SHERIDAN — Joe Laughton sees treasure where others see trash.
Laughton has been creating sets for performance organizations in Sheridan since he retired from teaching in 1977. His Rumpelstiltskin touch transforms throw-aways into beautiful sets. Laughton has transformed purple shopping bags into flowers, cardboard rug rolls into trees, egg cartons into rock walls and split bathroom tissue rolls into a tile roof.
“We were working on the production of “Showboat” at the High School. I went to the lumber yard to get the metal strapping they use to bind shipments,” Laughton said. “We used the metal strapping to make hoop skirts. Besides the hoops, each skirt took five yards of fabric. We made 12 skirts for ladies in the play. They had no lines and were only five minutes on stage but they were beautiful!”
Laughton has volunteered his skills to community performances for the past 36 years. In addition to the Sheridan High School presentation of “Showboat,” Laughton has built sets for performances at the Carriage House and for the Civic Theater Guild.
Where does Laughton draw his inspiration?
“It just comes,” he said.
Laughton doesn’t claim originality in all of his creations. He admits to borrowing good ideas. He drew inspiration for making flowers from crepe paper while on a trip in Mexico. “I saw the paper flowers the children were selling on the streets and brought the idea home,” Laughton said.
When Laughton was asked to produce a skyline as a backdrop for a performance at the Sheridan Senior Center, he went to Main Street in downtown Sheridan for inspiration.
“I sketched an outline of the buildings and from that I had a template for my set,” Laughton said.
Laughton claims he discovered his artistry as a child. He holds a bachelor of science degree in elementary education with a minor in Art from Black Hills State Teachers College in Spearfish. His skills were honed while he was a 6th grade teacher at Taylor Elementary School on North Main Street.
“I designed sets for each classroom,” he said.
Laughton pursued his Masters in Special Education from Eastern Montana College in Billings and dedicated the remaining 24 years of his teaching career in special education classes. After 33 years in education, he retired.
“I began building sets at Sheridan Square,” said Laughton, a resident at the Square. “When the Senior Center building first opened, Barbara Gutz invited me to bring the group over there.”
Gutz was the Executive Director of the Senior Center at the time. Laughton and other volunteers shifted their volunteer workshop to the new Center.
“We made favors for the Veterans Administration, centerpieces for the Senior Center dining room tables, and sets for the annual Follies show at the Senior Center,” Laughton said.
Laughton is legendary for his creative transformation of everyday items into set designs. Today, he volunteers his talents to performances at the Sheridan Senior Center. He designs backgrounds for the Center’s annual Christmas Show and Spring Follies and for the Senior Theater Players.
“I remember Joe’s big flowers,” said Jean Harm, staff member at the Senior Center. “He made them from tissue paper and rug rolls.”
The director of the SheridanAires and the director of the Senior Theater Players each work with Laughton in different ways. One will bring a sketch of the background for Laughton to work from and the other will let him create from the story line.
Laughton is currently working on sets for the upcoming Senior Center Spring Follies in June and an upcoming Senior Theater Players performance.
What does Laughton do in his spare time?
“I’m taking a pen and ink class with Les Jayne at the Senior Center,” he said.
Laughton is a master at re-purposing everyday items into visual works of beauty. With Earth Day on Monday, Laughton has set the example for recycling and reusing everyday items into new purpose.