My Theatrical Journey
In 1964, when I was two years old, my father, J Lynn Benson took a job in the theatre department at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. Almost immediately he and three other gentlemen opened The Playmill Theatre in West Yellowstone, Montana.
For different reasons, over the next three years the other owners left the theatre leaving Dad the sole owner. In the early years, my role at the theatre was to fill a seat because our attendance was so small. Some nights the audience was mostly the families of the owners and a few patrons who walked in off the streets. Dad never gave up faith in the theatre and kept working it and ultimately it grew into what it is today, a very successful summer theatre.
Dad still taught at Ricks College, so in the spring we would commute between Rexburg and West Yellowstone for about two weeks and again in the fall. Rexburg and West Yellowstone are roughly 90 miles apart.
When I was four years old, Dad played the King and I played the youngest son in Ricks College's production of The King and I. My theatrical journey had begun. For the next several years I played the kid whenever we needed a kid at The Playmill and at Ricks College.
When I was eight years old, I was walking around downtown West Yellowstone when I happened into a rockshop called "The Rockhound Headquarters". It was run by an elderly couple named Ken and Ione Guyse. They took me in and I became a lifelong rockhound because of them. I spent hours in their shop as a young boy. It is a hobby I continue to be active in to this day.
I had a friend in West Yellowstone named Jeff. His mother worked in the bank and when we were about twelve, I showed him a make-up trick I had taught and done to myself many times. First I took a nail, used bolt cutters to cut the middle out of it, then applied mortician's wax to his finger. I put a base on the wax that was the same color as his skin, then used cream makeup to add bruising to the wax buildup. Then I carefully inserted the nail ends into the wax, making sure that they lined up in each direction, then I added a healthy dose of stage blood.
Then we decided to go to the bank and show his mother. I stayed outside and watched through the window and he went up to her window and told her that he'd been hurt and proceeded to show his mother his "injury". She shreiked and threw stuff into the air. Jeff turned around to look to me for backup, but he said I took off. Long story short, Jeff was grounded from me for about two weeks. This was not the first nor the last time a friend was grounded from me for two weeks.
During my junior high and high school years I ended up running the lights and sound and sometimes the followspot at the Playmill quite a bit. I was more interested in geology than theatre in those days, however.
During my junior year in high school, I played a chorus part in Hello Dolly. I'm not sure why I went out for it, I really wasn't interested in being an actor at that point. I enjoyed it though and was admitted into MAPS (Madison Avenue Players) the next year. MAPS was the drama club which was also a class at Madison High School.
During my senior year, I played Reverend Hale in The Crucible, Adam in The Apple Tree, Jigger Craigon in Carousel and Knight #4 in Once Upon a Mattress. I was just a little offended to be playing a chorus knight and I told my high school drama teacher, John Bidwell, "Well, if I'm going to be a knight, I'll need to have armor."
He said, "If you want armor you'll have to build it yourself." I told him I didn't know how to build armor and he suggested I should cut up milk jugs for armor pieces. I told him what I thought of that idea, but soon found myself down at the grocery store looking at gallon milk jugs and wondering what I could do with them.
I had everyone I knew save milk jugs and started cutting them up into armor pieces. I spray painted them silver and hand stitched them onto thermal underwear that I had spray painted silver as well. The underwear resembled chain mail, so it was a perfect fit for a cheap high school production. When I had the arms and legs done, my Mother sewed me a tabard so I wouldn't have to build a breastplate.
All was well, but then I thought, I need gauntlets. I figured if I cut up handles of the milk jugs and stitched them onto the fingers of gloves they'd look like armored gauntlets, so I did and they did. I credit this event with the catalyst that eventually set me on the road to being a designer. This was the first thing I ever designed.
When I was done, I taught the other knights how to do it, then we decided to let Sir Harry join the club so we had five knights in milk jug armor. I tell my students now to never underestimate the creativity of a high school kid. The following summer we did Once Upon a Mattress at the Playmill and I took it upon myself to be a properties artisan for the show. I really enjoyed that.
I went to Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho the next year as a theatre major, and took parts in six of the six plays they produced. I was the only student to perform in all six mainstage shows that year. I was cast as Ambrose Kemper in The Matchmaker and was to have my first stage kiss. The girl who played Ermengarde told me that she would not kiss me on stage if we couldn't get it right, so she invited me to her apartment so we could practice. Who knew that one stage kiss would require so much rehearsal...
I took some time off from my education to serve a fulltime mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I served in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and ended up doing a bit of social work among the H'mong people who were refugees from the Vietnam war. When I came back to school, I was a psychology major.
My parents were serving a mission at the same time I was and I came back to Ricks about six months ahead of them. One of the teachers there, Rodger Sorensen was directing Macbeth and pre-cast me before I got home. It was a small part with only a couple of lines. For him it was a win/win. He needed more men and he also figured it would be a good way for me to transition back into college life. It was a common practice at Ricks College in those days. Unfortunately for me, the girl who was the president of the Student Theatre Council objected to me being cast without auditioning and I was made to feel ostracized. All that did was strengthen my resolve to study something else.
