Circus trained: UVA drama’s Steven Warner prepares students for the big time

Steven Warner will put his circus background to the test when the new Caplin Theatre opens at UVA. “We build one show at a time,” he said. “And in my mind that’s how I’m going to juggle it.” Photo: Christian Hommel Steven Warner will put his circus background to the test when the new Caplin Theatre opens at UVA. “We build one show at a time,” he said. “And in my mind that’s how I’m going to juggle it.” Photo: Christian Hommel

Sitting at his desk, amidst a cacophony of buzzing, clanging, and sawing backed by rock music, Steven Warner has an internal antennae that functions like a sixth sense. “Right now I hear screw guns going and table saws going. You know, you get tuned in to it. Even if you’re here in another room talking to someone or working on the computer, you’ll hear something that’s not normal and you’ll realize that someone didn’t use the tool right.”

Warner has led the UVA drama technical department since 2006, when he was lured from a dream job in Las Vegas where he’d climbed the ranks at Cirque du Soleil.

At UVA, he oversees productions at the Culbreth and Helms theatres, and will add the new Ruth Caplin Theatre to this list when it opens on April 18.

Warner and his team currently design and build the sets for an average of six shows over nine months, along with special events and side projects like the upcoming Stan Winston Creature Festival (April 20). His is an all-out job that requires vision through to the end.

“During the design phase is where a lot of decisions get made,” Warner said. “What colors? What size of set? Does it need an elevator? What color will the lights be? Does it need any atmospheric things like fog or rain?”

“Once all of those things are decided, we have a week to do working drawings and a budget, then start building,” he added. “We have a very short time window to actually create an instruction manual for building the show.” After six weeks of planning, five weeks of building, and 12 weeks of rehearsal, a typical show runs for two weeks and 10 performances.

“In theater, the aim is for people to walk out of the show and say that was a great production, not ‘that was a great set’ or ‘the acting was fantastic.’ It’s a huge collaborative effort,” said one of Warner’s graduate students, Mark Gartzman.

Soft spoken and direct, Warner is a West Texas native who speaks with a slight drawl and brings a calm intensity to his classroom and his work. “I think I instill a lot of confidence in them. They know that because of where I’ve come from and the background I’ve had, that I’m someone they should listen to. As long as I don’t mess that up, I’m in really good shape. I’ve always got their back, and I’m in their corner.”

Warner initially pursued a career as a sports coach, but found he was more at home when he volunteered in a theater department. While attending the University of Delaware’s drama graduate program, he interned at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and made important connections that would shape his career. “It’s a great foot in the door to entertainment,” he said.

Show business became fully embedded in his DNA when he went to work for Ringling Brothers circus. The romantic’s notion of running away with the circus was Warner’s real life for almost four years. He lived in a train car, learned everyone’s role, and immersed himself in every aspect of production, even handling the animals.

“When we were doing a baby elephant tour called Romeo & Juliet, they did an act in the center ring where they played with basketballs and put them into a hoop. To get set up, you have to wheel the hoops out quickly, because the elephants are right behind you. I looked back and the elephants were chasing me, and the crowd was laughing, and I was the clown for that show.”

The vast experience of touring with a circus paired with his drama education inspired Warner. “I saw a great correlation with theater and circus in Cirque du Soleil and what they were doing in Las Vegas.”

Warner worked for Cirque from 2000-2006 and his connections are now the gateway for UVA students to enter what he calls entertainment’s Ivy League at high-profile productions around the globe. “The internships are hard to come by. It’s very competitive. It’s tough to meet those needs. So, raising the level of the program here at UVA to the point where it’s acceptable to a company like Cirque du Soleil—it’s all about safety, rigging, automation, technology—things that didn’t exist for very long in entertainment.”

When Cirque du Soleil arrives with Quidam at the John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday, it will be met by Warner, and his wife Brigitte (also a former Cirque employee), as part of its extended family. “You don’t realize how many family members you have until you do something like that,” said Warner.

Drawn to UVA by the Jefferson mystique, and a slower pace, the Warners chose Charlottesville as a place to settle down and raise their son, as well as to build Steven’s own legacy. “I fell in love with [Charlottesville] and really felt like this is where I wanted to end up, and be able to utilize the talents I’d learned being on tour and … gained from being in theater at the same time.”

Back in his office adjacent to the theater workshop, Warner is a serene presence as pipes bang on the ground and directions are shouted over the din. A ringmaster in his own right, he is always tuned in to the show unfolding around him. “You start to become very aware of things that you’d have never listened to before,” he said, and compares it to having an ear for bird calls.  “It’s really strange like that. You hear the details.”