Smile Politely

CUTC plans a summer spectacular

Earlier this month, the Champaign-Urbana Theater Company released the lineup for its summer season productions. For their annual Kathy Murphy Student Production, the company will bring to life Gilbert and Sullivan’s hilarious, swash-buckling opera The Pirates of Penzance. Then, a little later in the summer, they’ll also present the Frank Loesser classic musical Guys & Dolls, a heart-warming tale of “good girl meets bad boy” in the fast-paced underworld of 1920’s New York City. Although summer seems like an eternity away, the early stages of development for both productions are well under way. I had the privilege of sitting down with Guys & Dolls director John Stuff and Pirates producer Jessica Elliott this week to discuss the shows and what’s in store for audiences this upcoming season.

John Stuff’s involvement with the Champaign-Urbana Theater Company goes back to its roots, as one of its original founders. That said, his return to directing with Guys & Dolls will be somewhat of a homecoming. He directed the company’s first show, The Music Man, back in 1991 and continued with many CUTC shows in the following years, including a 1994 production of Guys & Dolls. This year’s performance will be his first time back in the director’s chair in several years.

In her second year as Acting Producer at CUTC, Jessica Elliott is helping to continue the student-run program that sparked her interest in the theater. Now a sophomore at the University of Illinois, Elliott gracefully balances her role of producing Pirates of Penzance with her studies as a Performing Arts major.                      

Smile Politely: I realize it’s still early on, what with Pirates of Penzance opening in June and Guys & Dolls in August. What has your role been in the early stages of the planning process so far?

John Stuff: I was approached and asked to do it by Aaron Kaplan. He said he realized that, over the last few years, a lot of the (for lack of a better term) “old guard” people had faded away and weren’t as involved as they used to be. He wanted to change that and bring them back, starting with me. No pressure or anything! I asked if I could choose my own staff. I wasn’t going to go crazy or anything, but I do have kind of a reputation in Champaign for putting on high quality shows, and I don’t think that’s just me patting myself on the back. People know that. I didn’t want to put my reputation on the line and do a half-assed job. So, before I agreed to direct the show, I actually called a number of people — set construction people, producers, costumers, a lot of the staff people — to see if they were willing to help out. And every one of them said, “Yeah, of course I’ll do it!” So everyone I thought to have on staff was on board before I even said yes. That was one of the very early things to do in the process. And the other thing was looking at the painting drops; I wanted to get two of those. We needed to do that early because they do get rented and booked early on. We also wanted to revamp the set design we used for the 1994 production. The very talented designer Stewart Cartwright was on that set. See, [the ’94 production] was at the Virginia Theater. Now that we’re at the Parkland Theater, we have to scale down a bit with the design.

Jessica Elliott: Dawn Harris is directing the show this year, so I’m shadowing her. CUTC tries to make it so the student productions are run by alumni of that program. My role so far has been coordinating schedules, managing who is being hired for what position, getting auditions set, and coordinating times with other summer shows and the Illini Marathon. The show is months away, but we’re already planning, planning, planning!

SP: Musicals, by nature, are usually very large and have more complex elements to them like large sets and casts, so there’s a lot to be accomplished. What’s your approach to taking care of such a long “to-do” list?

Stuff: It takes a lot of organization. Fortunately, Prue Runkle is going to produce the show. She’s done many shows, so I have a lot of confidence in her to help. Basically, you find people you trust to do what they say they will do. Then you delegate, stay on top, have meetings, and ask “Okay, any issues? Any problems? Where are we at right now in the process?”

Elliott: I think it’s definitely a learning process, and it is very specific as to what show you’re doing. For Pirates, we’ve got a lot of spectacle to create, so I think it’s all about budgeting well and planning ahead. I’m being very meticulous with my Google calendars this year. We’re still putting our materials together, but when the kids are busy learning their music and everything, we’ll already be started on our set production. It’s a very complex layered cake.

SP: Jessica, I understand that the cast of Pirates of Penzace will consist of students aging from 6th to 12th grade. Why do you think it’s important that younger generations are involved in these higher level theater productions?

Elliott: Last year, we had a lot of kids from all over the area. That was really great for us as the production staff because we felt like we were really exposing them to the arts. With most of them being graduating seniors, they were open to opportunities and pursue those artistic interests in college. Community productions are so much about education versus putting on the best show in the world, and we end up putting on pretty good shows. It’s always cool to see where you start at the beginning of the six weeks and witnessing everything that everyone learns by the end of it. Giving kids that chance is especially fun to watch.

SP: John, Guys & Dolls was first released in 1950, taking Broadway by storm, and continues to be revived again and again. How do you think the show has stayed popular as times have changed?

Stuff: I think it has the basic love story that everyone can relate to. You know, the bad guy and the good girl. Then, the story progresses, they find common ground. Is he really that bad? Is she really that good? And then there’s the comedy couple that have their own issues to deal with as well. It’s as good mix of drama and comedy, and I think people enjoy that classic story line.

SP: What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing the CUTC productions of Pirates of Penzance and Guys & Dolls this summer?

Stuff: Well obviously, you hope they’ll enjoy the overall performance, realizing it’s their neighbors and co-workers that are on stage. No one in the show is a professional. Not the actors, not the stagehands, not anybody. It’s all community theater, and I think that’s important to remember. Community theater in general gets a bad reputation as being amateurish, and sometimes rightfully so. My goal is to prove that wrong and make people realize that community people can really come together and make something that’s really memorable for the audience. That’s a goal for the cast: to make it fun — because if it’s not fun, they won’t come and do it again — and to make it challenging. There are people who say “Oh no, I can’t dance. I can do this or that.” But you know what? If you challenge them, chances are they really can. And they may not be outstanding, but they can do it, and they can make it look good. The job of the choreographer is to make moves that amateurs can do and to make it look fantastic. In this show in particular, there’s a huge scene that takes place in a sewer where all the guys do this huge “ballet.” That’s one scene that really blows people away because they wonder, “How did you get all these guys to dance?” So I think that’s one of the main goals, to have the audience come out and have a good time and think, “Wow! I didn’t know Joe could dance. I didn’t know he could sing.” It’s all about making memories.

Elliott: Pirates such a funny, clever show, and it takes a lot of hard work and talent to be able to present it. I hope our production is a nice showcase of our community’s talent and our youth. I mean, it’s been done on Broadway and it’s been done all over the world, and so our version of this will be a highlight to our students and our artistic talent throughout the community. The main goal of the show is for everyone to have fun, and you can really tell when the kids are having fun. I hope that shines through this June.


Pirates of Penzance is set to run June 11-14 and 18-21. Students in grades 6-12 are encouraged to audition. More information on try-outs can be found here. Guys and Dolls will run the weekends of July 30th to August 2nd and August 6-9. Keep an eye out for audition announcements, which are likely to occur sometime between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Both productions will be showcased at the Parkland College Theater. For more information on CUTC and the summer season, check out their website here.

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