Behind the curtain
A small pool of craftspeople keep Reno’s theater scene alive
A week before Reno Little Theater’s Murder in Green Meadows wrapped, the stage looked like something out of Mid Century Modern magazine—all clean lines and chrome, with cool tones perfectly suited to this story of suburban evil. It probably never occurred to show attendees what hoops RLT Technical Director Chad Sweet had to jump through to dress the stage this way.
“We got a corporate sponsorship from Scandinavian Designs,” Sweet said of the perfectly appointed set. “I had to do some talking, certainly, but they ended up being super nice and supportive, and they loaned us $3,000 worth of furniture. So it’s a bit of a sales job.”
It’s also bit of garage-sale shopper, collector and artisan job—big donations are rare. Sweet purchased one painting on the wall a year ago, in anticipation of this show.
“There are things you have to make, too,” he said. “We need blood on stage, so you have to figure out how to make the blood, because it also has to wash off, that kind of thing.”
These are the sorts of challenges theater craftspeople encounter daily. While folks generally speak of live theater in terms of performance, few theatergoers spend time considering the art hanging on the walls of a set, the moods created in a scene through light and shadow, the flexibility of a costume or the props held in actors’ hands.
The artisans handling these elements are the unsung—and often unpaid—heroes of local theater, without whom our theater scene would not be the burgeoning success it is.Setting the stage
Like many working in theater, Sweet wanted to be an actor. He majored in art at New York’s Elmira College—his backup plan, he said—and his first acting gig required that he also work in scenic, lighting, sound and costume design.
“I learned early on as an actor that if I wanted to work all the time in theater, I probably had to do more than just act,” he said.
These days, Sweet is one of the few Reno actors working a full-time, paid theater position. His job as technical director and production manager for RLT involves designing and building sets, assembling props, designing light and sound, working with volunteers and managing productions from conception through performance. In all, it’s a three-month-long process—or more—all with a miniscule, or even nonexistent, budget.
Though Sweet may occasionally take the stage at night, “We decide our shows more than a year in advance, so I’m really focused like five shows out,” he said.
The same goes for Lauren Hufft. The costume designer got her start as a volunteer with Brüka Theatre in 1989, outfitting the company’s wildly popular Buttcracker show. Since then, Hufft has gone on to dress actors with TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada, Reno Little Theater and Merry War Theatre Group, in addition to Brüka.
As one of the only freelance costumers in town, she generally comes into the process once budgets are set—she is usually paid a small stipend for her work—which ends up being a few months before showtime. She gets a copy of the script, attends the first table read and consults with the director about the vision for the show and any potential challenges or motifs: Is there a color palette? Choreography or highly physical work? The costumes have to fit the period, location, social class and characters’ personalities, plus withstand weeks of wear.
“Then I’ll suggest ideas to the director, and I welcome their ideas because I want to make their vision come true,” Hufft said. “I sew some from scratch, and for others, I know the thrift stores inside and out, so I’ll buy things and adjust them to make them appropriate to the show.”
Then come accessories and accents, measurements and dress rehearsals to ensure fit and movement.
All of this is done on a shoestring budget. Buttcracker involved 120 costume changes and $300. For RLT’s Mother Hicks, her budget to create 1930s-era costumes and shoes was $150. She came in at $108.
Brüka Theatre’s technical director Dave Simpson is another of that rare breed, a full-time theater employee. He actually wears several hats—not only building sets and lighting and sound design, but managing the theater and facility maintenance.
For each show, his work begins with rehearsals. He watches what the director does with blocking, where lights and shadows need to fall. Before tech rehearsals—during the time known frequently as “hell week”—Simpson puts in full days hanging lights and recording sound effects in preparation for rehearsals, plus working with the propmaster to ensure props work, are lit and fit the sounds he’s assigned them.
“I had a guy the other night [during Stupid F**ing Bird] who was very complimentary about the lighting, and I was taken aback,” Simpson said. “That never happens. Lighting is subliminal. They don’t really see lights. They see the pretty picture that’s created, but they don’t know what it takes to make that happen.”
Meanwhile, Brüka set designer Lewis Zaumeyer is finishing the sets he’s designed and built, approaching the end of the 40 to 60 volunteer hours he typically puts in for each production, outside of his day job as an architect. Resourcefulness is critical. Set design only gets a budget of $100-$200.
“I try to recycle stuff, and that’s part of the benefit of me doing this over and over again—I know subconsciously what’s available and how to use it,” Zaumeyer said. “We do a lot with tape and paint, and I see scraps of wood and pick them up. It’s not a high-tech thing, and it’s not glamorous. … It’s about ingenuity.”For love, not money
Jonathon Taylor is the technical director for the University of Nevada, Reno’s Department of Theatre and Dance, and he helps train students in various crafts, from costuming to lights, sound, welding, carpentry and more. He insists there’s a strong emphasis on and respect for these roles in the program. Nonetheless, he admits, it may not be the same for theatergoers.
“It’s easy to forget the artists backstage who work to make this happen,” Taylor said. “We try to do a decent job of naming those people in our programs, but it’s incumbent upon the audience to look at that and realize those 20 people backstage made it happen. But also, those designers and techs don’t necessarily get into it for the notoriety.”
Hufft agrees. Her love for the craft alone keeps her involved. It’s certainly not the money she makes. Though she’s no longer a volunteer, she doesn’t make enough to quit her day job. And she isn’t looking for kudos, either.
“I don’t think the community in general is aware of all we do, but I don’t think they should be,” Hufft said. “I dated a magician for a while and learned all his tricks, and it ruined magic for me. When you see a play, you’re escaping. If you know the tricks, you aren’t escaping anymore.”
“We try to make people understand, Brüka is a nonprofit theater—it’s not like there’s an income stream,” Zaumeyer said. “Most people there are getting minimum wage, if anything. People should understand the volunteer effort that’s put in to make shows happen. It’s an endeavor of passion.”