Ready, Set, Build
After 16 years on the road with Disney on Ice, Matthew Buttrey returned to Southeast to finish his undergraduate degree in theatre technology, got his master’s from the University of Maryland and now lives in New York doing freelance set-design work across the nation.
Buttrey, a Scott City native, was brought in as the set designer in October for River Campus’ production of “Sister Act,” which opens Wednesday, Feb. 20.
“It was a conversation that [conservatory chair Kenneth L. Stilson] and I had a while back as a possibility,” Buttrey said. “The timing seemed right; they were all for it. We talked about it, and it came to be. And it’s great because I get to visit my family here, which is wonderful.”
Buttrey said when he was a little kid he would play with Playmobil people on box-lids. He said he would fold construction paper and use desk lamps for different creations.
“I would press play to the music of my brother’s eight-track tape to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ and for some reason, I was immersed in pretending I was in some other world,” Buttrey said.
At Notre Dame High School is where Buttrey’s theatre career began with the help and guidance of head of the drama department Cynthia King. Buttrey was performing on stage, but he said he was always working all night on the productions, as well.
“That really is where my passion for it grew even more because I got to really do it with my hands and create worlds on the stage,” he said. “I value the time I was able to spend with [King]. She really gives good guidance in the area of technical theatre and direction. She was my outlet to theatre in high school.”
Buttrey explained the many details that were put into designing “Sister Act,” strategically transforming Bedell Performance Hall into a cathedral.
He pointed out that the flooring on the stage was painted to match the gold and orange tones of the wood walls of Bedell. He noted the deep blue chosen for the stage portals matches the house drapes.
“The audience becomes the congregation, because we also are going to have two cathedral pendants that are hanging in [the theatre] and the nuns will come in and out. It just becomes this immersive, environmental thing,” he said.
Buttrey also creates technical drawings which are draftings he gives to the technical director to build. These include sizes, dimensions, what materials to use, the purpose of the scenic element, where things will be on the stage and how they will move. The technical director, Buttrey said, then takes the draft he’s created and turns it into his own set of drawings that he will build from the ground up.
“It’s a really large show, there’s 31 scenes in it,” Buttrey said. “So in those technical drawings, I also show scene-by-scene where each piece is and then also where it is resting when it's not being used to see if we can actually store it in the back to the audience doesn’t see it. There's a lot to the puzzle.”
Buttrey said when designing sets from long distances, everyone involved in the process relies heavily on communication.
“The designer usually comes in for the tech process and making sure, with the whole creative team, that it's the vision that we saw from the beginning,” he said.
The tech process, Buttrey said, is the first time in the production process where the scenic pieces are added into the picture. This is where Buttrey and everyone else involved is able to see it all come together.
“It’s like you see everything in a quarter-inch scale, and now you get to see it full-size,” he said.
Stilson said the decision to bring in Buttrey as a guest set designer for the show was partially based on knowing his skills and talents from when he was taking courses at Southeast.
“First off, we knew that when Matt was here he was one of our top students,” Stilson said. “He was extraordinary, and when he got accepted into one of the top graduate programs in the nation it didn’t surprise any of us, because he really is that strong of a designer.”
Before attending Southeast, Buttrey competed nationally as a figure skater for several years.
He recalled first asking his parents to allow him to take figure-skating lessons in 1984 when the Plaza Galleria opened up in Cape Girardeau. A year or two into lessons, Buttrey began progressing through the testing levels so the coach at Plaza Galleria recommended him to a coach in St. Louis, he said. He then traveled to St. Louis to train while he was in grade school and high school. It was then that Buttrey started placing in competitions nationally, he said.
Buttrey attended Southeast for two years when the opportunity arose in 1995.
“I joined the theatre department as a theatre major — we were over at the Rose Theatre, though, over on the main campus. [River Campus] didn’t even exist,” Buttrey said. “And I had the opportunity to audition with Disney on Ice. I went and I auditioned and I was able to do a Japanese and Australian tour my first year.”
Buttrey’s one year on the road eventually turned into 16 years with Disney on Ice. He worked his way up to a performance director position and did that for six of his years spent with the organization.
“And then I thought, ‘I really want to get back to what my passion was which is set design,’” Buttrey said. “But I started a million years ago, it seemed like.”
He came back to Cape Girardeau and finished his undergraduate degree, only it was at the newly built River Campus as a non-traditional student.
After graduating from Southeast in 2015, Buttrey went straight to the University of Maryland calling his time spent with Disney on Ice his gap year. He said the amazing scenic design program is what led him to the university. He received his master’s in 2018 and since has had plenty of opportunities come his way, he said.
Buttrey was the scenic designer for a small off-Broadway show called “POUND” in New York — directed by Kathleen Butler — starring Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc in the “Back to the Future” trilogy. He’s assisted big Broadway names such as David Korins and David Gallo — Korins designed “Hamilton” and Gallo is the production designer for “Sesame Street.” Buttrey also said Gallo brought him on as the assistant art director for “Sesame Street’s” 50th season in the midst of beginning to design “Sister Act.”
“At that point, in October, I had five projects at varying levels going on,” he said.
With all that Buttrey does in his work life, he’s had to learn to find a perfect balance.
“It's funny, because my mentor back in grad school always considered scenic designers as plate spinners — they've got 15 to 20 plates on a stick, but you’ve got to keep them all spinning. You can't let any of them break,” he said.
Though this is the first few months of his professional life, Buttrey said he is thankful for what he’s had the ability to do thus far.
“I'm very grateful for the opportunities that I've had,” he said. “I have a long way to go and a lot to learn. We all never stop learning. I'm grateful that this is my first seven months out of grad school. I want the momentum to keep going, and we’ll see where it goes. As long as I’m happy.”