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No Small Part

Nevada Conservatory Theater's Chris Edwards keeps the theater humming along, from setting a direction for programming to working out set logistics.

Arts & Culture  |  Feb 17, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone

Chris Edwards needed a pool, but the thing about water is, it’s heavy.

Metamorphoses, from playwright Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of the Ovid classic Feb. 17. It requires a pool, and that pool needs to be on stage.

“This is an older theater. We weren't able to find the engineering specs on how much weight this stage could actually hold,” he said. “Of course we could roll the dice on it. It's held that weight before, I'm assuming. But we didn't feel comfortable not knowing exactly.”

Just another week in the life of an artistic director.

While Edwards is worrying about the weight of the pool, he’s also getting ready for the April production of Peter Pan, and changing up the direction of the theater’s programming for the next season.

(He ended up moving Metamorphoses to the Black Box Theatre to be safe, but that too brought up more questions and adjustments. “We might have to dig the floor out in the Black Box down to the cement. It’s just crazy in that aspect.”)

Multiple Hats, Multiple Balls in the Air

Edwards came to UNLV in 2014 after 20 years working in theater in New York as an actor, director, and administrator. Here, he’s shepherded more than a dozen projects through the pipeline, juggling multiple productions at various stages of completion simultaneously.

Shows are selected 12 to 18 months out. Within six to nine months of the show, production meetings start up to find out what the set design will be like, how big of an orchestra will be needed, and if they have special casting needs. Rehearsals start four or five weeks before opening night.

It’s that second-to-last part — the casting — that makes the Nevada Conservatory Theater a powerhouse for both entertaining audiences and instructing students in the finer parts of the craft.

Equity actors and directors — professionals brought in to work alongside graduate MFA students and undergrad performers — are integral to NCT’s operation.

Christopher V. Edwards“I think the folks who thrive here are the actors who understand the tradition and history of apprenticeship in theater from the beginning oftime,” Edwards said. “They're coming to be a mentor to our students. These kids are watching and taking note of what is professional behavior, what is professional product, and rehearsal behavior.

“It's the same for the directors we bring in. They come here and understand they may have an actor who finished doing a major motion picture, or a regional show or an off-Broadway show, but standing right next to that actor in the same scene is a highly talented, eager student-actor who may not have the craft or the skillset yet.”

Some students like to mix it up with the actors. Some prefer to sit back and coolly observe everything unfolding around them. There are actors who want to pull students aside and talk about the different ways they can approach a scene, and there are ones who wait for students to come to them. The common thread is that no matter how a student gets to that endpoint, they’re going to find takeaways that can have a profound effect on their career.

“They get a (suggestion) and a whole new room opens up for them as an artist,” Edwards said. “That one little adjustment now gave you the option to always use this in your work.” 

Programming the plays that set a seasonal tone

Putting those actors in place is just part of Edwards’ role. He’s responsible for choosing directors, who can be professionals from all around the country, or as in the case of Metamorphoses director Michael Lugering, culled from the UNLV ranks. But just as important is choosing an overall direction and tone for the season’s fare.

Initially, Edwards had planned a season that would include The 39 Steps and Two Gentlemen of Verona, but he wanted to take the 2017-18 season in another direction in response to the national political climate.

“There was an undertone of lightness that didn't address the needs of the faculty and the needs of the students pedagogically,” Edwards said. He opted to program instead Take Me Out, about a baseball player who comes out; Good Kids, about the perceptions and realities of rape on campus; race-relations drama Fences, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “I think we've got a season of awareness and rebellion and questioning authority.”

It gets to the heart of the central question of what the theater’s role is in the university and the community, something Edwards weighed before ultimately setting the direction for the next season. Do artists have responsibilities to the community? Should the theater be a place where people find common ground in their beliefs, or should it advocate?

“The great thing about this is UNLV is in a time of evolution, change and growth,” he said. “I think for the Top Tier initiative, we're looking for doorways into the community. At the university, there are several — research, athletics — but the arts does doorways to the community better than anybody. I'm very excited about what the future has to offer, how we can help this university make that transition into Top Tier.”

Scene from Metamorphoses