Theatrical Jazz/Lighting


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Sharon Bridgforth is one of the most prominent voices in what has been described as the Theatrical Jazz movement - a blending of traditional theatrical storytelling with a mixture of African American jazz influences in terms of movement, musicality, and vocal harmonies.  Although not from the Minneapolis area, she has strong ties here with her work produced by both Penumbra and Pillsbury House theaters.  In her essay, she describes the role of lighting and other design elements in the creation of this work, and the way that improvisation, intuition, and ritual define and amplify her work.  I feel honored to be mentioned in that work. -Mike Wangen

All conversations about lighting - for me – start with Mike Wangen. I have had the privilege of working with Mike since 2002, thanks to my mentor, theatre legend Laurie Carlos. I call him ‘the Jazz Man’, which is my way of acknowledging his genius, his core beingness, and the fact that he is family. Mike served as lighting artist for 17 of the productions that Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones discusses in her book, Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Àse and the Power of the Present Moment. According to Dr. Jones, the theatrical jazz artists that she focuses on are extremely different in voice and approach but “share a blending of non-traditional narrative structures, transtemporality, porous space, and engagement with audience/witnesses” (Interview, June 22, 2018). In describing the elements of theatrical jazz, Dr. Jones says, “Mike Wangen is the lighting designer for theatrical jazz because he has a visual acuity that is attuned to the demands of improvisation” (Ibid). 

My work is blues in its core.  It gets activated as jazz in how time is constructed on the page – the past, the present, the future/the living, the dead, the unborn coexist - and through layers of decisions that collaborators make in bringing the piece to life.  The entire room (sometimes the entire building) is the performance space.  Gestural language offers grounded/abstract imagery that moves the bodies of the performers through the world of the piece. My approach, when working with lighting artists is to talk about moods, how the space will be used and color palettes, and then to release to the delight of journeying towards what the designer knows, sees and envisions. Because space is rarely one location or limited solely to a stage area, the lighting artist has to make the entire performance space work as a communal gathering place, or sites for individual vignettes, or a floating world near the bottom of the sea – and the design has to simultaneously present different time periods on stage. The “sets” are living altars. These altars must be lit as reverential sites as well as bluesy secular and carnal spaces. And, though the script is set, the performers improvise how and when the collective telling, the musicality of the language, the literal songs, and embodiment moves . . . which means the lighting has to be “played” rather than set. 

Lighting artists working in theatrical jazz aesthetic are collaborators. They must: root inside the process; rigorously practice embodied listening; be open to inspired discovery; make space for the unplanned thing to show itself; know how to apply one’s virtuosity to support the ensemble rather than relying on their singular intentions in building the design. The lighting, like the script, is both the structure that holds the world of the piece, and the conduit for improvisation. The first lighting cue serves as an indication of the fused realities that will follow, and as an invocation for the magic to begin.

Sharon Bridgforth is a writer and performing artist.  Learn more about her work by visiting

Wu Chen Recommends...Let's Cook Japanese Food!

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My great-grandmother was Japanese. My grandfather, a terrific cook, learned to cook from her and he passed some of that knowledge, along with his Japanese knives and pans, to my mother. He refused to pass any along to me - especially the coveted tamagoyaki pan: I “wasn’t ready”. To be fair, he was definitely right about that.

On her most recent visit, my mother brought me a copy of Let’s Cook Japanese Food! by Amy Kaneko. It wasn’t originally intended for me, but like so many things in my family, these things are ultimately communal. My mother learned that the book was written for someone living in the continental US - intending to try and cook Japanese everyday, home cooking with the tools and ingredients readily available in most cities in the US - and then it made sense to my mother to pass it on to me (she lives in Malaysia).

I’ve been reading it since, and it really is quite a delight. The food is all familiar from growing up, and the ideas are accessible and readily achievable with what is at hand. It’s a wonderful breath of fresh, delicious and healthy air, and it’s a fun, inspiring read too!

Let’s Cook Japanese Food!


Theater Arts Sustainability: Part I


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I was out of the country when Angelina became known to the circles I move in. When I came back to town, I was told that I “had to meet her”. It would actually take quite a while for us to do more than pass in the hallway, and I’ve been kicking myself for the lost time. Thorough, methodical, observant, and smart, Angelina is a veritable font of knowledge and skill, and with her considered and considerate position on sustainability, I knew that if we were going to ask someone from the community to write about sustainability and theatre, there was a natural and obvious choice. -Wu Chen


Slowly but surely the planet is realizing that our way of living over the last century has been destroying the environment in ways that may or may not be reversible now. Reports of the Great Pacific Garbage patch that’s twice the size of Texas and videos of sea turtles with straws wedged up their noses are finally getting the attention of the media that they deserve. I’ve been seriously and intentionally exploring ways to minimize my eco footprint and cut out unnecessary waste from my lifestyle in the last two years. Many of us have done the same with switching to LED lights in our homes, bringing our own coffee cups to cafes, or remembering to bring reusable grocery bags to the store. The more sustainable I try to be at home, the more I realize how wasteful working in the arts can be. In this two part essay, I’d like to explore what it may mean to be an environmentally conscious theater artist as well as ways everyone can be a little greener.

First of all – what is sustainability? The UN defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is understood that resources are finite and thinking long-term is a priority. The slogan “Reduce, reuse, recycle” comes up if you Google “sustainability”. The order of those words is very important. A lot of folks think that recycling is sufficient and enough to be green. I hear it a lot: “I’m doing my part in saving the environment, I recycle!” Many don’t know that a lot of materials can only be recycled once and those materials become items that will not be recyclable again. Not using the materials in the first place is much more environmentally conscious. Can this slogan, in that order, be applied to theater production? Is sustainability compatible with creative process?

 Simple backdrops used in a dance show still give a sense of place along with costumes.

Simple backdrops used in a dance show still give a sense of place along with costumes.

 Minimalist set for Sound of Music still sets the tone.

Minimalist set for Sound of Music still sets the tone.

Reduce. If a show is not touring, its run will be over in a few months or less and its scenery probably in the dumpster, costumes returned or stored for the future, lighting rehung for the next production. Can shows be done simply with less? Less scenery, fewer costume changes, less electricity used for lighting or the building itself? Theater started as a genre for storytelling, often the locations and actions were described by a chorus or written into the dialogue itself. King Lear’s famous lines about the storm “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” were performed midday in the open air, probably with a help of a thunder machine backstage to give the illusion of a storm above. The audience had to imagine the rest of the rain, the lightning, and the chaos of that scene. Does that play still hold up without the modern day spectacle and technology? I think so. Those plays survived the centuries. It’s an interesting debate to have whether modern audiences expect spectacle and realism. People pay a lot of money to be wowed by high tech automation and stage tricks, stellar lighting or atmospheric elements. I wonder if today's society would still be as interested in doing the work themselves and challenging their imagination, rather than being taken along for a ride through spectacular scene changes or dazzling backdrops. Have we become too addicted to binge watching TV shows and abandoned reading books because it’s more work? There are some plays and musicals out there that seem impossible to do without a big budget, detailed realistic scenery, effects or costumes. Occasionally, even I become concerned that the audiences could be missing out on important points of the shows without the expensive elements, but then a play like Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime comes along. As a huge fan of the book, I got a ticket to see the touring production. The spectacle did not disappoint. The show had a huge video wall cube, automation tricks in the walls and floor, probably a hundred moving lights, and of course, a live golden retriever puppy. There seemed to be no other or better way to tell that story. How do you show an expansive mind and world of a kid? How do you relay the reality as seen through the eyes of someone on the spectrum? Video walls and magic tricks, of course! A few months later I learned that Mixed Blood would be doing that show too. Deeply curious how they would manage it, I absolutely had to see it. I was surprised how much of the story and emotions for these characters I missed watching the Broadway tour. The play was the same story, but it felt different, more nuanced and more focused on the experiences of the characters rather than the experiences of the audience. Lets take a look at some other popular shows, like Sound of Music. Can it be done without a realistic grand staircase? Or the walls of the kids room or the trees in the garden? It can. There is however a fine line between a show looking theatrical and intentionally abstract and just low-budget/poor. Classical ballet has always been minimal in scenery. The dancers’ need for space to move doesn’t feel like an artistic compromise with scenery. A small bench in front of a painted drop seems to be sufficient to set a location. I’ve seen Nutcrackers with bulky realistic sets that felt overbearing. All the stuff made the world of discovery and imagination a lot less magical. And if all the stuff around them becomes landfill garbage after a few short weeks of shows, is it worth it?

