Southeast Missouri State University alumnus Matthew Buttrey is living his dream as a theatre scenic designer in New York City, where his first Off-Broadway production, “Pound,” by Sean O’Leary, opened Oct. 4 and runs through Oct. 28 at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row.
The play, starring Christopher Lloyd and presented by Triumverate Artists, imagines Ezra Pound’s final days at St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital, where the previously dominant figure retreated into himself and into a period of silence. The American poet was labeled “incurable” after being charged with treason and remanded to the hospital, where he lived from 1945 until 1958.
Buttrey, a Scott City, Missouri, native, is now living in New York and involved in several theatre projects. In addition to “Pound,” Buttrey is designing a circus project opening this month at the Lincoln Center, a production of “The Pillowman” opening in Las Vegas in the spring, and a children’s show in Washington, D.C. He also is the set designer for The Jeanine Larson Dobbins Conservatory of Theatre and Dance production of “Sister Act,” opening Feb. 20 at Southeast’s River Campus.
“There is never a dull moment. My day varies day today depending on what projects I have going on at the time,” Buttrey said.
He also works as an assistant to David Gallo, a Broadway designer, who has several projects that keep Buttrey busy drafting, 3D modeling and rendering.
“I am very excited to be working on several projects at the moment. They are surprises, so I can’t share at the moment,” he explained. “What I love about working with him is his love for theatre, his design aesthetics and attention to detail. He truly is a wonderful mentor.”
Buttrey’s passion for the design process is fueled by the collaboration involved in creating environments in which stories come to life.
“My favorite part of the design process is dreaming the world and then that first moment when you see it in person,” he said.
Buttrey’s love for theatre came at an early age. He started designing with construction paper.
“My first memories of theatre are pre-kindergarten when I would play my brother’s 8-track tape to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ I would place my PLAYMOBIL® plastic people in formations on box lids with folded colored construction paper behind them. I would press play to the music and then get lost in imagining the world I created,” he said.
He then graduated to Legos and then a working theatre model complete with a turntable and more than 100 dimmable lights that his brother built and shipped to Buttrey from Seattle.
“I didn’t even know that a scenic designer was a job until I met Cynthia King, who teaches drama at Notre Dame Regional High School in Cape Girardeau. She was my first outlet to a theatre person,” he said. “From there, I was introduced to Dennis Seyer, who was my first scenic design professor at Southeast. I have so much respect for both of them.”
Buttrey started his undergraduate program at Southeast prior to the University’s development of the River Campus. He postponed his studies to pursue a performance career with Disney on Ice tours. When he returned to complete his degree, he was able to take advantage of the benefits offered by the new facilities and Conservatory.
“Southeast had changed a lot since when I first started. Cape Girardeau is so fortunate to have such a wonderful creative space. It’s an amazing facility that very few universities have,” he said.
Buttrey also appreciates the support he received from Southeast faculty.
“Kenneth and Rhonda Stilson really pushed me to be the best I could be and encouraged me to go for every opportunity I could. I appreciated their confidence in me and their superb guidance,” he explained. “I really enjoyed collaborating with Bart Williams and Michael McIntosh, as well as Bart’s Script Analysis class and Michael’s directing class.”
His advice to Southeast students is to be present.
“When I went back to school, the number one thing I noticed in the younger students was the lack of organization and focus. College goes by so fast, so be present and be focused from the beginning,” he said. “Take advantage of the opportunities and facilities at Southeast. The faculty are fabulous. They are there for a reason – listen to them.”
After graduating from Southeast with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre design and technology, Buttrey attended the University of Maryland in College Park. He graduated last May, earning a Master of Fine Arts in theatre design with an emphasis in scenic design.
One of his graduate advisors at Maryland, Misha Kachman, referred Buttrey to the producers of “Pound.”
Kathleen Butler, the director, called me,” Buttrey said. “We had a wonderful chat, and I was hired!”
Buttrey’s main goal is to do what he loves, which is designing and creating.
“I have specific goals to design across the U.S., regionally and internationally. Of course, who wouldn’t want to do a Broadway show or two?” he said. “It’s mostly about creating and establishing meaningful relationships with others to create fulfilling and memorable projects.”