In May of 1984, I married a girl from the Seattle area named Chimene Robertson. We spent our first four years together studying at Brigham Young University during the schoolyear and performing at the Playmill Theatre in the summers. Chimene also gave birth to my two daughters during that time. When I was within three credits of finishing my psychology major, I realized that I did not want to listen to other peoples' problems every day for the rest of my life. Time to change my major.
I wasn't quite ready to go back to the theatre, so I studied creative writing, history, geology and even foreign languages. I was in jeopardy of becoming an eternal student and realized that at some point I needed to graduate in something. Rory Scanlon had been a member of the cast at the Playmill and was a good friend and had just been hired at BYU as a theatre costume design faculty. He convinced me to try my hand at design. I had always drawn and had always been creative to some degree. Rory recognized that and guided me to the design path. Turns out it was a great fit for me. I already had most of the core classes for a theatre major from my time at Ricks so I spent the next couple of years studying design with Rory.
The semester I graduated, Rory convinced me to attend the USITT (United States Institute of Theatre Technology) convention at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California. He helped me put together a portfolio so I could show it at the conference and find a graduate school. I had wanted to attend the University of Washington because it was one of the top theatre schools in the country and I thought it would be a good fit for our family since Chimene's family lived up there. I showed my portfolio to the man in charge of the scene design program and he told me my portfolio was not strong enough and he would not be offering me a spot in his grad program. I felt like all the wind had been knocked out of me, so I did what any self respecting man would do, I spent the rest of that day and all of the next in Disneyland.
The last day at the convention, Rory found me and convinced me to go to a portfolio review. I didn't see the point because I didn't think my portfolio was good enough but I trusted Rory and went ahead and showed it. There was a man there named Tom Bliese from what was then Mankato State University in Minnesota. It has since been renamed Minnesota State University at Mankato. I showed my portfolio alongside another student named Kelly Wiegant. Her portfolio was flashy and well presented. Mine looked bush league in comparison. I determined that I would always have a better presentation in the future. Tom gave both of us a tentative offer right then but it was up to us to fill out the forms and make it formal and official.
I graduated from BYU in 1988 with a dual major in Theatre and Psychology. I was three credits away from a Psychology degree so I finished it. I didn't want to leave something undone. Chimene and I spent my last summer at the Playmill. That was also 1988, the season of the worst fires in history of Yellowstone National Park. More than half the park burned that year. It was devastating. It is interesting now to see how the park has rebounded. The fires of 1988 were actually a healthy thing for the park and several species have come back. At the end of the season, we packed up our belongings and headed to Minnesota. We could still see and smell the smoke from the fires when we crossed the border between South Dakota and Minnesota.
When we got there, I was called into the department chairman's office and told that they didn't really know what to do with me. They had accepted me as an alternate in case Kelly didn't come, but there she was and there I was. They hadn't expected me to come because they hadn't extended me a stipend or an assistantship. I told him that I didn't have anywhere else to go, they had accepted me and I intended to stay. He found a partial assistantship for me after that and I worked in the scene shop as a carpenter. The Technical Director was Johan Godwalt who became a mentor and a friend to me.
They also told me they thought I was really a costume designer not a scene designer. I didn't fight them on that because I liked costume design as well. The first project I did was a set and costume design for an original script called The Men's Room. Essentially it was a series of vignettes that provided a platform for telling any dirty joke that had anything to do with a men's room with a "poignant" scene of a drag queen with AIDS in the middle. The faculty didn't like my design and they especially didn't like my process paper which kind of trashed the script. In fairness to me, it really was a bad script. They didn't think it was a designer's place to criticize a script and they threatened to throw me out of the program. I didn't cave in on the script and they finally allowed me to stay in the program. They never asked me to do anything like that again, though.
I studied both costume and set design through the rest of that first year, and during Bliese's scene painting class, he told me that they thought they may have made a mistake with me and that I really was a scene designer. I switched my emphasis back to scene design but still took costume design courses. The only costume courses I lacked when I graduated were costume construction. I still don't have those.
I worked for Highland Summer Theatre which was a professional summerstock theatre run by the faculty and the following fall I designed the set for Gemini in the Off Broad Street Theatre. It was the first time I was able to acheive on stage what I had seen in my mind. The set consisted of two backyards in Philadelphia. Fred Bock, the lighting design teacher said that no one would ever top that set in that theatre. He said someone might equal it but no one would ever top it. Those were kind words and I appreciated them. Shortly after that, Tom told me that C. Ron Olauson, one of the directors in the department told him that he thought I was ready and he said that "Gary can design for me on the mainstage anytime."
My first mainstage show was the set design for I'm Not Rappaport which is a play set in Central Park in New York City. I will post about this play at a later date in the blog and will refrain from talking too much about it here, but it was a very successful design for me. It established me as a mainstage designer and I never went back to the studio theatre as a scene designer after that. I ended up designing four shows total on the mainstage including two for hire in the summer season.
