ny good artist will say that art is all about making
the difficult look easy. Nowhere is this truer than in theater,
where actresses and actors bound across the stage as if they were
born squinting into a spotlight, wearing period clothing and enunciating
Like This. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Truth be told, the
spotlight got turned on for the first time two days ago. That outfit
is probably some of the most researched and carefully planned clothing
you've ever seen. And the witty, effortless conversation? Weeks
of rehearsal. The theater is all about process, carefully calculated
to plan for every eventuality.
a look at the production schedule for the Pioneer Theatre Company.
Final selection of the upcoming season takes place in spring (the
theater season begins in September). The company personnel start
work on costumes seven weeks before the production; they begin building
the sets four to six weeks beforehand. With three and a half weeks
to go, rehearsals begin—six days a week, eight hours a day,
until the final week, when tech rehearsals begin and the hours go
up to 12.
The first complete run-through of the show takes two days. After
the show opens on Wednesday, the crew has the weekend to rest before
beginning on the next production the following Monday. At any given
time, there are two casts in residence at the theater—those
performing and those in rehearsals. It's an impressively small time
frame for some fairly elaborate productions.
It's also what keeps the Pioneer Theatre Company an impressive force
in Salt Lake City’s theatrical scene. It remains the major
regional theater, even as local theater junkies rejoice at the rise
of several new downtown theater companies.
There is no direct competition—PTC is still the only place
to go for Broadway-style productions, complete with revolving stages,
large singing casts and multiple sets. It’s sort of the Hollywood
to the other companies’ indie film. In its 40 years of existence,
the company has become the guilty pleasure of contemporary theater
fans and the trusted standby for those who prefer the mainstream.
PTC seems well aware of its status and its yearly schedule reflects
its wide appeal—last year, productions ran the gamut from
the family-friendly “Peter Pan” to a World War I version
of “MacBeth” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof.”
a wide audience base is a mixed blessing. Take “Proof,”
for example. The tale of a daughter's relationship with her mathematical
genius father was well-received in the university community, but
some of the theater’s older patrons—the ones who pay
full price—were “mortally offended” by the strong
language. “Peter Pan,” on the other hand, was a wild
success for the more mainstream fans, while leaving those who favor
contemporary theater cold. But even when the company operators do
receive letters of complaint, Managing Director Chris Lino says,
they are usually prefaced with an appreciation for the quality of
the theater. “We have a reputation,” he says. You may
love or hate the play itself, but you will always be impressed by
the good acting and the interesting sets. “The base audience
knows they can expect quality in production.”
Having a conversation with Lino means receiving a rundown of previous
shows—whatever the topic, he always has a theatrical example
at hand. Like the time the engine blew out of the Model T during
the final rehearsals of “Ragtime.” After $20,000 and
a couple of new engines, the problem was fixed and the show went
Such accidents are rare in a play. In an operation like PTC, things
just don't go wrong that often. "There are not surprises,"
Lino says. "If you're doing your job right, it doesn't happen."
The whole process is designed to plan for every eventuality—for
all the artistic ideals of theater, much of it is a very carefully
planned, technical process. Design sketches are handed in well ahead
of time, there are understudies for the cast and all unexpected
problems get smoothed out during the technical rehearsals.
But, of course, according to Lino, there is one thing you can't
plan for: “the audience's reaction.” During the final
days of tech rehearsal, Lino and some members of the other PTC crew
watch the production. “It's our job to laugh and clap,”
he says—and pray the real audience does the same come Wednesday.
Lino says that the final few days of production “always strike
fear into my heart.” But for the company's latest production,
“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” that time has yet to come.
now, Lino is getting ready to give a tour of the theater's backstage,
where the set is still being built. “Cyrano de Bergerac”
has just closed and “Jekyll & Hyde” doesn't enter
technical rehearsals until next week. Lino gives a warning as he
leaves his office: A set being built is like a house being built.
“It looks like it’s not even close, and then it's done,”
A model of the stage shows what it will eventually look like—a
giant triangular wall on a revolving stage, rotating around to create
different locations. Most of the show’s color is on the wall—the
rest of the stage is painted black in keeping with the piece's noir
feel. Resident Set Designer George Maxwell moves miniature pieces
of furniture out of the model to demonstrate what they’ll
look like when everything is finished. On stage they are still painting,
though the final product is definitely visible. Sets can be made
of anything—wood or styrofoam. The only rule, Lino says, is
that “it's almost never made of what it looks like.”
The now-deserted rehearsal room, where actors practice until they
begin technical rehearsals, gives another clue of what the final
show will be. It's a bizarre mix of modern theater and 19th-century
life. The black floor is taped in neon to imitate the floor of the
actual stage. There's even a series of rectangles meant to be a
staircase. Nineteenth century furniture—a mirror, a couch,
all for actors to practice with until they get on stage—lines
one wall. Preliminary sketches of stage designs and lighting concepts
line another wall.
“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” is a sinister story, and
accordingly, the production will be starkly lit, with shafts of
light and pools of darkness. Not only does this create the feel
the play requires, but it aids in creating different locations and
set changes. “We can trick the audience with light,”
sets like this are by far the most difficult to design, he says,
because you have to do so much with a few essential pieces. “You
have to be able to bare it down,” he says. The set of “Copenhagen”
(an equally bare stage featuring nothing but three chairs in a circle)
took dozens of sketches before settling on the one that was used
in PTC’s production.
Costumes are essentially finished, and only a few people remain
in the costume shop at the end of the day. Guest Costume Designer
David Mickelsen talks about his design for the production. “It's
all in dramatic black, white and red,” he says. The nice thing
about this production is that most of the time the men are in evening
wear. He mentions “tails, with red-lined evening capes and
Not only did this fit in with his “blood and passion”
motif, but it worked well with the script. People who try to describe
Mr. Hyde cannot do so without describing the clothing of every man
on stage, said Carol WellsDay, the resident designer and costume
Costume design is a detail-oriented process. Characters’ hats,
shoes, jewelry, even many times underwear have to be dead-on for
the time period. Certain adjustments are allowed (they don't use
whalebone in their corsets, for example, because actresses wouldn't
be able to breathe well enough to sing or perform). The careful
process is evident in rows and racks of costumes from 40 years of
productions stored in the theater's basement. There is a wall of
drawers carefully labeled with things like “bras, bum pads
and biker shorts.” “Everything we can, we save,”
Lino says. What they cannot find in their own clothing supply is
rented or built.
The tour ends in the wig room, which is much like the costume room.
There's a wall with every sort of facial hair imaginable—hairpieces
for the current production sit on a shelf next to it. While the
mustaches, beards and other facial hair consist mainly of yak hair,
the wigs can be either synthetic or real. It's after 5:00 on a Friday
and people around the theater are still working.
They are preparing for next week, when the show moves into tech
rehearsals. It opens on Oct. 29 and production will begin in earnest
on the next play. It’s not easy making so much effort seem