Reuse. The beauty and the curse of theater arts is that every story can be told and interpreted in so many ways that no production of the same script is ever the same. A designer’s job is to create a custom look and feel to fit each of those interpretations. Would forcing designers to reuse elements of past productions impede the creative process? Is repainting or re-upholstering elements a poor design compromise? The greatest way to affect sustainability is during the design process. Broadway Green Alliance was established a decade ago and it seems to be making some progress in encouraging designers to use recycled or upcycled materials as well as helps manage what happens with the stuff after the show closes. Several notable reuse victories are sets for Peter and the Starcatcher and Little Mermaid. The shows do not look like they are made from trash up until you come up very close. I’ve also seen several shows at Theater Latté Da, and I have this suspicion that the main platforms and raised pieces of staging are all the same, just painted differently for each show. It’s a suspicion because those elements worked for completely different narratives and never distracted. Props, painted drops, and costumes are a lot easier to reuse and share between companies, but there are challenges in storing them. It may be impossible for small companies if they do not own a space. Years may go by until a certain size dining room set will be needed again! A lot of the sustainability responsibility also rests on the shops. It’s up to technical directors and costume shop buyers to research and maintain contacts with surplus stores, lumber liquidators, textile centers, Habitat for Humanity ReStores, facilities managements, and salvage yards. One of my college design professors once told the class that as a designer you cannot be limited by lumber sizes or standards or materials easily available or handy. If you draw a something that is 4’5/8” x 8’2” then that is what the shop must build even if they already have a 4’x8” platform in stock. On one hand, I see his point about art and unrestrained creativity, but on the other hand, is it worth it? Is there art in figuring out creative ways to reuse and repurpose something modular or standard in size? Is it wrong to be teaching young designers to think about sustainability as part of creative process? Sustainability and reuse of materials could be a challenge for designers, but it doesn’t have to negatively affect the final product. Out of sheer budget constraints, many dance companies rely on rented or borrowed painted drops, costumes ,and special props - like the headpieces for the mice and the Nutcracker himself.

Perhaps subconsciously I’ve always appreciated lighting aspects of the theater because of the reuse of the equipment. Most of the gear is expensive enough that people value, maintain, and keep using it for decades. At the same time, theatrical incandescent lamps only last for 300 hours or less, produce a lot of heat driving up the energy consumption of the HVAC, and the gel is not recyclable (probably never will be due to several types of plastics and dye sandwiched to make it). A great recent invention by ETC was a retrofit cap for their fixtures that converts an incandescent light into a white LED in a matter of seconds. That technology seems to be working fine for architectural applications, but it hasn’t gained much traction as stage lighting. In the last decade lighting technology has gone very far in the theatrical color changing LED world. The high end fixtures are now dimming well, have good color rendering, and can compete or outperform in brightness to their incandescent predecessors. LED lighting seems to cover the “reduce” and the “reuse” parts of the equation. LED fixtures like Lustr2s don’t only open up almost infinite colors for designers to use, they eliminate the need for gel, reduce the electric bill, the amount of cabling, the weight of gear hung or transported, the power consumed and the heat emitted making it easier for the HVAC to handle. However, as I write this, the EU has proposed new standards for LED, tungsten and arc lamps and fixtures that would dramatically affect the performing arts industry. The Association of Lighting Designers has been ramping up their efforts to #SaveStageLighting ahead of the September deadline for a vote on the new rules which would make European theaters literally go dark. The EU proposal is long, but in essence it is a mandate for more energy efficient lamps and fixtures in the warm white to cool white spectrum. The rules have been tightening over the years, making it increasingly difficult to get tungsten and halogen lamps.  The proposed new rules, if implemented, would ban products that do not meet the 85 lm/W standard. This means that the 800W HMI lamps widely used for moving lights will not be available. A 575w HPL lamp for a source 4 outputs 7489 lumens, or 13 lm/W. The ETC LED Lustr2 with all colors at full outputs 5882 lumens and draws 160W. The math adds up to 36.7 lm/W, which still doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. An LED moving light equivalent to a Martin Viper also is 20 lm/W. The new regulations also limit the power a fixture can use to 0.5W when in standby mode and the lamp is not lit. It seems highly unlikely that in the near future a moving light will be able to remain actively listening to DMX or complete a move in dark for the next preset while only using 0.5W. The new rules have good intentions to push the technology, save a lot of power by 2020, close the loopholes the manufacturers take advantage of and improve the quality of the LED sources. Up until now theatrical and studio gear was exempt. If the rules pass, once the stockpiles of lamps or parts run out the fixtures will become scrap metal as no second-hand market can be created. Such regulations could be an end to theater companies unable to purchase all new light fixtures, dimming, and infrastructure. Sometimes an aggressive push for reduce and reuse is catastrophic for making art and this is a great example of it. This push for the “reduce” is completely overpowering the value of the “reuse”. The EU by 2020, North America by 2025?

It seems that the most environmentally friendly way to do theater is to stop doing theater, but there are many ways companies can adjust to have a greener impact. That and the “Recycle” part of the equation will be covered in part 2 of this post in September. 'Till then!

A Look Back at the Work of Jean Rosenthal


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A recent article on the work of women in the field of lighting design piqued my interest and led me to research the work of Jean Rosenthal, arguably one of the most influential American lighting designers of the 20th century.

She was a pioneer in the field in the 1930s, when lighting was considered nothing more than an adjunct of set design and was usually handled by the electricians.  She was one of the first to recognize and apply effectively the use of strong backlight and sidelight to create specific emotional responses in the audience. Her approach to lighting laid the foundation for all of the building blocks we take for granted today:  strong backs and sides in rich color, box boom washes, rim lighting, and strong diagonal back systems. These were all applied methodically to create a unified approach to lighting the stage. In particular, her long association with Martha Graham led to the development of a system for lighting dance which emphasized the movement of the body through time and space and was highly theatrical and distinct from theater lighting. “To do one or two new works for Martha a year was a part of my life and a renewal of my own interior spirit...Light is quite tactile to me. It has shape and dimension.” Some of her original dance designs are still in the Martha Graham repertory.

She began a working relationship with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater in 1935, and was responsible for lighting most of their major productions throughout the 30’s.  A production of Julius Caesar was an early success and led to her being asked to light on Broadway.  She did the original designs for over 200 shows, including West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly, and Cabaret.  


Some of her light plots and paperwork can be found online and I have included two here, the plot for Julius Caesar and a rep plot for Martha Graham from 1948. As can be seen, she also was instrumental in developing the standards used in drafting plots and paperwork.  In Julius Caesar, for example, the ellipsoidals (Altman 6x9s) are drawn simply as circles while other instruments are drawn as squares (something I’ve done myself when I didn’t have templates or a CAD program).  In the Martha Graham plot, one can see the beginnings of the standard symbols we have today as well as gel colors drawn by each light. I’ve been unable to decipher the numbering systems used, but  I believe they are primarily Roscogel with some early cinemoid. They are referred to in her hookups by color (i.e. yellow, blue, red, etc.) Again, in creating her plots and paperwork, she was laying out the building blocks we use today.  All of these plots and paperwork can be viewed online at and I strongly suggest that anyone interested in the development of stage lighting take a look at them.

