ND Sets the Stage for Life on Broadway

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled,” wrote Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch.

That wisdom is no better exemplified than in Scott City, Missouri, native and Notre Dame Regional High School graduate Matthew Buttrey.

Childhood Forays into Theatre

A New York-based scenic and environmental designer, Buttrey entered Notre Dame in 1991 with a slow-burning fire for the arts. His first memories of “making theatre” are as a young child, — perhaps pre-kindergarten, first- or second-grade, he’s not sure — exploring the artform with the tools he had available to him.

His older brothers had a “Jesus Christ Superstar” eight-track tape. Buttrey recalls flipping box lids upside down to create a stage, then taping colored cellophane left from his Easter baskets onto desk lamps to illuminate them. For the sets, he folded construction paper, standing them behind Playmobile people in different formations. He then pressed “play”.

“This was play time for me, listening to the soundtrack and imagining the production taking place,” he said.

In middle school, he created Lego sets complete with fly houses sailing in and out of scenery.

“I started borrowing my dad’s video camera and would set it up in front of the Lego stage,” pressing ‘play’ to the music and imagining the shows unfolding while one scenic element morphed into another, he said.

In the early ’90s, he designed a theatre that his older brother, David, built for him. The theatre featured more than 100 dimmable lights and a rotating turntable on a potentiometer.

“I treasure that model theatre” to this day, Buttrey said.

These experiences were just the beginning.

Notre Dame Stokes Scenic Design Ambitions

“By the time I got to high school, I knew that I wanted to be involved in the productions there and knew that Ms. (Cynthia) King (now in her 50th year as Notre Dame Head of Dramatics) was the person to talk to.

“She taught me that you can do scenic design for a job,” he said, and with that knowledge, his theatre ambition was forever stoked.

“It’s funny, because I had been doing (theatre) since I was a little kid, and it didn’t dawn on me that I could do this for a job,” said the 1995 Notre Dame graduate. “At that point, I had a focus and a goal. I knew that I wanted to study this in college.”

He had both on-stage and behind-the-scenes roles at Notre Dame, playing Billy Crocker in the 1995 production of Anything Goes and Captain Albert Lenox in the 1994 production of The Secret Garden. He participated in the ensembles of Fiddler on the Roof in 1993 and My One and Only in 1992. Buttrey says his best memories are working on the sets, and listening to show tunes King played while students built, painted and created.

“There were some set pieces that I created – topiary trees made for the Secret Garden – that are still making their appearances in shows to this day,” he said.

The scenic build hours he logged at Notre Dame were key to his future success.

“I essentially immersed myself in theatre with hands-on experience. I also got to witness the amount of hard work and dedication that Ms. King demonstrated year after year. Not only does she direct the shows which requires months and months of preproduction planning, but she also designed the sets, the lights, and the sound. She had an excellent team that would then coordinate the costumes, makeup, dressing room areas. She mentored the assistant directors, stage managers, props artisans, the lighting crew, sound crew, the list goes on and on,” he said.

While for many Notre Dame students, the annual musical is a hobby, for Buttrey, a 2015 inductee into Notre Dame’s Performing and Visual Arts (PAVA) Hall of Fame, it was something greater.

“Creating theatre, no matter the size or scope, is a collaboration of hundreds of people who come together to share a story through a passionate artform,” he said.

Buttrey Hones a Second Talent

At the same time Buttrey was honing his set design skills at Notre Dame, he was pursuing a parallel journey. In 1984, he began competitive figure skating which took him to St. Louis to train and across the nation to compete. He qualified for the U.S. National Championships in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1995, twice placing in the top three.

“Skating was my life,” he said. “Essentially, I had these two strong pulls in my life – theatre and skating.”

Upon graduating from Notre Dame in 1995, Buttrey matriculated to Southeast Missouri State University to study theatre. Two years later, though, he paused his education, seizing the opportunity to audition for Disney On Ice at the former Savvis Center in St. Louis. He signed on to a Japanese and Australian tour in 1997 and continued to tour globally for the next 16 years as a performer and director.

Return to Theatre

When that chapter came to an end, he returned to Southeast Missouri State in 2013 to complete his Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre design and technology. He continued his education at The University of Maryland, earning a Master of Fine Arts in scenic design and, shortly thereafter, launched his career.

