As Shakespeare told us, “All the world’s a stage.” But it also is true that for any actual stage, in addition to the players who make a theater come to life there is a team of designers (of sets, lighting, costumes, props, projections and sound) who are crucial to transforming the place into a very particular world. And for the past 24 years in Chicago, it is those artists who have been celebrated by means of the Merritt Awards, a national awards organization unique in its emphasis on excellence in both theatrical design and collaboration.

2017 MERRITT AWARDS
When: 5 p.m. May 15
Where: Loyola University Chicago’s Newhart Family Theatre, 1020 W. Sheridan
Tickets: $20 ($5 students)
Info: www.merrittawards.com

The awards (and the endowment fund behind them), were created to honor the memory of Michael Merritt, a brilliant designer and inspirational teacher whose work was a vital element in Chicago’s theater scene as we now know it, and who died of cancer in 1992, at the age of 47. This national award has been presented annually since 1994 to outstanding professional theatrical designers, while the endowment fund recognizes and encourages the work of young professionals and promising theatrical design students at Chicago schools.

Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design for the Lookingglass Theatre Production of “Moby Dick.” | Liz Lauren Photo

At this year’s Merritt Awards, to be presented May 15 at Loyola University’s Newhart Family Theatre, Tony Award-winning costume designer Ann Roth — who has worked on Broadway (“The Book of Mormon,” “Shuffle Along,” “Fish in the Dark,” “The Royal Family,” “This is Our Youth,” “The House of Blue Leaves”), as well as well as in film (“The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Midnight Cowboy”) — will receive the top award.

But for Chicago audiences, it is Courtney O’Neill whose work holds a special place. And she has been named the 2017 Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award winner for her highly original, ever ingenious scenic designs for the city’s tiniest storefront stages, as well as its most prestigious regional houses. You will immediately understand why she is being honored (and given a $2,000 honorarium) if you think of the worlds she has devised for Lookingglass Theatre’s remarkable production of “Moby Dick”  (which debuted here, has been remounted at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and California’s South Coast Rep, and will return to Lookingglass on June 7 for a summerlong run), The Gift Theatre’s world premiere of David Rabe’s “Good for Otto,” Griffin Theatre’s “Men Should Weep,” and The Hypocrites’ haunting production of Irene Marie Formes’ “Mud,” an early design that earned her a Non-Equity Jeff Award.

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O’Neill, 33, credits her initial interest in theater from the time she performed in shows at her Kansas City high school. On weekends she would help build the sets, but as she confesses, “I never really thought about any of that as a career.”

She moved to Chicago to major in theater management at DePaul University, but fairly early on realized she was not particularly interested in that aspect of the theater. Instead, it was one of her required design classes that captured her imagination, and her teacher, the gifted Chicago set designer Jack Magaw, who recognized her talent and suggested she pursue the craft. He also became one of O’Neill’s biggest advocates, “even giving my name to people when he was unable to do a project.”

“The first play I designed at school was Paula Vogel’s ‘How I Learned to Drive’,” O’Neill recalled. “I loved it, had a great connection with the director, and realized I knew the language of theater. Then came three years of working in storefronts (“a very important time because it gave me a sense of the real world beyond academic theater”) before she entered the intensive three-year graduate program in design at Northwestern University. While there she studied with such master designers as Todd Rosenthal, Dan Ostling and Walt Spangler.

“Todd pushed us to think of the big picture of any production before homing in on the details,” said O’Neill, who assisted the Tony Award-winning Rosenthal on the Broadway productions of “Fish in the Dark” and “This Is Our Youth.” “I worked as his assistant for two years, doing most of his drafting and helping to make his models, which are museum worthy. I got to know his process well, and saw how he used those models as a tool, often tearing them apart when he met with a director. And I’ve adopted that use of three dimensional models, too — rather than computer imaging — because it lets you see how things change in real time.”

“Walt [Spangler] cracked our brains open to the many possibilities of a set,” said O’Neill. “He explained that the design is not always just a matter of ‘location,’ but can evoke an idea or metaphor, and can tell a story in a way other than just letting you know where you are.”

O’Neill, who now teaches at both DePaul and Northwestern, revels in research, noting that for “Moby Dick” she studied “the structure of actual ships, looked at everything from the shape of whale bones to the texture of rotting wood, and was particularly inspired by the painting of a whale’s body that suggested the creature’s ribs and belly. And of course with Lookingglasss, everything must be rigged and ready for climbing, jumping and sliding.”

Her current project is the Court Theatre production of Mary Chase’s chestnut, “Harvey” (running May 11- June 11), directed by Devon de Mayo, and starring Timothy Edward Kane as Elwood P. Dowd, a pleasant man with a unique friend who happens to be an invisible, six-foot-three-inch-tall rabbit.

“The challenge with that one was to create two specific locations that can coalesce, so I devised a wall that rotates and bookshelves and curtains that slide in and out,” explained O’Neill, who also is designing “King Liz,” which begins May 24 at the Windy City Playhouse and is about the cut-throat world of sports agents.

NOTE: The public is welcome to the Merritt Awards. For complete information, visit www.merrittawards.com.

Courtney O’Neill’s model for the set of “Harvey,” to be presented by Court Theatre, May 11 – June 11. (Photo: Courtesy of Courtney O’Neill)