The first time I walked into Players of Utica was May, 1994. The group performed in a former church on Oxford Rd. in New Hartford, NY, where they’d been located since 1962. I remember a ramshackle building, peeling blue paint on the outside, entering through the downstairs and going up to get to the theater. The floors groaned, the stairs creaked, it smelled like a hundred years of must. I found it absolutely charming.
I’d been invited by Dan Fusillo, who was directing a musical revue of Kander and Ebb songs called The World Goes ‘Round. I’d worked in Utica area theater for almost five years at that point, and I’d done the lighting when Players’ annual production of Scrooge moved to the Stanley Theater, so I knew some of the performers – Dan played Bob Cratchit in that show. He called and asked me to come to a rehearsal of his new musical. This is what I remember: “We really aren’t supposed to pay anything, but I know this is your actual job so I’d want to make some kind of arrangement.” For all I know, Dan paid me out of his pocket that first time.
The Players tech booth was up a rickety set of stairs into an attic space – unfinished floors and ceilings, with another door leading to the booth in the middle of the room. It had large sliding glass windows looking into the theater. The dimmers were old LMI 1.2K packs – 24 channels, analog 0-10V control. The controller was a ridiculous programmable thing, 36 or 48 channels. I remember thinking, “Somebody wasted their money on that.”
I watched Dan’s show, and I figured out what I wanted to do with the lighting. Players didn’t have all the equipment I needed, so I brought in another dozen instruments – a practice I would continue for the next five years. I was given a key, so I could set up when I had time, without bothering anybody else. According to the play logs, the show ran for three weekends, and I ran the lighting board for several nights. I received $250, which became my standard price. Soon I was getting phone calls from other directors: “Can you do my show for $250, too?”
This is what arts critic Jonas Kover wrote about my work in the Utica Observer-Dispatch: “The band was bathed in a deep red light.” Dan was thrilled: “They NEVER mention the lighting in newspaper reviews!” He was right – even now, hundreds of shows later, it’s still the only time a Utica newspaper has mentioned my lighting.
Now, I said I’d worked for Players before I saw their theater. They presented an annual production of the Leslie Bricusse musical Scrooge, so popular that the 100-seat Oxford Rd. theater couldn’t satisfy demand. So in 1989 (according to the official Players log – which strikes me as a year or two early, because I’d only started my career at that point) I created my first original lighting design for the Stanley Theater. I also brokered the sound rental, from a company that had very little production experience.
That first “Stanley Scrooge” was over-designed from a lighting/sound perspective – we threw in everything we could think of, without a clear idea about how to use most of it effectively. (I rented a 14’ box truck and filled it with equipment from a NYC rental house.) The combined sound/lighting bill for the production was over $10,000, a price that’s even more astonishing when adjusted for inflation. (Most full stage lighting packages at The Stanley can be brought in for under $3,000 today, and a large sound system is in the same neighborhood.) Although the production was underwritten by Utica’s Broadway Theater League, there was no way our inexperience could be tolerated again.
Players hired me back for Scrooge the next year, which I recall as being entirely funded by Players. I found a different sound company, and with a year of experience I came up with a more reasonable lighting design. I think that was also the year we brought the show to Rome’s Capitol Theater the first time, an adventure that repeated another couple of years. I stopped working on Scrooge around 1999, but I sold them my lighting plot and cue sheets – I want to say it was $250 (my special Players number), but I can’t find the records. One regret is that subsequent programs didn’t list me as the Stanley production’s original designer; I didn’t insist on it, but it would have been a nice gesture. (The original choreographer was still listed, as recently as three years ago.)
In the 1990s, technical people weren’t always included in programs at Players. It surprised me, because most of the directors attended Broadway shows, where tech designers were listed on the first page of Playbills. Designers were brought in to rehearsals late in the process, rarely included during the planning stages for a show. Lighting designs were almost always reactive – trying to somehow light every area already blocked by the director, and working around sets that interfered with safe ladder placement. It didn’t occur to me then, that things should be different. I was learning theater craft on the fly, often inventing as I went along.
Players of Utica became my home away from home, much to the dismay of my wife. I used to let myself in and fix lighting cables or clean lenses – there was always something to do. I wasn’t making much money (the repair was volunteer), and many of my own lights almost never left the theater.
I loved the sound of the building. Late at night, when the wind blew, the walls rattled and popped. During a storm, it sounded like the place might collapse entirely. Various creatures lived in the walls, or in the unfinished attic, outside the booth. A theater cat was often on hand during rehearsals – it would wander in the fire escape door, watch for a while, then leave.
My first appearance on the Utica stage, my first appearance on any stage in ten years, would be in a Players of Utica production: Little Shop of Horrors, July 1998. That’s where Part 2 begins.
Players also has a major role in the story of how I met and eventually married Susan. That story takes place between Parts 1 and 2 of this narrative, and can be found here.