Oscar-Nominated Alum David Gropman Returns to Campus for Talk to Students

Friday, November 17, 2017
Photo of David Gropman speaking

SF State graduate David Gropman, an Academy Award-nominated production designer, returned to campus November 15 to share with students his experiences and advice.

“Here, that guidance was not just about the practical and technical skills you need to work in our profession,” he said, reflecting on what he learned at SF State and the Yale School of Drama, “but also it’s that guidance for how to be a good person when using those skills.”

Theatre Arts Professor John B. Wilson interviewed Gropman in the Little Theatre, in front of a slideshow featuring stills from Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, for which Gropman served as production designer.

Gropman (B.A., Drama, ’74) earned Oscar nominations for his work on The Life of Pi and The Cider House Rules. Recent film credits include August Wilson’s Fences and the forthcoming Joe Paterno biopic Happy Valley. His Broadway credits include the Robert Altman-directed Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place.

Long before Hollywood and Broadway, Gropman was an 18-year-old SF State student from Southern California. Although he initially declared a major in Art, a friend recommended getting involved in theatre design. Despite several rebuffs by theatre design Professor Eric Sinkkonen (“that’s not a freshman class — you can’t take that”), Gropman persisted. He continued to visit Sinkkonen in his office, the scene shop and paint shop until he was granted access to the design courses.

“Quite frankly, if Eric hadn’t taken me in and under his wing, I don’t know where I would have gone from there, what my career trajectory would have been,” Gropman said. “I think Eric’s reputation is somewhat legendary. He’s graduated a lot of wonderful students, and he just absolutely means everything to me, and therefore my time here means everything to me.”

Keeping the focus on ‘the character and the words’

Gropman is back in San Francisco as the set designer for John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West at San Francisco Opera. The opera is Gropman’s first stage production since 1999, when he was the scenic designer for the John Malkovich-helmed Hysteria in Chicago.

His return to the theatre has helped him realize its similarities and differences with working in film.

“You’re designing this little jewel, and all of your attention and all your energy goes to what that image, or what that vision or what that world is going to look like,” Gropman said. “And it’s the same thing in film, but in theatre it’s much more finite, just because of the space you’re in and the way it’s experienced by the audience. ...

“But still as a designer, emotionally, you’re going through the same thing,” he adds. “You’re trying to find the best way to tell the story. ... Keep the focus at all times on the character and the words.”

For The Life of Pi, Gropman insisted on shooting at least one day for the imagined island in a banyan preserve in Taiwan. “Starting with something real would make it work,” he said.

Gropman’s next project takes him into a new realm: holograms. He is the stage designer for separate concert tours featuring the deceased Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison and soprano legend Maria Callas.

— Matt Itelson


Alum David Gropman speaks to students in the Little Theatre, the same venue where some of his first-ever production designs were displayed. Photo by Sreang Hok.

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