People of Duke Arts: Chuck Catotti

Catotti was raised in Gainesville, FL. After starting his studies at the University of Florida, Catotti finished his BA at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he quickly entered the MFA program in Technical Production. Catotti became embedded in the local theater scene and eventually landed a position at Duke. In this interview for Duke Arts, Catotti reflects on his 33-year tenure at the university, how theater at Duke and in Durham has changed, and shares a few highlights from his career.

From all of us at the Duke Arts family, heartfelt congratulations to Chuck Catotti for his many years helping to shape theater and event production at Duke. We hope to see you around the Ruby soon!

Chuck at work in Duke’s R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater, July 1986, about one year after being hired as theater operations manager. Color slide in the private collection of Duke Technical Services, courtesy Mark Kitchens.

How did you become interested in theater?

I was the kid who had a soldering iron and was building radios and stuff at home. I played music growing up—I was a sax player in a band. Whenever we did a set without the horns I would go run the lights.

I picked up a couple jobs in theater when I was at UNC, one at Memorial Hall and one at the PlayMakers Repertory Company. I was looking around at the students who were in the graduate program (MFA in Technical Production, UNC Department of Dramatic Art), and I thought, “I should do this because I love working in production.” I talked to the faculty and said, “I’d like to join the MFA program,” and the next year I enrolled.

While I was in the MFA at Chapel Hill, I continued to do freelance work. I ended up designing a few shows for John Clum (who was the head of Duke Drama at that time). I started to get to know some people in Durham and at Duke and started being more involved in projects over here.

When and why did you first come to Duke?

In 1985 a group including Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, Ella Fountain Pratt, and Michael Marsicano had conceived of doing a street opera in Brightleaf Square. I was hired to design the sets, lights, build it, and figure out the logistics. When they set up for their first rehearsal, there was a lot of ambient noise. They thought, “Oh my God, what do we do?” And Miss Pratt says, “Well I’ll call Wes (Newman),” who was then the Director of Technical Services at Duke.  Wes came and bailed them out with a bunch of gear from Duke. He ended up hiring me and I started at Duke that fall. I thought I’d stay for a year or two, but…

man serving food
Chuck serves food to Auxiliary Services employees at a tropical-themed staff recognition luncheon for exceptional attendance on April 11, 2001. Summer 2001 issue, A to Z: Duke University Auxiliary Services newsletter, Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

How has your job changed over the years?

When I came here I oversaw the Bryan Center theaters with two technicians. Within about 6 months, I took on Page Auditorium. Years later, I took on the box office and later, conference and event services.

Early in my first year, I had a meeting with Manny (Emanuel) Azenberg, the Broadway producer. Manny’s daughter had gone to Duke and he saw our brand-new Reynolds Theater and thought, “I would like to do my out of town previews on a college campus where the audiences will be friendly and where the actors, the director and designers aren’t under pressure and where we can just get the show on its legs.”

In Spring 1986, we did a three-week run of Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill—the second Broadway revival of the show. Jack Lemmon was the main star. Kevin Spacey (unknown at the time) and Peter Gallagher were also in it.

We did one or two of these previews a year my first five years. All of a sudden, I’m surrounded by these people that I had studied in school and aspired to go try to work with in New York—they were here at Duke.

I kept getting more added to my plate, and I never ended up leaving.

“All of a sudden, I’m surrounded by these people that I had studied in school and aspired to go try to work with in New York—they were here at Duke.”—Chuck Catotti

dress rehearsal on stage
Chuck designed lighting for the April 2011 Theater Studies production of “The Laramie Project”, directed by Jeff Storer. Digital photograph by Les Todd, in the private collection of the Department of Theater Studies, Duke University.

How have the arts at Duke evolved since you started?

We certainly made enormous strides with facilities. We are sitting in the Rubenstein Arts Center and I’m looking across the street at the Nasher—both of which did not exist when I started. We’ve renovated Page, we’ve renovated Baldwin. We’ve done upgrades in the Bryan Center theaters. There was no Vice Provost for the Arts when I started. There’s been a lot of progress.

What changes have you see in the theater scene in Durham?

We used to do touring Broadway shows in Page Auditorium. They were called bus and trucks because the sets came on a truck and the cast and crew came by bus and they travel for one-nighters. In the world of professional theater, there’s a pecking order and bus and trucks are at the low end—they are the same shows, and they can have great cast members, but they do a lot of one and two nighters.

Now we have DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) and national tours that play for at least a week. We now get things like Hamilton or Wicked that will play for four weeks and sell out. That’s 80,000 tickets in a city in this size, which is unbelievable.

Durham Herald-Sun: DPAC Breaks Attendance Records in 2018

What are some highlights of your tenure here at Duke?

I’ve been involved with the American Dance Festival the whole time I’ve been at Duke. It was certainly a highlight to have them in the Ruby this summer and it really worked well for them.

Teaching has been a highlight. I used to teach an introduction to theater design class and in recent years I taught lighting design.

Chuck with members of the Theater Operations team at the 2004 Auxiliary Services banquet. From left: David Berberian, Heather Jernigan, Chuck, and Rich Kless. 2004 banquet issue, A to Z: Duke University Auxiliary Services newsletter, Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

What are some of your hopes for the Ruby in the years to come?

Working as director for the Rubenstein Arts Center was really fun for me because in many ways it was coming full circle. I spent more time in the theater than I have in years, and I spent more time hands-on than I had in years.

The Ruby starts getting louder after 5pm—some of it is regular dance classes with drumming, but some of it is students rehearsing. You can hear all that activity and it’s a lot of fun.

I’m looking forward to the coffee cart, which will give students a reason to stay between classes. The dance MFA will change things up too. I think we’re still learning how to use all the spaces in the right way.

Are you going to stay connected to the arts in retirement?

The closing of Man Bites Dog was a big disappointment to me—I had thought of telling Jeff Storer I’ll do every show with him there. I hope to, but I don’t have any immediate plans. I really haven’t decided what is next. One of my faults is that I have way too many interests. That’s why I floated around before finally saying, “Let’s do this,” and concentrated on theater.

I kidded with my wife about buying a welder and going back to doing some sculpture. Shambhavi Kaul has already asked me to do a workshop in one of her classes this semester, too.

audience on stage listens to speaker