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An Interview with Peter Butt, Technical Director of San Francisco Ballet

Ready for the Road

by Rebecca Hirschman

August 2004 -- San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet is about to embark upon a tour to Athens and London. It’s a monumental effort to pack up and relocate sets, costumes, and other stage equipment halfway around the world, but Peter Butt, the company’s technical director, seems to do it with ease. Recently, I had an opportunity to chat with him about his job and responsibilities at SF Ballet.

I’ve heard that you come from an arts and production-oriented family. Do you mind telling me about this?

My grandmother was a modern dancer in the 1920’s with Denishawn and other companies, and my mother was a modern dancer in NY in the 60’s. My father was involved in technical theater from college on. He worked with The Joffrey Ballet, New York City Opera, and finally with ABT.

Did this inspire or encourage you to work behind the scenes in the arts?

I don’t know if it was conscious, but I was definitely subconsciously exposed, being taken backstage to theaters. My dad would be up with the follow-spot and I would be up there with him. I know that my experiences somehow contributed to my appreciation of the arts.

What’s your background? Have you always worked for ballet companies?

Here at SF Ballet, I started as assistant stage manager, the entry-level position in terms of staff positions, and I worked my way through. Prior to this, I worked with a number of dance companies including Oakland Ballet and ODC [ODC/San Francisco], working as a stagehand.

What do you do as technical director at San Francisco Ballet?

I oversee all of the backstage operations at the Ballet: scheduling of the stage crews, developing the production season schedule including when technical work will take place, and scheduling orchestra rehearsals and dancer rehearsals in the Opera House.

When the company is touring, do you have any extra duties or job responsibilities?

I deal all of the freight moves, getting all of the equipment to wherever the international destination it is. Sometimes we use air freight like on this tour where we need to get equipment from Athens to London. I also deal with the communications on tour between these locations. We’ve been dealing with a freight companies for years that can pull a rabbit out of a hat.

You met your wife (Julie Begley) at SF Ballet, and you both still work there. What’s this like?

It’s great. We try not to bring the work home and we’re pretty successful at that. It’s great to have the occasion to see each other or say hello, but since we’re both so busy, it doesn’t happen very often.

At SF Ballet, are there any special, favorite, or humorous moments that come to mind?

There are, especially surrounding the larger full-length ballets such as “Romeo and Juliet” or “Sleeping Beauty” and the new “Nutcracker.” For me, this is because the production elements were pretty substantial in size and scope, and there’s a lot of work done by so many people. It will always be a memorable process of getting these ballets onto the stage. I try to make or find humorous moments any time I can. I think the UNited We Dance Festival was a great experience for the company, being exposed to so many different types and styles of performers along with the few technical staff that came with those groups. It was great to be the host for all of those people, trying to open up our theater to them.

How are you planning for the new “Nutcracker” that premieres this December?

Because of the size and the scope of this production, we spent an unusual 2 weeks in the Opera House, teching it out and testing out the lighting because the way the Opera House works, it is a very short time between when the Opera closes and the Ballet opens in December. Our advertising says it’s all-new and it is, from bottom to top. It’s going to be magical.


Edited by Jeff.

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