The Nautilus Music-Theater Studio: Making an Artistic Home


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Ben Krywosz may be one of the best kept secrets in the Twin Cities performing arts community.  He is an accomplished director and thinker, and his work with opera and music theater has enlightened people for years.  He has aided and mentored a large number of the areas finest musical theater and opera performers over the years as well as offering guidance and instruction to potential writers, composers, and directors of all types of music based performance. I am very proud to be associated with him.  -Mike Wangen

Nautilus Music-Theater’s studio has become an attractive and comfortable place for operatic and musical theater artists to develop their craft. Located in Lowertown St Paul, in the same building as the Black Dog Coffee Shop and Springboard for the Arts, Nautilus works with writers, composers, performers, and directors to explore new ways of telling stories through music. Our studio space is a good example of how motivated artists can use limited resources, creative design, and sweat equity to support their developmental work.

Nautilus began in 1986 as the Minnesota Opera New Music-Theater Ensemble, a program of the opera company. Our 1988 performances opened the Minneapolis Theater Garage, and for the next five years, we performed there, at the Southern Theater, and at the Seventh Place Theater (now Park Square Theater). In 1992, we spun off of the Minnesota Opera as the New Music-Theater Ensemble, and although we kept our offices in the Minnesota Opera building, we continued performing off-site. In January of 1995, we initiated our monthly Rough Cuts series, appearing in informal spaces such as the Soap Factory, College of St Catherine’s, and the Opera Center. In the summer of 1995, we moved to St Paul, settling into a small 800 sq ft room on the second floor of Artspace’s Northern Warehouse, with the express purpose of using it for rehearsals, classes, workshops, and Rough Cuts performances.

The single room measured 50’ x 16’, with 10’ ceilings, and a total of 4 windows, three of them overlooking the alley between the Northern Warehouse and the Tilsner Building. We set off a 10’ x 16’ office area at the far end of the space, and installed curtains, hiding our desks, computers, and copying machine. We hung a wood grid constructed of redwood 2x2’s, and filled it with clip lights for general lighting. Public bathrooms were directly across the hall. We purchased around 50 used plastic folding chairs, rented an upright piano, and for the next few years, held our St Paul Rough Cuts performances, as well as rehearsals for our fully-staged productions and working sessions for our Composer-Librettist Studio. It was cramped, but we had complete control over how and when to use the space. We continued holding our Wesley Balk Opera/Music-Theater Institute at St Kate’s, Macalester College, and then Augsburg College. Sets, costumes, and props were stored at an off-site storage facility in West St Paul.

Around 2001, the space next to us became available, and we rented it for prop and costume storage, a photocopying center with archival files, and a small workshop area. We cut two doors between the side-by-side rooms, doubling our square footage, and giving us a more flexibility for our projects. We upgraded our piano in 2007, and bought new padded chairs in 2008. We continued with Rough Cuts and developmental sessions, and squeezed in our rehearsal process for our off-site shows, which were still presented off-site, including THE LAST FIVE YEARS (at the Loading Dock Theater), MAN OF LA MANCHA and CAROUSEL (both at the Southern), ORPHEUS AND EURIDICE (at the Pantages), and numerous Fringe Festival productions, as well as winning Ivey Awards for our productions of I AM ANNE FRANK (at Intermedia Arts) and SISTER STORIES (at the Playwrights Center).

But in 2010, we were feeling constrained by the financial expense and physical logistics of nomadic performances. In conversation with our designers, we began exploring how we might adapt our little space into a full-blown, if tiny, performance space for fully-staged productions. Focusing on new work as we do, audiences have never been large, and our box office income contributes to, but doesn’t balance, our budget. Artistic flexibility and a supportive creative environment were our priority, and we were inspired by our colleagues at such venues as Red Eye, Off-Leash, Patrick’s Cabaret, and Open Eye Figure Theater.

We began with our 2011 chamber version of JOAN OF ARC, by Mel Marvin and Laura Harrington, set in Joan’s prison cell. Under the guidance of scenic designer Victoria Petrovich and lighting designer Mike Wangen, our tech director Jon Hegge turned our space into a dark claustrophobic dungeon, a sculptural installation that set audience members (46 in all) on both sides of a runway, flanked by two platforms; experiencing Jennifer Baldwin Peden’s performance as if we were the jury. Lights were designed into the set and hung on a metal truss above. At a crucial moment, rain water flowed from the ceiling, cleansing Joan’s transgression. Offstage voices, switching from amplified interrogators to acoustic saints were joined by instrumentalists hidden behind the set. The stage manger, with lighting and sound crew, were positioned in the next room, getting their cues through a closed-circuit video monitor. The sold out production was brought back in Jan 2012, and toured to Winona later that month.

Our second chamber production, in May of 2012, was THE VIEW FROM HERE, Timothy Huang’s one-act piece performed by Joel Liestman, set in an empty New York City apartment. We constructed conventional risers, and put the apartment setting down in our office area (which had been moved into the space next door), hiding the pianist and trumpet player. Hegge constructed a large window, inserted into one of the existing window openings, and we arranged for lights to be hung from the building next door, cable draping across the alley. Being on the second floor, the audience gasped when the character opens the window and prepares to jump, seeing just how high up we were. Conventional lighting instruments were rented or borrowed for this temporary installation. The production toured to Plainview the following year.

Both productions demonstrated to our artists, our board, and our audiences the viability of our miniature studio theater production concept. Of course, we could use just a little more space, but that seemed unlikely given the physical limitations of the building.

Then, in the early winter of 2013, our landlord Artspace alerted us to the availability of two adjoining spaces in our building, down on the first floor. They provided more space than what we currently had, along with sidewalk access, a large bank of windows, and 13’ ceilings. We began to imagine various scenarios for artistic and administrative growth, calculating the additional cost (for both the build-out and the increased rent). We created the basic floorplan, envisioning a flexible non-black box that could be used for a variety of activities. We were fortunate to be awarded grants from the City of St Paul’s STAR Program, and Springboard for the Arts Irrigate Program. Finally, in May of 2013, we started our move.

Phase One of the buildout began by tearing down the plasterboard walls separating the two spaces, clearing the ceiling of unused conduit and other detritus, and having a licensed electrician re-route the electrical box. The design called for an office space, a tech booth, a workshop, an archive room, and a conversation area. We drew upon our theatrical colleagues for much of the construction; tech director Jon Hegge did much of the architectural construction work, and master carpenter Zach Morgan installed a raised wooden floor above the existing rough concrete. A chemical treatment removed 12 layers of lead-based paint on the massive pillars and brick walls, and the ceiling was professionally painted black. Dozens of volunteers helped with the demolition, spending weeks cleaning up and painting. Our baby grand piano was moved in from upstairs. Four custom Levolor blinds controlled the daylight, and we installed lighting pipes on the ceiling beams in preparation for our first studio production in the new space, the regional premiere of Adam Gwon’s ORDINARY DAYS (scheduled to open September 19th).

