Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.
Few audience members are aware, as they watch a performance come alive before their eyes, how much they have been saved the trouble of bringing it to life. As Chris Piner, teacher at Uintah High School and director of Uintah Theatre, puts it, “We think a lot more about the stories we tell than you will ever know. We study character and story and have thought provoking conversations about every script. We scrutinize every line and word and we make decisions on how best to proceed. That is rehearsal and you never get to see it.”
Although the current school building was built in 1986, Piner described Uintah’s origins as dating back to the late 1800s. It only became formally structured in 1925. “The school itself is in rural northeastern Utah in a geographical basin and near the reservation lands of the Ute Tribe, thus the name of the school and theatre.” While there had been a long history of theatre, the theatre program gained momentum in the 1960s.
A graduate of Utah State University, Piner began assisting Coach and Director Kevin Dickson in 2002 before fully taking the reins in 2007. “I’ve been the Theatre Director now for 15 years as I am completing my 29th year of teaching. My predecessor held the position for 17 years.
“Due to the school’s remote location,” explained Piner, “the theatre season of the school has long been an artistic centerpiece in the community. That has driven those of us in the creative team to put forth the highest quality within our capabilities. I am always adding technology and improving our resources.”
According to alumnus Brant Johnson, “We often say that, just because we’re a smaller city in rural Utah, doesn’t mean we need to produce subpar results. Oftentimes, high school productions are cheesy, boring, cringeworthy, but ours really strive to have the show professionally done. We do not look for excuses to produce anything but excellence. Each year, the students are more dedicated, the technology is more advanced, and set design is Broadway standard.”
The first thing students may learn, however, is that the process of performance creation is far from intuitive. Graduate Brian Nelson remembered, “my first year at Uintah, we were performing Beauty and the Beast. I was cast as the bookseller. I think it could have been really easy to just let me say my few lines without really worrying too much about such a small role. Instead, said Nelson, “I had a full character development rehearsal with Mr. Piner.”
Nelson also recalled interacting with a castmate in a way that was “absolutely fake and not genuine at all. I called it acting…. Mr. Piner said something along the lines of ‘You don’t have to pretend to talk to him, he is sitting right in front of you.’ It sounds so silly, but that blew my mind.” Now on a national tour of Cats the Musical, “I am living the dream,” said Nelson. “I would probably take up too much room if I tried to explain all the ways that Uintah prepared me. Uintah IS why I am here today. I will be forever grateful.”
Along with professional scenic, prop, sound, and lighting designs, Uintah is highly rewarded and even more highly regarded for its extraordinary costuming. Under the direction and talent of Linda Cochran and Pat Havey (a visionary daughter/mother team), costumes become an integral part of each production. Piner says “Because of their efforts and meticulous desire for details, we have won multiple awards for the Best Costumes in the state of Utah.” The biggest winners are the performers who get the wear these costumes. Audiences continue to be awed by the incredible quality and care that go into each design!
Training for Life
Sara Larsen, a 2019 graduate who has gone on to study Theatre with an emphasis on Acting, credits Uintah for many opportunities she received, such as introducing her to the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre (UFOMT), where she plans to audition. “Uintah gave me an invaluable foundation on which to build my skills.”
But it’s not just the students who feel the value of Uintah. Andie Szekely has been involved with Uintah Theatre as its Spring Musical Lighting Designer since the spring of 2016. “My college friend was going to do the scenic design for the 2016 Uintah Spring musical, The Little Mermaid, and she told me they were also looking for a lighting designer. I got in contact with Chris Piner and decided that I would do the design for them that spring.”
Said Piner, “The Little Mermaid launched a new era of stunning lighting design with master designer Andie Szekely. We’ve never been the same since and I credit her with elevating our aesthetic looks and touches of professional practice and behavior that I hope will never go away.”
Szekely said that it’s Piner who made the difference at Uintah. “He has cultivated an absolutely incredible group of parent volunteers and overall support system. He does his best to get the theatre program known in the community and in the eyes of those who control the future of the program. He has been pushing for his theatre’s success for as long as I’ve known him. And I’ve directly seen his efforts pay off.”
Szekely has now been with Uintah Theatre for seven seasons. She acts as a consultant for lighting gear changes upgrades the program may inquire about, but more surprisingly, she is a professional lighting director with plenty of calls on her time. “Just a week prior to arriving at Uintah this year,” she said, “I was on tour with Andrea Bocelli. Post Uintah, I was contracted to work on the Lionel Richie residency in Las Vegas.” She’s been on-site at the world-famous Coachella Music Festival and its adjacent Stage Coach Music Festival. Though her hometown remains Las Vegas, NV, she’s begun her seventh season on the lighting team of The Santa Fe Opera of Santa Fe, NM, and her second season as its Master Electrician. “After that contract ends in September, I have no idea what’s next. I’m hoping for another tour of some sort and then a return to Uintah in the spring.”
Many of her professional colleagues wonder why Szekely looks forward to returning to Uintah Theatre each year. After all, she noted, “it doesn’t build my resume, it doesn’t secure future work for me, it doesn’t give me professional connections. But not every opportunity needs to check those boxes.”
“We have a creative team of 15 with additional carpenters, makeup and hair artists, and a team of costume construction depending on the production,” said Piner. “We involve 60-80 students in the musical productions among cast and crew. For our Spring play, we like to keep a little more simple with a cast under 10.”
There are three productions, with an average of 17 performances among the three. “We often default to a musical revue we call Showtime Uintah for our Fall production. This is a collection of about 18 musical numbers from various titles, including current Broadway.”
With all this activity, it’s perhaps understandable that Uintah didn’t make the leap to a ticketing app until 2015. Even then, it was a bumpy ride: “The company we got started with was bought out by another larger company and pricing compelled us to look around. Ludus actually reached out to me earlier so I took a closer look at that time. My only mistake was not finding Ludus sooner. Ludus understands theatre and high school theatre like no one else. With Ludus, I have the ultra-professional front end for our theatre program and an incredibly efficient team of people working for us to be successful. I am so grateful.”
Uintah High School Theatre continues with another season of excellence in 2022-23 with the musicals Anastasia the musical (October 2022), SpongeBob the musical (March of 2023), and Gilligan’s Island the musical (May 2023). Don’t miss out on seeing this remarkable theatre family in performance! Get your tickets at https://uintah.ludus.com/