Zen and the Art of Tape Editing

Article by Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards is best known these days as the head of the Guthrie sound department and a very accomplished sound designer. I first met him in the early ’90s at Penumbra Theatre where he was, indeed, putting together sound designs using two or more reel-to-reel tape decks and multiple cassette decks to create complex soundscapes. In this article, he shows us that even though we may have fond memories of the past, we should never go back. ——Mike Wangen

When I started my career in sound design, we were in the golden age of analog tape. This was in the early 1980s and tape was king. The technology had matured and the open reel tape machine was the standard recording and playback device in production audio. These days, one rarely sees or uses an analog tape machine; their use is relegated to playing back existing analog tape masters, mastering by diehard analog enthusiasts, or just gathering dust in storage closets. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, they became all but obsolete and forgotten.

Although the advent of the digital audio workstation has made my life as an audio designer much easier and productive, I do have many fond memories of thousands of hours spent editing tape. I thought I’d pass some of these on to the “digital” generation who may not have had the pleasure.

My first assignment as an intern in the audio department at the Children’s Theatre Company was to edit a “safety pancake” or “safety dub.” Now, at that point in my career, I really had no idea what that was—and not much of an idea of how to edit it either. Someone handed me a grease pencil and a razor blade and pointed me at the nearest tape machine.

Before I go any further I should explain some basic “tape” terminology:

  • Tape: The recording medium. Audio tape is a long strip of acetate plastic coated with a magnetizable compound made from ferric oxide. In the professional audio world, tape came in  ¼”, ½”, 1” and 2” widths. Generally, in a reel size of 10½”, that’s 2,500 feet of tape—or about 33 minutes at 15 inches per second (IPS).
  • Tape machine: The device used to record and playback audio tape. The three types in use are the open reel machine, cassette tape machine, and 8-track cartridge. For the purposes of this article, we will be talking about the open reel machine. The basic layout of the open reel machine has not changed since its invention in Germany by Fritz Pfleumer in 1928. It consists of two reels, side-by-side, with erase, record and playback heads, with a head stack between them. On the left is the supply reel; on the right, the take-up reel. Between the head stack and the take-up reel is the pinch roller and capstan. Tape travels from the supply reel over the heads, through the pinch roller, and capstan and is wound on the take-up reel. The reels and heads are not enclosed, such as in the case of the cassette tape or 8-track machine—hence the name “open reel.”
  • Capstan and pinch roller: The capstan is a machined cylindrical shaft directly driven by a powerful electrical motor. The pinch roller is a free-spinning, rubber-coated wheel pressed against the capstan shaft. The tape passes between the two and, when the pinch roller is pressed against the rotating capstan, it pulls the tape along. This mechanism is directly responsible for the speed of the tape and therefore must be precisely controlled, otherwise you will have variances in pitch. The supply reel motor exerts drag on the tape creating the proper tension of the tape against the heads. The take-up reel motor makes sure that there is no slack as it reels up the tape.
  • Wow and flutter: The measurement of speed variation in the tape speed.
  • Tape heads: Erase, record and playback. Tape heads are transducers that either convert electrical signals to magnetic fluctuations (or vice versa). The recording head imparts this fluctuation on the passing magnetic tape; the magnetic particles on the tape are rearranged in patterns that match the flux created by the recording head. The playback head transduces this flux pattern back into an electrical signal as the tape passes over it. The erase head is similar to the recording head, but simply realigns the magnetic particles on the tape back to their neutral state.
  • Pancake: Bulk tape wound on a hub with no reel flanges. You would purchase tape this way and then wind it onto reels when fresh tape was needed. Archives are typically stored this way also.
  • Heads out, tails out: Refers to which way a reel of tape has been wound. Heads out would be when tape has been re-wound onto the supply reel. Tails out, when wound onto the take-up reel. General practice is to store tape tails out since this reduces the effect of “print through.” That is, the magnetic flux on the tape can slightly alter or “print” on the layer below itself in the tape pack. This imprint can create a pre-echo or post-echo depending on whether it is stored heads or tails. The post echo effect is much harder to discern, so tails out is the preferred storage method.
  • Splice tape: Adhesive tape used to connect or splice two pieces of audio tape together.
  • Leader tape: Plastic or paper strip in the same size as the audio tape it is used with. Used at the head and tails of the reel to provide enough tape to wind on the reels before the audio tape starts. It’s also spliced between cuts of audio tape to demark cues. We generally used the plastic tape for the head and tails and paper tape for the cues as one could write the cue name on the paper.
  • Dub: Shortened version of the word “double” which in the audio world can mean to make a copy, add a track, re-record (over-dub) or add sound or dialog to an existing recording.
  • Safety dub: Copy of a master tape for backup purposes.
  • Scrub: Moving tape over the playback head either by hand or with a jog wheel or handle. This allows the operator to hear the audio very slowly so they can pinpoint it on the tape.
  • Editing block: Machined block of metal (much like a miter block) used to cut wood at precise angles. The block will have a longitudinal groove the width of the tape it is designed for and generally two angle slots—90 and 45 degrees—to guide a razor blade. On tape widths up to 1”, the 45° cut was preferred. The angle helped the splice transition over the tape heads without catching and tearing the splice.

Okay, back to the editing.

I had my tools and supplies to edit: Razor blade to do the actual cutting, grease pencil to mark the tape, splice tape, edit block, and leader tape. I threaded the safety dub onto the tape machine and rewound to the top of the reel. I played the tape until I heard the beginning of the first cut. The next step was to gently rock the reels back and forth or scrub the tape until you just heard the start of the audio. Now the grease pencil: make a small hash mark on the tape right over the playback head, which was the head farthest to the right on the head stack. This was the “cut” mark. Now draw the tape off the head stack pulling from both reels and press it into your edit block. Slide the tape until the mark was just to the left of the 45° guide. Now slice the tape with your (very sharp!) razor blade. Your first cut!

Now slide the tape pieces apart slightly and place the start of your leader tape into the block. Make a new 45° cut on the head of the leader tape and butt it up to the right hand piece of tape.

This is where things got a bit fuzzy for me: Did one put splice tape on both sides of the tape?

Yes, thought I!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Splice tape is only needed on the outside of the tape, the non-oxide side. I only found this out after I had finished the entire reel…

To complete a splice, you would hack a 1” piece of splice tape from a scotch tape dispenser (worked perfectly to dispense splice tape), place 1/16” or so of the splice tape on your razor blade and then using the razor blade, position the splice tape over the two pieces of tape in the block. It was important to make sure there was no gap between the two pieces you were splicing together because, if there was, the adhesive of the splice tape would be exposed and would stick to various parts of the tape path—often with disastrous or hilarious consequences, depending on your point of view.

Press down on the splice tape and pull the razor away. Smooth the joint with your finger. Now pop the completed joint out of the block. Pull about a foot of leader tape from your handy dispenser and put it in the block. Cut at the 45° angle and then splice to the left-hand piece of tape still in the block. Now you have inserted a paper leader into your reel. Write the name of the cue on it with pencil and pop the tape from the block. Use the supply and take-up reels to gently pull the tape back onto the machine.

Do all this about 40 more times and you would have completed editing the reel. I remember it taking me quite some time to do this, but after a few weeks I grew quite proficient.

The editing of music on tape needed a higher order of skill. This was truly “destructive” editing because once you committed to a cut, that was that. There was no undo option. Management of the cut sections was also a bit tricky. If you cut 20 seconds of a song, that would equal 300 inches of tape. Keeping track of outtakes consumed lots of wall space and labeling was difficult. This type of editing usually involved a function on the tape machine called “dump edit” mode. This was a way to dump the tape from the machine while playing it over the playback head but instead of it going onto the take-up reel, it dumped onto the floor. (Hence the colloquialism from the tape era, “ended up on the cutting room floor.”) To do this, you would mark your cut at the beginning of the section you wanted to dump then make your cut. Now thread the tape from the left side of the cut across the heads and through the capstan/pinch roller. Hit “dump edit” and the pinch roller would engage and start playing the tape with the tape—unconnected to the take-up reel—would stream onto the floor. When you reached your out mark, you’d mark, cut and splice the take-up reel end back on. You could either throw this excess tape away, save it, or edit it back into another section of the score. It was the analog equivalent of cut-and-paste.

Another editing skill was creating the tape loop. In sound design, this was a very important skill and something you would use on every project. Looping is a common concept: Short sound or sounds repeat over and over to create a longer sound. The term “loop” comes from creating a loop when ends of tape are spliced to beginnings. For example, say you had a 3-minute recording of crickets and you need 15 minutes to cover a scene. You would create a tape loop of the three minute cut and play it five times through. In practice, we would play the loop on one machine and record onto another machine, usually a cassette tape machine or a DAT machine.

Playing a tape loop on a tape machine was very tricky. The method is simple: splice the ends of your tape loop together to form a continuous loop of tape. Thread the tape around the supply-side tension arm, across the tape heads and through the capstan and pinch roller. To play the loop, put the machine in dump edit mode. Now the pinch roller will pull the tape across the heads and since it is a loop, it will just keep going round and round until you stop it. The tricky part is managing the amount of tape in the loop. If it was a very short loop, say three feet long, there would be no problem. The loop would not even reach the floor and would just circle around. But, three feet of tape at 15 IPS would be a sound of 2.4 seconds. Not very useful.

