Ann Gumpper Creates Fantastical Worlds Onstage

Ann Gumpper Creates Fantastical Worlds Onstage

Artist Anne Gumpper.

When master artist Ann Gumpper picks up a paintbrush, looks at a blank canvas, and imagines a new world of her creation, magic happens. Many of Ann’s “canvases” are immense and not meant to be framed or hung on a wall.

Rather, as a scenic designer, she approaches each opera, theater production, or ballet with her own fresh take to give the performers a gorgeous environment in which to do their best work, with her distinctive backdrops, set pieces, and more.

Ann was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, where her father was completing his medical residency. The family later moved to Flint, Michigan, where her parents became part of a group of young professionals who worked to build the cultural centers that still serve the community today.

Ann Gumpper’s scenic design for Mamma Mia at the NorShor "emphasizes light yellows and deep blues in contrast to the NorShor’s red walls and seats," as noted in a review in the Duluth News Tribune. Photo submitted.

She recalls how her parents took her and her sister to the young people’s concerts at the symphony, had them participate in ballet and theatre and take classes at the art institute.

“I’ve made art since I could hold a crayon.,” Ann noted. “My sister and I made up songs, made them into songbooks, and illustrated them. We created ballets in shoeboxes with scenery and dancers on sticks that we could lower into cutout prosceniums. We made up plays with our cousins and performed them for our parents. I can’t remember ever actually playing with our Barbies, but we reecorated their Dream House all the time.”

Ann received her BA in Theatre Arts from Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Michigan, and her MFA Set Design, from Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, in Richmond, Virginia

After taking an undergrad class in which she designed a set for “Spoon River Anthology,” her professor told her she should think about a theater major. “I didn’t know what he meant. All parts of theatre felt like playing to me; I guess i thought I needed to find something more difficult and serious to do for a job. But I did start taking some theatre classes, and I realized I’d always loved ‘art with friends’ more than art all by myself.”

The Freshwater Forest Exhibit at Great Lakes Aquarium "invites connections between human history, aquatic habitat and forest management," according to the Aquarium. Photo submitted.

Ann acted and worked on sets through the rest of undergraduate school and was hired as an actor in a small company after graduating, also serving as their set designer/technical director. When she moved to Rhode Island for the summer to be props master at Theatre-By-The-Sea, she met a set designer who inspired her to go to graduate school for her MFA in design.

She and her husband at the time moved to Duluth, where he was going to grad school at UMD. When she moved to Duluth, she found there were many opportunities for her to work, even though it was a place that she did not expect to stay.

She and her husband split up, and Ann was working at St. Scholastica when she met Mark Harvey who is a member of the theater faculty at UMD and for the last several years the theater department head. They married and raised their children here.

“We’ve had some offers to move for jobs, but ultimately, the Lake, the community, and honestly the opportunities, kept us here,” Ann said.

Ann and Mark have two grown children: Bev, who lives in Minneapolis doing some theatre lighting, sound projection design and tech, and online video projects, and Katie, who lives in Oregon and is a medical illustrator with Cognition Studio.

Shows and Projects

Ann has worked with many area arts organizations including: The Duluth Playhouse, Depot and NorShor, Minnesota Ballet, Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra, University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Department of Theatre, UMD Opera Studio, College of Saint Scholastica,

Wise Fool Theatre, Lake Superior Community Theatre, Zeitgeist/Teatro, and Lundeen Productions.

In addition, she is the Resident Scenic Designer for Lyric Opera of the North (LOON), and part of the award-winning creative team for “Decameron Opera Coalition’s Tales From a Safe Distance.”

She has also enjoyed working on projects with the Duluth Public Library, Great Lakes Aquarium, YMCA, Harbor City, Duluth Art Windows Project, Wolf Ridge, and Extreme Home makeover, among many others.

Other projects include painting murals for offices and homes and doing cover illustrations for book covers.

Lyric Opera of the North presents L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) in 2019 at UMD Marshall Performing Arts Center. Photo submitted.

As rewarding as her theatre design is, she enjoys her other work, collaborating with clients and groups to create murals and other projects. She worked with Pilgrim Congregational Church, for example, to create the mural in their social hall that depicts their history and current social justice work. “Many of the congregants worked on that project with me, from ages 1½ to a woman in her 80’s,” she said.

“I’ve also loved doing restoration work in some of the beautiful old homes in the area, recreating painted friezes, or repairing old tile or wallpaper to match the original, or creating a mural that looks original,” she added.

In addition to her many projects, Ann has also taught scene painting and scene design at UMD and Saint Scholastica,

Making the Arts Come Alive

“I love the way live performance is unpredictable and ephemeral. We are only in that moment, with that audience and that show onstage, for a minute and then it’s gone. I love creating an emotional environment that supports that experience,” she explained.

“Working in collaboration with a creative team is THE reason why I am in the theatre. I tend to think out loud, or with a pencil in my hand, and when I am with a group of creative artists all reaching for the same vision, the ideas flow and build on one another,” Ann noted. “The shared outcome, when we can’t remember who came up with which idea, is the most rewarding for me.”

Ann painting the set for "Mamma Mia" at the Duluth Playhouse. Photo submitted.

“Murder on the Orient Express”

Ann acknowledges that her current scene design project “Murder on the Orient Express” is a challenge, considering that she has to put a train on the NorShor stage.

“Of course, the Orient Express is an iconic actual train, so I deeply researched the period construction, furnishing and appointment detail,” she said. “The design strives to be a balance between realistic detail and a more abstracted emotional environment, including an enveloping image of the snowy mountains in which the train is immobilized.”

“The director, Julie Ahasay, wanted it to be detailed and elegant, so we’re going for that as well. I’ll be thrilled if the scene changes go fast and are dramatic and surprising, if the audience is focused on the clever story and finds the scenery a delightful aid to telling that tale,” Ann said.

“Murder on the Orient Express” runs January 26-February 11 at the NorShor Theater. Tickets available at

World-famous detective Hercule Poirot climbs aboard the extravagant Orient Express, a train packed with eccentric passengers. When a snowdrift stalls the train and a passenger is discovered murdered in his bed, trouble ensues. Poirot must solve the crime before the culprit escapes. This classic murder mystery by the worlds most popular mystery writer, Agatha Christie, and adapted by the king of comedy Ken Ludwig, will have you laughing one moment and gasping the next. (Description from the Playhouse site)


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