Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Matthew Imhoff is a 2008 Craig graduate who now lives in New York City and works as a director, scenic and lighting designer with professional, regional, educational and off-Broadway companies.
Imhoff graduated from Luther College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in music and theater, and he earned a Master of Fine Arts in production design from Michigan State University in 2015. He is an adjunct faculty member at The City University of New York—Queensborough College and is director of musicals at Craig High School in Janesville.
The New York Times has described Imhoff’s work as “beautifully designed (and) dreamily evocative.”
To learn more about Matthew Imhoff, visit Matthew Imhoff. Viewbook.com.
1. What initially drew you to the theater? The only limitation to theater is your imagination, and that canvas of limitless possibility is what attracted me.
2. When you were a kid, what did you hope to become when you grew up? A ringmaster. I was a big fan of the circus. I think I dressed up as one for Halloween one year. I don’t think that job exists anymore.
3. Along with your fine arts degree in production design, you have degrees in theater and music. When it comes to theater, is there anything you can’t do? I’ve done just about every job in the theater. I’ve sewn corsets and curtains and played in orchestras. Even though I don’t intend to do those jobs again, it’s good to have an idea of how those individuals function and the work that goes into their crafts. I’ve never done sound design, and the technology behind that seems so daunting that I’ll leave that to the professionals.
4. People would be surprised to find out that I: Can probably quote most of the episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” or “The Office.”
5. What is your favorite board game? It’s not a board game, but I’m a big fan of Uno. Harry Potter Uno, to be specific.
6. You’ve used CAD (computer-aided design) technology to produce your theater designs. What benefits are there to using this program as opposed to manual design? The benefit to CAD drafting is that when a change occurs to the design (as it inevitably does), the time to make that change in the computer program is much shorter than if you had to redraw every blueprint long hand. Drafting by hand does have a sense of artistry and “soul” that the computer has yet to replicate.
7. If you imagine a grandiose design at the onset of a production and just can’t make it happen, does that ruin the experience for you, or can you adapt and be happy with a lesser vision? When I design, I often have maybe a dozen different ideas of what the set could be. Sometimes the director and I settle on my favorite; sometimes we move to a route that I wouldn’t have gone by myself. I have a sketchbook full of unproduced ideas that were rejected for one reason or another, and when I’m stuck on a design, sometimes this notebook helps inspire me, or I can take an old idea and find new life for it. I try not to get hung up on what could have been, but in finding the right design for a particular show with a specific group of collaborators and getting excited about what we’re creating.
8. What has been your favorite venue in which to work, and why? My first professional show in New York City was Carnegie Hall’s revival of “West Side Story.” It was produced in an old warehouse, and the combination of that building’s history with that musical made for a wonderful night of theater. It had more than its fair share of complications, but finding logistical and artistic solutions to those was also rewarding.
9. What was your first car? A 1992 red Cavalier convertible. I was in college at the time, and I remember getting out of class in the spring and grabbing a few friends and driving around the countryside of Iowa. I was sad when I ultimately had to sell it for a more appropriate, year-round vehicle.
10. What is the most elaborate, challenging production you’ve ever worked on? My thesis show in graduate school was “Carrie: The Musical,” and that contained several phases of automation. We had a few lifts (like you see at The Fireside in Fort Atkinson) as well as a set of bleachers that moved around on tracks set in the stage. Everything was timed to the music, and the planning that the director and I went through in coordinating that was a huge undertaking.
11. Have you ever met anyone famous? Living in New York, you’ll see quite a few famous people on the street if you’re aware of your surroundings—and I usually am. Most recently, I ran past Harvey Fierstein (who wrote “Newsies” and also starred in “Hairspray”). I had a great conversation with him, and he was very personable and genuinely interested in my experience as a young theater creator. His personality is just as large in person as it is on stage.
12. What is the most common mistake production design professionals make, and what is the worst mistake one could make? In my opinion, the most common mistake designers make is overcommitting. I’m surprised by how many meetings or rehearsals I’m at where people are absent because they’re on another show. While part of that is the reality of freelance theater work, for me it’s crucial to be invested and present with the show at hand. The worst mistake a designer can make is limiting his or her design to what he or she perceives the limitations to be. If you have an idea, find the people to help you execute it and come up with solutions to your ideas. Technology comes out of such innovative thinking.
13. Do you have any acting experience? If so, are you more comfortable in front of the audience or behind the curtain? From elementary school through high school, I acted in every show I could. At the time, I thought that if there were a future for me in the theater, it would be as an actor. Nowadays, I cannot imagine being onstage, and I have no idea how I managed to memorize lines and cope with nervousness like actors must. Being around the theater at a young age definitely paved the way for my career.
14. If someone else paid for the experience, would you jump out of an airplane? I try to say “yes” to things rather than finding a reason out of it. As long as they’re paying for the parachute, too, I’d be down. They might have to give me a push out, though.
15. Is production design one of those things that, if done well, goes unrecognized, or is it important theater patrons notice it? As an artist, I am always flattered when someone notices and appreciates my work. The design of a show should always be in support of the story, and I am always careful not to overshadow that. I do think it’s important for audiences be aware to how the set changes over the course of a show, as often those changes are deliberate and underscore and enhance an important part of the story or themes.
16. Do you speak any languages besides English? If not, have you ever wanted to learn a particular language, or at least made the attempt? In high school and college, I took Spanish classes. As a singer in college, I also sang in quite a few foreign languages (French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian) and so I know the mechanics and sounds of those languages, as well as specific translations for songs, but I’m far from fluent. American Sign Language is next on my list of languages to tackle.
17. When I was in high school, stage productions involved donated clothes and hand-painted backdrops. How are today’s students able to put on such high-quality productions? We are fortunate to live in a city that supports its high school performing arts programs and has talented teachers who spend a huge amount of time outside of the school day working with the students to put on these high-quality productions. I also think the kids themselves are really driven to put on wonderful shows, and when students are motivated, the possibilities are endless.
18. Do you collect anything? I haven’t actively collected anything (other than books) in a few years since NYC apartments are so small. I do have a large collection of Christmas nutcrackers in boxes in my parents’ basement.
19. In theater, all five senses are critical. Which of your five senses would you say is strongest? I would say the sixth sense is the strongest, the ability to feel. Theater isn’t about what happens with grand sets or lavish costumes, but what happens in the audiences’ minds and hearts.
20. You grew up in Janesville but now are based in New York City. What do you miss most about Janesville when you’re in the Big Apple, and vice versa? I definitely miss my family when I’m in the city, but the Big Apple has yet to catch on to the joy of a deep-fried cheese curd the way we have in Wisconsin. When I’m in Janesville, I miss not being able to walk or catch a train to where I need to be.