Julie Ray helps prepare students in the department of theatre and film studies for careers designing sets for live theatre as well as for Georgia’s booming television and film industries.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I took my first theatre class as a sophomore in college, and that’s where my theatrical design path started. Two majors and three schools later, I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre and design from the California Institute of the Arts. I took a year off between my undergraduate and graduate training, and then attended the University of California, Irvine, where I earned my Master of Fine Arts in theatre and design.
In the fall I’ll be associate professor of scenic design in the department of theatre and film studies, which is part of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. I teach all aspects of set design for live theatre and also the film and television industries. In addition, I design sets for our department productions and mentor student designers at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I was on the faculty for 11 years at the University of Pittsburgh before starting here at UGA in the fall of 2013. What brought me to UGA was the opportunity for career advancement, to teach at the graduate level, and the proximity to Atlanta and the booming film industry, which is where I do most of my professional design work. I also enjoy the fact that I no longer need to shovel snow off the driveway during the winter months!
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite course to teach is the graduate-level scenic design class. This is a small, intimate class setting where we really dive into the nitty-gritty of what it means to design scenery. The students engage in all of the various skill sets involved in this field, such as drawing, drafting, painting and model making. They also practice taking the written script and translating it into visuals, creating a stage environment that functions well for the director and actors. My second favorite class to teach is “Scene Painting.” You have to love to getting your hands dirty in this class! This is where students learn to paint backdrops and the various techniques involved in painting for the stage. My other favorite course is the newly developed “Design for Film” class, which explores how a feature film art department functions, the various jobs that are involved, and how the look of a film is created.
What interests you about your field?
I made the switch to theatre after being a fine artist because I love the 3-D aspects of it. I like how my designs are engaged with by performers—they’re sculptural, dynamic and only one part of a whole theatrical design. Being a set designer is fantastic in that I get to play at being an architect, an interior designer, a landscape designer, a painter and a sculptor. I have the opportunity to design environments that are unrealistic, or old and distressed. I get to play architectural historian depending on the time/setting of the play being produced, or dream up fantastic futuristic settings. Theatre doesn’t confine me to realistic designs. When I’m designing for a television show or film, it’s a similar story-telling process, but with a larger team of people, and much larger budgets.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
Since coming to UGA, I’ve definitely enjoyed teaching design as it relates to the film and television industries. Film production in Georgia is now ranked third in the nation next to Los Angeles and New York, and teaching students how to design for this field is very exciting. Last spring, I worked on a new Netflix series called “Mindhunter,” produced and directed by David Fincher. I’ve also designed three shows for the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, a broadcast studio for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a frat house for “Neighbors 2.
I’m also very proud of creating a student chapter of USITT (United States Institute of Theatre Technology). This group is educating and energizing students interested in all of the various design and tech fields in the entertainment industries. They’re fundraising, attending annual conferences and winning awards, and reaching out to theatre students in local high schools who are interested in design and technical fields.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
My version of research is working professionally in my field, and I’ve had some wonderful design opportunities the past few years. When designing either for theatre or film, that work experience enables me to bring my design process back to the classroom to share with my students. I often am able to take them to visit the places I’m working so they can see and talk with professionals. When I’m working professionally on a television show or film, that enables me to see what the latest working practices are in the “biz,” and to bring that information back to my students.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
In my classroom, I want my students to feel welcomed and safe—safe enough to do the work of exploring and designing. Designing can make one feel very vulnerable, especially when hundreds or thousands of people might be staring at your work. I want my students to feel safe enough to explore, to create, to feel vulnerable and mess up and make mistakes, and then do it all again. I also want them to develop their personal design aesthetic while continually honing their craft.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is an engaged student who is eager, hard-working and curious. Willing to try new things, ask questions, and explore new ideas and concepts, my ideal student works hard at their personal growth and pushing themselves to be the best they can be.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is:
The Jittery Joe’s in the Miller Learning Center is my favorite morning stop! I really enjoy observing, whether it’s people watching and enjoying the vibe on campus or seeing our theatre shows, or walking through the art galleries. I still have a lot of exploring to do on campus, that’s for sure!
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to:
I have a son who’s going to be a senior in high school next year, so I’m spending as much time with him as he’ll allow;) I also enjoy seeing movies and theatre (shocking!), antiquing, reading, book stores : and spoiling my dog. Having never lived in the South before, I’m exploring the area when and where I can, and I’m hoping to get to Savannah soon!
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
One of my favorite films is Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” The visuals created in that film, and how it portrayed the future, are visually riveting. I’m really looking forward to “Blade Runner 2049,” which is currently in post-production.
Proudest moment at UGA?
Seeing my first graduate student walk across the stage to get her diploma! Also, when President Morehead came by to take a gander at my set design for “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
You can see my work at my website, www.jraydesign.com.