Of course, best laid plans do go astray, and our ambitious construction schedule went slower than intended. But the show must go on, and it did, with make-shift dressing rooms and plastic draped over an unfinished doorway. Petrovich created a gorgeous two level set, woven in and around the central beams that had served to separate the previous two spaces, now one continuous long and narrow performance area, delineated by two rows of 25 seats each. Wangen had designed a flexible lighting plan, working with a small board and borrowed lights, managed by resident stage manager Conrad Burgess. The show featured a fabulous cast, and was a success with audiences and critics alike, winning another Ivey Award.

Work remained, however, and after the show closed in early October, we finished moving down all of our materials from upstairs. We continued preparing the space for our “grand opening” in late October 2013 -- our first Rough Cuts of the season, with a special celebration of songs built around the idea of “Home”. The space was adorned with artwork, set pieces, and graphics from past productions, and at last, we were up and running. The total cost for Phase One was around $60,000.

In 2014 we developed the new music-theater anthology REACH in the Fringe Festival, offered our Composer-Librettist Studio, and continued Rough Cuts. Then in 2015, we received a capitol grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council allowing us to proceed with Phase Two of our buildout. Zach Morgan put down a OSB-based finish layer on the floor, Hegge installed a bathroom in our one-person dressing room, and we purchased new woodworking equipment for the shop. We created a second work station in the administrative offices. Phase Two cost around $15,000.

In 2016, we presented our re-thinking of the classical musical THE FANTASTICKS (featuring Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr as the “young” lovers, and the Baldwin sisters as their fathers). This time, we configured the space as a three-sided thrust, with the piano and harp on an elevated platform stage right, along with three sets of risers, accommodating 55 seats; again most performances sold out and the production was well-received. We installed additional lighting positions and purchased an ETC Element lighting board. In 2017, we toured our premiere of TWISTED APPLES to greater Minnesota, bringing it back into our space in an unusual configuration, with triangular stage area bounded by two sets of audience risers. Again sell-out enthusiastic crowds affirmed the wisdom of our choice to focus on our locally-sourced artisanal performance presentations.

We currently have four different projects in development, with our next full production planned for Fall of 2019. A recent STAR Program grant is helping pay for four moving lights, additional computer equipment, and new music stands and rack. Next year, our multi-year strategic planning process (the “Nautilus Genome Project”) finally comes to fruition. All of this is in service to the writers, composers, performers, and directors who need more than a clean, well-lighted place to work. Although the Nautilus Studio was never intended to be a rental venue, we try to make it available to community colleagues when possible, not for full productions, as scheduling can be problematic; but a number of groups have used it for selected rehearsals and gatherings. Recent events have included activities by Impossible Salt, the Twin Cities Cabaret Artists Network, a couple of bluegrass groups with CD release parties, Springboard for the Arts workshops, the Black Dog meditation classes, and many others.

It’s not a big space, but it’s self-contained, flexible, comfortable to work in, and acoustically friendly. It gives us the artistic freedom to make the work that our artists are interested in, without the extra expenses and logistical headaches of rented “professional” venues. The physical constraints of size and the pillars that break up the space (we like to think of them as “creative parameters”) have spurred us on to creative solutions, and have not compromised artistic quality at all. We will still perform in larger spaces when the material and finances makes such a choice appropriate, but chamber operas and music-theater pieces are our stock in trade. We are devoted to providing opportunities for the artistic growth of music-theater artists who create, develop, and produce work that is emotionally expansive, dramatically engaging, and spiritually stimulating. The Nautilus Studio has become one of our most successful tools to carry out that mission.

Wu Chen Recommends...Baby Loves... series!

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Finding good science books for the kids (aged 17 mo and 3 yrs 5 mo) is a trick and a half. By and large they can be neatly separated into two categories: over complicated navel-gazing self-important rubbish and uninteresting thus devoid-of-conversation starters drivel. My first introduction to Baby Loves… was when my older kid ran up and hit me with Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering at the Minneapolis Central Library to indicate they wanted it added to the to-borrow pile.

I glanced at it long enough to determine it wasn’t something I didn’t want in the house and moved on. It would become our most beloved book from that haul.

Let’s be clear: I’ve only read Aerospace Engineering, Gravity, and Quarks. All three are strong but that list is in order of descending strength. What all manage to do is successfully take an interesting idea, give it graspable context without stripping it of real ideas and content, and then provide just enough narrative to make it a fun read with plenty of opportunity, reasons, and interested motivation for the kids to ask ‘Why?’—And then for you to explore together and build experiments together and - well damnit, now you’re doing science.

It also really helps that the books present thoughtful, intentionally gender and ethnically diverse babies as the Point of View character in each book and this is done exactly as it should be: potently and without undue comment.

Check them out.

P.s. “Babbitty” is a favorite word now.

Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering at Hennepin County Library.

More Baby Loves… books at Hennepin County Library

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Reproductive Health and the Products We Use


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I became a painter because I loved the art of it. I enjoyed the problem solving of taking a rendering and figuring out how to recreate and enhance it for the stage. Lo and behold, the more I painted, the more I realized I really should have minored in chemistry as well. To be a responsible painter it is important to familiarize yourself with the chemicals you are using; which ingredients are harmful, how they are harmful, how they react to other chemicals.

Painters, carpenters, and other technicians are asked to use products with carcinogens all the time in theatre. It’s just an unfortunate truth in the industry. We use products designed for commercial or industrial use because we need our scenery to withstand tap shoes, faux rain, heavy traffic, etc. It’s in our own hands to protect ourselves against these carcinogens by adhering to safe shop practices. With regards to reproductive health, even further research is required. The labeling is less clear. Researching these products often can lead to a swirling rabbit hole of confusing terms and scientific jargon. It makes me want to hold my head and scream “Why didn’t I do better in my high school chemistry class?” Or frankly “Why don’t I remember anything from my high school chemistry class at all?”

I have found the OEHHA website helpful in this research; Safety Data Sheets (SDS) don’t always mention if the products contain reprotoxic substances (chemicals that cause birth defects and reproductive harm), even if the product’s container has the familiar warning of “This product may contain a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” The California Proposition 65 warning itself lumps together cancer causing ingredients with ingredients causing reproductive harm. They maybe one and the same in some instances, but a blanket statement shouldn’t be made for all 800 chemicals on the Prop 65 list. It would be great if the labels were to clarify which products contain carcinogenic ingredients and which were reprotoxic ingredients, if that knowledge exists.

In an ideal world, a painter wouldn’t have to work while pregnant or breast feeding so they could avoid being exposed to chemicals, but for most people that is not an option. They need that income especially since the majority of us are freelancers and don’t get maternity leave. However, there are measures you can take to protect yourselves and your baby while pregnant or breast feeding. Stay away from products containing cadmium and organic solvents like toluene, benzene, glycol ethers, carbon disulphide and tetrachloroethylene. Or to clarify that gobbly goop avoid spray paints and paint thinners altogether. As well as two part component products, dyes, flame retardants and some varnishes and silk screening inks. Organic solvents are harmful when inhaled or on the skin, so if you are unsure about a product wear the appropriate gloves when painting and a respirator with the appropriate filter when spraying. These measures should be taken whether you and your partner are planning to become pregnant or not. It’s just good shop practice.