Her thoughts about the nature and use of light itself in dance and theater were also highly developed, and her statements would be familiar to anyone working in the field today when asked to describe what they do.  At the time, they helped substantiate the case for lighting design to be recognized as a separate and unique design element, much in the way that sound designers have fought to be recognized in recent years. “Lighting affects everything light falls upon.  How you see what you see, how you feel about it, and how you hear what you are hearing.” One of her most well-known quotes was to refer to the production process as working for “the happy creative whole” which represented her holistic and collaborative approach to the art of theater, something which is often lacking in today’s money driven field.  “The longer you’re in theater, the more you hate the heroics of individuals and the more you respect people who have a love of the whole.” And a quote that sums up feelings that I’ve often had myself: “I like to think of myself as some of the Scotch tape that holds things together - I’m very handy to have around. But all that actors really need is a bare stage.  Lighting is just one of the luxuries of theater.”

Finally, she was also a pioneer in advocating for women’s rights in the field, mostly by default as she was virtually the only woman working in the area of lighting in the 30’s.  She embraced the challenge of continual sexism by the all male staffs and crews she worked with in the same way as everything else she did in life. She was always courteous to everyone while, at the same time, she reversed gender roles by often referring to her male electricians as “honey” and “darling.”

Her work has been a major influence on all of us, perhaps without our ever knowing it.


Note:  Material for this article came from the Manumit School Blog, Wikipedia, the Jewish Women’s Archive, Northern State University, and The Lighting Archive.

Wu Chen Recommends...Safia Elhillo

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I used to read a lot of poetry. It had largely drifted off for me, but then two things happened: I read Omar Musa’s astounding Here Come the Dogs (which I have previously Recommended), and we had kids.

Now I was reading poetry all the time again and I couldn’t get enough. I tore through old favourites and I borrowed a lot of new stuff via the Hennepin County e-book system. I wandered onto poetry review and criticism sites and found more folks to read.

And then I stumbled on Safia Elhillo.

Her imagery is vivid and crisp; no lush rolling tones and sweeps like a Wordsworth here. The pacing is fast and almost pushes you along so fast that you swear time stands still then just warps like a whiplash to catch up. I love it.

Her imagination, storytelling and extremely thoughtful examinations span a massive range of subjects: war, parties, music, colonialism, lovers, history, discrimination, power... her intelligence is palpable and relatable.

Even if you’re not someone who thinks of themselves as a poetry fan (and I think that largely has to do with how “poetry” is usually defined, packaged and presented; Cat in the Hat, just about all of Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, just about every Epic out there from all over the world, heck, just about every set of lyrics in modern musical genres are all poetry), check out her work.

So I Guess I Got An MFA?


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Tony is back with his final installment on his journey through grad school.  To view his previous articles, click here and here. -Chava Curland


The text below is what I presented to the design and technology faculty members of the IU theater department for the oral defense of my thesis production, City of Angels. I figured that since you all have been so kind as to listen to me complain about grad school over the past three years, you all deserved to hear the bookend to my grad school career as much as the professors in the department did. So here you are. Enjoy.

For the past two years there has been a quote from Martha Graham pinned to the wall of my cubicle in A300. It reads:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

It is, I think, the closest thing I have found to a statement summing up what I believe art should be. But I don’t think I ever realized just how arduous a task Martha Graham was charging the artist with when she set forth the necessity of “keeping the channel open.”

Reading back over the notebook I kept during City of Angels, it is amazing how quickly it descends into the technical minutiae, as if the huge scale of the production demanded that we address all material concerns in detail before we could move on to answering the more trivial questions such as what the production was about. By the time the second design conference rolled around, my notes are full of information about cable runs for practicals, thoughts about how we were going to access positions for focus, and quick sketches of the agenda / breakdown of labor for our two days of load-in. All of this before we had a full line-set schedule, or for that matter a finalized scenic design. It felt a bit like building a house by starting with what faucets you want in the bathroom.  I distinctly remember feeling lost in these early days of the production, like I was flying blind. I couldn’t see the design in my mind’s eye, but the schedule and material demands of the show necessitated that I make decisions that would have a very real impact on what the final design would be.

In some ways, this challenge was exactly what I had been searching out, and I relished it. I knew that in the mythical “Real World” your plot was often due before the production went into rehearsals. I wanted to push myself to create on a similar, if not identical, timeline. I had strategies ready to go, things I had learned from mentors or thought of on my own, that would allow me to meet this challenge. I was going to create a plot that took as its backbone the architecture of the set, and then added on what was necessary based upon a careful reading of the stage space available to the director. What were the strong positions, blocking wise, and what were the weak ones? How would people move through this space- as individuals, in small groups, as a whole ensemble? Which lighting angles were easily achieved, and which ones were more difficult? Which angles would I need in my vocabulary in order to create the iconic noir look?

Despite how much I looked forward to the challenge of the accelerated timeline, I still felt, in  many ways, lost. Rich [the director] and I had met a lot, and talked through any number of ideas. But I still had trouble seeing where I was going. In part, this was because we were in a bit of a holding pattern early on: Rich needed to get into the room, to begin working with his cast, before he could start answering some questions. In part, my feeling of being lost was also the result of my struggle with a script that was, in many ways, exactly what it appeared to be on the surface. Sometimes I have trouble letting a thing just be what it is. I tend to overcomplicate and overanalyze, rather than just letting the text do it’s job. Part of it, too, was the music. I was struggling to find my way through the weird jazz structures in Coleman’s score, struggling to see and feel the music in light. So in many ways, I didn’t have the conceptual underpinnings I was used to having at this stage in the design. It was a bit disquieting. I wasn’t super worried about it - I had done shows like that before - but I felt a bit more pressure than normal to do everything right, being that it was my thesis and all.

I don’t remember which one of the innumerable meetings this began in, but it soon became apparent to me that I was being systematically placed in an untenable position as the scenic design developed. My scenic designer, a fellow student, was totally responsive and receptive to my attempts to make sure I got the positions I needed overhead to light the show. Our technical director, a departmental staff member, was not. He had a very specific idea of what he thought the show needed to be, and he didn’t really care whether or not that idea left room for my design. He had decided that lighting had enough positions overhead, so, in his mind, that meant that there were enough positions. I remember going into a meeting with my scenic designer and TD to discuss the possibility of footlights. Somewhere, that meeting took a hard left turn, and we ended up talking about available line-sets; that was when I was informed that as far as my TD was concerned, the over-stage positions I would have would be the lighting bridge downstage, and the two diagonal trusses the scenic designer had specced out upstage. It wasn’t enough to light the show by a long shot; there was a roughly 17’ gap in which I would have no overhead positions; a gap that was right smack dab over center stage. Furthermore, given the length of truss specced,  I don’t think I had enough room to hang all the lights we would need, even if all of them were pointed straight down and not focused. My attempts to address this issue were met with insistence that that was the way it had to be, and suggestions that I had to look into simplifying things. I played for time, kept repeating that I needed a chance to look at the drawings, and got out of there.

Two things were running through my head as I left that meeting.

  1. Honestly, I felt stupid, outmaneuvered, and naive. I had operated under the assumption that at the end of the day, everyone would approach this production the same way as me, looking for chances and opportunities to support the other elements. After all, that was the job. Create a whole design. Not just a set, or just a plot, or just a bunch of costumes.

  2. I could feel myself getting backed into a corner. We had designed a unit set to free ourselves of the constraints of having to make a new set of scenic elements for every one of the myriad locations the piece called for. That was great, but it meant that now the problem of manifesting that myriad of locations fell mostly into my lap; simultaneously, the number of places I had to actually hang lights from was being greatly limited. With the current arrangement, I would not be able to evenly wash the whole stage from a consistent angle. I would be struggling to illuminate the production effectively, not to mention actually design anything. I felt trapped. The demands on my design were increasing while the room I had to maneuver and meet those demands was decreasing.

