Desert Companion

The sound --and the fury: Two bright minds behind the scenes in local theater

Arles EstesWhen local theaters need to set a mood, they’ve got Arles Estes on speed dial. (Cue intro music)

Mozart did it. So did Beethoven. As did Grieg and Copland. The “it” is incidental music, compositions that preface and punctuate live theater. The most oft-performed examples are the pieces that Felix Mendelssohn penned for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — including the famous “Wedding March.”

This distinguished tradition is carried on by Arles Estes. By day, he creates tunes and sound effects for slot machine manufacturer Colossal Gaming. In his spare time, Estes is an increasingly in-demand composer, sound designer and musician for Las Vegas’ theaters. Last year, he scored five local plays, one feature film and provided additional music for two other films.

“You see the same show with good music in it — it has to fit right — makes a profound difference,” says Estes, who frequently illustrates his remarks with rapid finger snaps and by humming phrases of music or imitating instrumental sounds (including a dead-on trombone). “It’s a way to enhance the emotional content of a play without necessarily distracting from the text.”

Support comes from


‘The cat just stays cool’

But there’s nothing merely incidental about his music. He’s made a difference in numerous local stagings, including John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” Jennifer Haley’s “Neighborhood III: Requisition of Doom” and Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” In May, he designed the sound for Las Vegas Little Theatre’s “The 39 Steps” and he has a full-length musical in development.

A native of Texas, Estes might be called an overnight sensation three years in the making. Along with partner Erin Marie Sullivan, he arrived in Vegas from Austin in late 2008. After serving as musical director on Onyx Theatre’s meta-musical “[title of show],” Estes’ name started getting around. He and RagTag founder Andrew Wright clicked, and the composer found himself steering the “Rent” band. The rock musical suffered a glitch-laden opening night, one that would have tested a quality Wright values highly.

“You never see the dude sweat,” Wright says of Estes. “The cat just stays cool and brings everybody over to his level. Regardless of it’s smooth sailing or stormy seas, you’ve got to read like it’s all sunshine and roses.”

“While that was going,” Estes says of “Rent,” “I’d get another phone call and I’m writing music for ‘Twelfth Night,’” Insurgo Theater Movement’s final stint at the Erotic Heritage Museum. “Then I get another phone call and I’m doing music for Born & Raised, which produced ‘Danny.’ Then it spilled into (RagTag’s) ‘Dog Sees God’ and didn’t let up all year.” Director Ruth Pe Palileo says she loves how Estes adapted Vince Guaraldi’s iconic “Peanuts” tunes for “Dog” and recruited him to compose a ballet for “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” at Las Vegas Little Theatre.

Each collaboration has its own style. With Palileo, she gave Estes prompts, such as “French film” or “candlelit table with a blue tablecloth.” The “Cell Phone Ballet” had to have both mobile-phone ringtones and “a certain quirky aural approach.”


Screen test

Estes finds that directors tend to talk in generalities of mood and style, or supply him with pieces in the vein of what they want. Erik Amblad, who staged “Danny,” would plead guilty as charged, giving Estes “frankly, really horrible direction. And you know what? He nailed it ... Arles delivered exactly what I was hoping for — and better.”

Much of Estes’ 2012 will be devoted to composing “The Corpse Grinders,” a musical-comedy adaptation of the 1971 super-low-budget horror flick by local legend Ted V. Mikels, “a campy wonderland of a project.” The project speaks to the breadth of Estes’ tastes, which are evident offstage as well. His own musical diet is a smorgasbord of everything from Russian romantic composers to jazz standards to Latin tunes. But his seasonal musical indulgence is just about to kick in.

“I go through phases in terms of what I like,” he says, “But when summertime comes, a desire to listen to bad candy pop tends to hit me.” 

[HEAR MORE:  Critic Anthony Del Valle talks about why community theater is important on "KNPR's State of Nevada".]


Sean CritchfieldPow! Oof! Bam! Sean Critchfield is Las Vegas theater’s man of action

When actors are punching, stabbing or kicking each other on a local stage, chances are that Sean Critchfield is the man behind the mayhem. His proficiency with weapons, knowledge of how to fake a believable fight and a deceptively fierce outward demeanor have made him the go-to guy whenever the script calls for violence. He’s rolled up so many show credits he can’t keep count of them. “Easily 30 or 40. It’s getting to the point where it’s kind of a blur.”

Critchfield found his calling in high school. “I had to get beat up,” he says, in a dramatization of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and he thought the fight instructors “were the coolest guys ever.” Once Critchfield learned that you don’t have to be a certified fight instructor even to work in Equity theaters, he began picking their brains and learning the rudiments of onstage combat. His “finishing school” was Utah Shakespeare Festival, where he polished his bellicose craft over the course of six seasons — summer, fall, school tours — and under the tutelage of University of California, Irvine’s Chris Villa and actor Robin McFarquhar, “a very talented combatant.”


Mayhem on short notice

When the Utah Shakespeare Festival toured “Macbeth,” the Scottish tragedy would be played in rural theaters and classrooms so small that if you swung your broadsword overhead you’d take out the lights. Hence, Critchfield became adept at re-choreographing mayhem on short notice. He pays the bills by playing King Arthur and Merlin in Excalibur’s Tournament of Kings. “Which I find ironic,” he says, “because I do one sword strike (in the entire show).”

Critchfield’s fight-choreography credits began to accumulate when he was recruited for John Beane’s Insurgo Theater Movement, then still based in Orange County. After Insurgo relocated to Las Vegas, Critchfield orchestrated the much-praised warfare of its “Henry V.” It generated good word of mouth and — more importantly — work.

That includes teaching rape-prevention classes, which made Las Vegas Little Theater’s “Extremities” a particularly harrowing and personal project. “(It was a) a unique challenge. It was very difficult for me to say, ‘I have to effectively stage a rape!’ (But) I wanted to tell the story as honestly as possible.”

For instance, he says, “rapists have a particular M.O. when they attack,” methodology Critchfield had to impart to actor Geo Nikols, who played the assailant. Also, the struggle needed to convince audiences that petite actress Jamie Carvelli really could immobilize the hulking Nikols. It meant using any weaponry that could be credibly used in a wild frenzy, whether it be insecticide, phone cords, fists or feet. That’s the crux of good stage combat: It must look realistic and dangerous — but not to the point where the audience fears for the actor’s safety.


Fighting words

Critchfield since has branched into full-fledged direction. “I was frustrated with the way a lot of productions in Las Vegas were handled. I had a lot of gripes.” A local theater professor, hearing his grievances, told Critchfield to direct something or shut up. Fighting words.

“(CSN) trusted me to do ‘Three Viewings,’” he says, a trio of monologues set in a funeral parlor. Critchfield’s half-dozen subsequent projects have included playing “show doctor” on RagTag Entertainment’s “Rent,” fixing “some transition problems, some honesty problems.” He’s also tried his hand at musical comedy and drama (“Assassins” and “Zoo Story,” both at Onyx Theatre), as well as comedy, in LVLT’s popular “Greater Tuna” revival. Characteristically, Critchfield praises his two-actor cast and describes his responsibility as, “How do I keep my direction out of their way?”

Shakespearean background notwithstanding, Critchfield isn’t drawn to the epic canvas. He says he’s “very particular” about what directing jobs he’ll take, preferring small casts, isolation and philosophical content. But when a director needs to fill her stage with actors wreaking mayhem with rapiers, staffs and knives, Critchfield is still the man of action.

More from

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!

KNPR and NPR Thank-You Gifts including t-shirts hoodies and cap

More Stories

Desert Companion