Arts November 25, 2008

In the Arts

local scene stealers

What do an architect, a baker, a builder, a college professor, and a middle school math teacher have in common? Theatre set design, of course. As the theatre industry has exploded in the Valley over the past decade, so too have the opportunities for brave, creative types to venture into the world of live theatre set design. For many, the role was not sought after—rather, the job found them.  

During the school year, Bob Dix teaches math to seventh graders at the Wood River Middle School. But when he isn’t in the classroom discussing decimals, he can be found in his art studio creating sets for local theatre companies. The San Francisco transplant, who has a masters degree in ceramics sculpture, once worked full-time as an artist, using found objects to make sculptures and site-specific installations. It was his artwork that led him to stage design.

“I produced an environmental piece for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ Japanese internment camp exhibit, and someone saw it and thought it would work well for theatre,” Dix says. Since then, he has built sets for several plays at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, including The Lorax, Godspell, Agnes of God, and The Wizard of Oz, as well as nexStage Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It.

Before designing a set or bringing his vision to the director, Dix always reads the script first and works to convey the play’s emotional tone. He says that creative collaboration is essential: “I get some ideas, then I bat them around with the director to see what he or she thinks.” This back-and-forth “dance” helps develop the concepts for the stage.

Another unexpected local set designer is Patti Ahrens, owner of Patti Cakes, whose creative talents have been honed through the decoration of beautiful wedding and birthday cakes. Without any formal training in set design, she and her husband, Peter, have produced many sets over the past fifteen years. (Peter, a building contractor, transforms Patti’s visions into functioning stages.) “This town has afforded me the opportunity to learn by doing,” Patti remarks.

The small stage space at the nexStage Theatre on Main Street in Ketchum has provided the Ahrenses with many challenging opportunities for learning—and they have come up with some very creative solutions. For the production of Laughing Stock Theatre Company’s Harvey, which was set in an insane asylum, Patti knew the set changes would have to happen in front of the audience—so she put the stage crew in hospital scrubs. That earned them a standing ovation.

“Peter and Patti are totally adaptable. Patti looks for ways to make a design idea work in a particular space even when it appears impossible,” says Kathy Wygle, a director for Laughing Stock. The Ahrenses are on the board of Laughing Stock Theatre Company and help run Camp Little Laugh, a children’s live theatre camp.

Pamela Doucette fell into set design when her twin sons got involved with theatre at The Community School, and she volunteered to help backstage. An architect with knowledge of how to design and build things, Doucette thought her skills could be helpful to the school’s drama program. From there, she moved on to designing sets for the New Theatre Company.

“To do good set design, you need to be a good problem solver—and in this Valley, you need to be able to do it yourself,” Doucette says, emphasizing the importance of resourcefulness. Most theatre companies in the Valley work on very limited budgets, so it’s critical to know what resources are available, where. Doucette is a scavenger and is well acquainted with the local thrift stores and landfill. Now a board member of the nexStage Theatre, she praises the community for its support of the Valley’s growing theatre industry.

One local set designer who knew he wanted to pursue the theatre industry at a young age, Dennis Rexroad, says, “As early as fifth grade, I designed the set for the Christmas pageant at my school. It’s been a lifelong passion.” After studying fine arts, theater, and dance in college, Rexroad got a job painting sets for a Kansas City theatre group. Today, he spends part of the year teaching in the Kinetic Imaging Program (a.k.a. media) at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and the rest of the year in the Wood River Valley working as the set designer for Company of Fools. Of the fifteen sets Rexroad has designed for the company, he lists The Dead, The Tempest (with an actual pool tank on stage), and Dinner with Friends (with seven full-size sets on a train table) as his favorites.

Like other set designers, Rexroad starts by reading the script. Next, he considers the “physical needs” of the play—features such as balconies, doors, or windows. He also considers “artistic interpretation”: “Is it a realistic play? Or is it more abstract? Is it very emotional? What is it that you, as a designer, want to express?” Last, but not least, he compares notes with the play’s director.

Next year, after 35 years of teaching, Rexroad plans to retire and move to the Wood River Valley permanently. Aside from the area’s scenic beauty, he has found the community’s support of the arts very attractive.

Kathy Wygle has been an active part of the Sun Valley theatre scene for many years. She is now the managing director of nexStage Theatre, but has also directed many Laughing Stock Theatre productions. Wygle has worked with many local set designers as both director and producer, and knows that good set design must always be done in collaboration with the director, actors, and the stage or performance space. Dennis Rexroad agrees, pointing out that many of his sets for Company of Fools have actually been co-designed with director John Glenn. Communication between the designer and director is critical in building a creative yet functional set.

