Courtesy of the Hartford Courant

Yale School of Drama Professor Ming Cho Lee will step down from his position after more than nearly five decades with the school.

Currently the Donald M. Oenslager Professor Adjunct of Design at the School of Drama, Lee chaired the school’s design department for 43 years. Best known for his work in stage design, a field in which he has established himself as one of the most influential designers of the modern era, Lee has received the National Medal of the Arts from President George Bush ’68 as well as a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design. He is currently teaching two graduate classes at the School of Drama — one on stage design intended for second- and third-year students and one on stage design intended for first-year students. He will continue teaching until his contract ends in winter 2017.

James Bundy DRA ’95, dean of the School of Drama, said in an email that Lee’s example has been a gift to the more than 3,000 alumni who have passed through the School during Lee’s tenure. Bundy said he can say that in his own 23 years of formal schooling, he never had a better or more inspiring teacher anywhere or in any subject, and that he has treasured the opportunity to serve with Lee.

“Generations of [Yale School of Drama] students, not just in Design, but in all disciplines, have benefitted from Ming’s expertise, wisdom, critique, encouragement, generosity, sense of humor, and impassioned political engagement,” Bundy wrote. “This influence also spread across the nation over many years, not only because his students became great teachers in their own right, but also through his convening of the ‘Clambake,’ which introduced young designers from leading training programs to the profession, forging bonds in a multi-generational community of learning and practice, foundational to our art form.”

Lee, who first began teaching in 1969, said the start of his design career came by chance. Coming to the United States as a college student, he had problems with English, but his experience with Chinese landscape painting allowed him to become proficient in visual art, he said, helping him overcome the challenges he faced as an undergraduate at Occidental College. He added that he found the motivation to continue when he started doing reasonably well as an artist, eventually becoming an assistant to Jo Mielziner, who designed stage sets for well-known Broadway theater productions such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman.”

Lee said that he decided to retire due to his advancing age. At 87, some of his teaching faculties have begun to decline, he said, especially his ability to read. 

“When you have a wonderful student, that’s about as rewarding as it can get,” Lee said. “When they actually learn something from my teaching, and when they begin to start doing reasonably well in the profession, that is a very rewarding experience.”

He said that a notable trend throughout his teaching career has been the increasing diversity of students on campus. Over the last few years, there have been quite a few African-American students who study costume design, and therefore are required to take his scenic design class, according to Lee. When Lee began teaching at both New York University and Yale in the ’60s and ’70s, the students were mostly, if not exclusively, white Americans, he added. It would not have been possible in the past to have the many wonderful Asian students he has now, Lee said, adding that some of his best graduates come from South Korea. He noted that the study of theater design has improved and that, more recently, he has welcomed students from Europe as well.

“To be in touch with a broad range of students is perhaps the best reward of being a teacher at the Yale Drama School,” Lee said. “I fervently hope that this exchange will continue in spite of the current political climate.”

In 1998, Lee was awarded a place in the American Theater Hall of Fame.