Faculty in Action

Jessica Thonen

"Eckerd encourages enlightening experiences and independent thinking."

Jessica Thonen
Quick Facts

Master of Fine Arts in Stage Design from West Virginia University
Bachelor of Arts in Drama from University of Dallas

I am teaching: Theatre Production: Technical, Technical Theatre: Scene Design, Design Basics, Technical Theatre: Stage Management, Tech Theatre: Protest Puppetry

Areas of expertise:Set and Costume Design, Millinery, Scene painting, Theatre management, Mask Construction, Puppetry, Costume Construction, Theatre History

Current research or projects: Last year, I published an article in SOUTHERN THEATRE about my technique for creating more realistic faux finishes for the theatre titled, "Faux Carved Wood: Take A Positive Approach for Green Results." The technique not only improves on old techniques for faux carved wood, but it also involves "greener" practices.

I am currently working on a puppetry show whose intention is to expose the human issues of border patrols. The puppet show will use a new technique for colorful shadow puppetry which is derived from my research of Turkey's Karagoz puppet traditions. In addition, I am designing the costumes and scenery for Eckerd College's production of THE GAMESTER, written by Freyda Thomas and directed by Cynthia Totten. This summer I will be designing four productions for the Studio@620 as their resident costume designer.

Q & A
Why did you decide to become a college professor?

One of my favorite things is to see someone's face when they grasp a difficult technique. That moment of "aha!", that moment of empowerment is why I became a college professor. Whether it be designing costumes, painting scenery or crafting artistic moments on stage, I love working in theatre, but nothing is ever as good as seeing that moment of discovery. Teaching theater to college students allows me to see that wonderful moment everyday as I share all that I know about theatre.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at Eckerd?

Teaching at Eckerd offers me a real opportunity to support students in a way that has the possibility of changing their lives. Teaching at a college that puts such great emphasis on mentoring means that I can have a greater impact, and I make the most of every opportunity to work my mentoring muscles! I love the casual conversations between myself and the students that turn into "life-changers."

How would you describe Eckerd students?

Eckerd attracts a certain student who is motivated to not only do well in their classes, but also to do good things in their communities. This alone makes conversations with students incredibly interesting, and teaching these students is beyond rewarding. Eckerd students are bright, committed, and incredibly creative.

What makes Eckerd so special or why does it stand out to you as a great college?

As a faculty member, I have always been amazed by how supportive all of the faculty is of each other. This extends beyond the faculty to the students as well. I see a community which empowers and encourages each other professionally and personally. I firmly believe that a positive, supportive environment allows each of us to do our best work, and I see this type of environment throughout Eckerd's campus. As a result, I have the distinct pleasure of watching students both grow in their knowledge and education as well as grow in their personal relationships and responsibilities.

What is the best thing a student has ever said in your class?

I could never pick only one favorite comment! Here are a few that I love that keep me motivated:

When class was over: "Can I stay and keep working on this project with you?"

"Can I just take a class in studying you doing stuff?" One of my students asked this question after I demonstrated a technique in front of the class. She is convinced that she learns amazing things by watching me work. What was my response? "You are in a class watching me do something now, but you have to do stuff too in order to really learn!"

"There are no problems! Only challenges!" I spend a lot of time trying to teach my students to generate optimistic outlooks even at our darkest hours. I work hard to prevent them from bogging down when things get difficult, to instead see the joy in conquering our "challenges" in the creative process. I never want my students to feel like they have failed at any point. I want them to see wrong answers or poor technique as the jumping off point for something great, so to hear a student encourage another to have this same point of view was very endearing! Mostly, students who have taken a class with me or worked as a work scholar in our costume shop (which I oversee) tend to comment on the great sense of autonomy and empowerment that they feel. My goal is to always guide them and encourage them and never to make them feel badly for a miss-step. This is an environment of learning and often a mistake is the best teacher.
How do you describe your teaching style?

I am a student of experience, and I believe that many theater artisans and designers would say that the bulk of their education came from hands on experience in the field. For this reason, I emphasize projects that incorporate large portions of the coursework, while encouraging the social and professional development as well as the critical thinking of the student throughout the day to day execution of the project. My method of teaching is to guide students. By empowering students by teaching through a method of guided self-discovery, students not only develop the skills necessary, but they also learn that they possess the skills, artistry and ambition necessary for success. I want students to let go of the, "I'm not sure I can do this" mentality in exchange for a mentality which thinks, "I am a trained artist who can find a creative solution for this." It is my goal to teach the entire student, and not just the part of the student that is involved in theatre.

How do you encourage your students to ThinkOUTside?

Often we have class outside on one of the campus's beautiful outdoor classrooms. It helps "sweep the cobwebs out of our minds" as we try to imagine new designs or as we try to solve artistic challenges in the theatre. The outside air is invigorating, and the patios allow my classes the ability to still structure a class environment while taking advantage of our wonderful surroundings.

In my Scene Painting class, all of our classes are outside (except in the rare chance that it rains). This pushes the students to paint more accurately as the sunshine "tells all" and reveals every imperfection. If students can learn to paint in the extreme light of our Florida sun, painting indoors will be a breeze...oh, and we catch those while we're outside as well. Just another perk of enjoying our outdoors!

Even when we don't hold class outside, I encourage my students to start their projects with brainstorms that release them from any constraints: no gravity, no monetary limits, no material limitations at all. Then, we consider what is at the center of those great imaginings and hone them down to something that can actually exist. This process of thinking "Outside" of normal parameters helps us to accomplish bigger, more successful, better theatre designs because we think and dream larger.
What else should we know about you or what else would you like to share?

I feel like I have the best job! I get to do what I love, with amazing people, in a great environment. Even better, I get to see the sailboats on the water as I head home from work. Can you beat that?

Using 5 words or fewer complete this sentence: Eckerd is…

(This question is very hard! Here are my best tries.)
This is six words, but I changed the verb: Eckerd encourages enlightening experiences and independent thinking.
Here's another go at it: Eckerd is...a community of supportive artists. (That's what it is for me and my students!)

...opportunity to learn and grow.

Accepted? Congrats!

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