The Art Makers | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

December 06, 2017 News » Cover Story

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    click to enlarge DEREK CARLISLE/SARAH ARNOFF
    • Derek Carlisle/Sarah Arnoff

    Every time you watch a movie, you'll see that it ends with hundreds of credits. Most of us get up from our theater seats or turn off the DVD long before that list reaches its conclusion. Sure, we might understand on some level that the script supervisor or best boy or digital compositor is a necessary part of the process, but who really understands what they do?

    In the Utah arts community, there are names in theater programs or on the websites of artistic organizations generally unknown to those who enjoy the fruits of their labors. Every play you watch, every art exhibit you experience and every dance performance that thrills you depends on the efforts of countless talented behind-the-scenes contributors before the work ever gets in front of an audience.

    We'd like to introduce you to just a few of those people who toil in relative obscurity, giving them a rare chance to take a bow. For every one of these brief snapshots, there are hundreds more to whom those of us who love art should be grateful.

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Clovis Lark, Symphony Librarian
    Before every Utah Symphony performance, Clovis Lark places the score on the conductor's podium. The more fascinating part of his job is the process of determining specifically which score ends up on that podium.

    In an Abravanel Hall office stacked floor-to-ceiling with accordion folders full of scores, Lark talks about his role as librarian for the symphony. Growing up mostly in St. Louis and Manhattan, Kansas, Lark was interested in music, but like many people interested in the arts, he found himself initially studying a subject in college—in his case, mathematics and political economy—that seemed more practical, before switching to music. A potential graduate degree in musicology was sidelined by the loss of research funding, leading him to change direction again to culinary school and five years working in restaurants.

    In 1992, however, he saw a job posting in Bloomington, Ind., for a librarian at the Indiana University Conservatory. "I looked at the requirements and thought, 'Well, I can do this,'" he says. "That's probably how almost every orchestra librarian gets their job: There may be a myriad of reasons behind such a decision as simple as supplementing their instrumental income (I was unemployed), or helping out in their orchestra library, but once we get into what's going on behind the scenes, we find a rewarding world that we make into our own"

    The job involves multiple steps as the symphony plans performances several months down the road. Generally, the artistic director provides the basic program, and Lark begins the process of finding the needed scores for each scheduled piece. But the exact steps required can vary greatly. Is the composer contemporary enough that the work is still under copyright, requiring payment of royalties? For pieces that are in the public domain, which of the many existing versions is best? If the symphony library does have a copy of a specific piece, is it even the version that the conductor wants to work from?

    Once the desired version is obtained, Lark works with the conductor and concertmaster on specific notations for the performance of each part. "Just like a player getting their technique, intonation, everything spot-on," Lark says, "I'm doing this from the paper end before it even hits the stage, including collaboration with the lead players and conductors."

    Lark is content with his off-stage role, since he self-deprecatingly describes his own playing ability—"I stopped [violin] at a certain point because one thing I do have is a very, very good ear, and my proficiency was nowhere near the amazing level, personal dedication and drive of my colleagues on stage."—in addition to having terrible stage fright. "I knew somehow in the back of my head, someone had to do the work to get things on stage, but you never knew exactly what it was," he says. "I discovered there was an area of this job which I cared a great deal about: Making a piece absolutely understandable and correct, which is a critical component of a great performance."

    "The simplest part of my job is wearing a suit, going out and putting the score out for the conductor," he says. "People will see me doing that. But who is that, and what does he really do for a living? It's the end of a detailed process that may have begun a year earlier."

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Sarah Shippobotham, Dialect/Accent Coach
    If you've attended a theatrical production in the Salt Lake Valley in the past 20 years that included an accent, you've probably heard Shippobotham's work. Since relocating to Utah for a position with the University of Utah drama department in 1998, and subsequently spending 15 years as head of the Actor Training Program there, she has worked with actors on the finer points of convincing an audience through the way they speak that they're from somewhere else.

    A native of Cardiff, Wales, Shippobotham traces her interest in theater and voices back to childhood, but she became particularly attuned to variations in regional speech after moving to England at the age of 11, then returning to visit Wales. "I have this vivid memory of going back to Cardiff after we left, and suddenly hearing everybody speaking differently," she says. "My ears just went, 'What?'"

