ROCK ISLAND — You don’t typically leave a musical humming about the sets or giving a standing ovation for the costumes.
But patrons of Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse long have been impressed by the stellar scenic design of Susan Holgersson and colorful costuming of Greg Hiatt, who’ve both been crucial to the venue’s success for years.
While Hiatt — an exacting, 63-year-old Indiana native — has been wowing Quad-Cities audiences since 1992, Holgersson — an enthusiastic, 65-year-old Moline native — has a longer history with Circa. Her art has branched out across Rock Island; it graces the walls of QC Coffee and Pancake House and the Brunner Theatre Center at Augustana College.
"There is a similarity there," Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock said this week of the pair. "The big thing is inspiration. When they are designing, you always get a bit better than you were expecting." When they're both on a show, he calls their partnership "the dream team."
"Greg is never late. It can be a huge show. His costumes are never late," Hitchcock said. "Everything is thought through; everything is anticipated. He's always on top of things and extremely bright. His stuff always looks incredible."
"Susie was great to work with as a student," he said of teaching her at Augustana in the '70s. "She's doing exactly what she wanted to do, and does an incredible job with it. Whenever I've directed, I always ask her to design."
"Her painting is spectacular and she's really collegial," Hitchcock added.
A small-town Hoosier
“My parents took me to summer stock, and that’s where I fell in love with theater,” Hiatt said recently. He's from a small town north of Indianapolis, and he has designed over 250 professional productions. “I started out performing. I went to a small country school, and nobody ever said you could go to college and study theater."
He learned mainly by doing community theater after he was out of high school, and he got a full-time office job in Muncie, Ind., for a few years, before earning a degree at what’s now Indiana Wesleyan, a small, private, conservative college near Muncie. Hiatt started performing in and creating costumes for musical revues, working at a theater an hour from his job.
“That’s what you do,” Hiatt said. “I had the job to pay the bills and have insurance, and that gave me the chance to learn to do theater.”
He freelanced in the Louisville area, Little Rock, Ark., and Wichita, Kan., and he worked at Derby Dinner Playhouse near Louisville from 1988 to 1991. He did his first Circa show — “Me and My Girl” — as a performer in late 1990.
"I wanted to settle down and not look for a new job every six weeks. I had been going gig to gig, was ready to have my own bed again," Hiatt recalled of moving to the Quad-Cities. "I thought I would go for couple years ... and 27 years later, I’m still here.”
His first costume design at Circa was for "Annie" in 1992. Among his favorites have been “White Christmas,” “Mamma Mia,” “Peter Pan” and the recent “Singin’ in the Rain."
“I saw this one five times, because it was so good” Holgersson said of "Singin'." “I loved the guy who played Cosmo. And I loved your costumes.”
He's renting the costumes from the New York production of Circa's next musical, “Kinky Boots,” which opens Jan. 15 in previews.
“There’s no resources to get fabrics anymore, the supplies you need,” Hiatt said, noting he's rented more costumes in recent years instead of making his own.
“I am renting more than I used to, because I can’t continue to work 70-hour weeks,” Hiatt said. “The resources aren’t there. I don’t have the options to get the materials that I need. When I started, there were seven fabric stores in the Quad-Cities; now, we’re down to Jo-Ann (Fabrics). There’s no competition. And brick-and-mortar stores are closing, for buying clothes or shoes or hats.”
“I spend so much more of my time going from store to store to store, trying to find a pair of men’s black slip-on shoes,” he said. “If I find them, they’re so expensive, or they’re so cheap, they’re not going to last a month.”
“Then I don’t have the time to create the costumes I’d like to,” Hiatt said.
“I know he will help me,” Holgersson said of Hiatt. “It always puts a smile on my face…His costumes can distract from the set. When we are able to make them coordinate together, that’s the best.”
Sometimes, actors take it on themselves to change their own costume. “That’s really frustrating,” Hiatt said.
“Lights can sometimes make your set look like absolute magic,” Holgersson said. “From a negative standpoint, sometimes light can kill your magic.”
To be great, collaborate
“I really enjoy the aspect of collaboration,” Holgersson said. “To be a great show, it has to be collaborative. The best shows, you communicate with each other.”
“It’s not such a collaborative effort anymore,” Hiatt said. "Every situation is different. Good lighting designers are very rare. There’s a whole different attitude than there was 25 years ago because technology has changed so much. I find that the young lighting designers now are more interested in the technology and creating a light show.”
