Zachary is in the journalism program at USU. This piece was written for his introductory news writing class.
The new costume and scene shop renovations in the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University are easing the work of the theater department’s faculty and students as they prepare for the upcoming musical “Big Fish.”
Dean Craig Jessop said he set himself the goal to renovate the facilities in the college, wanting to make them all first-class venues for the students and faculty to practice and hone their crafts.
“It was depressing,” Jessop said in regards to the state of the college’s venues when he became the dean in 2010. “There was furniture in the hallways that the Deseret Industries would have rejected.”
With the help of his team, Jessop was able to fundraise $17 million since then, about $3 million of which were spent on renewing the shops in the theater department which opened in January.
Production Services Technical Director Tim North, who oversees the productions happening at the college, said the remodeled shops feature new ventilation, air conditioning, heating and dust-collection systems. North said the most important feature about the shops now is that the students and faculty can work there much more safely.
“Safety,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s pretty nice.”
Nancy Hills, the head of the theater costume design program, said the upcoming musical “Big Fish” has been the production requiring the most amount of work hours and joint efforts between the designers and technicians this year. However, the shops have eased the work, she said.
“It just is a joy to come to work,” Hills said. “This show would have been really difficult in the old circumstances.”
Hills said most costume shops are built as after-thoughts, often located in the basements of buildings and theaters. But this time it was different.
“The thing about these facilities that the architect was really great on and the dean was really helpful with, was that they asked for our input,” said Matthew Stowe, the scene shop manager and an assistant professor.
Stowe said the scene shop is built for efficient work by following a work pattern. Students first fabricate and cut the set pieces. They then assemble them and roll the scenery into the paint shop. The finished scenery is then moved onto the stage, ready for showtime.
“As far as the planning and design of the space, it’s one of the best around, and I’ve worked in a lot of scene shops around intermountain West,” Stowe said. “Bang for buck, I think we got the best production facility this side of the Mississippi but that’s just because I work here.”
Jessop also complied with what Hills requested in the new costume shop: more space and natural light, which comes from panoramic windows looking out into Logan Canyon and across Cache Valley.
“Tell me that natural light doesn’t just make your soul feel better,” Hills said. “Having this kind of environment makes it easier to come to work. I think I have the best office on campus.”
Cortney Millecam, a costume design student in USU’s Theatre & Design Technology program, said the new costume shop has helped her get through those times she spends all day sewing inside.
“It’s been a complete dream,” Millecam said. “This makes it so much easier than going into a dungeon every morning.”
Jason Spelbring, the assistant professor directing “Big Fish,” said he couldn’t speak highly enough about how amazing the shops are and how much they have helped the preproduction of the show.
“It has certainly allowed our costume shop build a show this large and not feel like they’re in a space too small,” Spelbring said. “Our new scene shop speaks for itself as well. There are two separate paint and build areas and so that’s really helped a lot.”
However, Spelbring said he was most grateful for the new build space adjacent to the scene shop. This area is large enough to outline the Morgan Theatre’s stage, allowing the cast for “Big Fish” to rehearse while the technicians are setting up the scenery onstage.
“The convenience is just ridiculous,” Spelbring said. “And everybody wins.”
Dennis Hassan, the “Big Fish” set designer, said without the extra space in the scene shop, he would not have been able to design a key component of the show’s set: six huge three-dimensional Alabama oaks.
“This is the biggest, the highest, the most elaborate I’ve gone,” said Hassan, who has been designing sets at the university for 25 years.
“Dennis is an amazing designer,” North said. “You can always count on Dennis Hassan’s designs being giant and breathtaking.”
But Hassan said the students are getting the most benefit from these new facilities.
“It’s a completely new experience that quite frankly, even in the professional world, they don’t often get the chance to do,” Hassan said. “But our students will go out with this extra training as a result of the new shop and the new tools that they’re using.”
Jessop said that under his watch, the new facilities will be treated with the same high standards of maintenance and decorum as any other world-known theater venues. This way, the college’s students will not experience a “radical” departure when becoming professionals, he said.
“Preparing our students to realize their full creative potential as artists and citizens,” Jessop said. “That’s key to me.”
The musical “Big Fish” will open on Friday April 14 in the Morgan Theatre at 7:30 p.m. The show will run until April 22. A complete schedule can be found on the college’s Department of Theatre Arts website. Tickets are sold at the box office of the Chase Fine Arts Center building on campus. Tickets cost between $8 and $13, free for students with their USU ID card.