Renowned theater professor prepares to retire

Jasmin Sun

When it comes to theatrical design, Robert Schmidt prefers working with the dead playwrights to the live ones.When it comes to theatrical design, Robert Schmidt prefers working with the dead playwrights to the live ones.

“You know [the old ones are] going to work,” Schmidt said. “When you work with a new play, it’s scary because neither [you nor the playwright] know what it is yet.”

Even though Schmidt’s official retirement day is Monday, and he hasn’t been on campus as a teacher since the end of last semester, he has spent the last 30 years bringing plays to life.

Schmidt has experience designing sets for everything from traditional stage plays to sets for Danish children’s television programs, but he said working with new material sometimes fosters the most creativity.

“[You get to a point where] you feel like you don’t know anything, and you wonder why you ever got into this business because you really don’t know anything about it,” he said. “Now I find that I actually like to embrace it because it means that I’m actually starting [with a clean slate]. Get to the scary place. It’s a good — but hard — place to be.”

Originally from New Jersey, Schmidt spent most of his life calling Wisconsin and Illinois home. Throughout his career, he has created theater sets for productions around the world and won international accolades for his designs. He even submitted the winning entry for the Prague Quadrennial Scenography Exhibition in 2003.

Schmidt joined UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance faculty in 1982 as a lecturer. In 1993, he was given the title of associate chair. He eventually became the department’s chairman but decided to leave the post in 2009, opting to teach full-time instead.

Schmidt’s colleagues and former students describe him as a generous man and a teacher who loved designing for the theater.

“I was never afraid to go to him with questions,” said Elizabeth Bracken, a theatrical design graduate student. “I think he takes a lot of joy from the artistic aspect of making theater.”

His colleague, UT theatrical and scene design professor Richard Isackes, said Schmidt is one of the most generous, fair-minded and honest people he has ever known.

“He has always set an example for me for what it means to be both a gentle person and a scholar,” Isackes said.

Schmidt said he decided to retire because of his wife Penny’s choice to step down from her position heading the financial department at Apple’s Austin office and the recent birth of his grandchildren.

While Schmidt and his wife are ready for a change, they’re not quite sure what that change will be. One thing is for sure: He’ll certainly be out of his comfort zone.