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As we celebrate this year shifting into a new start, Creative Pinellas is remembering and missing the amazing and creative Lea Umberger, who sadly passed away this spring after battling cancer.
Lea served as the Arts Project Manager for Creative Pinellas – organizing a series of wonderful murals on the Pinellas Trail, in St. Pete’s Lealman neighborhood and around the county, and she was instrumental in getting our signal box wrap project off the ground.
Lea came to that role as an all-around artist herself – a gifted set designer who created ingenious and inventive worlds onstage and on film and TV sets, with her interior design business. . . and at every opportunity, in her home, for her friends and family.
Lea was chosen as a Creative Pinellas 2020 Professional Artist and used that grant as seed money for a project that, as ever, she put her heart and soul into – producing the recent Emmy award-winning documentary, Little Satchmo, shown on PBS and at national and international film festivals.
As you see from the photos she shared on social media for Lea Umberger Designs, Lea celebrated every holiday with gusto – and found so many ways throughout each year to share her creative verve with family and friends, just for the joy of making art.
So as we celebrate the exits, entrances and scene transitions of the year, we celebrate the lasting resonance of Lea Umberger’s creative heart.
Lea and I worked together on at least a dozen theater productions. All of them made better by her artistry. I was made a better artist and person through our friendship and collaboration.
Lea was able to do more with less than anyone I know, and she joyfully worked harder than anyone. I have incredible memories of each of our collaborations. Most of them involve Lea going above and beyond the job of designer.
The first time we worked together she was designing the costumes for Taming of the Shrew that we did at my College Summer Theater in 2000. In our first phone call when we were getting to know each other by talking about the play, I mentioned the scene between Kate and Petruchio when they are traveling to the wedding. It is the scene where they travel and come to an understanding of what it means to support each other, to be a team.
And Lea said, they should ride a tandem bicycle (a bicycle built for two). It seems simple but it was such a perfect way to model their relationship… and model the growth of the relationship, in a physical gesture, through the playing of one scene.
Lea designed sets and costumes for multiple productions I directed. For this show I believe she was only designing costumes. However, it was never about just one aspect of the show for Lea – it was always about the whole. And how to elevate the world.
And she did, in all of our collaborations.
– Padriac Lillis, The Farm Theater
I was lucky enough to work with Lea on several productions. Her work, like all great designers, was a kind of magic.
One play was set in a school. I was in the back of the theater working on sound while Lea built and painted the set. A sheet of plywood was stood up and fastened into place to be the wall of the school.
It was unfinished wood – it looked nothing at all like a school. Then, she sat and started painting. With remarkable speed but great care she first painted the wood white, and then by hand added lines and curves in darker color. One by one, bricks appeared in the wood.
Raising my head from my laptop, I came to believe that the surface was wood on the left and aged white brick on the right. When she was done, I was looking at the front of a school and I couldn’t remember what the bare wood looked like.
I had the privilege of workshopping The Burlesque Astronomy Play with Lea’s design students at the USF School of Theatre and Dance in 2017, thanks to her kind invitation to work on this emerging script as a classroom project. USF is where Lea earned her BA in Theatre Design in 1998, before an MFA in Set and Costume Design at NYU’s world-renowned Tisch School of the Arts.
Lea’s students read the script with such keen eyes and creative ideas, drew sketches of the imagined stage set – and contributed thoughtful, character-based design ideas that became lasting elements in the script.
Lea clearly taught them well. And her own questions, observations, her ideas and humor made that process one of the most enjoyable, special and meaningful experiences I’ve had in theatre.