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USF Theatre Hosts World Premiere of Oliver Smith Theatrical Designs Exhibition

The Designs of Oliver Smith

Theatre lovers, especially those drawn to the artistry of set designs, renderings and the architectural prowess of those designers, will truly appreciate the current exhibition at TheatreUSF on the Tampa campus. They are hosting the world premiere of the theatrical designs of Oliver Smith (1918-1994).  In the pantheon of 20th century American scenic designers, Oliver Smith is unmatched for his breadth of work in theatre, dance and opera. During his legendary career, he was honored with eight Tony Awards, including two in the same year (1961) for Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Camelot) and Best Scenic Design of a Play (Becket).

Smith’s Broadway set designs began in the era when settings were primarily painted backdrops and spanned the period that featured more unit settings.  While a consummate artist in the “painterly” tradition, Smith had a keen sense of stage space and anticipated the contemporary emphasis on architectural design. This new exhibit offers rare insight into a prolific master scenographer with rarely seen examples of Smith’s extraordinary range, from the backdrop elevations for On the Town (1944), High Button Shoes (1947) and Swan Lake (1967) to the Diazo print drafting of the fire escapes in West Side Story (1957). 

During his illustrious career, Smith created scenic designs for many iconic American musicals including My Fair LadyHello, Dolly!OklahomaBrigadoon, Sound of Music and more than sixty others.  He was co-producer with Lucia Chase for forty years at the American Ballet Theater, where he collaborated with Agnes de Mille (Rodeo), and Jerome Jerome Robbins (Fancy Free). 

This exhibit features the iconic Corral Scene from Rodeo (1942), with uniquely styled horsetail clouds that are Smith’s signature flourish and appear in renderings of scenes in the Midwest.  Dance companies still perform the piece around the world, always with Oliver Smith’s decor. 

Co-curated by Dr. Patrick Finelli (USF) and Dan Carter (Penn State), the exhibit will go on a short tour before the art works take up permanent residence at Pennsylvania State University where Smith studied architecture as an undergraduate.  

Since most theatre designs are working drawings to help the director, designer and scene shops to visualize the production and are often cast aside when the show opens, Finelli says, “We are fortunate to have this unique selection of giclée prints to examine in this exhibit.  Although full-scale production on the stage is the ultimate objective, many designers’ renderings, including those produced by Oliver Smith, are works of art worthy of exhibition in a gallery or museum, providing the opportunity to learn and enjoy.  It also gives us a nostalgic look at stage design in the pre-computer era.” 

Dr. Patrick Finelli is a professor in the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Florida and has written extensively on scenography and the Oliver Smith archive.  This project was partially funded with a grant from USF’s College of The Arts, and major support from the Penn State Department of Theatre and private donations.