Now take our three minutes of crickets: At a tape speed of 15 IPS, that three minutes of crickets would be 225’ of tape! So what to do with all that tape? You can’t just let it dump on the floor as it would, in short order, snarl. The solution is to stretch that tape all the way out to form a gigantic loop. This would involve several straight mic stands to act as tape guides. The loop would go out of the sound booth, down the hall, around a stand or two, back into the booth and back to the tape machine. Occasionally we would have to go all the way out the booth window, over the theater seats, to the stage and back. Now imagine if we were mixing three or four tape loops at once! This often resulted in snarls and ruined tape if something got snagged. Storing the loops was another issue since they tended to take up a lot of wall space and would inevitably get twisted up in knots.

Contrast all this with how fast and easy it is to loop a sound file in a digital audio workstation, and you will see why tape was so quickly made obsolete in the production world. One word: Efficiency.

Now that you know a little about tape editing, go out and find a tape machine and try your hand at it. It will make you appreciate your DAW just a little bit more.

Devised Theater on a Grand Scale

Article by Sonya Berlovitz

Costumes by Sonya Berlovitz from The Miser, exhibited at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.

Costumes by Sonya Berlovitz from The Miser, exhibited at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.

I've never had the good fortune to meet Sonya Berlovitz—but I have had the good fortune to see some of her work with companies like Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater and, of course, Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Her costumes are sumptuous and joyful—the word that comes to mind is “bright,” although not always because they use bold colors. Her costumes, like their creator, are intelligent, animated and clear, and Sonya's love for her trade is clear in this essay. —Matthew Foster

I love the chance to develop costume designs in rehearsal. It's a laboratory, a place I am free to fail without recrimination. It presents the perfect opportunity to study an actor’s physicality, nuances, intentions, etc. The goal being to find a silhouette—architecture, so to speak—that enhances each character the actors are trying to portray. 

As a costume designer, a part of my role is to facilitate this process by trying on rehearsal costume pieces, padding, hats, wigs, cans, plastic bags or anything else that might enable the actor to "find" his or her character through improvisation. Sometimes it takes several attempts; sometimes I’m completely wrong. That's the beauty of it. By being wrong I can find something that is right.

Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where I worked between 1980 and 2008, was the Eden of this transformative process. It was a privilege to have a space devoted solely to theater which allowed for anywhere from five weeks to two months (and sometimes longer) to spend on this labor of love. It gave a thorough opportunity for directors, designers and actors to be part of the conversation about what worked or didn’t. The design of the show grew out of collaboration, a conversation, and cooperation between performer, other designers and the director. The Moving Company (Dominique Serrand, Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin) grew out of Jeune Lune, and I’ve had the fortune to continue that process with them.

In the larger regional theaters where timelines aren’t as flexible, completed designs are usually due well before the actors start rehearsal. A recent exception to this was creating costume designs for Refugia by The Moving Company at the Guthrie Theater. In this case, I was able, due to a generous grant, to attend a three-week workshop held at the Guthrie in the fall, seven months prior to the opening. Those weeks provided ample time to experiment with different actors’ looks for each of the chapters, each decidedly unique in setting and design. As part of the workshop, I spent time rough sketching various costume ideas to facilitate further discussion with the director, Dominique Serrand.

The show had been previously been workshopped with student designers at the University of Texas at Austin; it then consisted of five chapters addressing refugees and displaced persons in various locations. For this phase of the process, four chapters were added, including one about an immigrant couple from Marseilles, a scene of a polar bear speaking to displacement because of global warming, a scene between a father and his son who has run off to join ISIS, and a scene of Kurdish Syrian refugees arriving in Greece. 

Based on sketches and notes from the workshop, I pulled rehearsal costumes in April to give the actors a chance to “live” in their costumes long before they made it to the stage and to allow for any changes that might need to happen while the costumes were still in process.  

Providing these rehearsal elements is essential for scenes that include "choreography." Such was the case with the disguise skirt and shawl worn by Jamal Abdunnasir in the “Allah Akbar” scene in Refugia. He had to be able to slip both off at the right time and without skipping a beat during his impassioned text delivery. Trying various pieces in rehearsal made it possible to come up with the best solution prior to tech, ultimately saving time and making construction of the actual garment much easier. 

Costumes for dancers require the same advance planning and experimentation. Dancers need costumes that can move with them, that feel one with their bodies and that have fluidity. For this reason, it’s vitally important to bring in rehearsal pieces or actual costumes early in the rehearsal process. Sometimes “happy accidents” come about to everyone’s delight. 

Such was the case with the dancer in Refugia, Kendra "Vie Boheme" Dennard, who has an intricate dance with a polar bear. Originally, I had designed an elaborate Ethiopian tribal costume made from midweight cotton with many traditional accessories. During rehearsal, she started working with a lighter weight, cotton gauze skirt. The director and I quickly agreed it worked much better for the scene, which was going to be very windy via a fan. Luckily, there were several fabrics available to choose from in the Guthrie’s large stock, which we used to remake the skirt. I also simplified the accessories, both to make it easier to dance with the bear and to meld better with the clean and stark aesthetic of the scene. 

In Refugia, costumes were also used to create sound. In the same polar bear dance scene, Ms. Dennard’s brass bracelets were incorporated into the sound design during rehearsal by adding a pulsating, percussive element to her dance. In another scene, Kurdish Syrian refugees arrive on the shores of Greece after crossing the Aegean Sea and are given space blankets. During rehearsal, we discovered if the blankets were manipulated the right way, they produced the sound of the sea's rolling waves as the refugees prayed.

The freedom to experiment with costumes during rehearsal was new territory for the Guthrie—and it was tremendously gratifying to have the support, resources, and flexibility to help the Refugia designs come to fruition.

Wu Chen Recommends: The Underwater Welder

All storytelling mediums have their own strengths and nuance, and each has different ways of engaging its audience. All are wonderful. Mainstream acceptance or rejection has nothing to do with the narrative power of a medium—only the scope of its reach.

Detail of cover art from The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire.

Detail of cover art from The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire.

For graphic novels and comics, I think that Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder showcases the staggering power of the medium like few others I have read. This quietly understated yet compelling story of the titular character as he struggles with anxiety, fear and regret; demons that plague us all. It’s a deeply human story, and the scratchy, sketch-like art underscores the haunted uncertainty of the lives of the characters—our lives—that drives the narrative. The libretto (for what else is it?) is sparse but compelling. The many frames with no words serves only to highlight the unspoken, the thunderous silence of our fears, our refusal to face ourselves and our realities and our human condition.

This is a work well worth your time, from the haunted eyes on the first page to the two full-page panels at the end, the journey—like that of our Welder—is all too uncomfortable and familiar.

The Underwater Welder at Hennepin County Libraries

Rules from the New Frontier of Video Design


Local lighting designer, media designer, electrician and Assistant Lighting Designer at Children’s Theater Company (and elsewhere!)—these are but a few of the titles held by Kathy Maxwell. Kathy’s a well-known figure around town, having made a significant mark on the theater scene since moving here from Texas about a decade ago. Always a smart and resourceful designer, Kathy is also an observant and insightful person and a conversation with Kathy is always an illuminating one.

I’m a lighting designer who just happens to get more video designs than lighting designs—which is a recent development. Video design as a medium is still relatively new, especially at many theaters in the Twin Cities. People, myself included, are still trying to learn where projections fit in and how to incorporate them successfully into productions.

Many times I feel as if the word projections gets thrown out by someone on the creative team and, before anyone knows what’s happening, there is a video designer sitting in the room complaining about throw distance and lumens and asking pesky questions like, “Is there a budget?” and “Does the theater own any video equipment?” Next thing you know, the whole team is arguing about midi and how many boards one operator can feasibly run at once—and whose responsibility is it to program said midi?

Finally everyone storms out not having reached any conclusions, but knowing that the show is gonna need more money. Yep, definitely gonna need more money.

The five other design elements are entrenched in our thinking and planning. No one needs to remind people that props and costumes have to be stored somewhere backstage. No one needs to explain the need for a stage crew to move large set pieces. No one needs mention that gear for a rock show is different from gear to do a straight play. These are simply tropes for anyone working in technical theater. When it comes to video, however, since everything is brand new, it is hard to come by a frame of reference or knowing what resources are appropriate to draw from.

Directors don’t instinctively know if the design they just described to you might cost roughly $20,000. Production managers don’t preemptively say, “Without two control systems for sound and video, tech will go extremely slowly since only one person can program at a time.” Companies don’t budget for video once the director has uttered the much-maligned words, “I want to add projections.” This means when I arrive at the first production meeting, I basically have to state some very hard truths including:

“No, your 8-year-old, long-throw projector will not work in this application.”

“No, your Mac Mini can’t run seven simultaneous video outputs.”

“I can’t rent projectors for free.”

“This is not the right cable.”

Usually, the first and most difficult thing I have to explain is the limitations of the gear the theater owns and what that means for the design. In a world where people expect computers and technology to do anything they want as fast as they can imagine, it’s hard to explain that what the director has asked for is not achievable. “Well, you see that’s not possible because the maximum output resolution of your computer—even with gear such as a TripleHead—is 2560 pixels by 1600 pixels which you are trying to divide over three projectors. Which means the closet native resolution per projector is 800 by 600 and, since you are trying to project across 30 feet with only 800 pixels, your image is highly pixelated. And…”

Did your eyes just glaze over? When I started talking about “TripleHead” and “maximum output resolution,” did you go to your happy place? Did you have flashbacks of your ex-boyfriend who worked in IT yelling about RAM and GPUs and how no one understood what they were?

This is where I become that ex-boyfriend.

Computers are not magic. Projectors do not just work. And not all of them are right for every application. While a computer and projector may have worked for your last show, they could be completely useless in your next one. I know, I know: You just bought that projector for that last show. I hear you. The computer was fully loaded when you purchased it five years ago. I understand. It works just as well as they day you bought it. Believe me, I know how expensive a projector rental is. But this does not change the fact that what you want from video is not achievable with the gear you have provided me.

