Kenton Yeager’s creativity shines

Kenton Yeager planned a career as an English teacher.

During his first year at Penn State Altoona his guidance counselor advised him that field was “saturated” and he may want to consider a different career.

He said he enjoyed theater, in particular lighting design, and she told him Penn State has a major in lighting design at the University Park campus.

“I got interested in lighting while in junior high. I was interested in the creativity of shaping an environment instantaneously. You don’t get that opportunity in anything else,” Yeager said.

So Yeager, a 1978 graduate of Altoona Area High School, moved on to Penn State’s main campus and received a degree in fine arts in 1984.

Today he is a tenured associate professor and head of the master’s program in Entertainment Lighting Design and Technology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

During the past 35 years, Yeager has designed or produced more than 600 events for the corporate world, theater, dance, music, weddings, industrials, festivals and tours, nationally and internationally. He is also the owner and creator of Yeagerlabs, a classroom theater system used in teaching theater (

Yeager, 52, who grew up on Ruskin Drive and attended Baker Elementary School and Roosevelt Junior High School, became interested in lighting at a young age.

He credits Nanette Anslinger, his high school drama teacher, for getting him involved in theater.

“I blame her for all of this,” he said jokingly. “She inspired in me a love of theater and creativity. She gave me the fundamentals and groundwork to begin my journey. She was the one who got this whole thing going.”

Several of Yeager’s teachers at AAHS, including Anslinger, remember Yeager well.

“He was certainly involved in theater, both on the technical side and in acting,” Anslinger said. “He was one of the most cheerful people I ever met. We did a lot of experimental theater, and at that time he was always one with the inventive ideas to solve technical problems at the stage. He was a great group person; he really connected to the group.”

John Skrabalak, Yeager’s art teacher at AAHS, recalled his talent for problem solving.

“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” Skrabalak said. “He was a master of all; he was very talented. He was a get-up-and-go kind of guy. He had a lot of advanced skills before he hit the theater.”

Yeager’s chorus teacher, Jacob Snyder, said he was very creative and very enthusiastic about everything he did.

“He was always respectful and I can’t think of a negative thing to say about him,” Snyder said. “He was always interested in technology and worked with lighting in the shows.”

“I am not surprised he ended up working at a university,” Snyder said. “He was always so bright.”

After graduating from Penn State, Yeager made several career stops.

He spent two years with Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., where he did the lighting design for its international tour. He then went to Minneapolis and served three years as the Guthrie Theatre’s lighting supervisor for its nation touring program. After that, he returned to Penn State to serve as an instructor in the Department of Theatre for two years and then spent four years as the resident lighting designer for the Flynn Theatre in Fletcher, Vt.

He also spent a year as chairman of the theater department at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and four years as the associate artistic director of the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk.

During his career, Yeager has designed corporate events for IBM, AIG International, The Olympic Ski Team, University of Tennessee, Vermont Fine Wine and Food Festival, and ESPN. He has also designed concerts for artists including Suzanne Vega, Dave Matthews and Bobby McFerrin and worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Russian dancer, choreographer and actor.

Yeager said he enjoys his work as a lighting designer.

“I go in and we have concept meetings,” Yeager said. “Once the set is designed, I design the light system for that show. There are usually 300 to 400 lights. I decide where they go and what colors. I design and program it,” Yeager said. “When they open, I have a glass of champagne and fly home the next day. Their opening is my closing.”

Yeager arrived at the University of Tennessee in 2001, when he was brought in to create the master’s program.

“UT has the second largest theater endowment in the country next to Yale,” Yeager said. “I recruit students and teach a lot of lighting classes, mostly at the graduate level. I am most proud of the students. They have won almost every major award in the country almost every year for the last decade.”

Yeager’s career has taken him to 48 states and around the world. He fondly remembers a 2003 trip with his students to the castle where “The Sound of Music” was filmed in Salzburg, Austria.

“What makes us different is we are an internationally-based program. We go abroad with graduate students. We immerse them in the arts and other culture,” Yeager said. “We brought in artists from all over Europe. That was a level of learning that people don’t usually get. That was fun and spectacular for our students.”

Calvin MacLean, head of the Department of Theatre at the University of Tennessee, speaks highly of Yeager.

“Kenton is a talented, personable and peaceful guy. He is an extraordinary lighting designer – an excellent collaborator, with an artistic eye and open nature,” MacLean said. “I have always enjoyed working with him. His personality is warm and his attitude toward life is generous. His students love him.”

MacLean said Yeager has had a significant impact on the university.

“Kenton has gathered a lot of support and acclaim for his professional research and entrepreneurship,” he said.

He noted that Yeager has won several awards, including the College of Arts and Sciences Award for New Research, Scholarly and Creative Projects in the Arts and Humanities; the College of Arts and Sciences Junior Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching; and the College of Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Advising.

In addition to his work at the university, Yeager started Creative Event Horizons in 2006 with a partner, Joe Champelli.

“We specialized in production for theater, corporate events and high-end weddings. We ran it for four years then sold it,” Yeager said of the lighting and decor company.

In 2009 Yeager created Yeagerlabs and the business went online in 2011. In that business, he designs and manufactures scaled theater laboratories to teach all aspects of stage design and production. He said it is like having a working theater in a classroom.

“It is a flexible system so it can be reconfigured to replicate any size or type of theater you want to study and explore,” he said. “They come fully equipped with miniature lighting, sound, projection and rigging equipment.”

Yeager said hard work and open mindedness have been the key to his success.

“You need to show up and do it,” he said.

Yeager said he gets home to Altoona a couple of times a year to visit his parents, Darryl and Carol Yeager. He said he misses the Altoona area.

“I miss the weather. We haven’t seen snow in years. I enjoy the four seasons. Pennsylvania is one of the best places to see all four seasons,” Yeager said. “I miss the changing of the climate, family and friends.”

Yeager doesn’t plan to retire any time soon.

“I never thought of it. It sounds so nice but hasn’t crossed my mind. I have much to do. I am a mature artist running on all cylinders. My creativity is at the highest it has ever been,” Yeager said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.