When looking through an SDS it’s important to look at the percentages of the ingredients. The Prop 65 warning goes on products even if only 1% of the product’s ingredients are on the Prop 65 list. It is unlikely that any harm will come to the user with that low of a dose, especially if it is a specialty product bought for a certain effect and not an everyday shop product. Also research how a product is harmful. For instance, Titanium dioxide makes up around 15-25% of every product that is white in color. It is in just about everything. While it is a Prop 65 chemical as a carcinogen, it is only harmful in dust form and not when bound in liquid. So if you are looking out for you reproductive health it is most likely fine to use as long as you don’t any sanding after using the products. Work within your comfort level, but by arming yourself with the knowledge of how a chemical is harmful, you can work more confidently with a product.

Finally, I am not an expert and don’t pretend to be; just a curious and cautious painter. Everyone must be their own safety advocate and read up on the products they are using. If you have questions about a certain chemical or product, bring the SDS to your doctor. These are just some notes I’ve collected while freelancing and I welcome other people’s suggestions and observations. The following chart is meant as a jumping off point for those who are in a time in their life when they are watching their reproductive health. The proposed replacement products are sometimes more expensive than the original. That is something to consider with your budget and/or employer.

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Garland Wright


A case can easily be made that Marcus Dilliard has been the most influential lighting designer in our community for almost 30 years.  From his work as lighting director and designer at the Guthrie in the 1980s and 90s, to his artistic relationship with Theatre de la Jeune Lune (which continues today with The Moving Company) he has been an inspiration to all of us and we have all learned from his dedication to professionalism, integrity, and precision.  He continues today as a professor of lighting design at the University, training the next generation of designers.

His article about his relationship with Garland Wright (artistic director of the Guthrie in the later 80s and early 90s) reveals a complex relationship with an uncompromising artist.  I hope to hear more from him in the future. -Mike Wangen

 Garland Wright, 1984

Garland Wright, 1984

“He’s not a screaming visualist, like I am.” That was Garland Wright’s answer to my question about Michael Maggio, the director coming in from Chicago to direct the Guthrie’s 1988 production of Frankenstein (Playing with Fire).  Yes, I’m that old. And yes, it’s the same play that’s on the Guthrie’s stage as I write this.

Garland was indeed a “screaming visualist” but he was so much more.  Garland taught me more about the making of theater than any other single individual I have encountered in my career.  What impressed me most was his ability to articulate the “why” of every choice he made and to create theater that asked questions. It’s a rare gift to be in the presence of a director (and artistic director) who knows exactly why a given show is being produced now, today. I’ll write more on that in a little while. I want to back up a bit and provide some context for my experiences with Garland. And please remember that these are my experiences, filtered through the lenses of time and memory. Others had very different experiences and relationships with Garland; these are mine.

March, 1984. I was in Minneapolis for a job interview. The Guthrie was hiring a Lighting Supervisor and I was interested, sort of. The caveat was that I wanted to be a designer, not a supervisor. The only thing I remember from that trip (ok, aside from the fact that it was a lot colder than Boston) was Garland’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The scenery was WHITE. It turns out that Garland had designed the scenery and his friend and colleague, Craig Miller, was the lighting designer chosen to deal with all that whiteness. The production was beautiful; it was well directed and well acted, and then it was over and I didn’t give it another thought. I should have been paying more attention because that was not my last encounter with a Garland Wright production and the attention to detail that his work demanded.

Fast-forward a year to February 1985. Garland was back to direct Anything Goes, a massive undertaking that pushed everyone’s limits. That was my first time sitting in the theater with Garland; Craig Miller was back to light the show. It was during that tech process that Craig told me that he would light anything that Garland asked him to design. I was paying more attention but still didn’t see the brilliance of that quiet chain-smoker. It was Anything Goes, after all, not Waiting for Godot.

That would change soon enough, because by the spring of 1987, Garland was our new Artistic Director and directing both The Misanthrope and Piggy Bank. While the latter was an excellent production, the former was a brilliant production. I maintain that most people missed Garland’s point as to who, exactly, was the misanthrope. But maybe I’m the one who missed the point. Either way, it was brilliantly acted and directed and was visually stunning. More importantly, it all fit together; every choice was intentional.

And this is the production that taught me how Garland worked in technical rehearsals. It was a process unlike any I had experienced in my young career and to this day, I have not experienced a similar process. We all started at the top of the show and worked through, moment-by-moment. We stopped for everything, and I do mean everything. If a costume needed to be adjusted, we would stop. If a light cue was not timing out properly, we would re-do the moment as many times as it took to get it right. Sound cues would be edited (these were the days of reel-to-reel tape decks) while we all worked or waited. It didn’t matter; we simply did not proceed until the moment was right. Garland did not waste that time – while designers and technicians worked, Garland would be on stage, working with the actors. That was the essential truth of Garland’s work: there was always more to do. It could always be better.

That made for an atmosphere, in the theater, that was churchlike when things were going well but far more stressful when they weren’t. The stress could be overwhelming because with Garland, the stakes were always extremely high. I knew very few people who were not trying as hard as they could to not disappoint that man.

It took me almost 10 years to finally relax enough, in his presence, to have a real conversation. Until then I would listen but not speak very often, for fear of revealing myself to be an idiot. After a while I began to understand that most of us, if we were to compare ourselves to Garland, would have felt similarly inadequate. So the comparison was not useful.

I was fortunate enough to design several productions for Garland. I always looked forward to the first day of rehearsal, when he would explain to his actors (and the rest of us) his reasons for choosing that particular play. But my fondest memories of working with Garland (and where I learned the most) were the “designer dinners.” Garland did not like to talk in his office. Those were almost always brief meetings about the business of making theater. The talks about the art were almost always in a restaurant. Our dinner meeting, at the Monte Carlo, about A Woman of No Importance (1994) was unforgettable. I had read the play, of course, but was essentially a blank slate going into that dinner meeting.  After listening to Garland talk, for at least 20 minutes, about his reasons for choosing that play at that time, I knew that I was in the presence of something very special. He spoke of the closeting of Mrs. Arbuthnot and how it spoke to the lives of the gay community in the U.S. in 1993. I can’t begin to do him justice so I’ll not try. I was overwhelmed with his ability to articulate a relevance that I just did not see when I read that play. When I finally spoke, I told him that I felt rather foolish for not having seen that in the play. He smiled and said something like “Well, how could you?” There was a kindness and generosity in that simple comment that I will never forget. And that’s when I learned that Garland was intentional about absolutely everything.