You must change your expectations or provide different gear. Period.

The second thing I find myself reminding people is that, just because we have located the gear, that doesn’t mean we are done. As with lighting and sound, video must be programmed during tech and played back during performances. It sounds obvious—but you would be surprised at the number of times I have brought it up and heard, “Oh, yeah. I didn’t think about that.”

There are many options and solutions to accommodate the most bare-bones theater, but these options and solutions need to be brought up and discussed—preferably before tech. Waiting until the last day of tech to inform your video designer that they do not have a board op because the production manager couldn’t find one, and here is the midi cable they will need to be linked to the light board, is not totally fine.

Let me repeat: That’s not totally fine.

In my experience, most directors don’t understand the scope of the video design they are looking for and how it fits into the gear their company owns or can afford. Many production teams simply overlook such necessary things as additional control systems or additional personnel that may be required because they simply didn’t think about it.

Video is a whole new design area with specific needs and requirements that must be considered if the design is to be achievable—much less successful. If companies are interested in producing shows with video they need to start investing in it and providing it with the necessary resources.

I told you: You’re definitely gonna need more money.

To Cert or Not to Cert?


Roger Rosvold is a respected carpenter, rigger, technical director and educator around town. Equally comfortable in a black box theater as he is in a 100+ foot arena, Roger is a dedicated and capable teacher, stagehand and colleague. I first met Roger many years ago at the University of Minnesota (I honestly don’t remember the year…) when I was a Fringe tech on the Thrust Stage there, and was struck with his devotion to best and safe practices rooted in the real practicalities of our industry—this was someone who knew what it was like to be on the floor with us—and his clarity and smarts in articulating his point of view. Roger, alongside Kerry Korman and Levi Houkom, teaches our very highly regarded Arena Ground Rigging workshop. —Wu Chen

I regularly rig for Live Entertainment in theater and concert venues. I have rigged the full gamut from paper banners hung from railings (tape, please) to multi-ton line array clusters (three 2-ton hoists, please). I’ve used monofilament, tie line, rope, and steel cable. I’ve installed permanent rigs with lifespans of decades and rigs intended to work once.

I love rigging. It makes sense to me, appeals to my sensibilities, and is unendurably cool. I love it so much that I read every word I can find written about it, whether it’s for my industry or other industries. I take every work call I can fit into my schedule even if it means pulling a rope while another rigger makes the point. And I happily ground rig even though it pays quite a bit less than you’d expect and my hands get a lot dirtier than you’d think.

I find my coworkers’ skill levels quite high and their attention to detail typically immaculate. The deftness of the working rigger pleases my sense of rightness and assures me that they are skilled at their task. I respect their ethic and the work it creates. And I respect their understanding of the danger inherent in the industry, a fiercely real peril they struggle with each work call. However, I am sometimes disappointed at the knowledge level of my coworker riggers. My great peeve is the arrogance of the on-the-job–trained rigger who has worked for 20 years without incident, especially where ETCP rigging certification is concerned.

After I passed my first written test, I felt assaulted by co-workers who dismissed the certificate as meaningless. “So you have a paper—what does that mean?” implying I was personally responsible to show value in the certificate process. On some work sites, I was challenged with, “Every certified rigger I know sucks at actual work,” as though I should defend the skills of another. Yet the accusations continue, so as one of three riggers in Minnesota who is certified in both arena and theater rigging, I feel compelled to address their concern.

ETCP is a knowledge certification. You do not need to demonstrate a single skill during the test to pass it. You never tie a knot, make a connection, or handle a single tool. You handle no hoists and run no line sets, fold no soft goods nor pull a rope. You answer questions, written and reviewed by industry respect riggers who are the leaders of our trade. And you are responsible for a broad cross-section of information.

Also, not just anyone can take the ETCP test. You must demonstrate that you have worked in entertainment as a rigger for at least 3,000 work hours, though education and training can reduce that requirement slightly. For comparison, full time employment is 2,010 hours per year. So applicants are not newbie riggers and should have a reasonable skill set in place by the time they sit for the test. The test assumes your training and workplace have exposed you to a reasonable variety of rigging situations.

Knowing that, we wonder what you do on the test and how does passing the test matter?

You present your knowledge of a surprisingly broad field to a minimum standard. The topics you have vary pretty widely and include identification of hardware and materials, general principles of rigging, interaction of forces, usual rigging procedures and techniques, inspections, and rigging math. For those who are interested, here is a full list of topics. For those who are concerned, this information is not secret; ETCP is happy to spread the word on their test content.

Passing the knowledge test means you can be relied on to understand the principles and application of the rigging scenario. You can determine loads in a complex and unclear situation. And you can identify which force relationship applies to a situation at hand. You understand the difference between design factor and service factor, and know when to apply efficiency reductions (or gains!) and can demonstrate your decisions as more than, “That looks beefy enough.”

Passing the test means you accept the responsibility to ensure the rig meets “best practice” for our industry. You examine the rig to determine actual loads and apply design factors to ensure safety. You work through each load path, every connection, determine forces and loads at each step. You make sure every link is equally strong. You specify appropriate hardware and refuse to sign off where requested cuts would compromise safety, even though refusal may cost you future work.

ETCP was established to face a very real concern held by the rest of the world. You see, concert entertainment is no longer a young industry and, as the skills and demands have grown, so too have the costs and risks. A simple Google search of “concert accident” or “truss collapse” shows how risky rigging has become as more gear is used, more weight is flown, and ever-demanding needs arise (I’m looking at you, Kanye…).

As failures mounted and damages increased, we realized that, sooner or later, the U.S. federal government would take notice and decide to impose regulations on us. And they would put us into a category convenient for them but one we did not really belong in. Can you imagine trying to run a show under construction worksite conditions: hardhats and fluorescent safety vests on the performers? Full white light any time any piece of gear moves? Full volume alert chimes on moving scenery? Rather than risk such a fate, ETCP was created to head off that future.

One way to demonstrate our industry takes the risks seriously is for our events have a “Qualified Person” overseeing work practices on the job site. That title has a specific meaning attached to it in general industry, including legal weight and government recognition of authority. ETCP is the foundation our industry has built toward establishing a recognized “Qualified Person” program. At the end of the day, this is the reason we now have certification—to keep us from suddenly needing to conform all of our work practices to the rules surrounding cranes.

Which brings us to the question I am asked most: Do you, dear reader, need to be certified? Answer honestly. Do you plan on rigging something once a month, every month for the foreseeable future? Do you plan to rig anything other than a simple banner on a railing? Do you foresee rigging “tricks” like scenery that traverses or flips? Do you plan to move one rig to many different venues? Will your rig weigh more than 500 pounds total? More than 5,000 pounds? More than 50,000 pounds? Do you expect there to be more than ten different rigs in the air in the same room at the same time? Will they move past on another? Will the weight on your rig change for any reason? The more yes answers you provide, the more you should consider certification. If you think you might fly people, you must have a certified, experienced rigger involved.

One last thought on ETCP certification: I believe holding the certificate signals that you want to be the best. It is a commitment to study and pursue rigging as a lifetime interest and career. It says you intend to read the entire rigging bibliography and find new sources to add to that library. It signals that you take further training to broaden your horizons. It is not a declaration that you know everything but have a desire to know more. It is a signal of your commitment to excellence.

Rig safe!

A Marxist Philistine Gets Woke to Theater


Peter Rachleff is a history professor who specializes in U.S. labour, Immigration and African-American history. Along with his wife Beth, he operates the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. He is a long-time activist and has a strongly developed interest In the world of theater, some of which he details in this article, about his awakening as a theater advocate. —Mike Wangen

For much of my youth, I swore by a line that a friend attributed to a character in a Godard film: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my checkbook.” I never did see the movie. But I swore by the line, from college to graduate school, as I dug ever more deeply into Marxism. And I kept my distance from live theater.

In 1982 I moved to Saint Paul and began teaching U.S. history—labor, African American, and immigration history—at Macalester College. I dove into the local labor movement with both feet, and I continued to research and write about the intersections of race and class. And I continued to ignore theater.

In the early 1990s, my resolve began to soften. Two labor movement comrades introduced me to the power of children’s puppet theater to tell stories of exploitation, resistance, and solidarity. The youthful participants were moved; the audiences were moved; and I was moved. I was beginning a new journey. With two more experiences, the veils fell from my eyes. On the heels of the nationwide UPS strike in the summer of 1997, Beth Cleary shaped and directed a production of Waiting for Lefty at Macalester College. She brought UPS strikers to meet with her cast, and she complicated the play by making its historic white maleness an issue raised by the discontented rank-and-file. She cast women and actors of color in key roles. She also prefaced the play with short plays by African-American writers Langston Hughes and H.V. Edwards and her own adaptation of Meridel LeSueur’s short story, “Women on the Breadlines.” And she ended the play with a Mother Jones character leading the audience in “Solidarity Forever.” Audience members, from labor activists to students, rose, joined hands, and sang. That same year I fell under the spell of Wendy Knox’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play. Wendy’s lead actor quit the night before opening, and she re-cast a woman, Bianca Pettis, in the male lead role, and she went on with script in hand. Even in these circumstances—or was it because of these circumstances—I was captivated. In reimagining Lincoln’s assassination, Parks, the cast, the production, asked us to reconsider “the great (w)hole of history.” And I/we did, night after night.

I was realizing how badly I had missed the boat. Theater was—is—a vehicle to tackle the complexities of race and class, of gender and power, of exploitation and resistance, and it is a collaborative enterprise, among the creative team and between the creative team and the audience. When it works right, I should add. And when it works right, everyone grows, new connections are made and imaginations are fired. We can imagine birthing a new world from the ashes of the old.

