Maher Ahmad (B.A. 71, M.F.A. 74) is a highly successful production designer who has worked in theater, television, and film from Chicago to New York City to Hollywood. Born on February 3, 1950 in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania of parents who were refugees from Palestine, Ahmad was interested in theater from a young age, and in high school he acted in numerous productions. At the local Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre he did some acting, built scenery, and worked on prop, sound, and lighting stage crews. As part of the Janus Players, a high school summer theatre group, he created his first set design and also built, painted, dressed, and propped the show, as well as built scenery for other productions with the Players.
In 1967 Ahmad started at Northwestern as theatre major and studied acting and design. He designed the set and lighting for one production and worked on the stage crew for several others, in addition to doing many design projects for classes. In the fall of 1969 Ahmad co-founded Gay Liberation, a Northwestern University LGBT activism group. With the exception of one diary and his undergraduate scrapbook, all the material Ahmad saved from this era was destroyed in a flood in his parents' home.
After graduation, Ahmad took a year off and lived in Berkeley, California while he decided whether to continue schooling. He returned to Northwestern in 1972 as a candidate in the M.F.A. program in set, lighting, and costume design. While in the program Ahmad worked as a teaching assistant, designed nine projects—including one semi-professional show (Good News)—and headed construction and/or paint crews on a number of other productions.
Following completion of the M.F.A. program, Ahmad taught in the Theatre Department at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois. During the 1974-1975 school year he taught many courses in different aspects of theatre and theatre design, designed sets and lights for seven shows, and directed one play. In the summer of 1975 Ahmad designed sets for 8 musicals and several children's theatre shows at the Surflight Summer Theatre in Long Beach Island, New Jersey. He returned to Rockford College for another year of teaching in 1975-1976, again teaching numerous classes, designing sets and lights for three shows, and directing one. During this year he designed his first fully professional show, The Caretaker, at Victory Gardens Theater. Ahmad also twice applied to and was accepted to the doctoral theater program at UC Berkeley, and twice declined to attend. He also taught and designed eight shows for the Northwestern High School Institute (or "Cherubs" program) in the summer of 1976.
Starting in June of 1976, Ahmad worked pretty much full time as a professional set and lighting designer and was the technical director and resident designer at the Northlight Theatre (initially called the Evanston Theatre Company). In addition to his professional designing, Ahmad also taught theatre at Loyola University in 1978-1979 as a part-time faculty member, and designed several plays while there. Theatre consulting was another professional outlet for Ahmad during this period: he designed black box theatres for Loyola and the Victory Gardens Theatre, and did preliminary work on a conversion of the Biograph Theatre into a space for Victory Gardens.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s Ahmad was active in Palestinian activism in Chicago and northern Illinois through giving lectures and teaching courses in Palestinian history; developing a historical slide show; participating in public demonstrations; giving television and radio interviews; and publishing newspaper articles and letters to the editor.
The last stage play that Ahmad designed that was actually built was Light Up the Sky at the Northlight Theatre in 1980. At the time he was preparing the designs for several other plays, and what would have been his first opera design (for the Chicago Opera Theater). However, he began to feel dissatisfied with the heavy, relentless work load he was under. At one point he had 5 different productions running simultaneously, and in most cases would not only design them—sometimes doing both the setting and lighting—but also do all of the drafting work, head the building and painting crews, and be directly involved in the propping and decorating. He was also tired of the politics involved in his work, and abruptly resigned as the resident designer of the Northlight Theater, and resigned as well from productions at several other theaters. He had no clear idea of what he would do next. For a short while he worked as a for-hire scenic artist at NBC and several scenery construction companies to earn income.
In October of 1980 he heard that, because of a sudden influx of Hollywood filmmaking in Chicago, Local 876 of the Motion Picture Studio Mechanics Union needed carpenters. Realizing that this was well paid union work (although some of his theater work was unionized, much of it was not, and all of it paid very poorly) he called the local and was told to show up for work the next day with his tools at a house in Wicker Park where a TV show was to film. On his first day of work, the Art Director on the show found out he was a scenic artist, and the following day he was moved from building scenery to painting it. When the local realized that he had skills as a designer that were in short supply in the movie union, he was admitted to the union and presented as a local art director to a Los Angeles designer that was about to start preparing a TV series (The Chicago Story) that was to shoot in the city. At his interview he was hired on the spot to assist in the design of the series. This began his career as a film art director, and, with one minor exception, he would not design for the theater again.
His second moving picture job was on a feature film (Bad Boys with Sean Penn) where he again assisted the Production Designer. In 1983 he was himself hired as the Production Designer on a period film, and for several years worked alternatively as both as a feature film Art Director (second in command in the art department) and the Production Designer. His last Art Director job was Goodfellas in 1989.
His ambition to be the head of the art department on feature films necessitated, he felt, a move to either New York or Los Angeles. (Prejudicially, Production Designer jobs rarely went to locals.) He would not have qualified for admittance to the Los Angeles union, and because he could transfer his card with no obstacles to the New York local, he decided to move to New York City, which he did in October of 1983. There he continued in the film business, working both in New York and on various locations including North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Miami. Ironically (and predictably) once he lived in New York he was repeatedly hired to work, as the Production Designer, on films in Chicago. Upon his move to New York he ceased active involvement in working for Palestinian rights.
It was in New York that, at the age of 34 he met his partner, David Blankenship, ten years his junior, with whom he spent nine years in a very fulfilling relationship. Less than a year after meeting, Blankenship moved in with Ahmad. The relationship ended with Blankenship’s death from AIDS in March of 1995 at the age of 34. He is buried in Kensico cemetery in Westchester County, New York.
Ahmad’s years in New York, while fulfilling professionally, were marred by the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and the loss of most of his close gay male friends. Scarred by his losses, and long having tired of New York City’s frenzied pace and difficult quality of life, a year after Blankenship’s death he moved to Los Angeles, where he continues to work in the feature film business both in and out of Los Angeles.
His credits can be found on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) by entering a search for his name.