“I still think the best scenic, costume and lighting designers are those that aren’t trained. Because it’s all natural,” he said. “They get it. They have an eye for it, and they’ve usually gone through the process of being an actor turned into something, a musical director turned into something. They understand all the aspects.”`
Both Holgersson and Hiatt said performing helped in their design careers.
“I would be out there performing, but I would be looking at people around me thinking, 'What I’m wearing does not match what they’re wearing,'” Hiatt said. “It’s not the same time period.”
“You put people in the time period and take people to a different world,” he said of costuming. “It’s more than just the actors — it’s the material, the lights, the sets, the costumes.”
What she did for love
A Moline High School alumna, Holgersson has known Hitchcock since her high school days, when he drafted her to come to Augustana College. He taught theater there until 1976, when she graduated, and he bought the former Fort movie theater.
Holgersson's first show at Circa was its June 1977 debut, “I Do, I Do.” She did scenic design and worked briefly as a Bootlegger, one of the performing waitstaff. She said in 1978, she made $48,000 in tips.
“He is a wonderful person. He’s like an uncle,” Holgersson said of Hitchcock. “What he’s done here has been really important for the community.”
“You do it ‘cause you love it,” she said, noting she got hooked on designing sets at Augie, where she'd stay up 72 hours straight and then sleep for 12. "I worked five jobs, had the theater," Holgersson recalled. "I must have been psycho,” she said. “I don’t remember that. You don’t think about it.”
Her first set in college was designing “Joe Egg,” she said. “You’re sitting there and thinking, ‘My God, that came out of my head.’ It’s the addiction to it. All that work, the hours, getting things done, and you want the finished product to look like that.”
The habit of working 24/7 continued at Circa, Holgersson said.
Holgersson's varied career took her across the country in the early '80s to Seattle, designing kitchens. She did foster care for many troubled kids while living in Nashville, and worked several years as a drug sales rep. She moved back to the Quad-Cities in the late ‘90s.
In addition to "Peter Pan," some of Holgersson's favorite Circa productions include "Ring of Fire," "Southern Crossroads" and "Whodunit." Her last one was the comedy “Shear Madness,” which she and Hiatt worked on this summer.
She's completed set designs for over 150 stage productions, going back to Music Guild's "Sound of Music" in 1975. She has also worked as a scene painter for Circa under other designers.
Holgersson has worked three seasons designing for Mississippi Bend Players, the professional summer stock company at Augustana, and works as a guest designer for student productions during the year.
“It is fun, and the students are excited because here’s an alumna coming back,” she said. MBP artistic director Phil McKinley (a 1973 Augie alumnus) and Holgersson were in the college's “Brigadoon” together in '73, and she also was in charge of makeup for that show.
Keeping busy with artwork, too
Though she's at an age when many people retire, this past year was very busy for Holgersson. In addition to her work for area theater productions, she completed a multi-year exhibit at the Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center in Camanche, Iowa. That includes a huge foam tree, rocks and nature murals. “They have an incredible museum,” she said. “I had never made a tree before, and I had to figure out how to build this tree. I had park rangers help me.”
She also painted a large mural of downtown Rock Island for the back wall of an addition to QC Coffee & Pancake House, right across the street from Circa.
Holgersson made foam sculptures of pancakes and a burger for the front window, and owner Jose Zepeda is having her do 11 more paintings, including some for the stairway down to his basement office, she said.
Her first mural for the coffee shop is in the main room, done in 2014 from old Rock Island postcards of historic buildings. “I put them in their approximate location, of where they had been,” she said. “One of the things that was fascinating about Rock Island was, they were the farm capital of the world...I love history.”
Holgersson will paint three signs for “Kinky Boots” and will do the opera company's set for next June's “Madame Butterfly” at the new Bartlett Performing Arts Center at her alma mater, Moline High.
Their shows are their kids
Hiatt is single. After being divorced 23 years, Holgersson reunited with her high school sweetheart, Robert (Doc) Holliday, who originally asked her to marry him in 1971. They married Sept. 3, 2016.
While neither Hiatt nor Holgersson has children, they said they feel as if their shows are their kids — they raise them and get them on their feet to succeed on their own.
“It’s fun to play with them a couple of weeks and then send them on their way,” Hiatt joked.
“I would not be happy in life doing something else,” he said. “I’ve worked in theater my whole working career. I did my share of waiting tables as a side job or between shows. I have made my livelihood, my whole career, through the arts. So I’ve been pretty lucky.”
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