He made most of his choices for the benefit of his community. He wrote, more than once, that all theater is political. His play choices reflected that, with very few exceptions. His company reflected that… and his staging reflected that. There’s a moment, during the tech of Marat/Sade (January, 1992) that I’ll never forget.  James Williams had a powerful monologue that he was delivering brilliantly. I want to say that it was the speech about the thin veneer of civilization… but 1992 was a long, long time ago. Garland suddenly changed James’ location for that speech, something he rarely did on that particular show. He later explained that he wanted J.W. to be directly in front of the Star Tribune reviewer when he delivered those important lines.

Yes, Garland wanted a company and yes, he chose projects (The History Plays, 1990, for example) for the benefit of his company. But a company was vital to the level of theater Garland was always trying to create. And that has everything to do with the community Garland was trying to educate.

Garland was always, to quote a colleague, the “smartest person in the room.” That isolated him in ways that frustrated all of us, Garland more than anyone else. He was also an intensely private person, which made him very hard to read. My first design for Garland was The Imaginary Invalid in June, 1988. I was still a fairly young designer and appropriately insecure, so I asked him for feedback while on a break. He just said, over his shoulder, something like “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when I don’t like something.” And that was it.

It was a little later when he asked me to design for him again and I, like an idiot, made a comment about the fact that I knew he had asked either Jennifer Tipton or Jim Ingalls to light the show and she (or he) wasn’t available. My implication was that I knew that I was a second choice. He gave me that stare (with those pale blue eyes that could cut through steel) and said simply “I don’t do mercy fucks.” That’s when I decided that it was more than ok to come in just behind Jennifer or Jim in the “favorite lighting designer” contest.

And as proof that Garland was human and occasionally made a choice that was less than ideal, there’s the design for Hamlet (1988). The scenic design (by Doug Stein) included a very large trap / elevator that was covered with subway grating. The idea was that there would be scenes that were lit only from below, so there was as much wattage as we could cram into the Guthrie’s trap room.  The first time that Jim (Ingalls) turned on all those lights, everyone in the room looked up at the now obscenely ugly “temporary” lighting grid that had been there for at least five years. And the comments (or quiet thoughts) ranged from “ugh” to “holy shit, that’s ugly.”  That’s also the show that taught me not to give the director the “history of dimmer seven.” They don’t care.

One thing Garland told me, early on, was that if he could, he would direct only musical theater.  It was his sense of responsibility to his community that prevented that, of course. I like musical theater as much as the next person but I am very grateful that Garland did not go down that road very often. The work that we (all of us at the Guthrie from 1984 to 1995) did was work that many people will never forget. The Imaginary Invalid was one of the funniest and smartest productions I’ve ever seen. Uncle Vanya (1989) was beautifully human, The History Plays were monumental; a defining moment in the careers of so many theatre artists.

And then there were the plays that Garland curated. They are far too numerous to mention here, with one exception. Joann Akalaitis’ direction of The Screens (1990) is perhaps the most legendary of all Guthrie productions, along with The History Plays. Selfishly, I am very grateful to Garland for pairing me with Dominique Serrand on the stunning 1993 production of The Triumph of Love. I learned a new way of approaching design while working with Dominique. That opportunity was a gift that led to a collaborative partnership that has lasted more than 25 years. Thanks, Garland. I miss you.

Wu Chen Recommends...Petra

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Petra by Marianna Coppo

My older kid found this book amidst the stacks at our neighbourhood library and insisted it was included in those we borrowed. It’s due to be returned very soon, but I’m so very glad that they found it.

As an ode to the imagination, to dreams, to self-esteem, to positivity, and to joy, it is a sublime and wondrous experience. Marianna Coppo’s sparse, simple and potent words are enhanced by illustrations that are beautifully framed, effective and narrative-rich in themselves. At the same time, it could also be read as a call to capitulation and passivity in the face of overwhelming force: it’s all in how you choose to present it.

For that reason alone, it’s worth reading and considering how one would present this book to another - especially a young and impressionable another.

Petra at the Hennepin County Library:

Theater Arts Sustainability: Part II



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

Part 1 can be found here.


Welcome back to the discussion about how to be more environmentally conscious while doing what you love! Previously I touched on applying the motto “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle” to help analyze your everyday workflow. In this part of the article I will dive deeper into some specific things that can or already are being done by local theater organizations from the very beginning of creating a performance through what happens after the show closes. The list is in no way comprehensive and I encourage you to dig deeper and seek more information that fits your creative area and your geographic area.

Concept design/Load in

I once worked as an assistant to a lighting designer who was fully digital. There was no paper at the tech table, not even a notepad. I called focus by scrolling around and marking a PDF of the plot on my iPad with Lightwright open on my laptop. All paperwork was digital, including the score. To be honest I was concerned that the technology will fail. What’s worse than losing your script with all cues pre-marked in it mid tech? The designer however was used to that workflow and had tricks to backup a lot of the data. The show went up without a hitch. Of course I had to print paper copies to hand out to my spotlight operators, but can you imagine a time when they would have a tablet as part of their light and it would sync to the tech table and reflect changes in real time? Another lighting designer I know has developed the Cuelist app that makes a show script a shared editable online document between the designers and stage management. The app provides environmental benefits as well as simplifies communication.

Theater folks are always resourceful when it comes to finding set pieces or furniture. We are great at making something out of nothing due to budget/time/personnel or other constraints. When my school participated in the Edinburgh Fringe festival we traveled with an inflatable couch and arm chairs. I made fabric covers for them to pass as “real furniture”. We also had to have a big boulder that the two actors building an Egyptian pyramid in a David Ives skit could sit on. Luggage size constrained a lot of options and I ended up making a clever foldable cardboard contraption. Having a hard time finding affordable materials or furniture? Check out this huge list of MSP area thrift stores.

Minnesota arts market seems like a one stop shop for all sorts of things, but I believe you need an account to see the listings.

The Twin Cities Theater Community facebook page is a random compilation of job postings, general information and show promotions. It may also be a way to connect with local folks who may have rentable props or scenic pieces. I believe a few years ago several high schools and community theaters were doing Shrek and getting a dragon puppet was a challenge.

If it’s an obscure item or something normally very expensive, Craigslist and Goodwill online may help. A recent feature on Facebook called Marketplace functions like Craigslist. One can set a distance they are willing to travel to get the item and it limits the search results. Another similar service is Freecycle Network.

As far as lumber goes, it may not always be possible or convenient to use reclaimed wood. Sometimes “new” lumber is required. If such is the case, the origin of the lumber can be considered as minimal transportation saves other resources. Forestry Stewardship council logo also ensures that the trees were cut down in a manner that brought the least disruption to the forest as well as the animals. A local business called Wood from the Hood has a wide selection of lumber they harvest from the area and transform into flooring and furniture. They may be a good resource for specialty lumber that didn’t travel very far.

I’ve touched on modular sets before. Standard pieces that can be rearranged to create a new look may still not work for every show. Construction methods can be key to making the most use of the lumber. Screws and metal fasteners make things easier to disassemble than wood glue.

