In the tradition of Homecoming, the College of Fine Art's honors their alumni for excellence in their field. Kevin Abbott, Interactive Media Specialist with the Office of Information Technology at Western Michigan University, is the recipient of the 2018 Art Educators Award.
After earning his undergraduate degree in Theatre from WMU in 1991, Abbott spent several years working as a 3D artist and art director in video game industry. He also worked as an interactive media developer, while also running a consulting company teaching people how to use 3D computer graphics for theatre design applications.
One of the earliest adopters of computer-based tools for theatre design, Abbott joined WMU’s staff in 1997. Soon after, he began integrating computer animation and projected imagery with live theatre productions, beginning with The Nightingale and Return to the Forbidden Planet in 1998. In the 20 years since, Abbott has integrated technology into over 30 theatre, dance and music performances, including the award-winning dance “The End”, the hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and the groundbreaking Dr. Faustus featuring live motion capture.
An accomplished designer, artist and technologist, Kevin has worked with myriad of media technologies, including animation, stereoscopic projections, motion capture, and video games. Kevin is currently working as the co-founder and co-director of the WMU Virtual Reality Lab, and is the Director of the Virtual Reality Development Studio, and is currently developing VR content for nursing, theatre, and teaching applications.
Get to know more about Kevin Abbott in his interview with the Fine Print:
What was your theatre experience before WMU?
Before WMU my theatre experience was one year of theatre (and dance) at Jenison HS, plus one show at Circle Theatre in Grand Rapids. My HS drama teacher was a WMU grad and recommended the program to me.
Let's look back at your college experience. Who was your favorite instructor at WMU? How did they shape your career and contribute to your success?
My favorite instructor was Greg Roehrick. I didn’t even know I anything about design before I met Greg. Greg taught me everything - how to be a designer, how to be a good collaborator, how to handle politics, and how to demand the best work from yourself over and over. We became the closest of friends and my children knew him as “Uncle Greg”. He was a great teacher and invaluable mentor.
What is your favorite memory from your time in WMU's theatre program?
There are two. One was being part of the crew that took Quilters to the Kennedy Center, two was being the scenic designer for WMU’s production of The Sea Gull.
How did you find your way back to WMU for your career?
I found my way back through Greg Roehrick. They had just built the design lab in the Gilmore Theatre Complex and needed someone to run it and a few other design labs on campus. I had to choose between a job as an artist with a video game company and coming back to WMU. I came back figuring I would only be here a few years, but the work, environment and people have kept me here for 20+ years.
What tips would you give to current students and graduating seniors as they prepare to enter the "real world?"
The main advice I give is...1) Follow your nose and allow yourself to pursue what truly interests you, no matter what your background is, and 2) Who you work with is just as important as the job itself. A “dream job” working with people you don’t get along with can be a nightmare, while an imperfect job with great colleagues can be pretty amazing.
You've accomplished so much in your career. What are you most proud of?
As far as shows are concerned, for Theatre I’m most proud of Return to the Forbidden Planet, Jeremy Thatcher, Dr. Faustus, and Jesus Christ Superstar. For dance it would be “Aheym”, “Jinsha” and “Rapture”.
I’m also really proud of the fact that I have built a career by being a positive collaborator who attempts to approach every project as honestly as possible. My work involves a fair amount of risk due to the technology we use, and it’s gratifying that my colleagues trust me as an artist who always tries to put the best interests of the production first.
Finally, I’m really proud of the work my current students are doing right now in our new VR Lab and VR Development studio.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
Few of my days seem typical! On any given day I am designing a show or virtual reality content, working with my student employees to make 3D models, write code and create visual designs, teaching a class, meeting with faculty to develop new projects, and hopefully finding a little time to be hands-on with the technology myself - that’s still my favorite thing!
What is your favorite part of your job?
The favorite part of my job is taking a project - whether a show or a new VR project - and bringing it to life with a team of students. There’s nothing like the process of making something from the ground up, and nothing teaches us like actual real work does. Every production and product presents its own set of fresh challenges, and I love the process of fighting through them to find the art and use technology to give it life.
Why do you think now is a time for theatre? What is its role and importance in society, politics or public discourse?
The arts are always timely because art is a product of culture. Humans are always struggling to find happiness and meaning in that same culture, and theatre can help them in that search for meaning, or by providing a burst of happiness, or by challenging our beliefs. I am very interested to see how the theatre begins to more directly reflect what it means to live in such a culture so entwined with personal technology.
In honor of Western Michigan University's annual homecoming festivities, the Forever Gold series celebrates and highlights the successes of College of Fine Arts alumni.