I had a lot of self doubt at this moment in the process. The TD’s  suggestion that I was over-designing had hit a weak spot. I worried that I was psyching myself out because this was my thesis, trying to do too much, feeling like I had to use every light we had simply because it was my final show.  I immediately spiraled into anxiety- my plot was going to be a bloated monstrosity, a small voice in my head assured me, and as a result the entire enterprise would be a failure and I’d never work again, dying penniless and ragged on the streets of 19th century Paris, laid low by consumption. Or something like that.

I told my mind to shut up.

But my confidence had been shaken, and I needed a way to ensure that I was not over-designing. So I implemented a simple test. I took one of my noir research images, and picked the most important angle of light in that photo- a diagonal back angle. I then looked at the proposed set up, and tried to see if I could create a system of diagonal back light that would evenly wash the whole stage- a workhorse, basic system that would be extremely important in creating the signature noir look of the show.

I couldn’t even come close.

So I felt more grounded in my belief that I needed more positions. But I didn’t know how to proceed. Another meeting with my scenic designer and TD would get nowhere; I would get railroaded and ignored. Our TD had given no indication of wanting to listen to me, and the power differential of student vs staff member, as well as the personalities at play, meant neither my scenic designer nor I had any way to compel him to listen. I had no control over the situation as long as the problem remained within that setting.

This was the first time during my thesis that I thought about Napoleon.

Lets zoom out a bit.

And back in time a bit.

To Brussels.  Approximately 1 am, on June 15th, 1815. Earlier, in March, Napoleon had returned from exile on the island of Elba, landing in the south of France with a small force of  1,000 men. Now, about ten weeks later, he stood at the border of Belgium with an army of 120,000. The forces arrayed against him were the two armies of what was called the 7th Coalition- a Prussian army to the east, and the British army, centered in and around Brussels. The commander of the coalition was Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, and at this moment, he was attending a ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond.

The duke had just sat down to his very late dinner when a messenger strode in and handed him a folded note. Wellington scanned the note, dismissed the messenger, and continued to dine and chat for twenty minutes, before politely retiring alongside several of his aides, where he remarked, with uncharacteristic verve, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours' march on me.”

Napoleon had unexpectedly moved his men north from the border, seizing an important cross roads at Quatre Bras. He had placed himself directly between the British and Prussian armies,  employing what military theorists call “the strategy of central position.”

It was a strategy that had served Napoleon well over his career. Time and again, at Montenotte, at Arcole, at Vauchamps and at Jena, Napoleon had triumphed over numerically superior forces by employing the strategy of central position. By moving aggressively to seize a central position in the midst of the enemy forces, splitting them, as it were, Napoleon captured the initiative. His opponents now needed to address the presence of his forces, to react to him.  If they did not, he was in a position to outmaneuver them and wreck havoc in their rear echelons.

From a central position, Napoleon also commanded interior lines of operation - he could communicate and redeploy his troops more quickly than his opponents could coordinate, because his forces occupied a smaller, more compact area. Furthermore, the central position allowed Napoleon to take up a branching strategy. The Emperor was fond of telling his Marshals “Il est necessaire de faire son thème en deux façons”- “It is necessary to advance with two options.” As the famous military historian Liddell Hart explained, “A plan, like a tree, must have branches – if it is to bear fruit. A plan with a single aim is apt to prove a barren pole.” From a central position that afforded him superior mobility and lines of operation, Napoleon was able to wait until the exact right moment to apply his forces; any attempt to deny him an opening inevitably opened up a different one upon which he could capitalize.

But the most basic power of the strategy of central position lay in the fact that it was not a strategy at all. It was a geographic reality. It was a position that brought with it the advantages of superior mobility and flexibility, allowing Napoleon to implement any number of strategies or tactics. It was, in that sense, a structural advantage. What cracked the Duke’s normally controlled veneer that night in Brussels wasn’t the loss of the crossroads at Quatre Bras, it was the fact that in seizing them, Napoleon had fundamentally altered the strategic landscape. The rules had changed.

Meanwhile, back in the ostensibly more relevant part of this narrative, I was beginning to feel like the landscape of the production needed to be altered.  In the lead up to spring break, a number of factors combined to wear me down- a deteriorating and increasingly hostile relationship with my technical director, the necessity of overseeing and educating my crew (a dedicated bunch who were being thrown into the most complex show they had ever worked on in their time here), and the necessity of balancing all of this alongside working to develop resources for my post-grad school career. On top of all this, I was still struggling to really find my voice in the show, in large part because the majority of my resources were being relegated to non-design activities. I didn’t have the time or energy to be creative; in the lead up to spring break, I was sleeping four to five hours a night, going to bed at one am and waking up at 5 or 6 to go work in a Starbucks.

Spring break was a welcome interruption, though perhaps not an escape since I spent it at USITT and SETC. On the return flight from USITT I had a four hour layover in the Atlanta airport, during which I had a lot of time to think. The two conferences had been the last major barrier between me and my thesis; now that they were over, there was nothing behind which I could hide to avoid the growing pile of problems that was City of Angels. As I sat in the airport lounge with a drafting file open on my computer staring blankly at it and wondering how I was going to light this thing, a friend texted me asking me for that Martha Graham quote I was obsessed with. I pulled it up on the internet and sent her the link, then reread it myself for the umpteenth time. For whatever reason, this time, something clicked. I had always thought of Graham’s exhortation to the artist to “keep the channel open” as a reference to self-doubt, in part because I often used this quotation as a talisman against exactly that. But in reading it, I suddenly realized that the biggest thing getting in the way of me designing my thesis was all the stuff that actually made up the design- every tiny bit of drafting and every anxiety about color choice and ability to access this or that light for focus and maintenance. What I needed was space, the ability to think with agility and freedom, unencumbered by anxieties and practical concerns. At the same time, I knew that I couldn’t simply ignore the concrete realities of the production. We were too far along in the process for me to be all pie-in-the-sky and divorced from the very real limitations I was operating under. Furthermore, I knew that given the amount I was relied upon within the lighting department as an electrician and technician, I couldn’t completely stop thinking in that way. I had too many issues cluttering the channel, and I needed away to clear it.

So I thought about seizing the central position. About resolving your problems not by solving them, but by re-contextualizing them. About changing the landscape. And I set up what I thought of in my head simply as the System.

When I got back, I decided, the goal would no longer be to find the most correct, perfect solution to each problem. The goal would be to solve each problem as quickly and efficiently as possible, to buy time and space, to create a bubble in the midst of the chaos and the stress within which I could design. If that light couldn’t make the shot we wanted, we spared it out and kept moving. When we didn’t have enough of one color, I picked a new one from the stock we did have, trusting in my instincts rather than agonizing over the decision. Time and again I reoriented my focus towards solving the problem as efficiently as possible, focusing not necessarily on making the perfect choice, but instead on creating an environment that would give me the tools and the atmosphere I needed when I finally got behind the board to start building. I thought of it as building the central position, and it brought with it a sense of wild glee mixed with trepidation, a bit like the first time you ride your bike without holding on to the handlebars.

The show eventually opened. It wasn’t perfect. Not even close. I saw it two times, and both times were frustrating experiences- to see something up onstage that I felt was rough and unfinished. I think, going into this process, I had an idea in my head of how I would demonstrate some level of mastery in my craft. I would create a meticulously planned, elegantly executed, well thought out design. That’s not what I got. I got a process that was by turns a death march and a skydiving trip. I got a product that was rough and kinetic, hectic and haphazard, with surprising, asynchronous moments of gentleness, subtlety, and depth. But above all, I think I gained a new appreciation for what Graham was saying when she demanded that we “keep the channel open.” Mastery of the craft isn’t found in those moment where all the things go right. It's found when we’re faced with situations that aren’t ideal; when we find ourselves working on those productions that are less of an effortless, synchronized ballet of perfect execution, and more akin to a cabinet full of dishes getting shoved down the stairs. Mastery is staying connected to the most basic questions of why and what in the midst of the cacophonous whirlpool our jobs can often descend into. It lies in keeping the channel open, even as everything falls down around you.

