2020 PAVA Hall of Fame Inductee: Blake Palmer ’08

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the 2020 PAVA Hall of Fame Luncheon was cancelled.  The 2020 PAVA Hall of Fame Inductees will be recognized for their achievements at the 2021 PAVA Hall of Fame Luncheon.

Blake Palmer (‘08), whose sophomore appearance as Applegate in Notre Dame’s 2006 production of Damn Yankees set him on a lifetime love of theatre, no longer takes the stage. You could have, however, found him in the wings of the Metropolitan Opera in 2017, hearing a practicing Renée Fleming while he assisted in set design of Der Rosenkavalier. Or, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, doing the same earlier this year for the Broadway Theatre’s production of West Side Story.

Palmer’s theatrical career at Notre Dame began with Damn Yankees, followed by a stint as Christopher Wren in Mousetrap, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Sydney Lipton in God’s Favorite, and Heinzie in The Pajama Game. He concurrently worked on set construction for those shows, and co-directed a small children’s touring production titled “Spoofy Doofs” with fellow members of the Thespian Society.

“We acted, directed, built a set, and brought it to some of the grade schools like St. Vincent’s and St. Mary’s,” said Palmer, and with a laugh, admitted that the project was “short-lived.”

After graduating in 2008, Palmer realized he was no longer able to dabble in the vast areas of theatre as he’d done throughout high school. Colleges were direct, often explaining that he would have to choose between performance and production.

“The programs were so completely different,” Palmer said. “And so I chose to do my undergrad degree in stage management at Missouri State University in Springfield. With that came opportunities to do technical theatre, drawing, sketching, building models, things like that.”

In the summers, Palmer worked as a sound board operator for MSU’s summer stock program, Tent Theatre, and worked as a stage manager for Stagedoor Manor. In 2010, he spent a semester abroad in London for the Oxford University Onassis Programme and in Stratford-upon-Avon as a stage manager for the Shakespeare Birthday Celebration performance of Marlowe.

Palmer's recent set and costume design for Der Drang at the Residenztheater in Munich, Germany.

After graduating from MSU in 2012, he received a call from a friend who was studying set design at New York University (NYU). He suggested that Palmer come out and give it a try. He auditioned, was accepted, and by 2015, Palmer had a Master of Fine Arts in Set and Costume Design.

Yet he never “really planned to end up in New York.”

“I always thought I was going to be in London or somewhere in Europe; that’s what always attracted me,” said Palmer. “But it’s amazing here. It’s one of those cities where there’s so much to do and so much to see, and everything helps to inform the work that I do. Grad school was really intense coursework, but at the same time, so much of my education was living here and experiencing different cultures and different ways of living. All of that now helps me when I’m trying to tell stories of imaginary people.”

Blake Palmer ('08) and his sister Taylor Jedlinski ('12) pose for a photo outside the final dress rehearsal of West Side Story on Broadway.

Following his graduation from NYU, some of Palmer’s notable shows as a set design assistant include Tristan und Isolde at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in Germany (2015), Don Giovanni at the English National Opera in London (2016), Così fan tutte at the San Francisco Opera (2016), and M. Butterfly at Broadway’s Cort Theatre (2017). After a long stretch of productions throughout 2017 and 2018, Palmer decided to take some time away from theatre and venture into another art form: bread baking.

“It was like a departure and a realization that – from 2006 until 2018 – I had done theatre nonstop,” said Palmer. “So I just wanted to take a step back and gain some perspective.”

He enrolled in a program at the International Culinary Center in New York, earned his diploma in The Art of International Bread Baking, and was hired as a professional baker at Vaucluse in the Upper East Side. The gig kept him oddly seasoned.

“The older I get, the more I realize that my education is constant, so any life experiences I have help to inform how I’m going to design the next show. In a way, the discipline of a 9 to 5 job and daily practice actually helped me focus more when it came time to build the next set model,” said Palmer. “I also get bored easily, so [I have to] keep finding the next adventure.”

Then he got a phone call for a show in Munich, and quit his baking job.

“I think that’s sort of how this career happens: you meet someone and three to five years later, there’s an opportunity to work with them,” said Palmer.

Palmer was working as a set and costume designer for Der Drang at the Residenztheater in Munich and as a set design assistant for West Side Story when performance venues began closing due to the pandemic. And, with professional theatre shut down for the remainder of 2020 (as announced by the Broadway League) Palmer doesn’t believe they’ll be going back to work anytime soon.

“[West Side Story] had just opened in February when the pandemic hit,” said Palmer. “Now, they’re saying when theatre opens again, you need several weeks to re-rehearse; maybe there’s a performer who can no longer be in it so you have to train new performers. This production of West Side Story has told us that they don’t expect those productions to happen again until after March to give them plenty of time to reset the show. It looks like it could be nine months before we’re going to see theatre again in New York.”

For now, Palmer is keeping busy in quarantine by taking care of his cats and teaching himself how to play the harp.

“I picked it up when working on an opera in Virginia in 2017. I found [a lap harp] in a world music store and fell in love with the instrument,” said Palmer. “Practicing in the park is as close as I get to public performance these days. I have to keep music and art in my life.”

Editor’s note: During our interview, Palmer received word that Der Drang in Munich would soon resume production. To his relief, the set will remain the same. He must strategize as a costume designer, though, as performers have been instructed to wear masks onstage.