    Her interest in acting took her back to Wales for collegiate drama school, and eventually to a specialized program at the Central School of Speech and Drama. "I wanted to be an accent coach for film," Shippobotham says. "In 1997, [Central] was pretty much the only school in the world to have a program for accent coaching."

    For Shippobotham, teaching an accent begins with learning it herself. Although she says she can "fudge around in about 30 or so accents," she'll begin a project of coaching for a production by attempting to find authentic speakers of that accent, often via online clips, to observe how faces look when they speak and to learn what she calls the "mathematical changes"—variations on pronouncing specific vowels or consonants that might take the word "like" into the Cockney "loik" or Irish "lake."

    But as an actor herself, Shippobotham also finds it important to teach not just a formula, but a way to make the accent a natural part of an actor's performance. "The intangible part of dialect coaching is the tune and the rhythm," she says. "It becomes too paint-by-numbers if I say, 'You have to go up here and down here.' ... Does it feel authentic? Does it sound like you spoke like that before you hit the stage? Do you feel free to create in the accent, as opposed to I-have-to-get-it-right?"

    Despite her initial interest in teaching for film, Shippobotham only has one movie credit, although it was a high-profile one: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy. In addition to her work annually with the Shaw Theater Festival in Ontario, she continues coaching actors locally, most recently in Pioneer Theater Co.'s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And it's fascinating having her teach me the intricacies of an Australian accent by having me recite a single sentence: "There was once a young rat named Arthur, who would never take the trouble to make up his mind."

    "I love sound," she says. "I think language and text is really important. And it should be as good as it can be, and if somebody's willing to put in the time, I really enjoy helping people to expand. In a way, the joy is the game: How do I unlock you? How do I push you further than you think you can go?"

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Jared Steffensen, Curator + Kevin Lucey, Preparator
    As part of Utah Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition Cities of Conviction, a mixed-media work hangs from the ceiling, the pieces including sections from a gasoline pump. The story behind how it ended up ready for the installation's opening night explains a lot about the roles of the museum's curator and preparator.

    "This piece came from Saudi Arabia at 10 a.m. on the day we were supposed to open the exhibition at 7," museum curator Jared Steffensen says. "It was thrown into a bag of bubble wrap, thrown into a crate and sent here. There were labels, but they were written on masking tape in pencil, and that has a tendency to rub off. And also they were in Arabic. So, you have three people in Utah looking at Arabic symbols, trying to figure something out."

    Steffensen and Kevin Lucey—the museum's preparator, who does much of the physical work of installing exhibitions—don't always encounter quite so much drama while readying an exhibition for the public. Yet they play a role that almost makes them co-creators of works of art.

    Lucey started in his position in summer of this year, taking a role that he only discovered existed after an internship at UMOCA. "I started as a photography major, but before that I was painting houses and doing electrical work," Lucey says. "I wanted to continue in the art world, but I didn't see being the individual that was producing the work." The internship, however, opened his eyes to "Oh wow, this exists in the art world: a job that is labor/maintenance-based, but for a museum."

    The role of the preparator might be described fairly simply—Lucey says it's "to make sure that nothing is falling apart from an art sense"—but there's considerably more to the job, and to the collaboration between Lucey and Steffensen. As an exhibit is being planned, Steffensen—who held the preparator job himself circa 2009—begins envisioning the placement of works within a gallery space, often employing modeling software. "Then," Steffensen says, "I'll have Kevin look at it, then we discuss certain things—there's not enough space here, we think this is too tight an area. Because I think [the preparator] knows the area a bit more intimately. We're the ones on the computer."

    The details of an installation might involve everything from the transition from one work to the next, to the lighting, to the physical height at which a work is hung on the wall. Even within UMOCA, different spaces present different moods—"the Main Gallery with a huge hardwood floor," as Lucey says, "then up here [on the main floor] with concrete and white"—that can affect a viewer's experience.