The Politics of Space! (or Ruptures in De-centering Whiteness)


 From Pangea's production of  5 Weeks

From Pangea's production of 5 Weeks

Dipankar and his wife, Meena, are the co-founders of Pangea World Theatre, and very strong advocates of equality and rights for all in this world.  In this article, he addresses the need to recognize the inequalities which often exist in our world of theater and how they may be rectified as well as bringing in a sense of some of the philosophical differences between Western and Eastern Theater. Very thought provoking. - Mike Wangen


“But I feel bound by my love for high art…we cannot consciously make extinct Opera and Shakespeare,” expressed someone last week, when I was part of a diverse group wrestling with the conversation of inequity of funding in the arts.

The meeting was done by the time this statement landed on me and made me realize:

... the chasm that exists between the intention of the discussion and the selective hearing of someone who was threatened by the content.

… the chasm between participation with community to build a movement to correct a past that has been historically skewed and unjust and the system that houses the tools, blueprints, infrastructure, and strategic processes that has been consciously and unconsciously constructed to maintain the primacy of a dominant narrative.

…the space that gets morphined into silence between artists of color engaged with advocating for equity and the powers that be that keep the large homes of  “high art” nurtured to sustain themselves, regardless of the economic situation.

I realized that when progressive minds articulate the injustice of inequity and make clear the need and timing for equity of the field, it poses a threat to the stewards of “high art”.  In a conversation where we presented the statistics of inequity of philanthropy, critiqued the status quo, pointed out how the sustenance and growth of “preeminent organizations” has happened deliberately, and how there has been a conscious diminishment of artistic spaces led by people of color, it provoked the proverbial, “We don’t want classical art to become extinct”!

“I never said that,” I wanted to say.

The politics of centrality surfaces here. In simple terms, inside the minds of those who fear change, a sense of threat seems to engulf even the most rational person. The dialogue gets stemmed because the minds that created the chess board, the sculptors that crafted the look and color of the chess pieces and masterminded the process of the chess game, are shocked to see that in the boards of justice there are moves far beyond and nuanced past the declamation of “checkmate”.

This lack of equity perpetuates the dominance of hierarchical languaging which demarcates: a “mainstage” and a less resourced “black –box”; center and margin; majority and minority art (hence under-resourced or stipended); ‘high art’ and indigenous cultural practices; pre-eminent organizational caverns and organizations led by and for people of color. The list is endless.

Eastern dramaturgy comes to theaid, and nullifies this idea of end of game and cessation. As time is seen as circular and an end never arrives, a birth occurs and organizations led by people of color are coming together with a new nomenclature of SHARING SPACE and OWNING SPACE.

When conversation of shifting centrality and dominance is practiced, the elasticity of the space provides ample opportunities of co-existence. The presence of literature from ancient cultures and writers of color who are crafting scripts like Sabra Falling by Arab-American writer Ismail Khalidi, 5 Weeks by Asian American writer Meena Natarajan, Isla Tuliro, by Marlina Gonzalez, The Water Story by Ojibwe writer Sharon Day only adds to the dynamism of the theater field. Something tells me that the patriarchs of the dominant culture ( least of all, the all engulfing SHAKESPEARE) is not threatened in the least. There is no voice that is ever stating that any cannon of literature, any OPERA that has existed be “made obsolete”.

The advocacy and the imperative need that is being articulated is that, like the movement of our planetary cosmology, we shift spaces and keep on sharing space in the cosmic path with our individual signatures. We erase borders and obliterate margins, break down walls in established patriarchal processes experienced by organizations and artists of color.

As the call arises with deafening clarity for equity, a time has come now with the shifting demographics of North America, to obliterate binaries - when race conversations may not be limited to ONLY black and white articulation - but in recognition of collaborative politics and movements like Black-Lives matter, #metoo movement, Pipeline resistance, Global social forums addressing eco-systems etc.

The call is for a new nomenclature that not only makes obsolete the benign articulation of “diversity, inclusion, multicultural” as a way for dominant culture to maintain status quo in relation to organizations of color, but to move toward kinesthetic action, to build a collaborative politics of SHARING SPACE in the making of dynamic cultural skein of the TWIN CITIES!



Wu Chen Recommends...Gone Home

gone home.jpg

We’ve been pushing the boundaries of what video games are and can do for quite a while now. More than explosive power fantasies, games utilize the unique positioning of their audience to tell their stories, fan the flames of their minds and hearts, and ask potent questions. Video games let us explore and experience worlds like few other mediums can.

When I first picked up Gone Home, all I knew was that it was by a company made up of four game designers that had done work I really enjoyed. Unfolding with a voice message, this quiet and potent game of exploration, set in 1995, puts you in the shoes of a young woman just returning from a trip abroad after graduating from college. She arrives in an empty house and a haunting note from a beloved sister pleading you not to look into what has happened.

I love exploration games. I love exploring, and I love good characters - and Gone Home has both. While there have been a fair number of video games that have brought me to tears, few games have made me put down my controller (mouse, in this case) and just put my head on my desk and think. This did that, on more than one occasion.

It’s a quiet, potent experience. Just about everything is experienced alone: old notes, voice messages, journals and the like, and the devastating power of it all is enhanced for that crowded loneliness.

This is a story that was relevant in 1995 (when the game is set), 2013 (when the game was released) and now. If you can handle WASD and mouse first-person UI, and you’re at all interested in game about people, get this one and play it.

Gone Home on Steam

P.s. Fullbright Games, who made Gone Home, famously turned down a booth at PAX (a major gaming convention) in 2013 to showcase Gone Home. Their statement about it, here, is a powerful and important one, and one that is worth reposting.

Wu Chen Recommends...Paper Girls.

Paper Girls.jpg

I had casting about, looking for something light to read in bed, when I stumbled on Paper Girls by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. An adventure story revolving around some paper delivery girls set in the 80s? Sounds fun!
And it is, only it is anything but light. I tore through the whole first volume, and then, instead of going to sleep at my already-late-hour, I read it again - interrupted only by my turn to rock the baby back to sleep.

I’ve never been one to rush out and buy the next comic book issue; but this time I was at The Source as soon as my schedule allowed to buy my own copy of Volume 1, and any additional Volumes that might exist (currently, as far as I know, three). I wanted them because when my kids were old enough, I wanted them to have easy access to them.

The writing is incredibly powerful and the characters robust and real. The aliens and the time travel are never laughable or out-of-place, and for all the fantastic nature of the core story, it never detracts from the humanity and the stark reality that is laid bare here. The art absolutely, superbly supports all of this. I’m taking this book into my design class for that reason alone.

Do yourself a favour, even if you tend not to like comics or graphic novels, check this one out.

Paper Girls at the Hennepin County Library:

Interview with Brian K Vaughan:

The Importance of Creating Space



There are a lot of roles one can play in the theater industry, and Chris Garza has at one time or another done many of them. His smarts and vast network have made him an respected figure in the intrapersonal relationships that make up Twin Cities theater, importantly bridging the artificial divisions between production, artistic, administration and more. For precisely these reasons, his reflections on the industry are always worth checking out. -Wu Chen Khoo


I was asked to write an article due to my experience working in multiple levels of theatre (small, medium, large) and because I often work at the intersection of administration and production. So…I’m going to do that. I’m going to start by talking about myself.

My name is Chris Garza. I’m a director, carpenter, production manager, socialite, logistics coordinator, volunteer supervisor, tour manager, arts administrator, and pretty much anything else you want me to be. I left Macalester College with a degree in theatre and wanting to be a director. Early on I took tiny stipends with tiny companies and did a lot of festival work. I’m not a performer but I try to perform in something about every other year to remind myself what it is to trust an outside eye. But, landing directing gigs is hard and it’s tricky asking a company to take a risk on you with a full production without seeing your previous work on a full production. This led me to accept any job in the field that I could get and to hope that through doing good work in any job, I would build my credibility.

