John Ezell was born in St. Louis and spent much of his childhood peering at the scenery over the backstage fence of the Municipal Opera in Forest Park. This strong attraction to the theatre led him to pursue a B.F.A. in Painting from Washington University in 1954 and an M.F.A. the Yale School of Drama in 1960. His career began with a number of non-profit repertory theatres, Yale University Theatre, and public television and culminated with royal and state theatres in Europe and Asia, as well as several professorial appointments and New York on Broadway, designing the for George Abbott’s Broadway and the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
He designed for the Tony Award winning Crossroads Theatre and Cincinnati Playhouse, Roundabout in New York, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C., Shubert and Second City Theatres in Chicago, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the Indiana Repertory Theatre, the Asolo State Theatre in Sarasota, the Coconut Grove in Miami, the Old Globe in San Diego, the Arizona Repertory Theatre, the Cincinnati Ballet, the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, the Roger Stevens Theatre in Winston-Salem, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, the Missouri Repertory Theatre, the Dallas Theatre Center, the Kansas City Lyric Opera, the Pacific Conservatory Theatre, the Blackstone, Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Stockholm’s Riksteatern and Cullberg Ballet, Swedish State Television, CBS and PBS, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Berkshire Festival, the Great Lakes Theatre Festival and the International Theatre Olympics in Istanbul.
His work on The Dreamer received the award for American Experimental Television Art at the International Non-Commercial Television Festival in Milan. He was the art director and designer of the Emmy Award winning production of The Playboy of the Western World, which received the Corporation for Public Broadcast Board of Directors’ Award for Excellence in prime time drama. He received eleven Critics’ Circle Awards and was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.. He served as a consultant to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and for the design collection of the Federal Theatre Project at George Mason University. His work was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York, the Wright Hepburn Webster Gallery in New York, the Astor Gallery of Lincoln Center, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Mandeville Center for the Arts in San Diego and the Prague Quadrennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Stage Design.
Mr. Ezell is a participant in an exchange of theatre artists with the Beijing Academy of Drama and the Art Theatre of the People’s Republic of China. In 1994, he adapted the charrette process, a system of artistic study utilized by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 19th century, into his theatrical design classes, inspiring numerous scenic design programs to change their curriculums as well. He was a professor and Head of Design at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1965 – 1986 and is currently the Hall Family Foundation Professor of Design at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Mr. Ezell was recognized for his contributions to American Theatre on the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the Yale School of Drama, and was the recipient of Washington University's Distinguished Alumni Award in 2001. The retrospective exhibition Bold Strokes and Finesse; the Stage Designs of John Ezell, based upon his work, has been on show in museums and galleries across North America.
John Ezell’s designs are characterized by eclecticism, rigorous scholarship and respect for the intentions of the original text. His methods are inspired by his mentors, Donald Oenslager and Frank Poole Bevan, as well as elements borrowed from the graphic arts industry. His renderings and models incorporate a number of talents and media, including watercolor, gouache, collage, montage and composite photographic and electronic computer imagery. John Ezell was one of the first American designers to use polystyrene and other thermoplastics extensively on stage. He had an interest in experimental and unconventional materials. His design for Oedipus Rex at the University of Wisconsin in 1972 was the first stage setting conceived and executed in polyurethane expandable foam; the International Theatre Institute in Brussels called in one of the ten most ‘significant American designs of the decade’.
John Ezell has had an immeasurable impact on the field of American scenic design. He has spent his career designing for productions of the most significant and challenging work of major American dramatists, focusing on visual themes of regional character and meticulous idiosyncrasy. His students work for virtually every professional theatre and opera company in America.
Repository: MGHL Dowd Modern Graphic History Library
12/2012. There are no accurals.
Restrictions: There are no restrictions to access.
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Users of the collections who wish to use items from this collection, in whole or in part, in any form of publication (as defined in the form) must sign and submit to the Washington University Department of Special Collections a hard copy of the Notification of intent to publish Modern Graphic History Library materials form.
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The collection was donated to the Modern Graphic History Library by John Ezell in December 2012.
Preferred Citation: John Ezell Collection, Washington University Libraries, Modern Graphic History Library, Department of Special Collections
Finding Aid Revisions: This finding aid was entered ino Archon by Fisher Ream in July 2015.