The dean of Webster University’s Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts and a man of…
Peter Sargent, founder of Conservatory, receives lifetime achievement award
Fifty years after its acceptance into the Webster community, the Conservatory is almost inseparable from Peter Sargent. Sargent was one of the original founders of the Conservatory in 1967.
The Educational Theatre Association presented Sargent, now dean of the Leigh Gerdine School of Fine Arts with a lifetime achievement award in July for his educational contributions, which makes it the second award Sargent has received this year. Sargent said the award was a pleasant surprise, but also inevitable.
“My feeling is, if you’re around long enough, these things happen and you can’t do a thing about it,” Sargent said.
Part of Sargent’s responsibilities as dean of fine arts include traveling to high schools around the country and recruit senior students for the Conservatory. He said he enjoys the opportunity to view hundreds of student auditions and dozens of portfolios.
Although he is the proverbial face of the Conservatory, Sargent said he prefers to work backstage on theatrical productions. He said he originally acted when he first got involved in a summer community theatre at just 10 years old.
Sargent said he stopped acting at age 14 and started working backstage with his father, who did stage lighting at the time. He said he is not entirely sure how he ended up with designing stage lights for a career, but it started there.
“You sort of morph into it, you get curious about something and you end up doing it,” Sargent said.
Sargent went to school at Carnegie Mellon University, now Carnegie Institute of Technology, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He went on to get a master’s in fine arts from Yale University. While a graduate student, he began laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the Webster Conservatory with some of his colleagues.
When Sargent finished graduate school, he taught for a year in Florida and two years in Pennsylvania before coming to St. Louis to work with Webster University and the Repertory Theatre.
Sargent said he stepped in as production manager and lighting designer on a faculty associated with the university. When he realized holding classes and putting on shows was too much of a hassle, he decided to create a separate program for theatre education.
“We realized just how much of a mess to do rotating repertory theatre and trying to have classes just wouldn’t work,” Sargent said.
He said the president of Webster at the time, Leigh Gerdine, had a major influence on the Conservatory’s formation and its relationship with Webster University, and had the school of performing arts named after him.
Wayne Loui was an acting and directing professor at the university before Sargent came to St. Louis. The two found themselves working together often after the Conservatory started; Loui worked onstage, Sargent was usually behind the scenes.
Loui said his style of theatre was much different from Sargent’s. It did not prevent them from becoming good friends, however.
“Peter was one of the ‘cool’, when he first came in he was cool,” Loui said. “It was kind of nice, but at the same time it was annoying cause I can only take so much of that.”
Loui said Sargent’s dedication to building and improving upon the Conservatory was unmatched. He said Sargent would sometimes get frustrated when trying to organize the program but made up for any drawbacks with his creative abilities.
“I often wondered about Peter and how he built- he spent an enormous amount of time just building and building and building,” Loui said. “When he would do this, sometimes he would get annoyed at things that didn’t work out right… not only is he capable for standing up for himself under any circumstance, but he is also very good. He is just very good.”
Although they had different personalities, Loui said he and Sargent kept out of each other’s work and generally were cooperative with one another.
“Peter never got into my business and I never got into his,” Loui said. “We went at it but Peter has always been a very considerate person.”
The Loui and Sargent families eventually became a large part of the Conservatory community and the wives of both men were very supportive. When Sargent and Loui had children, their families grew up together as part of the theatrical community.
Let there be light
Sargent’s specialty is in light design. He said the key to successful lighting design is the exact opposite of anything else in the play: making sure the audience does not notice it.
“When you are doing costumes or doing scenery, you see it,” Sargent said. “But lighting should not be seen, it should just help create the atmosphere, the environment that enhances the storytelling. At least that’s what I think is important…. Personally, I hate getting reviews in the paper because that means I’ve distracted someone.”
In his classes and working with students on productions, Sargent tries to drive home the basic purpose of lights in a theatre. He said the important thing for light designers to think about is how to properly light the stage so the audience can see what is going on in a scene.
Sargent said a lot of new lighting designers try to be too creative when designing lights and shadow which results in a poorly lit stage.
“I think there are a lot of designers who use shadows and stuff like that, so we don’t know who’s talking and if the audience doesn’t know who’s talking, they’re going to fall asleep,” Sargent said. “That’s one of the talismans, make sure it’s bright and you can see and make sure no one notices it.”
Lighting design major Kylee Loera has worked with Sargent to light different productions in while being a part of the Conservatory. She said she was taking advantage of a great opportunity in doing so.
“Working with him is a crazy experience, in a good way,” Loera said. “He’s one of the most experienced lighting designers in the business and literally studied with the people who created the lighting design profession… I enjoy working with him because it feels like we are pushing each other to try and make the best production the best it can be.”
She said it was usually a learning experience for both herself and for Sargent because Sargent knows and teaches the fundamentals of the design field, and she shares new design technology with him.
Loera has known Sargent for eight years and is used to his very down-to-earth personality.
“He and I have a sort of teasing banter that is much less formal than you would think with someone so important in the business,” Loera said. “But that’s the best part about it, he’s approachable.”