Once I became woke to the power of theater, I took advantage of every opportunity I could find to explore it. Oh, I had a lot of disappointments in my search for the grail, but I also found my share of inspiration. And I was able to bring students along, trying to open their eyes to this power so that they would not waste as many years as I had, sneering, boycotting, ignoring. We saw great works by Tony Kushner, Naomi Wallace, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ralph Lemon, and Kia Corthron, among others. But sitting in the audience was no longer enough. I became so inspired by August Wilson’s work that, with Harry Waters, Jr., I co-taught a course at Macalester we called “The 20th Century Through the Plays of August Wilson.” What a great learning experience that was for me! With another colleague, Bob Peterson, I co-taught a course we called “Telling Labor’s Story Through Music,” that concluded with a concertized staging of a jazz opera, Forgotten: Murder at the Ford Rouge, not only at Macalester but also at United Autoworkers Union Local 879’s hall. When, five years ago, Carlyle Brown invited me to act in his Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, I jumped at the chance. Under the direction of Noel Raymond and the mentorship of Gavin Lawrence, and in collaboration with a generous and brilliant cast, I learned the internal life of theater first hand. I will be eternally grateful to all of them.

I have learned so much. But, watch out! Being woke includes keeping my critical faculties at the ready. I know when a piece of theater works, and when it doesn’t. When my frustration with the Guthrie’s production of Clybourne Park provoked me to write a detailed screed for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I was delighted to learn how widely it was being circulated. While my Marxist scorn for “culture” has dissipated, my passion for social transformation is as strong as ever. I am especially pleased right now that our East Side Freedom Library is hosting Carlyle Brown & Company’s Down in Mississippi, which is creating a transformative experience for audiences members from youth to seniors. What an amazing—and appropriate—use of our space!

Life of a Wigmaker


I had heard the name of the legendary wigmaster Laura Adams shortly before I started working regularly at the Jungle, but I did not (to my knowledge) ever see her until many years later. I had heard many people—colleagues, mentors, friends—speak of her in the equivalent of hushed, reverent tones. But we only ever really crossed paths as I left the building and she entered. I’m very sad that happened. I’ve since had the honor of speaking with her a few times about wigs, theater, and education and economics, and I knew immediately that I wanted her to write for us. I’m so grateful that she has agreed, and I’m going to get out of the way now. —Wu Chen

I never intended to land here. I’ve never met anyone who thought, “I wanna be a wig maker when I grow up!” Yet here I am.

My fascination with wigs began as a child. My mother, being a fashionable woman in the ’60s, wore wigs, as many women did. It’s a very transformative fashion accessory and it transformed her so much that I wouldn’t let her near me when I was very little, because I didn’t believe she was my mom. I didn’t like the wigs at all, but later grew to be curious about them.

The first time I had to wear a wig in a professional theater, I was a teenager. The production was Alice in Wonderland at the Children’s Theatre and the wig was hand-tied, which means it wasn’t store-bought. I was intrigued by the amount of detail put into the construction of it. After being in a few shows and wearing wigs, I became more and more enthralled and wanted to learn how to make them. The wig master, Victor, was happy to teach me and thus my journey as a wig maker began at the ripe old age of 15.

Wig making is a beautiful craft… and painstaking… and tedious… and incredibly rewarding. It is truly satisfying to make, set and style a wig for an actor and, after putting it on, the actor gasps, “This is amazing! I found my character!” I believe the reason it is so transformative is because it is the thing that frames the face, which is one of the actor’s most important tools. When you watch actors perform, you look mostly at their faces, paying close attention to where the words are coming from. When a wig is good, it can make a character because it helps to suspend your disbelief and allows you to get lost in the story. When it’s bad, a wig can be very distracting and actually detract from the storytelling (which is why I think many directors don’t like them). Wigs are very hard to do well and require a skilled hand to do them right.

Most theaters don’t put resources towards wigs, in part because there are so few of us trained to do it well. When theaters do use wigs, they often don’t put enough resources towards them and the wigs end up looking bad. At the Guthrie, we have an incredible shop that does such good work and has an incredibly talented group of people doing them; most people are unaware that they are looking at a wig on an actor. In fact, when tours come through and see that we have a wig shop, they are truly shocked. “I’ve been coming to the Guthrie for 20 years and I never even considered that the actors were wearing wigs!” I hear comments like this, and it makes me smile. But it also makes me a little sad. Not because my work isn’t noticed—if done properly it shouldn’t be noticed and there is a strange satisfaction in that. It’s because I know that there are so few of us doing this work. If people don’t know we are here and how important hair is to the look of a character, the craft won’t have the support it needs to thrive in the theater world.

It takes a special kind of person to be a good wigmaker for theater. You need to be good with your hands. The work is very detailed and the scale is small. I use a magnifying glass when I’m building wigs. “You must have the patience of a saint” is often heard when tours come through and see us at work. Honestly, it does require patience, but once you know how to do the technique, it’s much like any other handcraft, like knitting or needlework. It can actually be sort of relaxing at times.

Once you have a wig built, you need to turn it into a style, which is basically sculpting with an organic material. We use human hair almost exclusively at the Guthrie because it allows for more control. You can use irons on it to manipulate the hair. Synthetic wigs melt if you do that. You also need an eye for being able to take a two-dimensional research image—such as a sketch, painting or photograph—and turn it into a three-dimensional object that can be worn on the head and stay looking the way you want whether or not the actor is dancing or lying down on a couch or, in some cases, getting drenched with water onstage. When mounting a show, I will either get research or sketches from a costume designer or I have to find my own, and I use that as a guide to create the styles that help facilitate the vision for the period of the play. I always laugh at those epic historical films of the 1960s, like Cleopatra, with all those beautiful period costumes and ’60s hairstyles. Again, hair is just as important—if not more so—than a costume because of the fact that it frames the actor’s faces, the thing we are looking at the most.

Having a good understanding of theater is important to wig making and design. If someone is interested in making wigs but doesn’t have theater experience, I tell them to start seeing plays. Lots of plays. Cosmetology school is really helpful, but not necessary. I didn’t go to cosmetology school; I learned while doing. I know of only three places in the country where you can get a degree in wig and makeup design. Because of this, I feel that intern programs in the field are especially important. It's imperative to the longevity of the field for those of us doing the craft to pass these skills on. It takes years to become proficient at it and even longer to truly master because of the nature of the medium we are working with. Hair reacts differently on any given day, and working with it is tricky business to begin with. I can teach basic skills relatively fast, but the development of the skill set takes years.

One thing that is difficult to teach is how to deal with actors—and it's a huge part of what we do. If you're not good with people or admire the craft of acting, I'd hesitate to go into the field of theatrical wig making. What we do is all about making actors look right for the parts they are playing, and sometimes that means making them look horrible. Actors by nature tend to have strong personalities. The actor’s job is to delve into the emotions of a character and bring it to life, and the people who do that craft tend to have passionate personalities. Most people care deeply about what their hair looks like. They identify deeply with their hair, which is one of the reasons it is so traumatic for some people when they lose it. Actors are no different. It is because of this that the job of the wigmaker/designer is so complicated. Actors’ opinions about their hair are stronger than most and they need to feel good about their look and own it completely or it can affect performances. It is our job to help them own the look.

So not only do you need to be good with your hands, have a sense of fashion through history, the ability to make a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional object and sometimes defy gravity, you need to work with a medium that has a mind of its own as well as have a small enough ego to not mind that people don't even know your work exists, let alone recognize the amount of time it took you to make it look that way. You also need to be a bit of a psychologist, understanding the characters you are helping bring to life while handling the complicated personalities of the people who will be wearing your work. If you are up for the challenge of all of that, a career in wig making might just be the right fit for you.

Plus, it's pretty fun to wear the wigs around the shop for no reason at all.

Ready to Work?


Professional lighting designer, current graduate student, Tech Tools Newsletter regular and all-round smart and great person Tony Stoeri is back! Hopefully, by now the electrician, designer and Fringe regular who splits his time between here and Bloomington, Indiana, should need no introduction. But if he does, read the article he wrote last year!

Tony continues his column as he muses on the tensions, politics and realities of our industry as reflected in his experiences in the professional and academic sectors of that industry. Always insightful and challenging, we’re so glad Tony is back with us again this year! —Wu Chen

The Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) is an event which occurs yearly at a different city in the southeastern U.S., during which said city's convention center is briefly inundated by a number of incredibly anxious and overwhelmed theatre students who have spent their (relatively) young lives being told that a career in the arts isn't financially viable.

They spend the weekend lugging around awkwardly sized portfolios and having their self-esteem preyed upon by institutionalized narratives of “success,” and, when all is said and done, they leave with a summer stock job that pays too little and demands too much, and possibly a nice piece of paper telling them they had the prettiest poster board in the design competition, and thus are the best at art out of all the other people who brought poster boards.


Sorry. That wasn't fair. Let's start again: The Southeastern Theatre Conference is an event where students studying theatre in post-secondary institutions gather to receive feedback on their work and encounter opportunities for career advancement, all the while accompanied by their faithful companion, Virgil, and riding atop the back of Geryon, a beast with the the wings of a dragon, the paws of a lion, the body of a wyvern, and the tail of a scorpion. No, wait, sorry, that’s Dante's Inferno. My bad. Honest mistake.


The Southeastern Theatre Conference made me want to drink. A lot. There. I think that is as neutral as I'm going to be able to get.