At the end of my last term as a graduate student, the Dean, Jane Early of the college of fine arts called me at home and asked me to show up at the end of the year faculty meeting. She didn't tell me why, but she did say they wanted to highlight the acheivements of some of their graduate students. I sat by my faculty and they wanted to know what I was doing there and I told them I didn't know. At the end of the meeting, she introduced a new award called The Toy Wilson Blethen Fine Arts Award which was to be given to the student, graduate student or faculty member who most exemplified excellence in the arts. She called my name, talked about my scene design for I'm Not Rapapport and presented me with a check for $1000.00. I was the first ever recipient of that award from the Department of Theatre.
I entered that design in a national show at USITT and was juried in and had an image of it and a short writeup about it published in TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology) Magazine. I had come a long way from the guy they didn't know what to do with.
The only things left for me in my degree were an internship and my thesis. I really don't remember how I ended up getting an internship in Buffalo, New York at The Studio Arena Theatre, but that is where I ended up. I worked as a scenic artist the first year under a scenic named Kerry Sanders who taught me a great deal about painting with texture.
I finished my thesis while in Buffalo and defended it via conference call. About a week and a half after I submitted all the forms for graduation I received a panicked phone call from the graduate office that went something like this:
Grad Office: "We don't know how this happened, but your file is not complete, you cannot graduate"
Me: "Why? I finished all my coursework, took my comprehensive exams, finished the thesis."
Grad Office: "You never took the GRE (graduate record exam)"
Me: "Wasn't I supposed to have taken that before being admitted to graduate school?"
Grad Office: "Yes."
Me: "Aren't you the people who are supposed to make sure I did that before I got there?"
Grad Office: "Yes."
Me: "Why didn't you?"
Grad Office: "We don't know"
Me: "What do I have to do?"
Grad Office: "Take the GRE"
Me: "Do I have to pass it?"
Grad Office: "No, you just have to take it"
So I scheduled a time to take it, didn't study for a minute, took it and scored really well by the way. My path in life has been like that.
My first year in Buffalo I met a scenic artist named Glenn Henley who became both a primary mentor and a great friend. I credit Glenn and Tom Bliese with teaching me the majority of what I know about scenic painting. Glenn had painted professionally in Hollywood for seventeen years but came back to Buffalo to be close to his family. He took it upon himself to mentor me. He never asked for any compensation, other than friendship which was freely given. He called me up at 11:30 PM one night and asked, "Hey Gar, you want to make a quick fifty?" I said, "Glenn, you know I always want to make fifty bucks." Then he said, "Meet me at the Kavinocky (Theatre) in 30 minutes." So I went to the Kav at midnight and ended up learning a new marble technique and making fifty dollars. I'd have done it for free because I always knew I'd learn something when I painted with Glenn. That's how our friendship was. We painted all over the city of Buffalo, New York together. Somewhere along the line I lost contact with him, which is one of my true regrets in life.
At the end of my first season at the Studio Arena Theatre, the Artistic Director was forced out and anyone he brought in was either fired or resigned in protest. Every department head in the production area of that theatre left, which left a void in leadership. Since I had made my way in undergraduate school as a properties master, I was offered that position and I took it.
The second year at the Studio Arena Theatre was the most unpleasant year I have ever spent in the theatre and I resigned at season's end. Half the season I ended up being both the properties master and the properties artisan but was not compensated for the latter. Even so, I never missed a deadline and never went over budget.
For those two years I worked my first forty hours a week for the Studio Arena and my second forty hours a week at every little, hole in the wall theatre in town. There was a pretty vibrant theatre community in Buffalo, New York at that time and it was easy to get work. Everybody was funded pretty well and I made a decent living. Then the plug was pulled. In the space of about one month, funding from all the major grantors was cut by 75%. The National Endowment of the Arts, NYSCA, Erie County and the City of Buffalo all cut their arts funding. I went from making about $500.00 on a freelance gig to taking a percentage of the gate. The last show I did that way, for a weeks worth of work, ten hours a day, I made $37.50. Even I don't love the theatre that much.
With funding cut, I bounced around Buffalo for about six months and then moved to the west. If I was going to be broke and not doing theatre, we decided we'd be broke and not doing theatre closer to family. I attempted to get a job teaching at the university level, but those jobs were rare and eventually we ended up in Granite Falls, Washington to help take care of family members up there. During that time, I took a long hiatus from the theatre. Nearly six years.
I ended up managing a pizza franchise and had designs of becoming a franchisee. I had taken the first round of franchise classes and seemed to be on my way. Then John Bidwell called from then Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) and said Roger Harris was retiring and they wanted me to apply for his position. I was reluctant at first because it seemed that things were just coming together for me to franchise. I made a few excuses but finally, Chimene told me I should just apply and get it over with because my parents would never get over it if I didn't at least apply.
I did not believe I would get the job because I'd been out of the theatre for six years, but I applied anyway and was granted an interview. During the interview with President Bednar, I knew the position would be extended to me. It was and here I am.
I was hired at Ricks College, but never taught there. Between the time I was hired and the time I set foot on campus, Ricks College was elevated to a four year institution and the name was changed to Brigham Young University-Idaho.
It only took a few months of teaching here that I realized that my career was no longer about me, it was about my students. I derive great satisfaction from teaching someone to do something and have them do it at a high level. I truly have the best job in the world.