These set designers work behind the scenes, their rewards for their creative accomplishments intrinsically bound to the success of a production as a whole. For all, it is a labor of love. >>>




artists stalk the hunt

Trophy deer fashioned from flattened beer cans, beads, and auto parts bring wry humor to the subject of hunting this fall, when the Sun Valley Center for the Arts explores The Hunt: Ritual & Narrative. Humor is only one aspect of the project, however. In addition to a gallery exhibition including contemporary art and archival photographs of hunting in Idaho, the event will include a documentary film series, a historical lecture on the evolution of firearms, and a reading and discussion with writer Rick Bass.

Bass has received wide recognition as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Utah naturalist Terry Tempest Williams refers to him as “a force of nature.” Perhaps less well known, but equally significant, is his reputation as an environmental activist.

Working for a decade now to preserve the wildlife corridor that surrounds his home in northern Montana, he does not fit the image of the stereotypical hunter—although he has devoted essays and books to the subject, and it would be difficult to call him anything short of a hunting advocate. His profound love for the wild, for his dogs, and for the ritual of the hunt is beautifully and sometimes humorously detailed in his writing.

Part of the gallery installation—Hunting Requires Optimism, by Portland, Oregon, artist Vanessa Renwick—features a series of old refrigerators containing monitors (next to the meat drawer) that show documentary footage of a wolf on the track of an elk. The installation peers into the nature of the predator, and what it means to have a certain place in the food chain.

“We all hunt for many things,” says Jennifer Gately, curator of the exhibition. “We hunt for gold, a new house, the good life. Everyone hunts for something. It is part of being human.”

Gately emphasizes that the show neither endorses nor disparages hunting or hunters. Simply put, it poses questions. “We hope the project will encourage visitors to reconsider their roles and perceptions of the hunt as it relates to history, narrative, and nature,” Gately says.

The show opens on November 5 and continues through January 14, 2005. >>>



sun valley opera’s rising stars

Who knows where the next big international opera star may be working tonight? The Pio? Strega?

While American Idol searches for the next big popular music star and New York’s Metropolitan Opera hosts a competition searching for the next big opera star, Sun Valley Opera mixes it up with a search for new “classical crossover” stars. Think Josh Groban or Enrique Iglesias. According to Frank Meyer, co-founder and vice president of Sun Valley Opera, “These stars must be able to sing the difficult opera arias, as well as have the acting ability of a Broadway star.”

Sun Valley Opera hosted its second annual contest in October, attracting talent from across the country. National and regional professionals praise the competition for the opportunities it gives young singers. Dean Williamson, conductor at the Seattle Opera, says the contest has been noticed in the professional classical music world, where it stands alone in its reward of acting and voice in equal measure.

The winners don’t take the competition lightly, either. Winners of the Opera’s first competition have since obtained principal roles in productions across the U.S. Last year’s Audience Choice winner, Julianne Gearhart, soprano, listed her win in the Sun Valley competition at the top of her biography and in the first line of her program notes in February when she performed at the Seattle Opera. The same was true of Anne Carolyn Bird, the Judge’s Choice winner.

While the competition is currently held in Seattle for the sake of travel convenience, appropriate venue and availability of judges, the event brings singers to the attention of Sun Valley Opera organizers, who know that their local audience loves Broadway acting skills mingled with operatic voice. The Sun Valley Summer Symphony Conservatory and Musical Workshop programs currently boast a roster of students who are serious about a future in vocal music. Several have progressed to university level programs and have been awarded scholarships. The barrista steaming your morning latté may be aiming for the Sun Valley Opera competition as a launch into the world of professional opera. After all, Placido Domingo was once a contestant in the Metropolitan’s version.

Vying for a $2,000 prize, singers perform in a concert setting before a panel of three top voice professionals. The audience enthusiastically joins in the vote for their favorite. The popular appeal of the Audience Choice part of the Sun Valley Opera Young Artist Competition has led to its adoption by the Metropolitan Opera competition, as well.

“Last year, the director of the Metropolitan Opera’s West Coast Young Artist Program came up to me and said the audience was going wild at intermission, talking about who to vote for,” said Meyer. “Everybody was having such spirited dialogue, he was amazed.”

Enthusiasm is a good thing in the world of opera, where companies are working hard to shed their stodgy, pretentious image.

“In the old days, opera singers just stood there and sang,” Meyer said. “Audiences today are so spoiled. They want to be entertained.”

And, in Sun Valley, they are.



This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.