But casting aside my grumpy/righteously angry persona (henceforth referred to as “The Curmudgeonly Crusader”), I can tell you that SETC is a conference that occurs yearly somewhere in the southeast U.S., where students and faculty studying theatre in academic institutions come to participate in classes, workshops, informational sessions, a job fair, and competitions of various sorts. This year it took place in Lexington, Kentucky, a beautiful little metropolis where anything you can think of has a picture of a horse on it. I attended as part of a contingent of students from Indiana University, which included graduate students from every one of the design/tech disciplines that IU offers a masters in.

Unlike the majority of IU’s delegation, I attended strictly as an observer. I did not participate in the design competition myself, though many of my friends did. Although I bummed around the job fair for a bit, I was already employed for the summer, and thus did not put too much effort into seeking out employment opportunities. I went to a few different classes—one was phenomenal, one was okay, and one was pretty useless, though the man who taught it was very nice. Mostly I wandered around, talked to people that I knew and people that I met, and just tried to understand what was going on.

I should be clear: Though I attended as an observer, it was definitely not as an impartial one. I had a vague idea of what SETC was like from stories told by last year’s attendees; from what I understood, I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I didn't need it for access to employment opportunities. And the idea of a design competition made me extremely uncomfortable, both in terms of the high-minded, hoity-toity, artistic considerations (I do not think design is a zero-sum game) and in terms of the effect it would have on my own self-esteem. Also, I had never been good at making poster boards.

For all of these reasons, I initially refused to go when my professor asked me to. When I was basically told “No, you need to go,” I responded by essentially yelling “FINE BUT I'M NOT GOING TO PARTICIPATE IN YOUR STUPID DESIGN COMPETITION! I HATE YOU!” and storming off to my room, slamming the door, and refusing to come down for dinner. Or something like that.

After my initial knee-jerk reaction had died down, I began to come around to the idea of attending. I reminded myself that one of the main reasons I had come to grad school was to experience my chosen profession from an entirely new perspective. I admonished myself to remember what I have come to think of as my grad school mantra: Keep what works, screw the rest. With those things in mind, I resolved that I would find some morsel of truth that I could bring home from the experience. When the day of departure arrived, I loaded myself into a school-owned van along with four other lighting designers, one costume designer, two poster boards, and numerous bags filled with soon-to-be-wrinkled dress clothes. And off we went.

It would've been a nice touch if the ghost of Rod Serling had been there to greet us as we pulled up to the Lexington Convention Center, ready with some ominous, fourth-wall breaking narration. The world I was about to enter was in many ways similar to how I imagined The Twilight Zone when I was a kid. The substance was all the same as reality, but something felt warped and different.

Interacting with any large organization as a lowly individual is an alienating experience. We entered into the convention center and made our way through the crowds to find the check-in point, where we would receive the badges that identified who we were and what we were allowed to do, based on what we had paid for. After waiting in line with everyone else whose last name started with a letter between R and Z, I received my magic laminated badge, and was free to go and frolic as I pleased.

I wasn't really in the mood for frolicking, however, in large part due to the constant, low-level tension that hung over the convention center. It reminded me of the sort of tension at an airport security checkpoint that radiates off the one person in line who is constantly checking their watch or phone and trying to calculate if they are going to miss their flight. This feeling would be a constant presence throughout the entire time we were at the conference. Over three days, the entire Lexington Convention Center was transformed into pressure cooker filled with over-stressed graduate students and undergrads, wondering if they were good enough, if they would get the job, or if they would win the award.

By the end of the second day, with no end in sight to the the attritional anxiety that suffused the place,  I found myself wondering if I wasn't projecting. Perhaps my own discomfort with the setting was influencing my view of the conference. “Sure,” I said to myself, “I may feel uncomfortable here, but that doesn't mean everyone else is tense and on edge.” By the end of the third day, however, any doubt that I had had regarding the validity of my own perceptions was gone.

That was because the third day featured the award ceremony. After the winners were announced, the only thing that was left was to watch the effect the announcements had on the people around me. Standing outside the doors of the nondescript multipurpose room that had played host to the event, I watched as people who hadn't won emerged from the bathroom with splotchy faces and red eyes, insisting they were fine. A bit of a ways down the hall, in the midst of displays that were still set up, a third-place award winner stood alone in front of the display of first-place winner, intensely poring over all her materials, looking for what she had done that he hadn't. People stood in small groups talking quietly with intense looks on their faces or went off on their own, trying seeking desperately to avoid eye contact. It felt a lot like a funeral.

Later that night, I would learn that a friend of a friend had locked herself in her hotel room, and refused to come out. She was distraught over a comment that her reviewer had given her. He said that he wished she had “done more” with the production, which she assumed meant she was a bad designer and a failure.

Describing it now, it seems pretty baffling that things were being taken that seriously. The awards were definitely not undesirable; they were prestigious to win, looked good on a résumé and, in the case of the first-place winner, included a monetary reward. Furthermore, several graduate students in the design competitions would be selected to win the “Ready to Work” awards, which guaranteed the recipient a design with one of several regional theaters in the upcoming season. But the responses of some of the participants seemed wholly disproportionate to what was at stake.

Nor was I was immune to the anxieties that plagued my peers. I had come to the conference intending to observe as an outsider, but was unable to remain objective and unfeeling. As I left the building to head to a bar after the awards ceremony, I found myself retracing a well-worn mental path, one I had returned to often over the three days of the conference. If I had entered the design competition, would I have won anything? What would the reviewers have said about my work? If I had actually been in search of employment for the summer, would I have found it? I wanted to not care about the answers to those questions, but I couldn't.

As I approach the end of my second year of grad school and watch some of my closest friends in the program face down their third and final years, I am struck by the anxiety that hangs over this place at times. The unspoken question—“Will I be able to make it outside, in the real world?”—is never explicitly vocalized, but is almost constantly present in people's minds, especially among the third years who are preparing to graduate.

I occupy a relatively privileged position in relation to this question. I have been on the “outside” (this is starting to sound like a prison movie) and been able to survive there. I have a place to return to where I feel (relatively) confident I will be able to once again find work. For me, the idea of graduating represents a return to the familiar, a place and a system of structures that I had come to know and feel fairly comfortable with in the years before I went off to IU.

But I'm still not immune to that anxiety and doubt that my peers feel. I feel apprehension about the process of reintegrating that lies ahead of me. I can only imagine what my peers who are starting totally fresh feel. We spend three years being told we are “artists,” and as a result, no one talks about what it actually means to be someone that is going to make a living doing this. Instead, we just talk about art, as if by labeling ourselves “artists” we can escape the economic realities that the rest of the world has to deal with.

In my first year at grad school, I was required to take a class on collaboration, where the final project involved the class being split into groups which were each charged with… wait for it… redecorating the classroom. Short of possibly kickstarting my career in interior design, that class was utterly useless to me. And yet when I go to look for classes to register for next semester—the first semester of my final year—I still see no classes regarding the practical aspects of how to operate as an economic entity: how to market oneself, how to negotiate a contract, how the hell healthcare works when you’re a freelancer.

Considered from the perspective of people facing down their entrance into the “real world” but feeling unprepared for the economic realities of it, the reactions of the various students at the design competition no longer seem irrational. Products of an educational system which, by the nature of critiques and grading, places an emphasis on external validation, they were struggling for a sense of stability in the face of uncertainty; if they didn't receive it, and perhaps even if they did, they were left alone with their anxieties about the future. Ironically, those who had won the “Ready to Work” awards may have felt anything but.

For me, the biggest takeaway from the experience—the one morsel of truth I had been after—was the unsettling realization that despite all of my attempts to keep myself quarantined from some of the effects of this place, I am not always successful. The hope is simply to learn to recognize when and how I am being affected.

Post note: I want to give a special thanks to the people who reached out to me after the last article I wrote to offer support in any form. I was not able to respond to all of you, but please know that it was deeply appreciated.

Sightlines: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Conrad Burgess


Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo: Meet Minneapolis. Used under Creative Commons license.

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo: Meet Minneapolis. Used under Creative Commons license.

I first met Conrad in 1987 after being hired at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre as a lighting technician and immediately discovered what a unique and talented individual he was. Largely unknown, as he resided backstage at Chanhassen for almost 30 years, he is one of the best stage managers I have ever known. He has always been a creative problem solver and is equally at home working with tech crews or lending a sympathetic ear to actors in need. —Michael Wangen

MIKE: This is Mike Wangen and I’m interviewing Conrad Burgess about Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Conrad was a long-time stage manager and technician at Chanhassen and I just want to start by saying that I think everyone in the arts community probably has an idea of what they think Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is, but the reality of what it was might be quite different than what people think. Chanhassen is actually one of the oldest running theaters in the Twin Cities. It was begun in 1968 by Herb Bloomberg. So I’m going to start with Conrad. I think you started in 1979.

CONRAD: Yes. One of the most amazing things about the place, about Herb, is that he was a builder. He wasn’t a theater guy. He was a builder. He got hired by Don Stoltz to build the Old Log Theatre in, I think, the middle ’60s and decided he wanted one of his own. And the amazing thing about him is he found this incredible director to help him do it, Gary Gisselman—just a brilliant director. I don’t know how it happened, how he lucked onto Gary Gisselman, but he did, and that’s what made the place go. Herb was very visionary about that and he made it happen.

MIKE: How did you get started doing theater in the first place and, also, what were you first impressions of Chanhassen when you started in 1979? What was the place like?

