Bates honors late theater professor with exhibition, gathering

Friends and colleagues of the late Ellen Seeling pay tribute to this esteemed member of the Bates College theater faculty with an exhibit of her work that opens with a gathering at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12, in the college’s Ladd Library.

Presenters at the gathering will include students, colleagues and Bates President Elaine Tuttle Hansen. In addition to photographs documenting Seeling at work and the spectrum of set and costume designs she did for Bates, several of her costumes themselves will be displayed. The exhibition runs through the end of the month.

A designer, playwright and director celebrated for an intrepid style and bedrock commitment to teaching theater, the 50-year-old Seeling succumbed to cancer at her home in South Portland on Dec. 29. The exhibition illustrates a Bates career embracing seven years, 16 shows and countless students inspired by Seeling’s energy and talent.

“These are big shoes to be filled,” says one colleague, Katalin Vecsey, a lecturer in the theater department and vocal coach for the college’s theatrical productions.

Vecsey explains how Seeling made obvious her knack for engaging a room full of people before she was even hired at Bates. In her presentation to the faculty search committee, Seeling handed out pins, pieces of foam core and other materials, and asked everyone in the room to try building a model set for the play Blood Wedding.

Seeling directed a number of Bates productions and adapted one, The Sea Wall, from a novel by Marguerite Duras. But she was best-known as a designer, and her work — including the puppets that appeared in The Sea Wall and other productions — were distinguished by their edginess, expressiveness and versatility.

“Her sets would have flown on Broadway,” Vecsey says. She adds, “She would never compromise her designs” — but at the same time, Seeling encouraged colleagues and students to embrace their own ideas with the same kind of passion.

Seeling was born in Michigan City, Ind. She received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the Herron School of Art at Indiana University, and her master’s at Brandeis University. After working as a scenic artist and costume designer, Seeling joined the faculty of St. Lawrence University as assistant professor of stage design in 1987.

She came to Bates in 1997 and earned tenure in the Department of Theater and Rhetoric in 2003. At Bates she taught a variety of design courses, as well as a course on women in film.

Her first production for the Bates theater was Antigone and her last, an autumn 2003 production of Hamlet that included some 40 costumes. In between she tackled productions as diverse as a futuristic Brave New World, a gritty “subUrbia” set in a convenience store parking lot, a puppet-filled Sea Wall and the genteel Victorian Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Outside Bates, Seeling did design work for Portland’s Mad Horse Theater and for companies in Boston and California.

Her death was a blow to Bates and to the region’s theater community. “I was so shocked to hear about Ellen,” wrote Lauren Todd, a member of the Bates class of 1999 who studied with Seeling and is now studying landscape design in graduate school. “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.”

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