One of my first gigs in theatre was Assistant to the Artistic Director of Frank Theatre, from August 2012 to August 2014. Frank is small theatre run by 1.5 people and I was the .5 person for two years. The job had me do a little bit of everything for $10 an hour, averaging 10 hours a week most weeks, and up to 30 hours a week when in a production. Since this was a part-time job, I had to juggle it with other contract work. Sometimes I would carpenter at the Jungle and sometimes I’d stage manage. My broad range of work experience borne out of economic necessity coincidently made me an ideal production manager. I had a good enough understanding of all of the technical elements of theatre, administrative elements, and artistic elements, and I think more importantly, I came from a deep belief that all of these seemingly separate elements are inherently supporting each other.

I became the Production Manager for the Workhaus Collective for their last season shortly after accepting a job at Upstream Arts as their Administrative/Program Assistant. Upstream Arts is an organization that teaches social skills using the arts to kids and adults with disabilities. Workhaus was a company of playwrights that took turns producing each other’s work and shifted company responsibilities based on availability/need with the producing playwright acting as a temporary Artistic Director. I was brought on as Workhaus’ Production Manager in an effort to systematize their company and alleviate their workload. They decided to end the company while rehearsing their second show of a three-show season. As the season progressed, the demands of the job became greater, and I had my first and only panic attack a few days before striking the last show.

In hindsight, the panic attack seems so anomalous and explicable. I had organized numerous strikes beforehand and I have always enjoyed working under pressure (I’m writing this very article the same day as the overdue, absolute last deadline). I’m not advocating that the theatrical creative process is contingent upon a “last-minute under pressure Hail Mary” situation, but that circumstance is not uncommon. I even suspect that some people make theatre for the adrenaline thrill of pulling off the impossible at the very last moment. I’ve been a part of processes that thrived on this mindset, especially with smaller companies, and I’ve been a part of processes that actively fought against this mentality. My Workhaus experience coupled with a raise at Upstream led me to consider taking a break from theatre. Then, for reasons not-entirely known to me, the Guthrie asked me if I would be interested in assistant directing in their 16-17 Season.

I took the meeting because I figured that’s what one does when the Guthrie asks to meet with you. Initially, I thought they wanted me to work on Native Gardens which is a show written by a Latina playwright and was being directed by a white out-of-town director. I thought I was going to balance out the artistic team by not only being a Latino but also a local artist. This was not the case. When they asked me what shows in their season interested me, without hesitation I inquired about The Bluest Eye not only because Toni Morrison is a genius but as I researched the director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, and I thought her aesthetic was stunning. I had a phone meeting with Lileana and I ended up assistant directing The Bluest Eye. The experience of working on this show is in many ways a high point of my career thus far and not because of the prestige or budget size.  

More so than most projects, The Bluest Eye stands apart for me because the director carried out the extremely difficult task of both having a strong vision and genuinely collaborating with everyone in the room. When actors would investigate their characters or question the optics of the future soon to be majority white audience, she would listen and guide. She respected her design team and all of the artists building and making the show. The process in making the show was filled with kindness even though the subject matter was at times brutal. This is a lesson that can be applied to any size production team.

The biggest relief in working at the Guthrie was the lack of responsibility. In many rooms preceding this one I was responsible for all of things. If in a production meeting at a smaller company we decided we would need a fridge, I would often have to find the fridge, find a way to transport the fridge, find volunteers willing to help me move it to the theatre, ensure we had enough volunteers to remove it from the theatre, and then find a way to get rid of it after the show. At the Guthrie, I didn’t have to worry about any of it. My only job was to attend rehearsals and give my opinion if asked. It was both incredibly relaxing and also bit anxiety making as someone that used to do it all. This isn’t to say money and resources fix all problems. Theatre is still an artistic discipline focused on collaboration. Communication is often complex and more people just add to the potential of misunderstanding. There were moments when doing something yourself would have exponentially faster/easier. For example, finding the exact prop needed for the show. Instead of going to a thrift store yourself, the director gives a note in rehearsal, the stage manager puts it in a report, the props manager gets the note and assigns it to a props artisan. You repeat that process until it works out.

On this large of a scale, it is hard to find an intimate sense of comradery. On the very first day of rehearsal all of the departments are invited to a meet and greet with the production team. Joe Haj introduces the show and the director and then the director speaks about the project. Before the speeches are given, there is a casual mingle with everyone that shows up… except the interdepartmental mingling can be scarce. All of the carpenters chat together and all of the box office are together and all of the marketing folks are together, etc. I found myself knowing multiple folks spread throughout the departments due to my eclectic work history and I wasn’t sure where to situate myself. This sort of separation is of course expected; you’re going to chat with the people you know and the people you know are the ones you spend everyday with in the shop/office etc. I looked around the room and was very much aware of professional spaces cobbled together in the larger room.

Being both an artist and an arts administrator has amplified for me the importance of creating space. In both roles, I spend a lot time anticipating needs. As a director, so much of my artistic work is front-loaded, conceptualizing a production with designers and doing my own research. Then, during the rehearsal process, my attention is often split between creating a positive day-to-day space for the actors and imagining how the future audience will receive the play. As an arts administrator that does a lot of event planning, sometimes those anticipated needs are regarding access. Are there switches at the venue for patrons that use a wheelchair? Is anyone attending in need of ASL interpretation or large print programs etc. What can I do now to make tomorrow more manageable? I view all of my work history as a practice in empathy building.  Theatre is an opportunity for empathy building not only in when we share stories with our audiences that might offer a different narrative than they are accustomed to but also in the method of production. If during the process of making theatre, we are kind to each other as artists, I think that empathy building ripples into our communities.

Navigating a Career Around Age Bias


 Angelina  running a followspot at the Scott Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011.

Angelina running a followspot at the Scott Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011.

I was out of the country when Angelina became known to the circles I move in. When I came back to town, I was told that I “had to meet her”. It would actually take quite a while for us to do more than pass in the hallway, and I’ve been kicking myself for the lost time. Thorough, methodical, observant, and smart, Angelina is a veritable font of knowledge and skill. When she told me she’d like to write something for the newsletter, I skipped all the usual discussion about what and how and simply asked, “when?”. Because I’ve learned this: if Angelina has something to say, then it’s worth listening to. -Wu Chen


One of the good things that happened in 2017 besides Fiona the Hippo (Look her up, she’s adorable) and Australian marriage equality is that a whole bunch of women spoke up and stood up about harassment. The conversations that have started about respect at the workplace have been wonderful. The following story has been on my mind for years, yet I haven’t been able to put it into words until now. It provides almost no answers, but I’m hoping its questions could carry the discussions into 2018.

I got very lucky (Is “lucky” the right word here? I’m not quite sure, lets get back to this sentiment later) early on in my career to work on some large shows at prominent venues in several cities. I plunged into theatrical design and backstage tech at the age of 15, taking on extra gigs whenever I could. By 21 I have worked with almost every major local company, lead union crews and designed at a few major theaters. At 25 I received an MFA in lighting design and technology. As my experience level increased over the years, I have found that one thing stayed constant and followed me from city to city – the undermining assumptions older colleagues make about me the moment I walk through the doors. Is that really such big of a deal? Is another guacamole-loving-millennial complaining about something? Let me give you some highlights so that we are all on the same page here.

How often do people ask you “How old are you?” and it has nothing to do with online dating or a getting a drink at the bar? For me it’s usually followed by a snide look and “I’ve done this for longer than you’ve been alive” regardless of what answer I do or do not give. Neat. Good for you. When I was in college I worked as a lighting assistant for a multi-million dollar company that ran huge shows in rep. One of my jobs was to create paperwork and lead the changeovers between three different shows, tracking focus and color swaps for over 700 light fixtures. Since it was a union house I had to follow this protocol of communications – to fly in an electric I had to get the Technical Director to ask the head flyman who would then ask the actual flyman to get the pipe in. My stumbling block right away was the TD. Lets call him Dan. Dan was well over 6 feet tall and “been doing this his whole life”. Working with Dan was hell on wheels as he had no desire to communicate or collaborate and he didn’t like to talk to little people like me (literally 5’4”). One day while I was attempting to ask him what his next load in steps were he looked down straight at me, grabbed me by both shoulders, shoved me aside out of his way and walked away. What do you even do after that? Did I offend him in some way? I was doing my job trying to figure out if I need to keep my crew on deck or send them up the box booms. That job taught me really quick that responsibility does not equal authority, and without authority nothing will get done and my reputation and career will be over. Too bad I wasn’t old enough to legally drown my sorrows at the bar.