    Lucey also notes that the installation process brings those who work at the museum closer to the works. "I'll just walk by and be like, 'This was someone's idea, but at the same time, [we] were able to execute it.' ... Everything changes once you lift the case off the crate. Everything's a little different than you thought it would be: There's a hook in this place, but you really need it in this place."

    "The thing that keeps bringing me down into the room," Steffensen adds, "is the creative problem-solving. There's something incredibly fulfilling about that, when you stand in front of a work and think, 'Now how the hell are we going to get this on the wall?'"

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Jennifer Freed, Stage Manager
    In a rehearsal for Eric Samuelsen's play The Ice Front, one of the main characters—a theater company stage manager—explains her role. "I'm invisible," the character says; "I'm essential."

    Beside the theater's seating structure, behind the sound and lighting board, Jennifer Freed takes on that role for Plan-B Theatre Co. as she has for 20 years. She describes her role in a way similar to Samuelsen's protagonist: "The person who keeps it all together, maybe," Freed says. "Because I have to know everything: the costume each character wears, all the props, all the lights, all the sound. I have to know if an actor is sick. Even getting here early enough to make sure everything is set up for the actors when they get here. You really have to be on top of it. You have to know all your troops."

    Freed grew up in a family of theater people in Utah, so she was immersed in it from an early age. But it still wasn't an obvious career track for her, especially because, as she puts it, "I had no desire to act." It was her sister who encouraged her to look into the behind-the-scenes side, and she began the theater program at the University of Utah. "I thought I was going to go into lighting design or set design," she recalls. "I was working on my first production backstage, talking to the stage manager, and she said, 'You should look at stage management.' So I did, and I fell in love with it."

    Her professional career took her to New York for several years, but she returned to Utah, initially to call shows for Utah Opera for five years. "I could do what I wanted to do here," Freed says, "and I could buy a house for less than I was paying for an apartment in New York." That still doesn't mean it's possible for theater to be a full-time occupation for Freed. She works a day job in the purchasing department at Lagoon, "which supports my theater habit," she jokes. While she says she'd work in the theater full-time if it were possible, the logistics of such a career don't really work unless you're willing to give up the rest of your life. "Those who do make it, they're on the road all the time. For me it came down to, I'm really truly proud of what we do here. It equals everything I did in New York, or at the opera, and I'm allowed to have a life, and another job, and that's fine."

    For now, that life includes being the person who keeps the show running without ever being on the stage. "I was never in acting classes, never comfortable with that," Freed says. "But give me pen, a paper, a script, and tell me that I need to follow blocking and help people, I'm there for them. ... . If [the audience is] noticing me, then I've screwed up somewhere, and that horrifies me."

    She's OK with being invisible. Everyone else in the show is more than OK with her being essential.

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Chris DuVal, Fight Choreographer
    If you believe that the key to stage combat is aggression, Chris DuVal would like to disabuse you of that notion. "This is an art form about creating an illusion," he says in his office on the University of Utah campus, where he currently heads the Actor Training Program. "How do we create moments that look explosively dangerous, like two people out to kill each other, but are actually about people who are deeply connected, taking care of the other person?"

    DuVal's specialization in fight choreography is only part of a long career in theater that began with growing up in a family of performers—both his father and grandfather acted professionally—in Southern California. The graduate of a performing arts high school, he was encouraged by his father to study theater in college rather than biology, "which is really bizarre for a parent," he says with a laugh.

    He was only 18, in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac with California Youth Theatre, when he first became interested in stage combat while working with renowned fight choreographer B.H. Barry. It was not, however, a skill that came naturally to him. "I was actually not very good at it, at all," he says. "but I knew that I wanted to be better. And I just kept working at it." That work involved around eight years of training toward certifications from the Society of American Fight Directors, Dueling Arts International and the Academy of Theatrical Combat. Subsequently, he has worked for 18 seasons as fight director for the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

    For DuVal, the process of working on a theatrical production is always focused on protecting performers. "The director may say, 'We want this physical moment,'" DuVal notes. "So it's all going to be contingent, for me, on actor safety. Is the floor safe? Is the lighting adequate for the physical activity they're being asked to do? Actors tend to be either scared of getting hurt themselves, or hurting someone else, or fearful of looking dumb. So a lot of my work is providing solutions to some of those fears. What are the choreographic opportunities that will make the actor feel safe, feel like they're protecting their partner, and also makes them feel confident in what they're doing?"

