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The transformational mentor: Remembering G.W. "Skip" Mercier
When Teaching Professor G.W. "Skip" Mercier died of pancreatic cancer on March 11, 2021, UW lost not only a bold, inventive artist at the top of his game professionally, but a passionate and energetic teacher who went above and beyond to cultivate the next generation of artists.
“Skip’s dedication to mentoring and teaching was the guiding vision of his life,” says Divisional Dean of the Arts Catherine Cole. “He taught at UW for only about 5 and a half years, but his impact vastly surpasses that amount of time. His real legacy is in the lives of the thousands of students he taught, whether they were students at an institution like UW or the O’Neill Theater Center, or the young artists he mentored and guided through informal teaching.”
As a professional set, costume, and puppet designer, Mercier’s accomplishments were astounding. He designed nearly 400 shows for the stage since 1983. As a resident designer for the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, he collaborated on seminal works such as August Wilson’s Fences. He led the O’Neill Theater Center’s Dream Design conversations, working directly with hundreds of playwrights about how the audience is moved through the world of their play. On Broadway, Mercier earned a Tony nomination for designing the sets and costumes for Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass by Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal. Off-Broadway, Dream True by Tina Landau and Ricky Ian Gordon and Bed and Sofa by Polly Penn and Lawrence Klavan earned him two Drama Desk nominations.
Despite his relentless schedule with stage productions, Mercier always had time for his students.
“Skip worked with both UW graduate and undergraduate students, welcoming them and bolstering their confidence as artists. He introduced them to his brash, bold theatrical way of thinking,” says Deb Trout, head of design and production in the School of Drama. “If their natural bent was to be timid, he encouraged them to just blow it out of the water. His excitement about design and theater was so instilled in his students. He was so approachable and filled with joy, his students knew they could go to him -- and they did.”
Scenic design student Brandon Riel MFA’23 first met Mercier when Riel was exploring MFA programs, and they had a long conversation in Mercier’s office. Within an hour of leaving, Mercier had emailed Riel offering to mentor him. Over the next year, before Riel was even accepted to UW, Mercier sent Riel assignments and worked with him on his drawing and model-building skills, as well as his process as a designer.
“Skip pounded into me the importance of being a solid visual communicator,” says Riel, “and that’s going to set me on a path when I collaborate with other designers, directors and actors. I need to make sure communication remains open and collaborative, respectful of the intelligence of the other artists I’m going to work with.”
“Skip had such a belief in his students,” he adds. “When he locked in on somebody, he did it full bore. He always said he took students for life, and he held that promise for me.”
His excitement about design and theater was so instilled in his students. He was so approachable and filled with joy, his students knew they could go to him -- and they did.
Mercier had a big heart and wanted to help anyone who wanted to put in the work, says costume designer Lindsay Halfhill MFA’19. She was having trouble adjusting to life in a new city, and Mercier stepped in.
“He invented an unofficial class just for me,” says Halfhill. “We met every Monday morning for three years, and it helped me get through grad school.”
At first they talked about finding designers who inspired Halfhill. After a conversation about the book Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, she pitched the idea of turning it into a play. Over the next couple of years, they frequently discussed her ideas for the play. When the pandemic hit, she was working as a visual merchandiser for a boutique and a freelance costume designer, and Mercier reached out.
“He told me this is the time to push myself further on the Miss Peregrine project, that I should learn to do animation,” she says. “He said I should use the quarantine time as an opportunity to reinvent what theater can be and how we look at art — that was Skip, he never wanted to stop learning.”
At the core of Mercier’s Visual Thinking in Theatrical Design class, which he taught to undergraduates and non-theater students, was his belief that humans understand the world first and foremost through vision, says Trout. “He helped students develop an awareness of how we see and how we tell stories, and how to put that to use in so many aspects of our lives as humans. For many students from different areas of study, he helped open their eyes to see life in creative new ways,” she says.
One of those non-design students is Zahra Al Zuwayed MFA’21, a creative writing student who was impressed with his passion and humanity. “He made everyone feel safe in his class because when he gave feedback, he was always respectful and encouraging,” she says. “As a teacher myself, I learned so much from him about being human and lovable while not compromising the quality of education I offer my students. That’s something I’ll take with me forever.”
Whether Mercier was talking to students or stars, he gave everyone the same respect and attention. “What impressed me about Skip was that he talked about famous artists the same way he talked about his students,” says Riel. “He was just as much present and excited talking with Lady Gaga as he was with artists who haven’t yet broken that ceiling of fame, and may never. He was there with you wholly, in whatever the moment was. And he gave often.”