CONRAD: I had been going to college and I was taking philosophy courses and sociology courses, you know, the ’60s had ended, and I was wandering around the country. I went to Canada, I went to the Montreal Olympics and saw two events there. After the Olympics, I went to New York, walked into Times Square and was just in awe and just obviously a young tourist and decided to see a Broadway show. I went and saw Pippin and I was overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed. The lighting, the costumes, everything. It was just like that! It wasn’t like I grew up wanting to be in theater. I found something that day in New York. Went back to Minneapolis and back to college, took every theater course they had in one year and got a job. At that time, I was really into lighting. I got a job designing lights for Bloomington Civic Theater. I did, like, four shows and then somebody there knew Brian Sanderson who worked at Chanhassen.

MIKE: He was the sound guy at Chan.

CONRAD: Yes. And you know, I need a job, as everybody else does. And I just called him up and met him. And he hired me and I was running lights in I Do! I Do! half the week and, the other half of the week, I relieved him running sound for Camelot with Richard K. Elison and it was just a brilliant, brilliant show. Wonderful. That’s how I started. And what was it like back then? It was electric. It was just so exciting. I don’t know, it was kind of the happening place at that time.

MIKE: Chanhassen did many more things other than musical theater, right?

CONRAD: That’s right.

MIKE: They had a history of doing dramatic work over the years.

CONRAD: In fact, they did Equus. Can you imagine?

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: It was exciting. It was very fun to do.

MIKE: At one time there were four theaters in the building, how many were there in 1979 when you started?

CONRAD: There was four.

MIKE: They had already established that.

CONRAD: They had established that by the time I started. They had a show running in each theater. I can’t think of the show that was in the courtyard, I Do! I Do!, and The Robber Bridegroom was playing in the Fireside, which used to be a bar.

MIKE: So you were saying in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was already a professional theater and people like Myron Johnson were choreographing out there

CONRAD: Choreographing—and he actually danced in several shows. Solo dances, you know. And he was the lead dancer, let’s put it that way, of course, with his wonderful talent. There were several others, wonderfully talented people working out there. Gary Gisselman had a way of drawing people to him. He brought a lot of Guthrie actors to the place and I think his biggest acquisition was was Ron Bruncati, the long-time stage manager there. He stole him from the Guthrie! And brought him over saying, “I’m going to create this wonderful artist place.” And I can remember Ron telling me that story.

MIKE: So what was Gary’s vision in terms of what he wanted to achieve?

CONRAD: He wanted to create a viable living theater with musicals in the main theater, which would provide the funding to do everything else.

MIKE: What was Herb’s philosophy about running shows? For a long time the theater did open-ended runs. Basically, they ran a show as long as they thought it would sell. Was that from the very beginning or did it change?

CONRAD: No. No, in the very beginning, Gary’s vision was to do six week runs.

MIKE: Okay.

CONRAD: They did that for quite a while. There was only one theater at first and then they added the playhouse after a year or two. I think How to Succeed in Business was actually the first show. And then ’71: Herb was going to close the theater because it wasn’t making any money and he decided to mount Fiddler on the Roof and, from all accounts, it was a brilliant production.

MIKE: Oh really?

CONRAD: It was a big hit. And it went past the six weeks—and they didn’t close it. Eventually, it ended up running almost a year or maybe it did hit a year; I think it was close to that. It basically saved the theater. That started a trend for longer shows. Most shows when I started were five months, six months long. They were doing quite well. In fact, Herb once told me that the dinner theater was the tail that wagged the dog. It made more money than his other businesses did.

MIKE: So, I should mention you started working as a lighting technician there but at some point, you made the jump to becoming a stage manager.


MIKE: And working as the assistant stage manager on the main stage. How did it happen that you decided to move? Was it just a very natural thing for you?

CONRAD: It was. And Ron came up to me one day and said, “There’s only a limited future in working as a technician unless you're planning on becoming a lighting designer.” And we had a long talk. He was a wonderful mentor and I learned everything from him.

MIKE: So [Ron] saw your potential, in other words?

CONRAD: I don’t know. I guess you can say that.

MIKE: I’m sure he has. I can see that.

CONRAD: Yeah, he asked me. The assistant stage manager was quitting to go to Montreal, and [Ron] asked me and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Baptism by fire.

MIKE: Do you remember when it was? Was it the early ’80s?

CONRAD: It was the early ’80s. What show was it? I think it was… I can’t remember what show it was.

MIKE: It’s okay. They all blend together.

CONRAD: They sort of do. It was before A Chorus Line because I was backstage for A Chorus Line. Yeah, I can’t remember.

MIKE: Do you remember any other dramatic highlights of the other smaller spaces outside of Equus—whatever type of shows were produced? Because that’s what interests me, more so than the other musicals.

CONRAD: Let me think. We did lot of the traditional comedies like Earnest.

MIKE: The Importance of Being Earnest?

CONRAD: The Importance of Being Earnest. We did Somersaults, which was a wonderful show, with two wonderful Guthrie actors. We did The Dining Room

MIKE: By Pinter?

CONRAD: By Pinter, yes. What the Butler Saw, Same Time Next Year, Death Trap.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: The Promise, Crimes of the Heart, Mass Appeal.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: Sleuth.

MIKE: So the theater was quite diverse?

CONRAD: It was quite diverse.

MIKE: And Gary directed all of these?

CONRAD: I believe he directed everything at that time. And even when he left, somewhere in the early ’80s, he came back and directed every main stage show for many years there.

MIKE: Another aspect of this through the ’70s and ’80s is that the theater provided employment for a large number of both technicians and actors at the time.


MIKE: Which I think is very important in terms of the culture, which is sometimes overlooked. I mean, the Guthrie obviously, and the Children’s Theatre also did, but Chanhassen was also a big part of that.

CONRAD: Yeah, it was.

MIKE: Probably more important than people recognize.

CONRAD: It went all year round. You could make a living there quite easily, you know.

MIKE: Which also gave people opportunities for other outside work as well.


MIKE: So talk a little more about Ron Bruncati, who was the long-time stage manager out there and was quite brilliant in his work. He was basically your mentor in how you developed as a stage manager. What do you think you learned from him and how has it helped you? And you’re still doing work, stage management work today, with Ben Krywosz and Nautilus Theatre. And just what you learned about stage management—what people skills there are. Because I think a lot of the people tend to think of stage management as a very technical thing, and it’s really much more than that.

CONRAD: Yes. Yes. Well, [Ron] was magical. Grace was the right word for it: grace. He had a grace about him and a charisma where he could deal one-on-one with any actor, any person, and get to the heart of whatever was going on at that moment. And that’s what I learned from him. Stay calm. He always was calm. I only saw him mad once and that’s another story.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: He would stay calm in any crisis and I learned that from him. He would have a grace, no matter who was mad or who was upset—the director or an actor or a designer who couldn’t get something accomplished. He had a way of smoothing it out, talking to people, and that was his greatest thing. And he could keep track of everything in rehearsals. It was amazing to watch him work. I admire him greatly. I miss him terribly.

MIKE: And in the environment—given the nature of the complexity of the stage there and moving things around—he had to keep and you had to keep all of that in mind. Because you’re putting a show together in a rehearsal room, which is actually much different than the actual stage.

CONRAD: Much different than the actual stage.

MIKE: In terms of really, you know, figuring out the logistics of putting that together.

CONRAD: We would talk sometimes for an hour after every rehearsal about, Is that going to work? Is that going to work? Yeah. And he was methodical in it—so well organized. And a lot of people didn’t see that side of him. I saw it and I’m sure Gary saw it. He was brilliant at it.

MIKE: Do you have any particular thoughts about the legacy of your years at Chanhassen?

CONRAD: My legacy?

MIKE: Yeah. And, you know, just what it means to the community—which, I think, is often forgotten these days.

CONRAD: It is. Gary came back one day and he and I were talking. We were standing outside of the main entrance, looking at all of the cars in there, and he was going, “It’s amazing. They just keep coming, just keep coming.” The legacy, I guess—you know, employment was a huge one. But there was a bond between all of us which was—you can’t put it in words. It was special. Everybody who worked there at that time.

MIKE: It was literally a family.

CONRAD: It literally was. It may be that now, I don’t know. But it literally was back then. And it was fun. Ron. I think Ron was the main reason.

MIKE: Ron Bruncati?

CONRAD: Ron Bruncati. It was the main reason that it worked so well. Him and his relationship with Gary. They would look at each other and know what the other was thinking. It was just amazing in rehearsals to watch them both. I don’t know. I guess that’s the legacy.

MIKE: Okay. Well, thank you.

CONRAD: You’re welcome.

(STEM + A) x Arts Integration = Opera


Backstage at the Vienna Opera. Photo: Jeff Keyzer. Used under Creative Commons license.

Backstage at the Vienna Opera. Photo: Jeff Keyzer. Used under Creative Commons license.

As the Community Education Director, it made sense that Jamie Andrews and I first met in the context of Project Opera, Minnesota Opera’s excellent youth education program. Dedicated to building opportunities for young people, Jamie’s smarts and experience make him a joy to work with. It’s an honour to hear his thoughts on opera and education, and we’d do well to pay attention. —Wu Chen

STEM is defined as an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.

Arts Integration as defined by the Kennedy Center for the Arts is, an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meet evolving objectives in both.

Two ideas that have been making the rounds in the world of education is moving STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) and Arts Integration. One aspect of these two ideas that is similar suggests that, without the arts, the pedagogies of science, technology, engineering, and math (and any number of other disciplines), are not complete. To fully understand a subject, engaging with it artistically is a fundamental necessity. It is a belief that a student needs to create using the elements of an idea or concept to be able to internalize it. Or to put it in another way, that the benefit of the arts is through creation and not observation, similar to how the benefit of athletics is through participation, not watching it on TV.

