Kate Neeley, contributing writer
The lights go down, you’re in a dark theatre, but then, you’re not. What creates that moment when you are transported from your plush theatre seat to the streets of England, a mid-century living room, or a palace in a far-off land? You might assume the magic happens on stage. But what happens on stage is the product of a massive amount of effort and talent pouring in from every direction. With music, dance, and creative energy filling local stages again, there seems to be a new appreciation for arguably the most collaborative art form. Jump in for a deeper look at how it goes down behind-the-scenes in Cache Valley’s community theatre productions.
As a director, Jay Richards of Music Theatre West relates, “I love the creation process! I love pulling together the elements of storytelling — everything from the grand scenic elements to the gestures and vocal inflections of the actors. When it all comes together and it works, everyone in the room can feel it. It becomes real.” His love for that process goes hand in hand with the challenge — the sheer magnitude of it as “the cast is in rehearsals, the designer designs, the choreographer creates, the costumer sews, the painter paints, and the orchestra practices … and all at the same time!” What a monumental undertaking — and how important it is that every person in that picture does their part.
T.J. Davis of Pickleville Playhouse has written and directed several shows and won the hearts of many as Juanito Bandito. “One of the biggest challenges in writing is being able to put yourself in the right state of mind to create something entertaining,” T.J. says. “It’s literally my job every day to have fun. When I’m in a great mood, unstressed, confident, happy, enthusiastic, then writing is easy. The ideas flow and they all seem like the work of a genius as they come out.” He’s certainly up for the challenge and will be releasing a new Christmas show this holiday season. He loves the synergy of a cast who work together to create something great.
For the actors, each will have a different experience depending on what part they play. Jessica Mohammed got her master’s degree in professional theatre and has played a huge variety of characters. In summer 2019, you may remember her thrilling Cache Valley audiences with her charm as Marian in Music Theatre West’s The Music Man. She will be on stage again this fall as Sister Berthe in The Sound of Music.
Both lead roles and ensemble roles require a lot of study and practice, and according to Jessica, there are great things about both. “As an ensemble member, you get to form a closer camaraderie with other cast members, whereas in a lead role, you’re constantly working on lines, getting ready for the next scene, and getting into character and don’t get as much opportunity to socialize.” What makes a lead role amazing for Jessica is the experience of becoming someone else in the process of character development. “You gain a greater understanding of other people because you get to ‘walk in their shoes’ so to speak.”
Getting ready to play the part of Maria in The Sound of Music this fall has already been a journey of learning for Jamie Younker. She’s been reading the autobiography of the actual Maria Von Trapp and said, “I spend as much time outside of formal rehearsal as I do in formal rehearsal” becoming the character of Maria. Keep in mind, this is all volunteer. Sound crazy? For Jamie, the joy, connection, and treasured relationships she gains are well worth the time. “I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of it,” she said, with heart.
The dance numbers are a moving work of art. Pickleville Playhouse’s choreographer Sharli King absolutely loves the process of envisioning, teaching the cast, and then seeing the dances come together on stage. As a dancer growing up, her director and choreographer mom would ask Sharli for help, and now she says, “I’ve been choreographing shows for 15 years. I wasn’t an expert at first, but over time I’ve come to know the process and I enjoy it so much!” See some killer dance moves in Pickleville’s fall production of The Addam’s Family.
Quiet and somewhat hidden, an essential part is a person backstage with a headset making sure everything happens on cue — lights, sounds, flight system, set pieces, scene changes, and more. These unsung heroes are called stage managers. “The stage manager is like the nervous system of a production — the director is the brain — and the stage manager makes sure all the messages get sent to the right place on time to produce the director’s vision,” Cyndi Ford, who managed Cache Theatre’s Matilda, said.
Stage managers attend nearly every rehearsal so they have a good understanding of where the actors will be on stage and how that’s going to fit in with set pieces, lighting and backdrops, which actors need to wear mics, and more. It’s a big job. Music Theatre West’s stage manager Anissa Potts, who is currently working on The Sound of Music puts it this way, “From an audience perspective, it just looks like magic.”
The stage manager’s organizational skills and dedication to production from start to finish certainly make them a magic maker. The cliché phrase “the show must go on” depends on a stage manager’s quick thinking when an actor has a medical emergency, or if a set piece goes missing or malfunctions. To quote Anissa, “I like to think of it as an adventure.” Even with the possibility of unexpected mishaps, both Anissa and Cyndi have a passion for the job. Honestly, the success of a production depends on these administrative geniuses. When you applaud a production, keep these angels in the wings in mind.
Have you ever considered the details of costume design that begin months or years before a dress or coat appears on stage? Imagine watching your favorite show by actors dressed in whatever they could find that day. Even with a cast full of talented actors who know their parts, a lack of costumes would totally kill the vibe, don’t you think? Costume design is a massive undertaking from the sketches to the fittings down to the little stitches, zippers, and buttons.
Music Theatre West’s costume designer Maren Lyman took years collecting fabric, designing, and piecing together Joseph’s Coat for Music Theatre West’s 2019 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She is currently costuming the cast of The Sound of Music showing this September. Even “the play clothes we are making for each child are worn briefly, but they are an important part of the storyline. Along with all the other outfits they wear, I have put in more hours on them than I did on Joseph’s coat.”
For Four Seasons Theatre Company’s artistic director Kody Rash, creating a cohesive theme for costumes and set design is a labor of creativity and passion. He envisions, sketches, and makes the costumes and sets for every show. If you’ve ever been to a Four Seasons show, you’ve certainly been awed by the lively and unique costumes. Cinderella will hit the stage this fall. “The fun part is coming up with the ideas and the vision for a production,” and part of the magic is “making a beautiful masterpiece within a budget.” He also relies on the help of others.
Since this is community theatre, hundreds of hours are put in by regular people who fit into their busy schedule sewing on buttons and altering things to fit — and this is merely a snippet of the sacrifice that makes the stage come alive. Why does Kody do it? “There is a certain pride that comes from creating something beautiful and seeing what it does for other people … when people go to a theatre production, it gives them a chance to escape the hard things in life and let their hearts heal.” That is certainly a beautiful thing in more ways than one.
Chrissy Webster, Cache Theatre’s Miss Honey in Matilda knows as a vocalist what it takes to get ready for those big solo numbers. The powerful notes and lulling melodies may sound effortless to you, but it takes courage to get out there even after years of training and practice. Chrissy relates, “I almost never feel ready to do it, but I mostly remind myself that I’ve done this hundreds of times and I can do it again.” What’s more, is that it’s a gift she gives to the audience. “I think about what I can give the audience by going out there and doing it, whether it’s hope, inspiration, or something else.”
There’s really something special about community theatre in Cache Valley. What happens on the stage is merely a part of a collective labor of love, ingenuity, creativity, and a lot of hard work. To truly capture the soul that comes together as a collection of so many talented people in the community is nigh unto impossible, but from a few perspectives, you get a glimpse of the collaborative tip of the iceberg that creates such a stunning work of art.
“In theatre, there is a standard that is virtually impossible to attain. That term is ensemble. Artists who work together without pride or conceit create an enchantment that rarely takes place,” Manuel Leybas, Cache Theatre Company artistic director, said.