Odds and ends as well as occasional lumber can be found at one of the local ReStore shops:

They also have a selection of Amazon recycled latex paint. (Not affiliated with the mega giant Amazon internet store)

University of Minnesota Reuse Program is open to general public on certain days and they usually have a plethora of normal office furniture as well as quirky things like science tools, sports gear, fake plants and an occasional lighting instrument or a piano.

Costume mockups can be constructed out of thrift store sheets. While bamboo and organic cotton fabrics are the most sustainable, new they are not economically feasible for theaters. There’s no simple answer to fabric dyeing either. Some dyes are considered natural, however the chemicals used to set them can still be harmful. MSDS sheets are critical in showing employees the dangers they may be exposed to as well as educating how to properly dispose of the substance.

The future of incandescent lighting is a little clearer but still uncertain after the EU has made some progress in figuring out which lamps it will ban since I wrote Part 1.  Just the other day I saw an article that outlines a ban on halogen fixtures, which means MR16s will stop being made in Europe starting September 1st making fixtures obsolete. Some Par 56s are also being phased out everywhere. The latest updates on what is happening in the lighting scene in Europe can be found on Save Stage Lighting site. How soon with this be affecting the US?


Running a show

I’m having a hard time convincing my coworkers to use reusable plates, cups and silverware while at the theater. We work in a building with adequate access to kitchen sinks and community dishes and forks yet the disposable silverware is easy to grab and toss minutes later.  I have found takeout food containers online the same size as the throwaway ones at our café. It’s been over a year and the same containers (plastic, but #5 Recyclable) are still going strong. Using my own cups and the containers I can speculate I have prevented several large garbage bags from making it to the downtown incinerator. I’ve reached out to our café about a 5 cent discount on coffee with a reusable cup. They are considering it.

This spring we did a show where for every performance I had to use two 9v batteries. The rechargeable kind didn’t last as long as the show needed so I ended up with a pile of used up disposable batteries. Minneapolis has collection sites for small batteries. Lead acid batteries are the hardest to deal with but some metal scrap yards take them and may give you a few cents for them. Batteries Plus takes them too. Through all my research I couldn’t figure out exactly how much of the material gets recovered. I remembered seeing a battery collection bucket backstage at the Ordway, which prompted me to do more research about places that can recover 100% of the material. Battery Solutions in Michigan claims to do just that and it also employs a lot of human sorters. Their services are not free, but they make the logistics of collecting and mailing back as easy as possible. Even though they process tons of used up batteries, the overall recycled quantity is much smaller than what ends up leaching chemicals in landfills.

Dry cleaning process is considered a hazard to the workers who operate the machines and can cause respiratory and neurological issues. After use the chemicals have to be transported offsite or processed on site. Accidental or intentional release of chemicals into the environment has been reported all over the country when the chemicals show up in groundwater. Is it possible to design costumes that do not require dry cleaning? Can maintenance of the garment be as important as the look and function?

I’m constantly reading environmentally centered articles and it took me a while to get to the nitty gritty of microplastic pollution of water sources.  By now most of the world is aware that microbeads in shower soaps are horrible for the ocean, but not everyone connects the dots that just by washing a fleece sweater we dump a million synthetic (plastic) particles into the water. Treatment facilities are not able to filter them out because they are so small. They end up in our lakes, rivers and eventually in the ocean causing algae blooms and killing fish the whole way there. I’ve purchased a couple Guppiefriend washing bags for my synthetic clothing. They really do work. The lint accumulates on the inside of the bag and I can dispose of it in the trash rather than water. The price tag may not be for everyone, but it’s a worthy investment for frequent laundry.

Audiences these days are so careless with their free programs and playbills. I’ve rarely wanted to hang on to mine after the show, so I usually recycle. Many people just leave them on the floor by their seats along with other garbage. I’ve seen LatteDa set out baskets marked with signs to place programs into at the exit. It seems like these days audiences need some extra education when it comes to etiquette. You can be spending a lot of money to see Hamilton and the people next to you are eating loudly or ignorantly playing on their phones the whole show. If you don’t ask your audience to be mindful of the physical resources or the time it takes to clean up the auditorium after a show, they may never even have a second thought about it.



Most regional theater isn’t destined to tour. A question of disposal of props and scenery is inevitable. If the items cannot be donated back to where they came from, they must find a way to disappear, as storage space is too expensive. The Guthrie Theater has been using Atomic recycling for about 7 years now. This local service costs a little bit more than the dumpster that would end up in a landfill. Atomic manages to separate out and recycle about 72% of mixed construction garbage they receive. There is an opportunity to receive some money back if you are disposing of steel or other valuable materials. No hazardous waste is accepted.

Local collection sites accept a huge variety of materials for recycling, including pollutants and toxic chemicals. City of Minneapolis provides a disposal guide:

Hennepin county website is also a great resource to figure out what to do with common items including textiles, wood and appliances.

The site mentions that “the county collected nearly 130,000 gallons of paint for recycling in 2017” and that paint was made available for purchase through the Amazon Paint program.

Do you have something in your theater or office that stopped working and you don’t know how to fix it? Before tossing it, check when the next Fix-It clinic is on the Hennepin Environment site Volunteers who specialize in troubleshooting household items may be able to find the issue. The next one at the time of writing is September 8th noon-4 at Brookdale library. Not all broken items are trash!

There are a lot of resources out there to help manage waste. I am a strong believer that no matter how good we are at disposing of or recycling materials the best option is always to reuse or get creative enough to use less in the first place. No recycling process is waste free.  While creating I urge you to ask how does each piece contribute to telling the story. And if there’s no sure answer, is that thing worth using our limited resources?

Create art, not waste.

Workplace Violence in the Theatre – Setting a Standard of Safety


circle community on stage.jpg

I first met Rebecca in 2008. She was the charge painter for an event for which I was the house electrician. When she moved to town a couple of years later, it was a terrific addition to the Twin Cities community. Rebecca is now an Industrial Hygienist for 3M, but she’s remained close to the Performing Arts community, and her powerful and informed interest in safety on the job ought to be an inspiration for us all. A brilliant person with that rare intellect that cuts right to the heart of any matter while still remaining very cognizant of pragmatic concerns, Rebecca is the kind of person we should all have been paying more attention to long ago. —Wu Chen


One day early in my undergraduate career, I was working in the scene shop with some graduate technical direction students, all of whom happened to be men in their early twenties.  I was doing some very basic scenic construction for build crew, and they were doing more advanced, complicated scenic engineering and construction and, nominally, supervising the shop.  And they were talking, laughing, and joking around with each other in the way that fellow-students do.

Their conversation was disgusting.  

I will not relate the gory details, but suffice it to say that it was about activities of a highly explicitly sexual nature, and incredibly demeaning toward women.  I want to be clear: they weren't talking to me, about me, or at me. I'm not sure they even remembered I was in the room. I certainly wasn't calling attention to myself.  Since most of my "theatrical colleagues" prior to that had included mainly parents, fellow high school girls, and our recently "out" boy bffs, this was the first time I had been privy to a discussion on these themes that was quite so graphic.  

