LEHI — When Randy Blackburn approached Mindy Nelsen about working on the Lehi High School theater sets, she brushed off the offer, thinking he was just a well-intentioned parent who would take too much time to train.
But when she got in a pinch working on the school’s 2009 “Children of Eden” production, the drama teacher and director reconsidered.
“I was thinking I could do it all,” Nelsen recalled. “He finally said, ‘Just let me help you.’”
She gave him a shot. Almost 10 years later, Blackburn, who is an artist by trade, has created stunning sets, which Nelsen estimates a professional company would pay millions of dollars for, in the nearly 60-year-old high school auditorium.
“He starts making one thing, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been pushing this man away who is so wonderful,' and it was just because I didn’t think I should make other people help me,” she said.
Blackburn, 63, started off helping bit by bit with the shows, but as he gained Nelsen’s trust he took on more responsibility.
“Now he’s involved with every aspect of it,” she said. “He’s even a terrific acting coach; I bring him and his wife as chaperones to competitions as well as on our New York trip. The kids just love him; he’s so much fun to be around.”
Blackburn estimates he spends thousands of hours per year volunteering for the theater department, some days clocking upward of 16 hours. Before he retired last year, he would squeeze in the projects on nights and weekends.
A lot of what he oversees is painting and set design, but Blackburn wears so many hats he’s not sure exactly what his title is, although Nelsen calls him artistic director.
“It’s ridiculous how much he volunteers, but he does it because he cares about the kids, and he loves this community,” she said. “He’s Lehi proud.”
Blackburn, who studied commercial art at Utah Valley University when it was Utah Technical College, has also built an impressive resume, although he’s hesitant to tout it. Its highlights include: designing a residential community in Mesquite, Nevada, owning an art studio, selling his work at three galleries, designing the gardens at Thanksgiving Point and also working for the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii, painting murals and tiki statues.
Lehi High School’s upcoming production of “Once on This Island” is a nod to Blackburn’s experience in Hawaii.
“I’ve always wanted to do a set for this show because of my involvement with the PCC,” he said. “At the end, Ti Moune, the main character, is turned into a tree, which for the Polynesian people is so significant. I knew I wanted to encompass the whole stage for that sequence.”
Students involved with the production or enrolled in the school’s technical theater class are required to put in 15 to 65 hours working per production under Blackburn’s direction on the sets, costumes, props, lighting and sound.
“I had the kids cut out leaves and staple on netting. There are thousands and thousands of these leaves on nets, and they just look like they’re hanging in lines as vines, but at the end they all come toward Ti Moune,” Blackburn said. “The villagers hold them around her, and it turns the whole set into one big tree.”
Creating visuals that reach beyond the stage is Blackburn’s signature style, much like his bright blue glasses and his penchant for fedoras.
“People who have never been to our shows before are stunned,” Nelsen said. “Instead of it just being the audience and the stage, he makes it feel like you’re all encompassed. He likes to create a completely immersive environment, which is unique to high school theater.”
Blackburn, who said the “Once on This Island” set is probably the most extravagant of the 31 he’s worked on for the school, considered stepping away from his role until a former student convinced him otherwise.
“I love to help the kids; some of them are a little bit lost in high school. That’s what keeps me coming back,” Blackburn said. “I wasn’t going to come back this year. I was done, getting old. But one of the past students told me, ‘Just go back and do what you did for me for somebody else.’”
Nelsen said Blackburn is constantly looking for ways to help people.
“He’ll see a kid who’s struggling and take him under his wing and teach him a painting technique that he could use later in life,” she said. “And it’s not just design things but also with life. He’ll help them sort through their problems and help them see multiple sides of an issue.”5 comments on this story
Helping, it seems, is part of who Blackburn is. It’s what’s driven him to countless volunteer positions, including serving for 20-plus years as a director for American Fork’s Pageant of the Arts. He even spent 19 years volunteering in the American Fork Hospital emergency room, helping people who lost family in accidents make phone calls or entertaining admitted children.
And, of course, there was that time he reached out to Nelsen, despite her initial brush off.
“I want to make sure the kids have the same experience that I had. I had really good friends that were artists who helped me,” he said. “I like to give back and help.”
If you go …
What: “Once on This Island”
Where: Lehi High School Auditorium, 180 N. 500 E., Lehi
When: Nov. 15-17, 19, 20, 7 p.m., doors open at 6:30
How much: $6-$10, at the door or in the LHS Financial Office