Another time a good friend of mine and I were assistants to a man who insisted to refer to us as “children”. True, my friend and I were somewhere between 20 and 23, but what did we ever do that would make us seem childish? Was our work ethic bad? We would look forward to breaks so that we could re-group and plan ahead. We would skip lunch breaks and get more work done while it was quiet. Did we fail at our job? We spent hours double checking and perfecting paperwork. We met every deadline or finished tasks early. I taught myself how to call followspot cues because I was afraid to ask and look like a failure. There were a few mistakes here and there but the work notes got done and the show was on track to open. Somehow, nothing mattered as we heard across the stage loud and clear: “Children, come over here!” How does one confront their superior about this? Worse than the personal humiliation was that as the entire crew observed this happening our carefully built up trust and respect crumbling.

One day I got a job offer to be a lead electrician for a large show. It would be a good challenge for me, a great test of my skills and knowledge, and a fantastic line on my resume. I felt I was ready. The person offering the job was confident I could do it well. I wanted that job so badly but I was hesitant to accept because I knew the crew would never take me seriously. I accepted only when I learned that Steve would be the Master Electrician. Steve was a big guy who knew everyone, took crap from no one and I knew he’d have my back. I remember he came up next to me and gave the problematic stagehand a good glare and that magically fixed his attitude towards me. Thank you Steve! Bystander intervention, in my experience, is what works best.

I cut my hair short and dyed it several shades darker because I knew a particular electrician who liked to pretend he can’t see or hear me was on my next show. Blonde = stupid is still very much a thing. There isn’t much opportunity to build up respect during marathon days of dance concerts. I was just desperately trying to get the man to do his job. I’d change the gel on the booms myself if I was allowed to touch them! Was I asking too much? Was I asking too politely? Not politely enough? My mere presence was unwelcome and felt offensive. It seemed strangely wrong to be more worried about dealing with my crew than about the show looking great. Maybe I’m not really cut out for this job?

I hit the absolute rock bottom at 24. Some good soul warned me that one of the stagehands, lets name him Bob, likes to “make the interns cry”. Bob was extremely tall and he liked to talk down (literally and figuratively) to me and my co-intern. One day during focus call he grabbed me, flipped me over his shoulder, walked backstage and dumped me into a big trash can. What did I do wrong to deserve this disrespect? Does the crew think of me as trash? Would I be sitting on a pile of garbage if I was a 40 year old woman? How does one gracefully recover after such an incident observed and laughed at by everyone backstage? I climbed out, dusted myself off and continued to do my job like nothing happened. Cover girls don’t cry after the face is made, as they say. The people in charge already knew intern harassment was happening, so I didn’t bother to complain. My co-suffering intern got his share of abuse too, so I knew this wasn’t just a gender related issue. We were only called “interns” to justify the laughable stipend for a job of an assistant, but the title seemed to matter more to the crew than the responsibility load.

I have found myself at the crossroads of ageism and sexism time and time again, with not much help from others. From the first time when a crew chief shoved me into a wall for no apparent reason, I knew that to survive in this business I had to adapt. Dependability, experience, self-motivation, attention to detail, and can-do attitude were all great qualities to get hired. They don’t mean a thing when people make an assumption about you strictly based on how old you look. I felt like running a marathon, but first I had to jog a few miles just to find the starting line. I developed tricks to make it through the days. I used to wear a college sweatshirt with the name of my university big and bold on the front. “You go to college? What’s your major?” Many were shocked to hear that I am actually studying theater and intend to pursue it as a career. I would put on makeup even though I’d much rather sleep an extra 15 minutes. I used to wear a fake wedding ring, an instant respect boost and a deterrent of handsy stagehands. (It works!) I was learning how to not be a pushover by mimicking the speech patterns of crew chiefs – direct, precise, muted emotions. I was called bitchy, bossy, “slave driver” after repeating the same words I heard others say. They were called “leaders”. I decided that “being a bitch” was not ideal, but it got the job done when nice just wasn’t cutting it. I needed to be confident to command respect, but not too confident because people don’t like cocky young people, especially women. I learned that asking questions was a sign of weakness, something I could not afford, so I learned by observation, taking notes, doing my own research after work. I’d take chances to show that I had experience in some areas the older guys didn’t by taking apart and fixing moving lights or suggesting tricks for programming difficult cue sequences. Occasionally that backfired and I was forced to spend 30 minutes patching LEDs one by one even though the console can do the math and patch all 100 of them in one command line because “that’s how we always done it”. I spent so much of my energy and focus every day on my appearance, the way I walked, talked, observing and adapting to the mood changes of other people just to keep up the illusion of solid confidence and effortless perfection. It was completely exhausting.  The actual jobs of drafting, making purchases or keeping track of thousands of dollars of the budget were comparatively not hard. I would go home and think to myself, I’m getting paid roughly $1.20/h, why am I doing this? How many ambitious young people get pushed out of this business? Am I actually good at any of this, or am I so good at pretending I know what I’m doing that I convinced even myself that I do? I took the struggle as personal failure and character flaws, never really considering that the issue may be the workplace culture.

“Millenials” is such a vague term. It seems to cover anyone born between 1980 and today. It’s hard to find articles online not talking about millenials ruining something. “Millenials are killing the fabric softener business” claims the Business Insider. They are typically described as snotty, lazy, entitled, greedy and spoiled. I do see some young people being disillusioned with reality after being told their whole life that they are special and deserving of the best. I am also seeing strength and resilience when other millenials find life unfair. “How was working with so-and-so designer?” “Oh, you know, he’s young.” Young seems to be a synonym to bad. Actual issues one might have with a designer include: not being able to meet a deadline or not communicating well with the stage manager. There are 40-50 year old designers like that regardless of number of years of experience. When a young person makes a mistake they are penalized with assumptions about the rest of their knowledge and abilities. Alexander Bell invented the telephone at 18 years of age. Sabrina Pasterski built her own single engine plane at 13. To me age isn’t an issue, but things like ability to lead, communicate, work independently, organization, inventiveness and visualization just to name a few are. Those qualities also happen to be things one can actively try to improve on at any age. Workplace bias and sexism can have a negative effect on someone just starting out in the field. Normalizing bias makes one the “good team player” and at the same time destroys self-confidence. A previously ambitious person may be lowering their career goals after hitting the brick wall of bias too many times. I can’t even imagine what being a young person of color feels like.

It’s not all doom and gloom out there. For a number of years I did shows as an electrician and followspot operator for a company called Kids Who Care. The idea of the company is to not only let young people ranging from elementary school to college create theater on stage but to also learn to be leaders. The atmosphere was such that I never felt like a teenager among adults. I was a colleague in the truest form I’ve ever experienced. I could for once safely admit that I didn’t know how to do something, spending the rest of the day making sure I figured it out for next time of course. I remember feeling encouraged to pursue what I wanted to do. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received while assisting was being told that I never needed much explanation and I just did the work exactly the way someone wanted. Honestly, I never thought asking for explanation was an option. I met a woman named Peggy who is incredible and a great inspiration. I remember telling myself “See, its possible to be successful and still sane in this business”. Few designers who I worked with as assistant designer insisted that I carry their coffee cup wherever they go; most were embarrassed to ask me to refill their water bottle when they couldn’t get away from the tech table.