    Like many behind-the-scenes people, DuVal believes he's doing his job best when you don't even realize that it's being done. "I don't want people to see a play happen, then see a choreographic interlude, then see the rest of the play happen," he says. "I want the fight to be an integral part of the story. So sometimes we affectionately call our choreography more appropriately 'storyography.' The actual moves are less important than the story, and how the story gets furthered.

    "As a young choreographer, my fights were always very long, and used as many of the flashiest moves as I could possibly get in them," he says. "Now I'm much more interested in making the fight as long as it needs to be, and to get down to the essentials of what that conflict needs to communicate."

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Kevin Alberts, Costume Designer
    The racks of clothes—organized by era, and by men's or women's garments—fill a space large enough that Kevin Alberts doesn't even know how big it is. It's a visual representation of 30 years spent designing the costumes that actors have worn on some of Utah's biggest stages.

    A native of suburban Detroit, Alberts—a full-time employee of the University of Utah's costume shop—recalls participating in the drama club in high school, but "I didn't know that being a costume designer was a job. I don't think I knew where costumes came from." It was only when he began working with a community theater that he started learning firsthand. "They needed someone to do costumes, and I went, 'Well, how hard can it be?'" Alberts says. "It was a little harder than I thought."

    College study in theater led him to the University of Utah for grad school, where he eventually returned after stints working in Chicago and New York. In addition to working for Pioneer Theatre Co. and other Salt Lake City-based companies, he has designed for Utah Shakespeare Festival since 2002.

    The process of designing a show begins with meetings with a director, but the specifics of that process can differ greatly depending on the collaborator. "Some directors are very straightforward; they know in their mind they have a picture of what they want their show to look like," Alberts says. "Some directors are open to anything—we could do this or we could do that—and it's your job to funnel it all together. Some directors are more ethereal or talk in metaphors, and you have to funnel that in."

    Every production is its own unique thing, with its own unique dynamics. Sometimes the logistical challenges involve working on two different shows—one for PTC, one for the university theater department—at the same time. There's the challenge of keeping your own ideas fresh when you're working on a well-known show where there might have been hundreds of previous productions, or even a movie version. Then there are the particular quirks of working on shows for Utah Shakespeare in a smaller town like Cedar City: "If you don't come prepared, you're stuck," he says. "There used to be a Kmart, and that was it. Now there's a Walmart and a Kmart."

    But for Alberts, there remains the appeal of working directly with the actors, something other people on the technical side of theater production, like lighting and set design, don't always have. And after 30 years, there's the experience of knowing what pieces from that massive stockroom of costumes might work for an upcoming show, and which shows are the real tests of his skill.

    "People ask 'what's the hardest show, and what's the biggest show,' and they're not necessarily the same thing," Alberts says. "Les Misérables is probably the biggest thing we've ever done, but looking at it, it's a whole bunch of dirty rags, so you're not overwhelmed by the size of it. Beauty and the Beast was the hardest thing we've ever done, because you have to make somebody be a teapot, and a clock, and a candlestick. It's all stuff we had never done, so the learning curve on that was tremendous.

    "We save everything," he says. "It could end up being rags for Les Miz, if nothing else."

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Heidi Belka, Pyrotechnician/Stage Hand/General Behind-the-Scenes
    Firing a cannon inside a theater for a production like The Nutcracker requires a very specific kind of training. For those who know how to do it right—like Ballet West's Heidi Belka—there are ways to test your level of expertise. "Ideally, I get a smoke ring," Belka says. "That's my goal each show."

    Unlike many behind-the-scenes theater professionals, Belka didn't grow up thinking she would be in showbiz. After working mostly in retail, she became interested in the work her husband was doing as a theater technician. "He was telling me what he was doing, and I was like, 'I don't understand,'" Belka says. "So he said, 'Come down and try it out.' I did one show with him and just loved it. I loved the activity: unloading the truck, bringing it in, building the show."

