Professor Emeritus John Iacovelli, Scenic Designer and Educator, Dies at 64

John Iacovelli attending the Art Directors Guild Awards.
(Greg Doherty)

A stalwart of the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance, Professor Emeritus John Iacovelli died April 14 at 64. An award-winning artist, he designed numerous theatrical productions in regional theaters across the country while maintaining a distinguished teaching career at UC Davis where he co-created the Master of Fine Arts program in theatre design.

“John Iacovelli was an inspired and inspiring artist and colleague,” said Margaret Laurena Kemp, theatre and dance professor and chair. “Teaching and mentoring were an art form for him and he was a master artist in this area as well. He was my mentor. Since his retirement, I spoke with him about once per week and saw him occasionally. During our last conversation on Sunday, April 9, he shared that three alumni — Mark Ferrando (B.A., dramatic art, ’11), Robert Frye (B.S., design, ’88; M.F.A., dramatic art, ’02), and David Nessl (B.A., technocultural studies, ’14) — were working as his assistants on the three shows he had opening soon. That is John’s legacy!”

Iacovelli taught at UC Davis from 1999 to 2019, and during his tenure he designed a broad range of theatre productions, from the musicals HMS Pinafore and Spring Awakening to the comedies Noises Off and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to the dramas Gibraltar and {LOVE/logic}. In 2000 he was one of the co-founders of Film Fest @ UC Davis, and in 2019 the festival honored him by establishing the John Iacovelli Award for Best Art Direction.

“John was my collaborator, my champion, my trusted advisor and dear friend,” said theatre and dance alumna and professor emerita Maggie Morgan (B.A., dramatic art, ‘84). “He generously brought me into his circle and always championed me as a designer and teacher, inviting me back to teach at UC Davis. We were collaborators on many theatre projects, but particularly in building the M.F.A. program in theatre design. We taught together every week, so I observed a master teacher in action and learned so much from him about how to guide students.”

Among his career highlights, Iacovelli designed the Tony Award-nominated Broadway revival of Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby, which was televised by A&E and resulted in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarding him a 2001 prime-time Emmy Award for art direction. He also designed The Twilight of The Golds on Broadway. Internationally he designed Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache for the Teatro Beckett in Barcelona and Oedipus at Colonus, directed by Wole Soyinka for the Cultural Olympiad in Delphi, Greece. He designed NBC’s The Book of Daniel and Warner Theatricals’ Casablanca, a ballet based on the classic film.

He designed for the Pasadena Playhouse, American Conservatory Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Magic Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Old Globe Theatre and South Coast Repertory, among others.

His accolades included the 2001 Bob Z Award for Lifetime Achievement in Set Design, presented by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle; the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award; a Bay Area Drama Critics Circle Award; the Backstage West Garland Award; and 14 Drama-Logue Awards. He received the 2012 NAACP Theatre Award for Best Set Design and was presented with the 2018 United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT) Distinguished Achievement Award in Scene Design & Technology. A special video was produced when USITT honored Iacovelli. 

In addition to his theatre work, Iacovelli was a television and film production designer and art director for TV shows such as Ed, Babylon 5, The Cosby Show and Resurrection Blvd., and the films Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Ruby in Paradise. He was nominated for the 1997 Excellence in Production Design Award from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors (now the Art Directors Guild). He was both a Tony Award and an Emmy Award voter.

He received an M.F.A. in scenic design and art direction from New York University.

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