And at the time, I didn't recognize it as harassment, or aggression, or even inappropriate.  I knew they were "being gross," and that I was probably a "prude" to be icked-out by it instead of thinking it was funny, and I figured if I dared utter any objection I would be laughed off the face of the planet and ostracized for the rest of college (it's possible I was a little overly dramatic in my predictions).  So it didn't even occur to me to say anything. But it turned out I was not the only one who heard. After a little while, our professor (their advisor) came out of his office, where he'd apparently been listening as well. He gently asked me to take a break out on the porch, and after I left he let them HAVE IT (I don't think he or they realized I could still hear the confrontation).   He gave them one of the most cutting and poignant lectures I've ever heard on appropriate conduct in the workplace and the duty and respect they owed the institution, their fellow students, and themselves, and to this day I look up to that professor as a model of integrity and respect.

This is one minor example of the ways our behaviors in the workplace can negatively affect our colleagues without our intention, or even awareness.  After this incident I felt a little shy and uncomfortable around those graduate students, worried they resented or scorned me for being the nominal reason they got chewed out (although it probably would have happened if any undergrad had been present).  Later, this discomfort and lack of trust discouraged me from asking for help when I was doing a metal construction project for one of them, and felt unsure and inadequately trained performing the tasks required of me.  As a result, I set my jeans on fire with a welding torch and dislocated my jaw with a drill.

The fact is that discrimination, harassment, bullying—all these behaviors that erode trust and confidence in the workplace, are examples of what is termed workplace violence. These behaviors can impair a not only a worker's mental and emotional health, but also their physical health and safety. Fear of ridicule and retaliation for speaking out, as well as discomfort from the violence itself, have the run-off effect of discouraging employees from voicing other health and safety concerns, thus exposing them and others who work with them to greater risk of injury and illness.  And while many of us entered the theatre profession as a haven of camaraderie and creativity, where you could be yourself and be accepted and valued, this profession is not immune from the effects of workplace violence.

Research has shown that not only do workers who face workplace violence have higher rates of seemingly non-occupationally related health problems than their peers who do not, they are also more likely to have directly work-related injuries and illnesses as well (Brown et al., 2011; Okechukwu, Souza, Davis, & de Castro, 2014; Rospenda, Richman, Ehmke, & Zlatoper, 2005).  This is likely exacerbated by theatre's atmosphere of casual acceptance, which tends to be much more permissive of behaviors that would be frowned upon in other professions.  It's a problem.  Really. I'm not making this stuff up.  This problem of workplace violence in theatre is likely also compounded by what proponents call the "gig economy," and academics like me call "insecure employment status."  The uncertainty of one's future employment has a big enough impact on one's willingness to speak out against a physically unsafe environment; a culture of aggression further eroding trust in the employer is one more nail in the coffin of workers’ well-being.

While OSHA does not yet have any standards explicitly referring to violence in the workplace, these topics are covered by the general duty clause, and there are letters of interpretation that state the employer's responsibility to provide a workplace free of harassment, aggression, discrimination, and other forms of violence. You have the right to a workplace free of these behaviors, and employers need to be better at enforcing this right.

In four years of college/summer stock theatre and ten years of professional theatre, here is a non-exhaustive list of groups of people I have heard and seen to be openly harassed, ridiculed, hazed, and insulted, either directly (to their faces) or indirectly (behind their backs) on the basis of the respective categories:

  • Women
  • African Americans
  • Interns / Apprentices
  • High school students
  • Undergraduate Students
  • Graduate Students
  • Latino/as
  • Mothers (as distinct from "women")
  • Non-English speakers
  • Americans
  • Homosexuals and others on the LGBTQX spectra
  • Physically and mentally disabled persons
  • Asians
  • "Independent contractors"
  • Union members
  • Yale alumni
  • Alumni of places that are not Yale
  • Senior citizens
  • Non-union employees
  • Performers
  • Non-performers

Do you see a theme here?  I know in this sort of article it seems like cis-hetero white men typically get stuck holding the "privilege bag," but I've witnessed plenty of hazing or other kinds of abuse directed at them as soon as they fall into one of the categories like "students," "interns," or "non-union members."  Pretty much every person has at some time, in some way, because of some trait they don't really have control over, been bullied, hazed, or otherwise exposed to workplace violence.  And that violence, either directly or indirectly, makes us all less safe, and less focused on the mission of our work.

I wish I could say I have never participated in anything resembling aggression towards anyone else in my workplace, but it would be a lie.  And I think that's true for everyone, at some point. We're young, inexperienced, self-absorbed, thoughtless, or simply unobservant. But we grow up.  We learn about the world, and our art, we get hurt, we realize ways we hurt others. We might have children, or our own interns, apprentices, students, or subordinate employees.  We can start to notice the ways people might behave toward them that would make them less safe. And that's the time when it's really, really important for us, as relative "adults" in the industry, to set the standard of behavior that will guarantee everyone a safe workplace, in every sense of the word.  And it's important that this is not just lip service.  We have to really try to live it. The incoming generation will internalize and adopt the practices we demonstrate, regardless of what is officially said.

The graduate students who got chewed out that day in the scene shop all graduated and went on to be credits to their training and profession.  I know from social media that at least some of them are devoted husbands and fathers, teachers, bosses, and otherwise loving, compassionate human beings that don't want to make anyone feel less-than.  They would be the first to defend anyone they witnessed receiving violence in their workplaces.

A former classmate of mine recently shared an experience from the children’s theatre workshop she teaches, in which a child with selective mutism became so comfortable, supported, and safe in the workshop environment that during the final performance she was able to speak aloud (1).  I think most of us read the account of the Children’s Theatre’s performance of Harold and the Purple Crayon that drew an autistic student out of his world and made him so safe that it allowed him to temporarily connect with his teacher and classmates for the first time (2).  This is the power of theatre.  This is the power of art. It’s completely possible to make it an environment that’s safe for all of us as well as our audience, and it’s our responsibility to do it.  