    A three-year apprenticeship program followed, which involved preparation for a wide variety of backstage jobs. As a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union (IATSE), Belka might work everything from the lighting rigging for a rock show at Vivint SmartHome Arena, to working in the costume shop of a theatrical production, to running the remote control for the flying carpet in Ballet West's production of Aladdin. Additionally, she works frequently on movie and television production in Utah, applying her skills to scenic painting, lighting and more. "Some people would say that it's not wise to do what I've done, and to specialize in one thing," Belka says, "but it's worked for me for 10 years now. From day to day, one day I'm a carpenter, the next day I'm an electrician."

    She does acknowledge, however, that "pyro" is the job she loves most, and wishes she could to more. When Ballet West's long-time pyrotechnician retired, the company's stage manager, Michael McCulloch, approached Belka about learning the craft. The process involved some unique preparation—"I needed to pass a background check with [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms]," Belka says—so that she could receive a possessor letter of clearance to work under McCulloch's license. "He taught me how to take an electrical match and wire it into whatever the gadget is," Belka says, "how to mix the chemicals, different ratios for whatever effect we want."

    While the exciting side of the job might involve firing cannons and creating flash effects, there's also an important safety component to the role. She might be called in to serve as "fire watch" for a touring theater production, which means someone to ensure nothing goes wrong any time a live flame is on stage—whether it's a torch in Wicked or just a cigarette lighter in An American in Paris.

    "Pyro can be stressful, making sure no one is in its path before I go," Belka says. "In fact, no matter the gig, I always have a healthy amount of nerves going. I just want to keep people safe and do a great job."

    • Sarah Arnoff

    Mike Leavitt, Musical Director
    The journey of a classically trained pianist to working on Salt Lake Acting Co.'s satirical, often raunchy Saturday's Voyeur might seem like an aesthetic leap. For Mike Leavitt, it's the perfect way to combine what he loves about music and theater.

    The Las Vegas native performed in state and regional competitions as a classical pianist, but landed his first professional theater gig at the age of 15, as a keyboard accompanist for a national tour of Brigadoon. "I enjoy the collaborative effort of theater," Leavitt says, "working with other musicians in the pit, and on the music director side, working with actors, the director, the production team. Whereas as a classical pianist, I'm stuck in a room by myself practicing eight hours a day."

    The role of musical director is just one of many hats Leavitt wears, as he makes a living also composing and arranging music and producing for studio recordings. But the musical director job itself is one that requires a wide range of different skills. At times he's working with actors so that they learn their individual singing parts correctly, including pronunciation tricks so that lyrics can be most easily understood by an audience. Then there's the technical side, says Leavitt: "We need this kind of staging, this kind of set design so this song will come across. We need this many musicians, and how to get them mic'ed properly. How am I going to make sure my singers are heard, whether it's a large theater or a small theater. The amount of work that goes into the title is more than what many people might initially conceptualize."

    The process is altogether different for Saturday's Voyeur, where Leavitt took over in 2016 after longtime Voyeur music director Kevin Mathie moved out of the state. "For me it felt really natural," Leavitt says of the transition. "It all kind of made sense. There's a certain lingo that I had to get used to, in the fact that Voyeur is a different beast than any other kind of production out there. But it's still theater and still live."

    That show still involves different logistical demands, in that each production is a brand-new show. "With Voyeur, I am integral to the creation of that whole project every year," Leavitt says. "[Writers Allen Nevins and Nancy Borgenicht] might say, 'I have this song'—'Changes,' by David Bowie—'but I don't know what to do with it yet,' and I have to figure out how to work it into the show. ... You never know who's going to sing which line, so you have to base it on certain keys, to make sure that it fits everybody's range properly. And you want not just a hodgepodge, but a flow from beginning to end."

    While he brings the skills of a talented musician to the process, it's just as important that he brings a work ethic—including 16-hour-days at times—and an enthusiasm for collaboration. "I love the creation side of it, I love the performance side, I love the rehearsal process," Leavitt says. "That's some of the most enjoyable parts of any theater process—when you really get to know your team."

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