say your piece
ISSUE NO.154 23 OCT. 2003
The Backstage Performance
How Pioneer Theatre Company Lets You Suspend Your Disbelief
By Bobbi Parry

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.

photo: Sarah Morton

Take 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.”

photo: Sarah Morton

Such 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 on.

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.




photo: Sarah Morton

Right 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,” he says.

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,” Maxwell says.

Simple 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 black overcoats.”

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 shop supervisor.

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 effortless.

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In an effort to get them hooked on its brand of theatrical production before jacking up the price, the Pioneer Theatre Company offers discounted tickets to U students. After paying a $5 annual processing fee, free and $5 tickets are available to all productions.

On the first Monday after the previous production closes, free tickets are available to the next show’s Preview Night, which takes place on Tuesday the day before opening night. The first 200 seats in the upper balcony of the Opening Night performance are free, and $5 tickets are available after the initial 200 sell out.

There are also $5 tickets on an available basis for the first Thursday night and as rush tickets 30 minutes before each performance.

Also, half-price tickets are available for Monday through Thursday performances.

Tickets must be purchased at the Pioneer Theatre box office.

photo: Sarah Morton  
photo: Sarah Morton  
photo: Sarah Morton
Months of advance work go into the detailed costume and stage design for the Pioneer Theatre Company's productions.



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