Peer-reviewed sources:

Brown, L. P., Rospenda, K. M., Sokas, R. K., Conroy, L., Freels, S., & Swanson, N. G. (2011). Evaluating the Association of Workplace Psychosocial Stressors with Occupational Injury, Illness, and Assault. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 8(1), 31-37. doi:10.1080/15459624.2011.537985

Okechukwu, C. A., Souza, K., Davis, K. D., & de Castro, A. B. (2014). Discrimination, harassment, abuse, and bullying in the workplace: Contribution of workplace injustice to occupational health disparities. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 57(5), 573-586. doi:doi:10.1002/ajim.22221

Rospenda, K., Richman, J., Ehmke, J., & Zlatoper, K. (2005). Is Workplace Harassment Hazardous to Your Health? Journal of Business & Psychology, 20(1), 95-110. doi:10.1007/s10869-005-6992-y

20 Years of Seismic Change in Theater Lighting


  Lion in Winter , Guthrie Theatre 2017, Lighting Design by Clifton Taylor

Lion in Winter, Guthrie Theatre 2017, Lighting Design by Clifton Taylor

I have known Andrew Sullivan since the early 90s when he worked at the Fitzgerald Theater and I was designing Penumbra’s production of Black Nativity which performed there, and I have always had a great deal of respect for his work ethic and attention to detail.  As the longtime master electrician at the Guthrie. He has seen may technological changes in the lighting world and writes about many of them here. One aspect of these changes which he discusses, and which I think about a lot, is the idea that with the increasing complexity of lighting design and equipment, the entire lighting team should be viewed as active and valued collaborators in the process, not just cogs in the machine. - Mike Wangen


From 1978 to 1998, there were maybe 3 or 4 seismic changes in lighting – DMX 512 as a standard protocol, moving lights, and scrollers are three that come to mind.

But from 1998 to 2018, we’ve easily had 14 or more seismic changes -- major leaps forward in terms of the flexibility, power and creative potential of the tools of our trade.

To narrow this revolution down to a few of the most important ones, I reflected on the most interesting, challenging, and eye-opening projects we’ve undertaken at the Guthrie Theatre, where I’ve had the pleasure and honor of serving as the master electrician since 1998.

The lighting department at the Guthrie, I’m proud to say, is recognized as one of the top teams of its kind. Designers such as Jennifer Tipton, Jane Cox, and Bradley King regularly tell us we’re the kind of team that helps them take their vision and turn it into reality. They come to us with an intention, and we apply our experience and skills to make it happen.

Before going further, I need to recognize the team with such creativity, professionalism and intelligence: Tom Mays, Ryan Connealy, master programmers Steph Richards and Angelina Vyushkova, video master/rigging specialist Owen Moldow, and two senior overhires, Andy Kedle and Paul “The Master” Epton. I also want to mention past staffers Marcus Dillard, Bill Devins, and Mitch Baird – I still use every day things I learned from all of them.

But enough about us: Let’s talk tech.

My picks for the biggest three changes in theater lighting of the past 20 years are:

  1. Light boards

  2. Networking capabilities

  3. LEDs (light emitting diodes)


Light boards

“Back in MY day,” I might say in my annoying grandpa voice, “light boards were little more than glorified word processors.”

Some of you might not even know what that means, but before computers did, well, everything, you could get a separate machine that was sort of like a typewriter with a screen attached, which could handle basic word processing. And this was considered a Big Deal.

The light boards of the early 1990s are to today’s boards what word processors are to your Macbook Air. Yes, you can use them to complete many of the same tasks, but there’s really no comparison.

Some of the ways today’s light boards have redefined how we work include:

  • Scale and capacity: Today’s boards can handle far more lights than before. We used to need two boards to handle big shows – one for conventional and one for moving lights – and now we can do everything we need on a single board.
  • Software upgrades: The ability to update the system without buying new equipment is new and gives us greater flexibility than before. With boards of previous generations, we were stuck with a single operating system until and unless we purchased a new board; today we get regular updates (which we can choose to implement or ignore if we don’t particularly want that upgrade).
  • Flexibility and power: Boards have increased capacity not just in the number of lights they control but the number of universes they can manage. Once upon a time, a universe of 512 circuits was big. Today we can control 42 universes on each of our three boards.

With faster systems updates, greater capacity and increased flexibility on our boards, we have so much more precision in how we manage the equipment. For moving lights, for example, we can take each of the different attributes, such as color, speed and level, and manage them on 50 different addresses. But all of those addresses only need one channel.

The move from hardware-based systems to software-based systems also keeps us ahead of the game. When vendors make incremental improvements, those are available to us right away. We don’t have to wait for (and invest in) major upgrades every few years.

Networking capabilities

In 2003, the Guthrie Theatre broke ground on its state-of-the-art facility overlooking the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. The chance to help plan and implement lighting systems from scratch has been a highlight of my career. By the time the building opened in 2006, we had all learned a lot about the latest technology (at the time), and the complexity of making decisions we knew were going to influence how the department operated for a long time to come.

One of the decisions that was challenging and somewhat risky at the time was when the design engineers opted to put the whole facility on a POE (power over ethernet) network. The standard, proven option at the time was to install a system of DMX lines to handle all equipment wiring.

We took a risk at that time, and I have to say the results have been fantastic. Freed from physical wiring, we can now place and control a unit pretty much anywhere in the building with complete flexibility. If we have a node with two ports, we can address each of those nodes to any universe we want.

The best example I can offer for the importance of this capability is how we’ve applied it to lighting a cyc. Say we’ve got a cyc light that has 15 addresses for each light. Twenty of these lights will take up 350 addresses, which is almost a whole universe. So, we switch one node to a particular universe – we always use universe 7 – easy organization, easy management.

Networking has also enabled us to develop much more quickly in advanced use of video in our productions, which, frankly, we weren’t even thinking much about back in 2005.

As with any maturing technology, networking presented us with a few bumps along the way. In 2010, we experienced what’s known as a cascade failure in our proscenium space. Basically, this was a “network storm” which caused us to lose all communication between the board, the dimmers and all nodes. During a performance. Let’s say it made a headline in the performance report the next day.

It turned out that the flaw was partially due to the use of high-end consumer network switches in the network system, which proved to be inadequate to the task. We upgraded to commercial-grade switches, and the problem hasn’t been repeated.


So far, I’ve talked about the behind-the-scenes stuff that gets insiders excited. Now let’s talk about a major change that dazzles the audience: LEDs.

In 2008, we mounted a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Titania rode onstage in a human-sized Faberge egg. When it opened, the entire interior twinkled with lights.

In 2016, the skies over South Pacific sparkled through a light-up canopy.

In 2017, our production of Lion in Winter featured a two-level set with a total of about 250 candles divided across the levels, each controlled individually.

In 2018, for West Side Story, we built a 12-foot diameter moon box, incorporating 85 meters of white LED tape. We also used over 850 feet of RGBW LED tape to achieve set effects.

Twenty years ago, these effects would have been impossible to achieve. Today I don’t have to worry about heat or wattage, and with the right equipment I have a broad range of colors to work with. Advancement in LEDs is what has made the difference.

In 1998, we were using scrollers for many of these types of effects. In fact, we still have 100 scrollers in our inventory, and we still use them as conventional lights.

Our inventory of LED units includes:

  • 32 Lustr Series 2
  • 5 Solaframe Theatres
  • 8 Solawash 2000.

They are bright, high quality, and offer hundreds of colors you can access instantaneously. In fact, we’ve run into some problems because they are brighter than our 12-year-old follow spots - we might have to replace those to keep up.

One of the things I find interesting about the emergence and maturity of LED technology is that I’m learning from sources beyond the theater world. For Lion in Winter, we were presented with this challenge:

  • 250 candles
  • They have to be controlled individually
  • The set rotates .

