G. “Max” Maxin IV (MFA Design ’12) was scheduled to return to Michigan State University as a guest scenic designer for the Department of Theatre’s production of 9 to 5: The Musical that was slated to open in February 2021, but when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theatres and most of the department’s productions, the Dolly Parton musical based on the 1980 movie of the same name was put on hold indefinitely.
Maxin’s role as a guest artist shifted its focus to portfolio reviews for BFA and MFA Design students, an element of the curriculum he also benefitted from during his time as a graduate student. The portfolio reviews, which involved one-on-one critiques of student-built websites, were conducted safely via Zoom video conferencing.
Maxin, who currently works as a full-time instructor at Northeastern Illinois University and resident lighting designer at Stage Center Theatre, says the main thing he looks for in a design portfolio is the personality of the designer themselves.
“I really strive to help designers find themselves in what they’re doing,” Maxin said, “which is exactly what I took away from my experience at Michigan State. The faculty here helped me get a grip on who I am and how I should present myself to the world.”
I really strive to help designers find themselves in what they’re doing, which is exactly what I took away from my experience at Michigan State. The faculty here helped me get a grip on who I am and how I should present myself to the world.G. “Max” Maxin IV
According to Maxin, in the theatre industry’s “gig economy,” it’s easier to get a job than to be brought back for another, so a portfolio should showcase all aspects of the designer as an artist and a colleague.
“When I’m hiring, I can very quickly tell who’s qualified for a job,” Maxin said. “The thing that I’m really looking for is how well they’ll work as a team.”
For freshman BFA Design major Alaina Guttierez, the experience helped them realize the importance of telling the story of the design, not just the finished product.
“I’ve presented my work in other settings before, but I’d never analyzed how I was presenting myself,” Guttierez said. “Max helped me realize that the work that I take the most pride in are the designs where I worked as part of a team and we overcame obstacles.”
Maxin and the students explained that Michigan State’s Theatre Design program is structured to provide practical training in multiple areas of design, rather than to silo students into one area of focus; a fact that was a strong selling point for each student when choosing to attend this school.
I’ve presented my work in other settings before, but I’d never analyzed how I was presenting myself. Max helped me realize that the work that I take the most pride in are the designs where I worked as part of a team and we overcame obstacles.Alaina Guttierez, freshman BFA Design major
“Other programs that I interviewed with wanted me to fit their mold,” said Mona Jahani, a first-year MFA Design candidate. “At Michigan State, it’s not about being this cookie-cutter version of a designer. The professors here want to make you the best version of you. They’ve really given me the guidance and support I needed to follow my passions and pursue my interests.”
Fellow first-year MFA Design candidate Nick Casella agrees, “I love that the program specifically focuses on training teachers and the whole idea of having a secondary design focus. The flexibility will give me a good understanding and foundation for all areas of design.”
Second-year MFA Design candidate Zech Saenz found affirmation in speaking to Maxin. “Max helped me to feel more comfortable focusing on multiple types of design,” he said. “It’s okay, in the real world, to do multiple things, because doing multiple things is what’s going to help you make a living. I really appreciated that feedback.”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has stolen a lot of the traditional design work that would have come their way, students say their education and portfolios have continued to expand in new and unexpected ways.
The faculty have bent over backwards trying to do whatever they can to give us opportunities inside of the boxes of quarantine and COVID-19. Ultimately, I think some of my best work has come out of this year.Grace Foiles, third-year MFA Design candidate
“I felt a lot of pressure at the start of this year because it’s my last year in the program and I was really worried that my portfolio wouldn’t be what I wanted it to be leaving here,” said third-year MFA Design candidate Grace Foiles. “Some of the best advice I got from Max was to put my conceptual work in the portfolio, the stuff that I’ve been doing in class, or the stuff that I wanted to do for fun, as a way to show people who I am as a designer. The faculty have bent over backward trying to do whatever they can to give us opportunities inside of the boxes of quarantine and COVID-19. Ultimately, I think some of my best work has come out of this year.”
Second year MFA Media Design candidate Rose Legge agrees, saying “I have been pushed by faculty and staff this year to try to redefine what theatre is. So often, we as theatrical professionals, define theater as an actor/audience experience. But what does theater look like when you don’t have either of those? I am very grateful that despite all the restrictions that came with this year that we were still able to create as artists. I think that’s probably the biggest strength of theater overall.”
Though the students learned a lot from their portfolio reviews, Maxin says the best part is how much he learned from getting to know the students and hopes to return as a guest scenic designer when it is safe to do so and meet the students in-person.