The inclusion of the arts is an interesting idea, and one that has some non-alternative facts supporting it. Conversely there are plenty of people who believe a STEM education should remain STEM, and arts integration is only diminishes the understanding of the subjects studied. The arguments on both sides of the topic are quite interesting but beyond the scope of this blog post. I will focus on how opera, through STEAM and Arts Integration, is well-suited to advance the pedagogy of arts education, including technical theater education.

Making the case for STEAM (I’ll just assume we are all on board with this idea) and technical theater is fairly easy—math skills needed to create a flat, knowledge of technology to use the saw to cut the wood to build the flat, science to know that you need to stop the bleeding from the cut you sustained from using the saw to cut the wood to build the flat, etc.

But making the case for STEAM and opera education is not as obvious. Usually when one thinks of opera education, singing is what probably comes to mind first. I have worked as the Education Director for fourteen years at the Minnesota Opera and can attest to the many times the first comment people ask after they learn where I work is, “Oh! So you must be a singer.” And this is not just the random person on the street. This might come from a music teacher, college professor, or professional artist.

This default thinking is especially difficult when you get into the smaller subset work of opera education. The idea that education programs from an opera company would include technical theater is unsupported by current practice. For example, craftsmen and designers are not asked to make teaching part of their work. The companies that hire these workers are often uninterested in adjusting job descriptions to allow for this sort of engagement. And funders want to support what is most obvious to them—what they see on stage.

Moving towards the artists of the future

Obviously singing in opera is a key component. But how do we get past that? How do we leverage all the elements of the art form and resources of an opera company to serve the needs of the community? How do we change the way we teach about opera to the general public? Moreover, how we do create artists of the future who are not siloed in their understanding of the art form. Think of this as arts integration for the education of artists.

Opera has been described as the original multimedia art form for a multimedia age. It’s the combination of music, theater, and dance, all in an elaborate spectacle. The stories can be of epic love, tragic affairs and are even funny once in a while. One might think that for a contemporary audience that embraces The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones, opera might not be that far out there.

Yet the way in which we teach opera is segregated. Attend a pre-performance talk before almost any show throughout the country and you will learn about the music and plot. This is the same for ubiquitous education programs that go into schools.

In terms of artist training, singers learn vocal technique, languages, and acting. Instrumentalists learn their instruments and may learn a little about opera through their music history classes. Stage directors live in the spoken theater world. Dancers in the dance world. And the technical folks… well? How do you learn your craft?

Of course these are some very big generalizations, but my point is that the way we teach, talk, and advocate for opera may not serve us in the future.

What’s next?

Fellow Minnesotan Ben Cameron talks of the Cultural Reformation that is upon us. The 95 theses have been nailed to the door but are we, as cultural institutions, like opera companies, ready to open it? While there are many issues facing cultural organizations that are outside any one organization or one industry’s purview, rethinking how the art is taught and how one advocates for it, is not. What do we want opera artists to be in the future? And how do we get there? Do we want to continue to segregate training, so that singers only know about singing, and designers only know about design? Or is there a way we can train people under the umbrella of an “arts education” that encourages them to be stronger advocates for their art, whether that art form is theater, music, opera, or design? Or, through the lens of arts integration, can we teach music in a way that informs and enhances technical education (and vice versa), and does not diminish either subject area, to ultimately create better artists? I think there is.

But starting at the very basic levels of arts education and reconceiving its methodology and pedagogy, we can create artists truly versed in STEAM education. Imagine an elementary student learning the basic ideas and concepts of stage craft while learning simultaneously the basic tenets of storytelling and acting.

Additionally, imagine artist training that includes advocacy for their art as a basic skill that is as important as being able weld, memorize lines, and match pitch. When artists are trained from the very beginning to speak of the impact that the arts has on one’s life and community, then they can be empowered to really effect change in their audiences. Moreover making the assumption that the value of one’s art is self-evident to others may inadvertently elicit a negative perspective in an audience, thus erecting a barrier preventing them from experiencing new artistic expression.

These are large ideas and the path forward is not entirely clear, but moving from STEM to STEAM may be a place to start. It has many positive outcomes, including the potential to transform the way in which art is taught. We need to keep thinking about it and trying to define what success looks like. And before you know it, the artists of the future will be us.


To continue digging into any of these topics, I encourage a look at the following resources:

Health and Safety Info for the Monetarily Challenged Artist


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

Theatre can be a messy, dangerous place. In my last article, I talked about the need for greater attention to health and safety in the arts and how we as an industry need to respect ourselves, our skills, and our purpose enough to put a high value on protecting those assets. I'm aware that this can be easier said than done. Many, if not most, small theaters have zero dollars in the budget allocated for any kind of safety program. And if your technical crew is staffed even partially by independent contractors or volunteers, it is arguable whether or not they would technically be covered by such a program.

So the assumption we'll start with for the rest of this article is that the majority of theatre technicians do not have access to an active workplace safety program. This is unfortunate, and in coming articles we'll discuss ways to start changing that, but in the meantime, there are quite a few resources that are available to anyone with an internet connection, for free, to start arming themselves against the hazards of their work environments. I am going to share some of the most helpful ones that I have found.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the resources listed have been developed and are owned by 3M. I currently work for 3M, but I am not receiving any compensation from 3M for listing these products. I am not representing 3M or 3M’s products in these articles. I just know the most about them, and I know some of the incredibly intelligent, passionate, and dedicated people who develop them, so I trust the science behind them. It's possible other safety product companies have similar tools I don't know about. If you find some, send me a link through Tech Tools!

Safety Data Sheets

These are going to be your first line of defense for chemical exposure. Formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets, Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) are legally required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to be provided by the manufacturer of a product, and are supposed to contain basic information about the ingredients of the material and the health, safety, and environmental hazards associated with them. They are not usually—okay, not ever—perfect, but they do tell you some things. Since the 2012 revision to the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom), they tell you a lot more than they used to. (Sort of. Sometimes.) And often you can get information from what they are not telling you as well.

While these are required for selling a chemical product, they can be much more difficult to procure from an intermediate vendor if you are not buying directly from the manufacturer. (For kicks, go to the paint counter at a big box store and ask them for an SDS for one of their faux finishing products.) In this case, your best bet is to use the internet. Most manufacturers now post these on their websites. If you can't get one from your vendor or the internet, call them up and ask them for it. HazCom also requires manufacturers to list a phone number for more information about the product. Make the people who staff those lines earn their paychecks. Next month in the second part of this article, we'll take a step-by-step look at how to read and interpret a safety data sheet for practical use in theatre.

GESTIS Substance Database

There's nothing little about this nifty little database—it contains exhaustive pertinent environmental, health, and safety data for hundreds and hundreds of chemicals. You can search by name or CAS number (which should be listed on the SDS) and it will tell you physical and chemical properties, personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations, and everything in between. It's basically an SDS database on steroids. Being European, it contains much more information than an average U.S. SDS, since Europe has much tighter regulations for chemical health and safety. It doesn't have every chemical I've tried to look up, but definitely has the majority of them. I especially love it for toxicology study data and glove recommendations.

The downside: It is only for single chemicals, not mixtures, and you can't look up a chemical if they don't tell you what it is on the SDS. We'll talk more about figuring out chemicals next month in the SDS analysis.

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that performs and provides health and safety research. It’s different from OSHA because OSHA enforces the law, based (partly) on scientific research; NIOSH does the research and publishes the data. The NIOSH website is an absolute gold mine of information. It would take way more space than I have to fully explain its useful parts, so I'll just highlight a few of my favorites.

I highly recommend just going to the page and searching for topics of concern to you. Most of the information is presented in a highly readable, easy-to-understand fashion, and it's completely free to access. This is important because most of the really well-researched, most unbiased literature about any scientific topic requires a subscription to a relevant trade journal or purchase of specific articles—and those are not free. A one-year subscription to just one respected trade journal can run you anywhere from $200-$1,200 depending on what access you purchase. But NIOSH provides some of the most solid scientific research about health and safety out there and it’s paid for by your tax dollars and available for the asking. You paid for it. Go use it. Get your money’s worth.

  • PowerTools Database: This database has the noise levels of many of the common power tools—down to manufacturer and model. This information can be very useful for scene shops and prop shops in purchasing new tools, or assigning PPE for existing tools.
  • What Does a Hearing Loss Sound Like?: This site has computer-generated samples of what normal sounds hear like with normal hearing and moderate hearing loss, both with and without background noise. It can be a very effective tool in communicating the importance of using available tools for hearing protection effectively and consistently.
  • Health Hazard Evaluations: This program is one in which qualified health and safety scientists performs an evaluation assessing and controlling possible work-related hazards in a workplace, and provides custom guidance for improving health and safety in that workplace. There is a database of hundreds of reports from these evaluations, many of which can have relevance to the work done in theatre. You can even request an assessment of your own workplace.
  • Workplace Safety and Health Topics for Small Business: Guidance specifically aimed at small businesses with limited resources
  • Work Schedules: Shift Work and Long Hours: some pointed guidance regarding work schedules and long work hours may be of special interest to those working “summer stock” schedules.

There is so much more available on this website: Data, fact sheets, papers, videos, etc. It's worth exploring.

3M Center for Respiratory Protection

A really nice step-by-step guide to creating a respirator program from start to finish (or start to maintenance, really). There are instructional videos, fact sheets, even a checklist to help you make sure you have all the required elements of the program. The site contains both general, science-based information on developing a compliant, effective program as well as brand-specific product information and free tools for using those products. We plan to devote an entire article to respiratory protection programs for theatre in the coming months.

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Speaking of OSHA, this is the website of our national health and safety agency. They are not, as some would have you believe, a group of malicious bureaucrats determined to shut down honest business owners on the basis of tiny, harmless oversights. (At least not collectively. I can’t speak for any individual person’s bad attitude.)

