Award-winning friendship

These Oscar and Emmy winners bonded at Marquette

by Ann Christenson

A blizzard blasts Interstate 43, about par for January in Wisconsin but still lending a white-knuckle tone to the drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay. Marquette theatre professor Debra Krajec, her husband and two senior theatre students are making the trek north for the 1995 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The students’ entries in the regional division have elevated them to this plum level of evaluation by theatre elites, including Ming Cho Lee, a renowned set designer and Yale drama professor.

The group arrives and the Krajecs help the students, Erin Slattery and Adam Stockhausen, set up the displays of their submitted work. Stockhausen, a self-described “theatre nerd” from Wauwatosa, submitted his set design for Marquette’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Lee — the judge everyone is awaiting yet dreading given his reputation for brilliance delivered bluntly — looks at Stockhausen’s set design and deems it “too pointy.” Lee doesn’t like Slattery’s costume designs either.

Later at a Green Bay pizzeria, as the storm continues blowing outside, Stockhausen isn’t saying much. But then, recalls Krajec, he looks up and says, “I want to go back and ask that guy what he meant.” They pile in the car, return to the festival and wait while Stockhausen disappears inside. A long while later, Stockhausen jumps back in the car, having fulfilled his mission and more. He announces to his car mates his plans to apply to Yale’s graduate school to study with the renowned professor.

It’s not altogether surprising that the two students riding home from Green Bay later than expected that night were in the process of forming an enduring bond. As the road trip illustrated, beyond the reserved first impression he tended to make, Stockhausen was “driven and focused,” says Krajec. Not to mention full of “wild, creative ideas.”

Slattery was an idea person herself and a precocious talent, too. Arriving at Marquette intending to become an elementary school teacher, she was already an accomplished seamstress. She could make “anything out of anything,” recalls Krajec, including the “art dolls” with intricate faces and handmade clothing in the portfolio she submitted when applying for a work-study job in the department’s costume shop. “No 18-year-old does that,” adds Krajec, of arriving armed with a portfolio.

Also not completely surprising are the heights to which the two Diederich College of Comm theatre majors would eventually take their talents. Back when they were undergrads sharing time backstage at the Helfaer Theatre, the rising set designer and costume designer made a pact that when either won a Tony award someday, they’d have the other person at the ceremony as a date. What may have appeared a pipe dream at the time actually undersold what this pair would accomplish.

During her 18-year creative partnership with the Jim Henson Company, Slattery — now Slattery Black — won three Emmy Awards for her work designing Muppets’ costumes for Sesame Street.

Stockhausen is a three-time Academy Award nominee for production design and took home the Oscar in 2015 for his execution of Wes Anderson’s vision for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

What happened with their awards-ceremony pledge is a small story in itself — reflecting the distances creative people travel after graduation, but also the ability of great friendships to go this distance.

When Stockhausen and Slattery Black, both Comm ’95, had their first class together — theatre workshop — they worked together on an orientation with power tools, giving Stockhausen an opportunity to make a vivid first impression on Slattery Black. “I was terrified of these tools but Adam was a rock star and went right for the band saws,” she recalls, laughing.

Yet at that moment, Stockhausen had perhaps found someone as goal-oriented as he. The two were both on a mission — or really, twin missions. As they grew close over more classes, dress and tech rehearsals and dinners together at Miss Katie’s Diner and Water Street Brewery, there was never “any competition” between them, recalls Stockhausen.

The friendship formed on shared passions and similar work ethics was part of a larger Marquette theatre culture that affirmed those qualities. Looking back on those days, Stockhausen recalls faculty members such as Krajec or the late Ken Kloth going “out of their way to introduce us to their professional network and give us a start in the business — not only our first jobs, but our second, third and fourth jobs, too.”

“That made a deep impression on me,” says the designer, who followed his master’s degree from Yale with gigs designing sets for theatre and opera before landing in the film industry. “I’ll go to a meeting and get introduced to young people and I remember how I was a beneficiary of that generosity. It makes me smile and affects how I interact with people in a really positive way. It’s very much a live memory.”

When asked, he even shares advice with these aspirants that reveals the direct path he traces from current career heights (he just finished designing the on-screen environment for his second Steven Spielberg project, next year’s Ready Player One) back to humbler college origins. He’ll relate stories of early Marquette productions, of work for theater companies around Milwaukee or a summer spent at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis.

“Even as what you do — and what you aspire to do — changes, the work you do builds, one experience on another,” he advises. “Each step is really important.” The unsaid message: With talent, drive and enough steps, you may someday even find yourself creating something that exceeds people’s imaginations — like the meticulous hand-built sets and fantastically far-afield location shoots of the The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Major achievements and humility go hand-in-hand for Slattery Black, too, who began her post-Marquette years with a master’s degree in costume design from the University of Texas-Austin before putting down roots in New York City. She now laughs at “all of the Jo-Ann’s fabrics” in the photos saved from Marquette productions, but credits those years for giving her “a thirst for collaboration and the desire to work with other artists on a visual journey to help tell a tale.”

With refreshing Midwestern openness, Slattery Black describes starting at the “bottom of the totem pole” at Henson Studios, “ironing Big Bird’s feathers.” A Huffington Post story revealed she stores her Emmy trophies in the garage of the home she shares with husband Eric and their four children. Home is also where she manages her freelance career and contributes to the stuffed-creature business the family founded, Lyla Tov Monsters.

As their careers have evolved and Stockhausen, in particular, has spent more time away, they’ve managed to keep their friendship going strong. Picking up after a couple of years, “it’s like no time has passed,” says Stockhausen.

Slattery Black agrees: “We’ll go out for drinks and it’s like we’re in the studio again!”

So what happened to that pact to be by each other’s sides when each was up for that big award?

When Slattery Black was nominated for her first Emmy in 2000, Stockhausen told her “that counted” and that she should hem his tuxedo pants so he could escort her and cheer when she took the stage that night.

Slattery Black receiving one of her three Emmys

As for Stockhausen, Slattery Black playfully chides her friend for “not living up to his end of the bargain,” but she did “give him an out” when he was nominated for his first Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave in 2013. She delivered her fourth child the very day of the Oscars ceremony, but still found a way to be there in spirit. Shortly before that ceremony, Slattery Black penned a letter to Stockhausen.

“I credit my career largely to you and the many, many hours we spent sitting next to each other at that back table in the upstairs classroom in the Helfaer Theatre,” she wrote to her friend. “I am privileged to know the calm, kind, determined spirit that navigated the road from Twelfth Night to 12 Years a Slave.”

From the 2016 issue of Comm, the annual magazine of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. Read the cover story on 100 years of student media at Marquette and the online version of the entire issue.