UNCSA Design and Production students honored at prestigious industry events

Several students from the School of Design and Production (D&P) at UNCSA have received accolades in recent days. Five students were honored at the 64th USITT Annual Conference & Stage Expo, held March 20-23 in Seattle. They are:

  • Scene designer Nathan Bowden of Santa Ana, California, winner of The Richard Hay Undergraduate Scene Design Award.
  • Costume designer Maki Niikura of Monument, Colorado, and scene designer Nikolas Serrano of Loxahatchee, Florida, among only 12 artists from across the country selected to present in the Emerging Creatives Showcase.
  • Stage manager Alex Magallanes of Marietta, Georgia, and sound designer Abi Senthil of Matthews, North Carolina, selected as members of the Gateway Program’s 10th anniversary cohort.

All are fourth-year undergraduate students and candidates for graduation in May. USITT stands for United States Institute for Theatre Technology, an organization that connects performing arts design and technology communities to ensure a vibrant dialogue among practitioners, educators and students.

USITT 2024

USITT 2024

In addition, a former D&P guest faculty member, Rachel Keebler, was presented with the USITT Award, the highest honor given by the organization, which recognizes a lifetime of distinguished contributions to the performing arts or entertainment communities in any capacity. Keebler was accepted, through the practical exam, into United Scenic Artists 829 while she was teaching at UNCSA in 1981. She and D&P Faculty Emeritus Howard Jones founded Cobalt Studios in 1988.

In other D&P news, two undergraduate Design & Production lighting studentsStephen Smart of Hermitage, Tennessee, and Dominick Riches of Winston-Salem – were selected for the Annual Hemsley Lighting Portfolio Review Exhibit in New York at Ballet Hispanico Studios, on April 7.

“Every year, we look forward to the spring semester when many of our talented students are recognized at these prestigious industry events,” said Design and Production Dean Michael J. Kelley, who attended the USITT conference in Seattle and is himself is an alumnus of UNCSA. “For one, USITT is a rite of passage for future professionals in the global arts and entertainment industry and continues to be the go-to for training and innovation throughout your career.

“Having our students selected for these honors not only speaks highly of their talent and passion for their craft, but also of the career experience and expertise of our distinguished faculty and their devotion to their students. Congratulations to everyone involved. Well done!”

Nathan Bowden was The Richard Hay Undergraduate Scene Design Award winner in the Young Designers, Managers, & Technicians (YDMT) Awards competition. At UNCSA, he has developed a variety of artistic skills. Recipient of the Kenan Excellence Scholarship, the university’s most prestigious scholarship program, Bowden said his professional goals are to apply his theater work to themed entertainment and to be a part of designing elaborate immersive experiences.

Nathan Bowden

Nathan Bowden

“I am thrilled and honored to be recognized for my dedication and passion for scene design,” he wrote. “This award, and my achievements in scene design, would not have been possible without the guidance of my incredibly inspiring mentors and colleagues who have supported me throughout my artistic and academic journey. The collaborative spirit of theater has helped shape me as an artist and human being, and I look forward to continuing my pursuit in this ever-inspiring field and industry.”

The YDMT Awards bring recognition and support to young designers, managers and technicians at the beginning of their careers.

Maki Niikura and Nikolas Serrano were among only 12 artists – and two of only five undergraduates – from across the country selected to present in the Emerging Creatives Showcase. To be chosen, nominees had to submit boards of work from three productions they designed – at least one of which had to be a realized production – and the process included with those designs. They were also able to display their creations at individual booths at USITT. 

"I submitted my costume design of UNCSA's productions of 'Sweeney Todd," "Enron" and a theoretical class design of Euripides' 'Medea,'" Niikura said. 

Maki Niikura at USITT 2024

Maki Niikura at USITT 2024

"It was such an honor to be able to share my work with those at USITT, receive feedback and critiques, and connect not only with my fellow students and creatives, but also with companies, designers and educators from other schools," they continued. "I was able to speak about the passion I have for my work and my collaboration with others within my production team. I was also able to hand out quite a few resumes and almost all of the 200 business cards I brought with me!"

