Pew Fellowship an Honor and Opportunity for Theater Professor Matt Saunders

By Ryan Dougherty
Matt Saunders

Saunders (right) teaches courses such as set design and integrated media design and creates sets for Department of Theater productions.

This summer, Matt Saunders was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for 2014. One of 12 recipients and the only one from the field of theater, Saunders receives a $60,000 stipend and professional development opportunities. But the real perk is joining a club he has long revered.

“Throughout my career as a theater artist, some of my greatest influences and mentors have been Pew Fellows,” says the assistant professor of design and resident set designer for the Department of Theater. “To now be included among them is … well … I feel pride, intimidation, and humility. I also feel charged, inspired, and eager to work.”

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage describes Saunders as “an emerging, experimental performance artist” who develops inventive, critically acclaimed set designs for major venues; shapes the artistic direction of modern and classic plays; and devises theater, opera and dance.

“I grapple with the question of how do designs ‘mean,’ which is different from how they may convey meaning,” Saunders says. “I am trying to evoke rather than represent.”

Winning the fellowship both elated and surprised Saunders, who expected the honor to go to a more established artist. But one thing that set him apart is a background in both acting and design.

“My sensibility as a performer has greatly informed my work as a designer,” he says. “I create scenic environments that hopefully aren’t just ‘sets.’ They are active and communicate ideas and story, much like performers do.”

Also key was Saunders’ pedigree in devised and experimental theater. His experiences as a co-founding member of New Paradise Laboratories (NPL) and long-time collaborator of the Pig Iron Theatre Company and the Headlong Dance Theater informed recent forays into more traditional productions.

“Experimental work that pushes boundaries offers a unique perspective and approach to the classics,” he says.

While Saunders is known as a designer, he views the two-year fellowship as a chance to explore other realms.

“I have serious directing impulses,” he says, “and a desire to synthesize my experiences as a performer and designer into the creation of a theater piece of my own devising.”

In addition to the stipend, the fellowship offers various means of support. Among them are residencies, personal retreats, and international travel opportunities.

“It’s fantastic,” says Saunders. “An opportunity for a bit of much-needed reflection.”

The fellowship follows significant acclaim for Saunders’ work from around the world. His design for NPL’s Fatebook was selected to represent American set design at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial, and, more recently, his work on The Good Person of Szechuan and The Tempest at New York City’s Public Theater drew raves.

Since joining the Swarthmore faculty three years ago, Saunders has taught courses on set design and integrated media design and created sets for Department of Theater productions. He lauds the creative spirit within the department, citing the Swarthmore Project in Theater in particular as an “incubation vehicle” for cutting-edge artists.

NPL joined those ranks with a residence in the Frear Ensemble Theater in June, building a devised piece called The Adults. The company used its time with the Swarthmore Project to begin the process of writing and composing the piece - on the spot.

“It’s putting the raw material into a context or framework,” Saunders says. “It was very time-consuming, but very exciting and productive.”