With big venues closed, Las Vegas theater mavens Sandra and Steve Huntsman are tapping into more creativity than ever before to stay afloat.
In the last weeks of the old normal, Las Vegas theater powerhouses Sandra and Steve Huntsman were furiously putting the finishing touches on a lavish new production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Then the COVID crisis brought performances around the country to a screeching halt and pulled the plug on the much-anticipated show. But the dynamic husband-and-wife team are finding creative ways to stay relevant on the Las Vegas art scene during the shutdown.
Over the last seven years, the Huntsmans have built a reputation for next-level community theater with their production company Huntsman Entertainment. “Beauty and the Beast,” scheduled to open March 27 at the 2,400-seat Henderson Pavilion, was canceled just over two weeks before opening night.
“We were all incredibly disappointed. It’s like not being able to give birth. When you have a show, it’s like a child,” Sandra Huntsman said. “It was horribly disappointing. We all got together that night and had doughnuts and hugged — our last physical contact with other people.”
Las Vegas theater at its best
The Huntsmans were set up to bring their trademark production magic to the classic Disney musical with knockout costumes and sets. It’s a show they both love and have done in the past both as performers and producers. The 2020 show would have brought a new twist to an audience favorite: The Henderson production was set in the Victorian period with brand new costumes and sets — and a 19th century Belle with an attitude. On March 12, Sandra, a talented costumer, was sewing madly, while Steve, the director, was making sure the details on every set were perfect.
“We were in full-blown, get-it-done show mode. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a huge production,” Sandra said.
But that day, the Huntsmans got word from the City of Henderson that the show was canceled. And postponement isn’t in the cards. “Beauty” would have been their final show at the beloved performance venue. The city-owned pavilion 15 miles south of Las Vegas is slated to become an events center and hockey arena through a deal with the Henderson Silver Knights minor league hockey team.
“This was kind of our swan song,” Sandra said.
The Huntsmans are both longtime actors with a talent for backstage magic: Sandra is a master costumer and Steve an award-winning director and set designer. For the last seven years, they’ve run a production company while raising four kids, the oldest of whom is now 20. Resilience comes with the territory. The COVID shutdown was a blow, but they’re used to getting creative to get by.
“For years, we’ve struggled and pushed and scraped together,” Sandra said. “We’re scrappy.”
‘As artists, we hustle’
With their theater careers on hold, both Huntsmans have plunged into innovative side gigs. Each have added an extra helping of whimsy and ingenuity that the Las Vegas art world is known for. Steve has returned to his longtime passion for hand-painted character art. While Sandra, a lifelong seamstress, launched a new page selling fashion face coverings.
Steve’s splashy, one-of-a-kind acrylic paintings featuring favorite cartoon characters have garnered fans and clients around the country. He’s been selling paintings for more than a decade but says they tend to get pushed aside whenever he’s directing a show.
“Painting for me is very therapeutic. It puts me in a good mind space and it’s something that I really enjoy doing. Being able to focus on that almost 100 percent — it’s been good for me. Financially, it’s basically what’s held us together,” he said. “In the theater world, where our living was bringing people together and entertaining them, and that’s taken away from you, it’s like the carpet getting taken out from under you. As artists, we hustle.”
‘You’ve got to figure out how to carry on’
For Sandra, the mask-making gig is completely pandemic-inspired but has provided a needed outlet.
“This is a totally new venture for me, and I’m actually finding that I really, really like it,” she said.
Sandra launched the Sandra Sews Facebook page in May after initially feeling uneasy about selling masks. Like many Americans, the initial phase of lockdown led to a very real mourning period, with the sadness of a daughter missing her high school graduation and the death of Sandra’s grandmother adding to the stress of professional woes.
“It really took me two months of just processing and making a conscious decision to accept, ‘okay, this is happening and you can’t do anything about it,'” she said. “You’ve got to figure out how to carry on.”
