Individually, Christopher and Justin Swader, '12, are gifted stage designers. But ask these identical twin brothers from Evansville, Indiana, to collaborate and, together, their talent becomes a tour de force.

The Swaders are Ball State's 2011 winners from the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) in Washington, D.C. They brought home the 2011 Barbizon National Award in Scenic Design in recognition of their stage design work for a 2010 university production of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. The play with 20 settings had a stage design to reflect how the characters’ world was crumbling around them, and elements served dual purposes such as columns becoming trees in Central Park and debris shifting into Antarctic glaciers.

"Christopher and Justin are two very talented, smart, and special students," says Kip Shawger, a theatre professor and award-winning stage designer. "They were competing against some of the best students from some of the top graduate programs in the country—and they're undergraduates. To win this award as juniors is an extraordinary accomplishment."

The Swaders’ honor marks the second time in three years Ball State has had a national winner at the competition and the seventh year in a row the university's most talented theater and design students have advanced beyond the regional stage of the Kennedy Center competition. In 2009, Marcie Greene, '09, was named national winner in KCACTF's lighting design category.

Shawger says the awards reflect the quality of the university's theatre and dance program. "It shows that we are giving our students unparalleled educational opportunities inside and outside of the classroom. Coupling theoretical learning skills with real-life practical experience is what our entire theatre program is all about. Our work in design and technology is experiential learning at its best," he says.

The Swaders are humbled by the recognition they received at the festival. "We really were not expecting to win like that," Justin Swader says. "The other entrants in our competition were so good, I think any one of us could have been given the top prize."

The brothers say participating in the festival was a wonderful opportunity from them to network with others in their profession. "We were inspired by everybody else's designs, and now we have connections to other stage designers, costume artists, and lighting designers across the country," Christopher Swader says. "That experience is going to be invaluable to us when we graduate."

In June 2011, they'll expand that network when, in recognition of their KCACTF national win, they become members of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology delegation to the Prague Quadrennial in Prague, Czech Republic. Thousands of designs from more than 60 countries—including the Swaders’—will be on display at the event.

"It's like the Olympics of stage design," Christopher Swader says. As first-timer travelers abroad, he added, "We're looking forward to being immersed in the experience of it all."

Bill Jenkins, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, says Ball State's reputation at KCACTF has been bolstered by Shawger's long-standing ties to the festival, including Shawger's role on the national design committee.

"Kip has been at the forefront of our involvement at KCACTF for more than 30 years," Jenkins says. "His dedication to the organization has brought acclaim to the institution and to his students."

Shawger says he's so committed to KCACTF because of how meaningful the experience is for his students—past and present. "Getting to participate in the festival is, to say the least, probably one of their top educational experiences. It leads them, while still students, to intense learning opportunities in real-world situations that simply would not be possible without the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival's support."