Interesting, right? And probably impossible, even just 10 years ago.

I started doing some research on YouTube. After catching up with Dr. Pimple Popper, I found videos uploaded by home lighting enthusiasts -- these folks are amazing, and boy do they have some free time and disposable income!

Home lighting enthusiasts set up elaborate light shows, often synched to video or music, and they’re very serious about their equipment. In addition to sharing videos of the finished product, they often post “how I did it” videos. They comment on each other’s work and swap ideas.

I found a few examples where they used pixelated LED strings. On these strings, each pixel can be mapped to RGB or a single color option that can chase, blink, flash or… make a candle flicker.

After a bit of research, I found a company in California called Environmental Lighting, which manufactures these lights. The biggest issue we had was that our environment was a little different than a home setup. We needed equipment that could accommodate a 2-foot gap from one source to another, but the standard (for home use) is up to 9 inches.

We purchased the equipment and then spent a solid week cutting and soldering the strings together to adapt them to our needs. That meant 2,000 solder points (not that we were counting or anything). We then placed the strings on two levels of the set and controlled each level with a separate universe. It was powered with three cables -- 2 DMX and one 20-amp circuit.

Gorgeous. Really. Check out the video with the lighting designer, Clifton Taylor, which includes clips about how we did the candles and the final effect:

Sometimes electricians from smaller theaters think, “Yeah, the Guthrie, that’s fine for them; they have they budget and the manpower for this kind of thing.” But the beauty of today’s technology is that this stuff is really accessible - you could create the same effect for about $150.

Say your production needed an altar with 25 or 30 candles on it. You could purchase the materials to craft them to be individually controlled for less than $150, plus maybe a week of labor. Joe Blow in Anoka, Minnesota is busy creating amazing light shows at home, controlled by his laptop. You can do the same.

What’s next?

I’ve been in this business all my life, and there’s always something new coming, another way of creating amazing lighting for theater. There’s a lot more I could have talked about, starting with video, which has transformed our work at the Guthrie.

At the same time, there are lots of things that don’t change. We still do cardboards. I still plan out all my prep and circuiting on 5x7 legal pads. As the kids tell me, at heart I’m an analog guy.

Wu Chen Recommends...Up and Atom

I always enjoy a good science and maths podcast, and Up and Atom by Jade Tan-Holmes is, in my opinion, among the best. She engagingly presents a wide array of complex material in a very digestible, understandable form. Recently, she has started doing slightly longer-form videos and they are excellent. Her piece on the Four-Colour Theorem (something that’s very near and dear to my heart) covered not only the mathematics proper, but also some of the history and the philosophy of mathematics and epistemology that the eventual [spoiler alert!] proof affected. Top-notch stuff.

Some of my favourites:

Math, When Are You Going To Use It?

When To Think Less (according to Math)

Why This is One of the Most Controversial Math Proofs (the Four Color Theorem)

Wu Chen Recommends...Animal Upon Animal

animal upon animal.jpg

I’m a gamer. I’ve played all manner of games - electronic and tabletop - most of my life, with varying degrees of competitive seriousness. It is still my primary social activity, and Kristin and I play a lot of games together.

Our kids have recently started to express interest in board games, so we’ve been exploring options as to how we best play with them in an engaging, fun, and positive manner. It’s been really wonderful: they’re learning how to take turns, how to deal with adversity, how to be competitive in a positive way, and it has really improved their focus and attention span. We’re learning how to talk positively about conflict, competition and adversity, as well as how to trash talk in a positive way.

One of the pieces of the puzzle has been figuring out which games to play when, and how. Haba Games’ Animal Upon Animal has been a wonderful game for Teng Jin. It’s a fun game in which each player has a selection of animal-shaped pieces to stack, with additional handicaps randomly provided through dice rolls. The pieces are easy to handle and also plenty of fun as make-believe toys to kill time between turns.

The game concept is simple to grasp (even for a toddler), and they are able to do quite well yet the game is genuinely engaging and competitive for an adult with the variety of shapes making for interesting tactical and strategic decisions. We often play this game with just adults and have a terrific time doing it.

If you’re looking for a fun game that really does work with all ages, this is a great candidate.

Haba Games’ Animal Upon Animal on Boardgamegeek.

Haba Games’ Animal Upon Animal for sale.

P.s. we play that the “skip turn” die result means “use your less dominant hand” as having your turn skipped is just plain no fun for a toddler.

Throwing Light on the Playwright’s Words

ARTICLE BY Mike Wangen

(originally written for Minnesota Playlist in 2012)


  As a lighting designer, when I read a play for the first time, I want the words to wash over me, to create an emotional response that I, as a visual artist, can tap into and explore.  I’m not interested in concrete details such as time of day, lamps turning on or off, or rainy days. Those details come later. What I want to explore is the message the writer is trying to convey through his choice of words.

  Theater is a collaborative art form and the relationship between director and designers is well known and recognized.  What I feel is often taken for granted are the words themselves. Who writes these things and why? I have had a longstanding friendship with several playwrights and through them have developed a much richer understanding of their art.  For without them there would be nothing for me to light. They are wordsmiths and what they put down on paper is precisely crafted for specific effect. To treat these words lightly does a disservice to their work. As I read I look for the poetry and music in their words.  A good play flows like an extended piece of music with natural ebbs and flows and a recognizable rhythmic structure. I want my lighting to follow that structure, to reinforce those emotional highs and lows.

  A close friend of mine, a prominent writer, has told me that after working together on a number of productions, he can no longer write without thinking about the way the lighting will affect his work.  He includes it in his thoughts. This is the discussion I want to have with the writer, the interlocking of ideas which play off each other and ultimately build to a crescendo which washes over the audience.  This is not limited to lighting design of course. All the design elements need to combine in this way to create a greater whole. I have seen set designs which seem to give off physical vibrations of strength, power, and meaning by their simple existence, before the play even starts.

 A number of years ago I was involved in a production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, directed by Marion McClinton.  During one of Doaker’s monologues we were able to pull down into an almost Shakespearean spot on him without the audience being consciously aware of it through the set design which included a small window at the top of a stairway looking onto the lower landing which served as Doaker’s podium.  With moonlight streaming through the window, we were able to, over the course of several minutes, bring the lights down everywhere else; culminating, through the power of August’s words, the stark moonlight, the strong lines of the set, and the actor’s dramatic reading; a moment of sublime theatrical art.  This was all motivated through the poetry of August’s writing and our willingness to give ourselves over to it. I heard several years later that August considered it one of the finest productions of that piece that he had ever seen.

  Playwriting is not the same as writing a novel.  The writer puts it out there for actors to perform, audiences to react to, and directors and designers to amplify.  It is a living thing and I’m very proud to be a part of it. I want the playwright to understand that I’m here in service to his or her words, not just to turn on the lamps, or create a spectacular sunset which has the audience oohing and aahing.  It’s surprisingly easy to create spectacle these days, to create a piece of collaborative art is much harder. It all begins with the words.

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.