(Editor’s Note: As Commencement nears, WVUToday is featuring some of the University’s most dedicated graduates. Here is the story of one of those students.)
When Byron Utley’s friends recruited him to join the theater crew in high school, he figured building sets was a good outlet for the skills he picked up in his computer drafting and shop classes. Six years later, Utley will graduate from West Virginia University with plans to make a mark on the design industry he never knew existed.
“I had really enjoyed my time in theater in high school, but I just didn’t know that theater design was something you could major in,” said Utley, from Lewis Center, Ohio. “I had no idea that this was something you could actually do and make a living.”
So Utley decided to major in engineering at WVU. While attending New Student Orientation, Utley and his mother, who is deaf, were assisted by interpreter Theresa McGonigle whose husband, Jerry, teaches acting and directing in WVU’s School of Theatre & Dance.
“After talking to my mom about my time in theatre, Theresa suggested I learn more about the theater program here,” Utley said. “We ended up skipping the next session at orientation to tour the College of Creative Arts.”
Utley made the switch to major in theatre technology and design after one semester. He’s spent the last three-and-a-half years learning the technical craft - like welding and carpentry - and managerial skills necessary to succeed as a technical director.
“Whenever we had a challenging part of a show, there would be Byron to lift a hand or in some cases take the lead on how to tackle the challenge.”
In his time at WVU, Utley was named technical director on three of the school’s MainStage productions. In this role he was responsible for turning the vision of the design and production teams into reality.
“The teams will meet for a design presentation, and I sit and observe,” Utley said. “Really, I’m appraising the designs in my head, trying to figure out how I can make them happen. Once the director accepts the designs, that’s when I really get to work.”
Utley created working drawings, much like blue prints, for each set, some more difficult than others. “Arabian Nights” had a large curved wall that angled to look broken at each end
“I'm kind of a perfectionist and it’s hard on a four-to-five-week timeline to build an entire set exactly how you envisioned it,” Utley said. “It takes a lot of commitment. Many 18 hour days were spent here.”
On top of a busy production schedule, classes and homework, Utley still managed to find time to give back within the industry. He volunteered in March at the United State Institute for Theatre Technology annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I wanted to volunteer at USITT because I knew a lot of the bigger design technology schools would be there, and I wanted to represent WVU and show everyone that we are a contender in that category,” Utley said. “I feel if I can do that, I’m helping the next generation of WVU design tech students.”
That next generation, he says, may include some of the high school students he met through another volunteer opportunity with the West Virginia Thespian Festival.
“I felt like I owed something to high school students here even though I went to high school in Ohio,” Utley said. “I talked to them about the things I’ve built and let them know they can do this as a profession and career and they should be excited about that. I wanted to show them the potential they have in this industry that I didn’t realize I had at their age.”
After graduation, Utley is off to Cedar City, Utah, for his third summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. He will serve as assistant technical director for the 10-production season that includes “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Treasure Island.”
“Utah Shakes is well-known and celebrated, and people get really excited when you tell them you work with the festival,” Utley said. “It’s a really great atmosphere and a great experience to work on so many plays with different sets in a short amount of time.”
Utley plans to pursue corporate theatre when the Utah Shakespeare Festival ends in September.
“There are many sets built outside of the typical theater,” Utley said. “Company parties, galas, runways, sporting events. They’re really challenging and always interesting. I think it will keep me on my toes.”
Could the set for Super Bowl, the MET Gala or the MTV Music Awards be designed and built by a WVU alumnus? Definitely.
“I have the utmost confidence that down the road Byron will be working in professional theater on cutting edge projects,” Neuenschwander said. “He has a work ethic that drives him to continue to advance, never settling for the status quo.”
CONTACT: Bernadette Dombrowski
Communications Specialist, College of Creative Arts