Zsófia Opra-Szabó says she likes to create magic. But the recent U of A Fine Arts grad isn’t talking about pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing someone in half. Opra-Szabó (’15 MFA) is referring to theatre design — the creation of sets, costumes and lighting for a live performance or a film.
“As a designer, you are responsible for the audience’s first impression,” says Opra- Szabó. “You do everything that creates the visuality on stage. In live theatre design, I can create something different from real life — a short piece of magic in one and a half hours.”
Opra-Szabó loves all aspects of theatre design, but her true passion and her niche is puppet design and making. She first fell in love with puppets and puppet making while studying theatre design at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in her native Budapest. Since her father was a sculptor and her mother a ceramicist, art was already in her blood. But she realized that puppet making was a medium she could make her own, working with Styrofoam, papier mâché, clay and other materials to create her characters.
“In live theatre design, I can create a short piece of magic in one and a half hours.” – Alumna Zsófia Opra-Szabó
After graduating, she began to look around for a place to study abroad, to expand her skills and grow as an artist. She settled on the U of A because of its excellent reputation in theatre design and arrived in 2013 to do a master’s degree. She designed the surrealistic A Dream Play by August Strindberg as her thesis project. Working with director David Kennedy, they decided to change the point of view by putting the audience onto the stage. “We wanted the actors and the audience to be really close — to feel each other’s breath. It brought a different feeling for a play that has lots of strong emotion. It was fantastic.”
In Opra-Szabó’s last semester, the Department of Drama enlisted her to teach an undergraduate course in puppet design and making. The first-time course was a hit and has spawned the beginnings of a puppetry community in the city, with many of Opra-Szabó’s students continuing their interest and going on to take more workshops in puppet making. “I really enjoyed it. It was a new thing for me to learn how to teach what I do to others,” she says.
The experience added even more value to the degree Opra-Szabó received from the U of A. The MFA Theatre Design program also introduced her to lighting design, now one of her favourite aspects of her profession. She learned new techniques, new computer design programs and new design methods. “To work in theatre in Canada is a little different from Hungary — the process is different,” she explains.
Now that she has finished her MFA, Opra-Szabó hasn’t stopped creating. With a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, she is currently writing, designing and directing a short stop-motion animation film starring some of her puppets, along with filmmakers Scott Portingale and Eva Colmers. Between studio times, she finds other ways to contribute to the arts community; for example, making masks for a performance by a local Ukrainian dance troupe.
Opra-Szabó also hopes to continue to help build the puppet community in the province, which already has a presence through the work of native Albertan and Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, as well as Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop.
Puppetry here is very different from Hungary where every big city has its own puppet theatre. “Puppets make magic bigger,” she says of her passion. “But they’re not just for kids — they can tell a serious story too. And adults sometimes forget they still have a child inside of them.”