rock stars to Fortune 500 executives and the products they hope to sell.

“At my age, not being bored is one of my goals, and this is a good way not to be bored. And I get to travel,” McClellan said in a news release. “One of the fun things about being a freelance designer is looking for work, and I don’t have to do that anymore, which is kind of sad. I used to go through the phone book, category by category, looking for opportunities that matched my skill set. It was frightening and exciting.”

Now McClellan teaches his craft to Northern Illinois University students while, like many of his colleagues in the School of Theatre and Dance, keeping his feet firmly in the business.

His students learn how the real world works; in one classroom exercise, they are required to design three scenic environments for three different events – a rock concert, a political event and a new product introduction, for example – that take place over three days on the same stage.

For third-year students, it gets even more real: they accompany him on gigs.

“I really like working with students,” McClellan said. “I tell them, ‘You’re not wasting your life here. You can keep doing this for the rest of your life. It’s a career, not a job, and you’re being well trained for that.’ ”

McClellan has a company with his wife, artist Kathleen Smigielski, called Scenographix Ltd., Between the two are nearly 1,000 projects ranging from design of theatrical scenery and lights and tradeshow booths to illustration of space and special objects.

He continues to meet face-to-face with his clients, who for the past seven years have included the Ford Motor Co., and simply asks them to talk about their products.

“I get their take on how high-end it is. How elegant. How wonderful. I listen to the words they use,” he said. “It’s a pretty strenuous life. There are lots of deadlines. You draw up stuff, and they have to like it. You lay yourself on the line every couple weeks. Sometimes you’re designing for committees, and that’s just dreadful.”

McClellan had teaching jobs before NIU, at the State University of New York at Brockport and at the University of Iowa, but lacked confidence that he was providing a good education.

“I didn’t know if I knew what I was talking about,” he said. “Now I know. This industry is out there – entertainment and corporate communications – and it’s huge.”

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