Serrano said, “The three productions I submitted were UNCSA's productions of 'Maria di Rohan' (spring 2024) (and) ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ (spring 2023), and a project from (the late) Eduardo Sicangco's scene design class, which was a design of an opera titled 'Bluebeard's Castle.' For all of these productions I served as the scenic designer.”

Serrano said his display included large-scale photos of the productions, as well as some sketches, drafting and scale model building work. “This gave me a chance to show off my work as well as my process of how I get to the final products on stage,” Serrano said. “I stood at my booth for a few hours each day and received feedback from so many people that I was able to connect with. I gave out a lot of resumes and business cards.”

Nikolas Serrano at USITT 2024

Nikolas Serrano at USITT 2024

Formerly the "Young Designers & Technicians Forum," the Emerging Creatives Showcase brings together talented students with established designers and directors for a review and discussion of the student's work. Participation is by juried selection only. The cohort for this year's exhibition featured Hispanic and Indigenous designers and technicians, allowing USITT to showcase emerging talent that has, for the most part, been left unfeatured in past exhibitions of rising talent.

Niikura said they are Hispanic (Mexican) and also a first-generation Japanese American. Serrano also said he is Hispanic – a first-generation Cuban American as well as Puerto Rican. 

Alex Magallanes and Abi Senthil were selected as members of the Gateway Program’s 10th anniversary cohort.

“I was paired with a mentor who was absolutely wonderful and incredibly supportive in guiding me through my first conference,” Magallanes said. “I got to meet all of the other wonderful mentees and mentors. We spent a beautiful week together, lifting each other up, and seeing all that USITT had to offer. … I am deeply grateful to all that have touched the program and look forward to the day when I’ll be able to support as a mentor!”

Design and Production student Alex Magallanes at USITT 2024.

Design and Production student Alex Magallanes at USITT 2024.

The Gateway Program was launched in 2014 in memory of Tayneshia Jefferson, who fought for underrepresented populations in the industry. This unique mentorship program allows an individual to work with a mentor to tailor their learning goals and career development while attending the conference with the financial support of USITT. In addition, it offers a vast network of industry professionals for mentees to engage with during their time at USITT and beyond. 

Stephen Smart and Dominick Riches were selected for the Annual Hemsley Lighting Portfolio Review Exhibit in New York. The exhibit features the work of 33 graduating lighting students from design programs all across the country who display their work following a daylong review by professional designers, directors and production personnel.

For more than three decades, the Hemsley Lighting Programs – named for the late Gilbert V. Hemsley Jr. – have been helping current students and recent graduates bridge the divide between the educational and the professional worlds. The annual review is designed to give students the chance to get tips from as well as networking opportunities with today’s working professionals.


USITT was founded in 1960 as an organization to promote dialogue, research and learning among practitioners of theater design and technology. Today it has grown to include members at all levels of their careers and has embraced the new technologies being used in entertainment. USITT is now the leader in lifelong learning opportunities for the entertainment design and technology industry.

About the School of Design and Production

A stand-alone design and production conservatory dedicated to every aspect of modern stagecraft, the School of Design and Production delivers a profoundly creative, hands-on immersion in the behind-the-scenes magic of live theater, with undergraduate and/or graduate concentrations in animatronicscostume design, costume technologylightingproduction and project managementscene designscene paintingscenic artscenic technology, sound designstage automationstage managementstage propertiestechnical direction, and wig and makeup design. The School of Design & Production is the only one of its kind as a conservatory that is not integrated into a theater program, giving students and alumni the opportunity to transition into other career fields like film, television, and live and themed entertainment. 

Alumni have won or been nominated for major awards in the arts and entertainment industry, including the Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Critics’ Choice, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, and Helen Hayes awards. Notable alumni include Tony and Emmy Award-winning costume designer Paul Tazewell, TV and film executive producer Tanase Popa, photographer David LaChapelle, actress Hunter Schafer, wig and makeup artist Destinee Steele, SpaceX environmental health and safety engineer Randy Rees and many others.

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April 02, 2024