Seeling memorial minute

The traditional memorial minute, read at the Feb. 2, 2004, faculty meeting by Martin Andrucki, for Ellen Seeling:

It seems like just the other day that Ellen Seeling was being introduced to this body as a new colleague in theater and rhetoric. Indeed, as the academic clock usually runs, it was only the other day — September 1997. Now, six years and five months later, it is my sad duty to deliver the memorial minute commemorating her untimely death, which occurred on Dec. 29, 2003.

Ellen Seeling was born in Michigan City, Ind., on Dec. 9, 1953. She attended the Herron School of Art of the University of Indiana, graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting and sculpture in 1976.

Her studies next took her to Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where in 1983 she earned a master of fine arts in stage design.

She then took a succession of jobs as scenic artist and costume designer, including work at the Missouri Repertory Theater in Kansas City, the Crawford and Field Scenic Studio in New York and the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.

She began her academic career in 1987, joining the faculty of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., as assistant professor of stage design. She subsequently taught at the University of Pittsburgh and at Western State College of Colorado, where she was director of theater.

As I mentioned above, Ellen came to Bates in 1997, earning tenure just one year ago. While here she taught the introduction to design course, as well as more specialized courses in scene design, costume design and puppet design and construction. She also taught a course on women in film.

Many of you will be familiar with her theater work at Bates. Her first show here was Sophocles’s Antigone for which she did the scenery and costumes. She went on to design Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Tales of the Lost Formicans by Constance Congdon, and The Red Faust by Zsolt Pozsgai —a show which was restaged in Budapest. She also did Lips Together, Teeth Apart (which she directed as well), Twelfth Night, The Colored Museum, The Sea Wall (which she wrote), Manny’s War, Prometheus Bound, Brave New World, Lady Windermere’s Fan, subUrbia, Tereus in Fragments, and, miraculously it seemed to me, during the last four months of her life, Hamlet — a play with 20 scenes and 40 costumes.

On a personal note here: It always struck me as a mark of Ellen’s brave spirit and her joy in working that she was able, during those final months, to live so intimately, so unflinchingly, with this death-obsessed play, a play whose defining image is of a doomed young man talking to a skull and looking mortality straight in the eye.

Ellen was professionally active as a designer outside of Bates as well. During her years on the faculty, she worked on Little Shop of Horrors in California, on Corpus Christi and Tereus in Fragments in Boston, and on What the Butler Saw and Brave Smiles…Another Lesbian Tragedy in Portland.

Ellen’s interests in theater were comprehensive. She wasn’t only a designer, but a director, too; not only a director and designer, but a playwright; and a creator of theater not just for human actors, but for puppets as well.

She worked fluently in all styles, creating the gritty realism of subUrbia‘s 7-11 parking lot as well as the Victorian elegance of Lady Windermere’s Fan; the sci-fi fantasies of Brave New World and Formicans, as well as the poetic inventions of Shakespeare and Aeschylus and Sophocles.

At this point, I’d like to borrow some words about Ellen spoken at her funeral service by her close friend and colleague, Professor Margaret Imber:

“If you think about the sets and costumes Ellen designed for Bates, you’ll think about Ellen. Her designs were always visually cohesive and always surprising. Her costumes were luscious, rich, dense with detail and texture. A blind person could enjoy Ellen’s costumes. Her sets and costumes could be droll and whimsical, like Ellen. Think of Hamlet [or, I would add, Twelfth Night]. They could be intense and passionate, like Ellen. Think of the Tereus. And her sets were always about possibility….

“Ellen was all about play. I asked Paul Kuritz what it was like to work with her and he told me he couldn’t say, because it never felt like work…. Paul was always struck by Ellen’s inventiveness and her amiability. She could work, or play, with anyone. When I say play, however, I don’t mean to suggest that she wasn’t serious, or indeed that she didn’t insist upon excellence. Her play was deep and soulful. She played the way angels play in the presence of God.”

Since Ellen’s death, I have had a number of e-mails from distressed students, expressing their sense of loss over her passing. This one is typical. It comes from a member of the Class of ’99 who is now studying landscape design in graduate school:

“I was so shocked to hear about Ellen…. It makes me really sad to think that she isn’t teaching anymore — she was such a wonderful person and really helped me on my way to entering the design world. I’m really sorry for you as well to have lost such a great colleague.”

As we can see from this young woman’s words, Ellen was a devoted mentor and gifted advisor who enabled many young men and women at Bates — in a variety of fields — to rise to their potential.

Colleagues and students alike mourn the death of this gifted woman. She leaves a void in the artistic life of our department, and of the College, that will not easily be filled.