Joey Calkins is the Founder and General Artistic Director of UNIPAC (Utah Idaho Performing Arts Company), which performs mainly in Draper and the Salt Lake and Utah Valley area.
Your best ideas come to you when you strive to solve problems. Many entrepreneurs have stumbled on their greatest achievements as they were coming up with solutions to everyday issues.
Joey Calkins started his own theater company in Utah because he wanted to see operas that weren’t being produced. Since its first show in 2009, UNIPAC (Utah Idaho Performing Arts Company) has produced 29 shows to date. While opera is their specialty, they also put on drama productions, concerts, and recitals.
As the Founder and General Artistic Director of UNIPAC, Mr. Calkins has played every role—from director to producer, costume and set designer to stage manager, tech guru to singer/actor. Having done it all, he shares his wisdom for those interested in starting their own theater company or getting involved behind the scenes.
Joey Calkins’ Top Ten Insights
1) Get involved. Volunteer as an assistant stage manager, a stage manager, or assistant director. Learn what works from them and what doesn’t. Observe constantly what the directors of these shows do. What do you like? What don’t you like? What traits does this director have that you can adopt yourself? Did the director make you feel useful or needed? Or stupid? Get a feel for how all the pieces fit together.
2) Just do it! When we started three years ago, I didn’t know much of how theater companies worked. At that point I had only been in five shows . . . So naturally I thought I was qualified to start an opera company! I’ve always been stubborn; once I set my mind to do something, I have to accomplish it. I’m still learning, though.
3) Intimidating people push you to progress. In the beginning it was rather nice to go into it not knowing what I didn’t know. Though I must admit, I was horribly intimidated by the singers who were auditioning for me. Many of them had received master degrees in vocal performance, been in dozens of productions, performed in festivals in various parts of the world. And then there was me . . .
4) Try it all and discover your passion. I started directing simply because I couldn’t find a director for our first show, Dido and Aeneas. Besides the fact that I’m cheaper, I enjoy taking a score, listening to several recordings, picking it apart, studying all the different aspects of each character, what the composer was trying to say about him/her with the music that he used for that character, and molding the actors to create what I see in my head on stage for others to see it as well.
5) Take cues from your childhood pastimes. I started producing at a very young age; puppet shows with my cousins and brother. I don’t remember who all did what exactly, but we designed and made our own paper bag puppets, sets (which usually consisted of a blanket draped over some chairs or bench with paper cut outs tape to it), and wrote our own scripts. (The beginnings of my becoming a playwright!) Then I produced a vocal recital on average once a year for ten years beginning in 2001 before “retiring” in 2010.
6) Revel in your successes. For me, there is that moment with any concert or show that I produce (and direct) that I sit back and am in awe and I think to myself, “look what I created.” It’s a humbling experience for me, because I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t have the experience necessary to be doing this, but yet I’m doing it. (Maybe someday I’ll figure out how.) To date, I have produced everything from a solo vocal recital (myself and the accompanist) to fully staged productions with 20 singers, sets, lighting, costumes, 20 piece orchestra with singers ranging in skill level from “I’ve only ever sung in the shower” to “sung professionally for 40 years having appeared with (insert big name symphony) and (major opera company)” and also concerts with 80 voice choir, 25 piece orchestra, eight soloists. And have had audience sizes anywhere from 10 to 800. I live for that “look what I created” moment. It’s what keeps me producing.
Joey Calkins reviews the script of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas during rehearsal.
7) Make lots of mistakes and learn from them. Everything gets easier with experience, but at the same time more difficult. Over the years I’ve learned what works better versus what didn’t work at all—Such as marketing, organizing certain documents needed, or when to set due dates for artists to turn in their bios. Since UNIPAC is basically a ‘one-man-show’ type of company, I’ve learned to design posters, playbills, tickets, various business forms, write policies and procedures manuals…I’ve had to learn new lingo and how to handle sopranos (no offense to the author). What grows difficult as time goes on is my constant need to do bigger and better things. Every season “has to” be bigger or more impressive than the season before it. (I’ve never actually said that, but you would think I did based on what I do every year.)
8) Listen to your target audience. I consider several things and ask myself several questions when I’m planning UNIPAC’s next season: What operas are people talking about? What operas are local singers wanting to be involved in? I have patron surveys every season where I have listed some operas that I think would be popular (that I feel I could adequately put on; considering finances) but I also include a section where they can write in what opera they’d like us to do. I like to hear what my current actors are saying about various operas. They probably don’t realize I do this, but when I give them breaks during rehearsals, I “eavesdrop” on their conversations. I like knowing what my actors are interested in doing, what they’re studying, what opera they’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t been able to…things like that.