“Academia can only get you so far,” he said. “Then it’s time to go out and do it and then learn how it’s really done.”

Buttrey continues to learn “the ins and outs” from established Broadway designers, listening to their stories and soaking it all in while living his dream in scenic theatre design in major venues across the country.

He describes his work as a that of a circus plate spinner.

“You have to keep all of those plates up and spinning so they don’t crash,” he said.

It requires wearing many hats, and he credits his mentors for helping show him the way.

His Recent Work

Over the past five years, he’s worked as an assistant and associate scenic designer with a number of shows, including Penn & Teller at the Penn & Teller Theatre; Aida, Mamma Mia, Matilda and Cinderella at The Muny; Trayf at Theater J; Milagro at Houston Grand Opera; Bridge of San Luis Rey at Miami New Drama; Is This a Room at The Vineyard Theatre; and MJ at the Neil Simon Theatre. He also has designed the Off-Broadway production of Pound, starring Christopher Lloyd on Theatre Row in New York; Mirror Room Lounge at the Big Apple Circus at The Lincoln Center in New York; Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, in Las Vegas; and The Cat in the Hat at Adventure Theatre in Washington, D.C.

He has been an assistant art director for Sesame Street’s Sesame Workshop and NBC Television productions of The Village and Sisters. He also returned to Cape Girardeau in 2019 to guest design Southeast Missouri State’s production of Sister Act.

Buttrey was the assistant art director for the Twenty One Pilots Live Album Release in May. He is currently associate designer for The Notebook at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and The Cher Show 1st National Tour, and is assistant director for a touring production of The Sleeping Beauty starting in Louisville, Kentucky.

No matter the show, they all bring out the best in him.

On His Style

“I love to create. I love geometry. I love art. I love to collaborate. I love to share, and I love to give,” he said. “All of these qualities are wrapped up into scenic design.

“I really love movement in my design work, whether it’s a fantastically designed scenic transition or movement throughout the form and shape of a design,” he continued. “It probably comes from my 30-something years of skating.”

COVID-19’s Silver Lining

While his ideas are always stirring, his creativity took a backseat to COVID-19 this past year. The pandemic shuttered much of the performing arts industry. Buttrey’s work was no exception.

“My work was impacted greatly,” he said. “It was non-existent for a year. But there are several ways to look at the time during the pandemic. We all have suffered tremendous losses in our own way, but I am grateful to be where I am and for the experiences that have brought me to New York, even through the pandemic.

“I want to see how we take what we have learned from the pandemic and apply it to the future so that we may be a more inclusive society, actively seeking to lift our neighbors up, defend the marginalized, support those that need our help and support the common good of all,” he said. “For me the best thing that has come out of the pandemic is really diving deep into the words of Pope Francis and listening to his message of inclusion and the common care of creation.”

Notre Dame Faculty Made a Lasting Impact

A graduate of St. Joseph’s Parish School in Scott City, Missouri, Buttrey says he is grateful for the early lessons learned in his native southeast Missouri, both in theatre and other disciplines, that prepared him for where he is today.

King has been a great sounding board for advice and ideas along the way, he said. The two have discussed their favorite shows and shared their excitement over what they’ve seen and what they’d like to see.

“There were many other wonderful (Notre Dame) faculty members I encountered during my time,” he said.

“I remember Betty Cox, my freshman English teacher. She was so kind and gracious. Deana Pecord taught me to tap. To this day I think of her when I am standing and waiting in line somewhere tapping my feet,” he said. “My vocal instructor was Ellen Seyer. She instilled the love of choral music in me. The love for choral music continued with me during my (skating) tour. In several of my European tours, I would visit the old empty, sunlit cathedrals on weekday afternoons listening to the pipe organists and choirs practice.”

Always a student of his trade, Buttrey says he continues to stay in touch with King and share with her new plays and shows he’s read or seen. And he continues to maintain that doing what you love and finding fulfillment is the ultimate definition of success.

Gratitude for His Journey

“I am very grateful to have so many people in my life who have encouraged me to do what I love, especially my mom. I am fortunate to be on a journey that has allowed me to be a part of some really amazing experiences,” he said. “How many people can make a living at what they love and are most passionate about?”