Sandra turned to her stock of fun custom-printed fabrics featuring patterns from “Star Wars” to Disney favorites. She launched Sandra Sews in mid-May and sold 139 face coverings in the first week. The masks not only create another revenue stream but seem to offset some of the anxiety of wearing a mask for clients, she says.
“If it’s something that brings you joy, it just takes the edge off of it a little bit and makes it more palatable.”
An onstage proposal and a leap of faith
For Steve and Sandra Huntsman, a 21-year marriage and an ongoing creative partnership started with a late 90s community production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and an unforgettable onstage proposal.
Both Huntsmans had auditioned for a community theater production of “Fiddler,” and Sandra earned the plum role of Hodel, Tevye’s headstrong second daughter. Steve was initially cast in a smaller part but wound up snagging the role of Hodel’s love interest, Perchik, when another actor dropped out. The couple fell in love during rehearsals and didn’t even have a real date until after they were engaged.
“We’d sit in the parking lot for hours talking,” Sandra said.
They had only been an official couple for two weeks before Steve made a real-life proposal on stage during Perchik’s proposal scene on closing night.
“I got to thinking, I know I’m going to marry her someday, so I might as well do this big,” Steve said.“I didn’t even change anything in the show — I just added one thing.”
The Huntsmans kept acting and Steve worked day jobs while earning a name as a director with Las Vegas’ Signature Productions community theater company. After stepping back while their kids were young, Sandra jumped back in to join him as a costumer. But after a few years, the couple decided the time was right to start their own production company.
“We started to have our own ideas and our own creativity,” Sandra said.
The couple launched Huntsman Entertainment in 2013 and quickly earned a reputation for standout community theater with an extravagant aesthetic. Their artistic chops led to a thriving business in costume and set rentals and corporate entertainment, creating sets, props and experiences for corporate events. But those contracts have also dried up in the wake of COVID-19.
“It’s like right at that point where we’re finally going, ‘Okay we can sustain this,’ it’s gone,” Sandra said.
‘Nothing we do is guaranteed’
With the short-term future uncertain for the Las Vegas art and theater world, the Huntsmans are taking a clear-eyed approach and banking on new creative endeavors to keep their family afloat. With performing arts venues closed during Nevada’s current Phase 2 reopening, there’s a good chance it will be a year or more before Huntsman Entertainment makes a return to the stage.
“Nothing we do is guaranteed. We’re used to kind of living on that edge,” Sandra said. “I feel like for us this is going to be a little like a sabbatical, a little hiatus…It’s exhausting what we do, so maybe this is a time to just breathe and let it be and focus on some other things.”
Several other Las Vegas theater companies are making tentative post-COVID plans, but uncertainty doesn’t lend itself to the kind of to-the-hilt live shows the Huntsmans are known for.
The city’s venerable outdoor Super Summer Theatre, held at the spectacular Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, pushed back its full 2020 season to 2021. One edgy local company is offering drive-thru performances and other companies are optimistically planning shows for the fall.
“We have a good reputation in this town for the whole shebang — doing the big productions of the old shows. That’s what we love to do,” Sandra said. “We feel like that’s a great way to tell a story. We pay attention to every area — casting, direction, costumes. That’s what we’re known for. That’s what we do.”
‘We can’t stop doing it’
For now, the couple is working to keep their company relevant. While the virtual realm doesn’t mesh with their lavish style, they may host small scale performances and other online experiences. Last week, cast members shared memories from their 2019 production of “Mamma Mia” on Huntsman Entertainment’s YouTube channel. Additional cast conversations are also planned.
But for a community theater company, it’s not financially feasible to stage and stream full productions without an audience, the Huntsmans say. They’re up-front that it may take a while until they can get back to the kinds of productions they do best.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic that it will happen sooner rather than later, but we’re getting ready for the long haul. If it’s a two-year break, a three-year break, we aren’t going anywhere,” Sandra said. “We’ll figure stuff out. If we need to start out small to get back into it, we will. This is who we are. We can’t stop doing it.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.