9) Strive for balance in the production. I look at casting requirements. Is the opera man-heavy? Could I have any of those male roles played by women without inadvertently turning the tragic story into a comedy? What time period is the story? Can I update it without much trouble? Orchestra parts? How much are they? Can I get them for free? Do I need to pay royalties or is it in public domain? Will this opera fit in the venue I have? (The theatre we currently use was built in the 1930′s and played movies and hosted vaudeville acts for years. It was turned into a live performance stage in the 90′s.)
10) Prepare everything ahead of time. Sometimes I cast 12 to 16 months before the performance. Over the course of my career as a soloist, producer, director, I have met many talented singers and actors and sometimes I will choose an opera because I want a particular singer to be in it and secure with them the dates before even announcing it. If I’m going to offer a role to someone without requiring them to audition I try to do it with enough notice so that I can make that announcement for auditions so I don’t have singers wanting to audition for that role.
Encore! Tell us more!
What is your vision for the future of UNIPAC?
I would like to see UNIPAC add educational programs; like master classes and workshops. Adding an opera production (two a season) is in our short-term goals.
As a director, I guess just to be able to consistently have inspiration come for design and staging to keep my approach fresh always. As a producer to always have the drive to continue to be bigger things. One of my greatest accomplishments as a producer was with Rob Gardner’s Joseph Smith the Prophet. We had approximately 800 people in attendance for the one-night only concert. Someday, I’d like to top that! As a performer, well my dream role is Canio in Pagliacci. Other roles I would love to play are Don Quixote (Man of la Mancha), Archie (The Secret Garden)…Though my bucket list has only two items on it. Sing the role of Canio and finish composing Requiem.
My love for the art form (and the fact that I’m one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met) drive me to always develop my craft. I enjoy the challenge of making things work, even (if not especially) when the odds are against me. I am competitive by nature and I like to prove people wrong!
What is the performing arts scene like in the Salt Lake area?
But what keeps me in the area is the passion for the arts. Every community (it seems) has an arts council, the arts are everywhere. I’m still learning what works well I’m afraid, though I’m finding that the better my marketing is the better attendance I have for a production. (Go figure!) I have volunteered with several companies in the valley since moving here almost six years ago and I would say that what seems to suffer the most (and this is a generalized statement) is the raw emotion of a piece. Sure the costumes, the music, the set, the actor’s abilities to portray a character, the director’s ability to mold the actors, (etc.) are all important, but sometimes I miss the emotion behind a piece. Why did the composer choose to write that particular chord in the score? The performing arts world seems to be more about entertaining than educating and edifying, but all three are important.
What are the biggest challenges of building the relationship between the production team and the performance venue? (Hint: embarrassing stories welcome!)
1) Learning the layout of the venue to assist actors with entrances. In the first theatre we used, the dressing rooms were in the basement. Facing the stairs you could go left or right. Going left would take you to Stage Right and vice versa. As an actor trying to remember that while throwing your costume on as you’re running up the stairs is tricky.)
2) I’ve burned a bridge with one particular venue, apparently the person in charge there thought I was a jerk. I asked for a set of lights (that I wasn’t allowed to use) to be removed. This person said, “No,” and that I’d be responsible if they were damaged. We argued about it. Later, I was speaking to my insurance agent about the situation. She said they would have fought that because they refused to move them.
How do you handle divas?
As a director, I don’t feel that it is my responsibility to pull the actor off the metaphorical cliff if they feel they aren’t doing a good job. My job is to design the concept for the show and teach the actors the blocking. I don’t babysit! I read in an article several years ago, where a director was quoted as saying something to the effect of, “The greatest compliment I can give an actor is hiring them again. It means I want them back.”
You’re a busy man! What’s on deck for the 2012 – 2013 season?
UNIPAC will be doing 11 concerts and 3 staged productions this season (2 operas and 1 play). There will be 14 total productions. I will produce all of them.
With Draper Historic Theater I will produce 2 plays, 3 musicals, and 1 opera. Additionally, with and /or for the Draper Historic Theater, I have and will produce 4 other concerts. The 2013 season has 1 play, 2 musicals, a Broadway showcase production, an opera (with UNIPAC), and a TBD Christmas Show as well as 6 to 8 other concerts/events.