Take Action


Michael Ward

Michael WardAfter decades in the profession, MFA candidate uses distance learning to finally finish degree

by Micki Panttaja

“I don’t like to leave things unfinished,” says Michael Ward, a MFA graduate student in theatrical design & technology.

However, with an associates, bachelors and masters degrees in architecture, plus a professional resume which includes over three decades of work as a practicing architect, sixteen years as a teacher, and over 150 theatrical designs, it’s hard to imagine what might possibly be left undone – except he has never worn a cap and gown. Each time he graduated, he skipped commencement.

“I never walked. . . . I’m not much of a pomp and circumstances kind of guy.”

However, having earned a minor in theatre as an undergraduate, Ward continued to take various post-graduate courses in scenic and lighting design throughout the years and realized that he might have enough credits to get a Master of Fine Arts degree, and finally take that symbolic commencement walk. So he decided to contact University of Idaho Professor Dean Panttaja to see if it was a possibility.

“I remember getting a phone message from Mike. Knowing of his design work, I fully expected him to request that we put him in our design pool of professionals for Idaho Repertory Theatre. When he asked about pursuing an MFA degree I was pleasantly surprised, and after meeting with him I thought he’d be an excellent candidate for our distance learning program.”

The distance learning MFA program is designed for working theatre professionals, actively engaged in the industry, who wish to pursue a practical terminal degree. Panttaja explains that this program is a “win-win” for the department and the student.

“The distance learning program reaches out to students throughout the country - which not only brings the visibility of the program to a national level but also provides candidates an ability to pursue their dreams and stay employed.”

He adds that the benefits extend beyond graduation as well, because both the graduates and the program gain from an increased national network of a professional alumni base. In addition to design, the UI theatre department also has distance students studying dramatic writing and directing.

Overall, Ward says the distance education has “been really good and organized.” He adds that an educational bonus from not being on campus is that he has learned to use more online tools in order to collaborate with directors and other designers – resources that were not even imagined or invented when he first entered the profession. However, there is still quite a bit of face-to-face interaction and mentorship.

As part of the program, Panttaja oversees Ward’s progress, collaborates with him on his projects, and then travels to see the productions throughout the northwest to provide feedback. This summer Ward designed “Let’s Misbehave” for the Idaho Repertory Theatre, and most recently the set for the Northwest premiere of the “Church Basement Ladies” for Interplayers in Spokane.

As the title suggests, “Church Basement Ladies” is a musical comedy that revolves around the women who work in the kitchen of a Lutheran church in rural Minnesota. As often happens, scenic designers end up “dressing” their sets with personal items from their own homes. This production was no different.

From pots and pans to spoons and sponges, “I’ve got nothing in my kitchen.”

Thankfully, Ward will be able to cook again in his own home when he designs Interplayer’s production of the less visually realistic “Our Town” in November. Audience members can also see Michael's work this fall in Yakima Community College's production of  “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."  He will then be off to the coast in 2014 to design “The Nerd” for Center Stage in Federal Way and back to Spokane Interplayers for their April production of “Wait Until Dark.”

It’s almost ironic that Ward has spent most of his time earning his MFA degree off campus. After all, a big part of “not leaving things unfinished” is so he can be in attendance on graduation day.

If you would like more information about the MFA distance learning degree program, contact Theatre Arts Department Chair, Dean Panttaja at panttaja@uidaho.edu  or call (208) 885-6465.