The industry is built to value seniority over skill and knowledge, assuming that knowledge comes with the years. Ageism is accepted as normal. We hear a lot about how prestigious it is to reach the A list after a decade of service. It is also not required to hold any trade certifications or keep up to date with new technology to get there. In my 10+ years I have seen lighting gear evolve from incandescent and arc sources to LED. The projection and video has taken off and the newest gear now is producing colors by splitting a laser beam with prisms. (It’s super cool!) It’s a reasonable generalization that young people are better with technology, but that is still a generalization. There are no age limits to take a class or a professional workshop in any entertainment area.

    The pushback young people may feel could be translating into the low numbers of them joining labor unions. I’ve worked with or around IATSE members of several Locals for 8 years before officially joining and not once did anyone encourage me to do it. I felt like I didn’t deserve to join. There’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon called impostor syndrome, or inability to acknowledge one’s accomplishments, with the constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. People are convinced that their success is only due to luck and good timing, rather than their own competence. Signs and symptoms include fear of failure, perfectionism, and dismissiveness of any praise. Another exciting cognitive bias is called a Dunning- Kruger effect. In essence it is the inability of low-ability people to recognize their own incompetence based on ignorance of accepted standards. To know that one is incompetent they need that exact expertise to recognize it, which they wouldn’t have. Feedback from colleagues seems to be the surest way to gauge one’s ability level. The conclusions aren’t very clear when your head carpenter creepily greets you with “Hey baby girl” every day.

There’s a federal law against age discrimination over 40. I don’t doubt that the law is necessary. I’ll happily report back when I get there. Right now I’m still at the “You aren’t even 30, you wouldn’t know” stage, eagerly waiting for a magical fairy to show up and give me adult super powers. Is trial by fire necessary to push young people to step up their game? Does bullying and intimidation teach resilience? People like Oprah Winfrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sonia Sotomayor emerged out of the flames as a beautiful phoenix ready to take on anything life throws at them. Others feel more like a scorched disheveled cockatoo with anxiety, emotional baggage, and irrational fear of tall people.




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The legendary Mike Wangen has been tremendously influential on the lives of many people in the local industry, mine included. If you haven’t had a chance to see his work, and talk to him about lighting design, you’re missing out on a treat. Incredibly well- and widely-read, his excitement and lucidity on the industry and on art, aesthetics and politics are easily (and, I think often, and criminally) overlooked. He’s not one for public speaking, so this piece here is a rare and wonderful bird. -Wu Chen


The end of 2017 marks my fortieth year of working as a theater artist, and it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on that life - specifically, on what my friend, actor Jim Craven, calls the “arc of creativity.” It is the ability to stay engaged in the art of theater and to constantly question and push the boundaries of that art.  This is something which is often easier said than done.

    My work history in theater can be broken into roughly three segments: an early period from 1977 through the mid 80s when I was developing my ideas and laying a foundation for what would come later, often without realizing it;  a middle period from 1987 through the early 2000s when I began working at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and Penumbra Theatre and was actually earning a living wage as a theater artist; and a late period beginning around 2003 and lasting through today when I became what could be considered a mature artist.

    I am a completely self-taught lighting designer.  I still don’t know what possessed me to walk in and apply to work as a lighting designer for a small experimental theater in Minneapolis in 1977. It was probably a mix of my father’s career being a professional photographer, my high school education which centered on a strong Humanities program, and the fact that I had dropped out of the U of M as a History major to run lights for a local rock band.  It was at the Olympia Arts Ensemble that I learned the nuts and bolts of the art of theater, most importantly, the WORDS.  Theater is storytelling and the fact that we were a poor group which could not afford large sets and lots of lights meant that we had to find creative solutions to staging problems and rely on the strength of the actors and the words in the script.  This has colored my views on design my entire life, and I still feel that this is a real strength in my work; the ability to pare away extraneous ideas and get to the heart of the matter.

    Experimentation is natural for us when we are in our twenties. To couple that enthusiasm with the rather free lifestyles of the 70s and the theatrical environment I was in was magic - and not limited to theater.  I experimented with photography (like my father), poetry and set design as well as reading voraciously (including every text on technical theater that I could find).  I never thought of myself as establishing a career as a lighting designer. I was just in the moment, absorbing thoughts and ideas.  My creativity grew out of the need to translate and express the thoughts floating around in my head from all of the ideas and information I was absorbing. The theater group I was worked with nurtured that.  I became unable to separate my life as an artist with other parts of my life.  It was all one and the same.  I see these trends in a number of young designers today and I am very encouraged.

    Then, it all came crashing down when Olympia collapsed in the early 80s, another hard lesson.  Disillusioned and feeling betrayed (the SYSTEM had crushed our noble experiment in artistic expression), I moved back to my home in Albert Lea to pout.  I had become an adult child.  

    The next period of growth in my life began in 1987.  Michael Brindisi, who I had known quite well in Albert Lea where he had started the Minnesota Festival Theater, was hired as director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and asked me to come and work there.  At the same time, I had been put in touch with Lewis Whitlock, who liked my work and invited me to design what was the original version of Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre.  For the first time in my life I was fully employed in the theater.  After several years, I left my job at Chanhassen to pursue my designing for Penumbra on a more full-time basis.  This brings up a couple of points about the creative process.  At Chan, for the first time in my life, I had secure full-time employment in my chosen field.  Yet, something was missing for me. I had become complacent in my job, which led to a reduction in my incentive to create.  It’s a trade off which many of us have had to consider; how do you balance the positives of a secure income with the resulting loss of creativity which comes from doing the same thing over and over again? Yin and yang.  For me there was no choice, I went to Penumbra to try and further my growth as an artist in what I perceived to be a more open artistic environment.  The idea of trusting your intuition to act as an agent of change emerged as a conscious part of my decision making.  I still believe it is one of the keys to remaining creative in life.

    In my time at Penumbra I was exposed to a group of immensely talented artists who were in the process of coalescing into a finely tuned artistic unit with a strong, unified aesthetic.  It was, in many ways, a continuation of the process that I was exposed to at Olympia but which had failed there at a critical moment.  I was able to build on the foundations laid down in my early years, this time with more tools (lights) at hand to implement ideas.  My 13 years at Penumbra were some of the most productive of my life, and I made lasting friendships which remain to this day.  However, the negative aspects of that work began to become apparent to me as well.  I had developed my bag of lighting tricks and favorite colors which I tended to use again and again, “good” had become “good enough.”  To battle this, I believe it’s necessary to constantly strive to broaden your boundaries and pull yourself out of your comfort zone.  The Twin Cities is blessed with an amazing variety of theater, dance, music, and spoken word, and we need to cross pollinate all of these fields to remain creative.  Search for diversity in your work, embrace change and do not run from it; it will nurture you if you let it.

    I left Penumbra in 2001 after accepting a job at the Fitzgerald Theater, and I have since increasingly embraced a life as a freelance designer, leaving the Fitzgerald in 2015.  I am now 63 years old and feel that I’m doing the best work of my life.  I have been very lucky in many ways to have worked with an amazing group of artists.  I attribute a good part of my longevity to the fact that I have always recognized that change is a constant and have constantly sought ways to expand my boundaries.  As far as creativity goes, I’ll make an analogy to being successful at poker.  You can only succeed if the money you’re playing with does not have any value outside of the fact that it’s a tool, a means to an end.  You need to remain open-minded and be willing to try new ideas, always - even if they fail.  When they do, let them go, and move on.  This can be very scary and disappointing, but the rewards can be beautiful.  

    I’ve now reached a point where I consider myself a mature artist, which has freed me in many ways to do better work.  I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I feel free to explore and experiment in any direction I choose.  In many ways, this completes the circle that began when I started in the 70s.  I was doing the same thing then, but was not even aware of it.  It was just something new and exciting in my life.  There have been many trade-offs, I have no retirement options, no family, no job security, but I feel that I have made a difference in people’s lives, helped them to see the world in different ways.  Most importantly, I see these same sparks of creativity in many young theater artists here who I have worked with or observed over the last few years.  Be curious, see everything, explore, don’t limit yourself.