This website is pretty self-explanatory and it has a decent search engine. The part that documents the actual legal standards can get a little dense, but it has lots of extra explanatory information in much more user-friendly language: Fact sheets, training materials, template health and safety programs, data and statistics, videos, etc. Again, this is all paid for by your tax dollars—go get your money’s worth. My favorite bit is the on-site consultation program. It’s free and gets you expert advice on how to get safe. Little-known fact: You can request a consultation of just one particular health/safety element, or a comprehensive assessment of the entire workplace.

Since most of our readers are in Minnesota, here’s the Minnesota-specific version of the program: Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health. OSHA gives states the option of either using the federal safety and health standards, or else creating equal or more stringent state standards to use in place of the federal program. Minnesota is one of the states that has a state-specific program. There’s a lot of good information on it but it can be tricky to find.

Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety

And lastly (but certainly not least), Monona Rossol has spent nearly her entire career fighting for health and safety for employees in the visual and performing arts. Her not-for-profit company, Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (A.C.T.S.), provides health and safety expertise in a variety of formats. In addition to formal consulting (not free), she provides low-cost and free advice for artists looking for information and assistance with workplace safety concerns. She is also the health and safety director for Local 829 of United Scenic Artists / International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
That does it for this month’s installment of “Health and Safety Info for the Monetarily Challenged Artist.” Tune in next month for “Deciphering Safety Data Sheets for Arts & Entertainment Professionals.” I hope you find this information helpful; if you have additional resources you’d like us to showcase, send them along to Tech Tools. 

Stage Moms (and Dads): Making Art in a World that Doesn't Want You

Article by Stephanie Richards

Stephanie Richards is a skilled lighting designer and the Lead Programmer at the Guthrie Theater. Stephanie has always been extremely competent and able to step into a wide variety of roles with great facility and consideration. She reads extremely widely and while we don’t talk as much as we used to (theatre schedules means we rarely see each other), I always appreciate her sharp, intelligent opinion and insight, built on a strong foundation of experience and study. -Wu Chen

When I agreed to write this essay, I had it in mind that I would paint a picture of the special kind of chaos that rules a two-stagehand family. I would find some eloquent way to rhapsodize about the magic of a perfectly-synced shared iCal, the craziness that is meeting your spouse halfway between your work venues in rush-hour traffic to swap a hungry toddler from one car seat to another, or the joy of asking someone to babysit without being able to tell them either a start or an end time. 

Many other parents have written about the joy and the challenge of raising kids in the theatre. Those of us who have chosen this path have all figured out ways to make it work. I work a full-time show schedule at the Guthrie; this gives me a lot of flexibility during the day to spend time and energy parenting. My husband Ryan freelances, mainly off the IATSE call list. He can take calls with an eye to my schedule; he's less likely to say yes to that all-day Target Center load-in when I'm in the middle of tech. We have an amazing nanny who has been with us since our daughter was four months old; she is often the rock that our little family teeters on and without her we would be in serious trouble. And then we have our larger community - friends, coworkers, family members, sitters - all of whom help us get up each day and get the things done that we need to do. 

This business is, by its nature, hostile to families. The long hours put into a design and build, or during tech by stagehands, are punishing to the parents of small children - especially breastfeeding or pumping mothers. The schedules are completely opposite from the school days of older children, leaving parents to choose between missing recitals, sports games, birthday parties, and even family dinners, or finding a new line of work. And at our job sites, both managers and coworkers without children can be unwilling or unable to help mitigate the impact that the fluid nature of the work can have on our families. Before I was a mom, it was nothing to work through a dinner break if the designer needed more time. Now, I'm heading home for an hour so Ryan can get to his show call on time and our nanny can commute from her day job to our house. Yet when I say no, I can't stay when you've decided at the last minute that you need yet another hour of programming time, I'm the bad guy. And I am lucky, because my bosses have kids and they're willing to stick up for me, and I can say no to that kind of request without worrying if I'm going to lose my job.

And this is where I come back to the difference between what I thought I was going to talk about, and what's become clear to me that I NEED to talk about. What Ryan and I are doing? It's hard. Parenting is hard. Working in the arts is hard. Managing the logistics of schedules in a business where the expectation is that you are on-call 24/7 is hard. Navigating childcare with a non-traditional schedule is hard, and paying for it on an artist's salary is really hard, even when that salary is good. Compromising your art so you can be a good parent is hard - and compromising your parenting to make someone else's art is hardest of all. 

But as difficult as some days are, this is what I signed up for. We spend a lot of time taking turns raising our daughter, but at the end of a sixteen hour day, the other one is there to hold us up, lend a hand, or make the fourth run to the grocery store this week because we're out of milk again. We struggle to pay the bills, but we know that if something catastrophic happens, we have insurance, family, and friends who will jump in and lend a hand. We feel safe with the people we trust with our daughter when we're both working. And we are proud of the work we do, proud of what art can do in a community, and grateful to be a part of it. 

It's become clear to me that, with all these benefits and advantages we have, making this life work is STILL this hard. And so it follows that for someone without these privileges, raising a child has got to be exponentially harder. As tired as I am; as frazzled and disorganized as I feel most days, it is this thought that lights a fire under me. If we, as an arts community, seriously mean to include a plurality of voices in a meaningful way, we need to make an effort to include parents and families. Not just families who can manage within the traditional structure of play-making, but by making plays in a way that can accommodate the needs of the people in those families.

As artists, we face an unwelcoming world. With the current administration in Washington threatening to do away with the NEA and the NEH, with the fragmentation of our national identity, and with the despair that I have heard from friends and co-workers in the last few months, what we do is more important than ever. We have the right and the responsibility to say true things, to ask hard questions and explore messy answers. We can tell stories that can give hope, change hearts, and bolster spirits. But if we do not make space for the voices of everyone who wants to participate, we fail to rise above the charge of elitism that we are so often branded with.

I don't know what the answer is. Childcare is not only cost-prohibitive for families, but for many theatre organizations as well - companies like mine who pay a living wage, but don't necessarily have the margin to run a daycare operation too. Yet if we do not find creative ways to support artists caring for children or other family members, we limit the pool of participants to the same people we always hear from; people who don't have to surmount the barriers of income, availability, and outside responsibility. If we want to remain relevant in an increasingly unfair world, we have to do better. 

Advocating Health

Article by Rebecca Denny Burton

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

The last straw came when I found Emily in the paint closet.

Emily, a costume intern three-quarters finished with a questionably useful BFA in scenery and costume design, was kind of entitled, and kind of bratty, and I really didn't like the way she phoned in her paint practicum projects.  But when I found her in the tiny paint closet spaced halfway to Mars on the vapors from the spray paint she'd been using (for quite some time, if the pile of empty cans behind her was any indication), to stencil pseudo-Egyptian faux-embroidery on about thirty ensemble acting apprentice robes, I thought for a minute I would black out with rage.  Although she knew it probably wasn’t a great idea to spray paint in a closet for hours on end, she was afraid of angering the designer who had given her the task, and was worried that if he thought her difficult, he would not recommend her for future work.  Here was a twenty year-old person, a relatively-inexperienced hopeful just starting out in the world of theatre, dutifully destroying her lungs, her potential systemic integrity, and an untold number of brain cells in the name of a reference.  And her boss had told her to do it.

The situation I just described was one incident that happened on one day during one show’s build at one rotating repertory summer stock company.  But it is illustrative of a larger concern embedded in the culture of live performing arts in the United States today, which plays out in countless incidents at countless companies around the country.  Too many theatre artists, both as individuals and as organizational decision-makers, have an unfortunate tendency to set the value of the art they and their colleagues create at a higher level than that of the health and wellbeing of themselves, their colleagues, and, most troubling, the rising generation of artists.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2015 shows more than 4000 OSHA recordable injuries and illnesses for performing arts companies, and 49 fatalities—and these are just the ones that were eligible to be reported.  It does not include those involving students, volunteers, independent contractors, unpaid interns, and other non-employee workers.  Although data on a comprehensive number of theatre-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to procure, it can be assumed that it would be quite a bit higher.

This is a problem, and it is not okay.  It is not okay not because, as I have sometimes heard from disgruntled safety inspectors, because “it’s not brain surgery; this is not a matter of life and death!” although that is true.  It is a problem because theatre specifically, and performing arts generally, are part of the world of human artistic expression which, at its best, illuminates our inner lives, enriches our emotional world, and sheds light on the conditions of our existence.  Art may not be directly saving lives, allocating distribution of resources to humanity, or advancing trade or technology, but it shows us why those things and others matter to us as members of the human race.  Anyone who doubts the importance of art to the progression of humanity should run a search engine search for "arts suppression political censorship", and read through just the first page of hits while considering why dictators throughout history have spent so many resources on trying to control artistic expression. This is a high calling, and it is vital that theatre artists value themselves and each other enough to ensure their continued ability to contribute their considerable skills, talents, and dedication to this calling.  We must hold the artist as valuable as the art.

This is not to imply that advancing health and safety in the arts will or can be easy.  Theatre, on both the performing and technical ends, can be a challenging, bizarre, and constantly changing realm.  Hazards of these workplaces run the gamut from ergonomics to unguarded machinery, from chemical exposure to noise, from electrics to explosives to working eighteen hours a day for eight weeks without a day off.  A weird amalgam of construction, manufacturing, and performance, theatre’s scope of workplace hazards, and the rate at which those hazards can change, is unusual, if not unique, among industries. The opportunities for injury and illness through the demands of the work are impressive in both number and variety.

And yet the majority of theater companies fly beneath the radar of any sort of health and safety regulation or enforcement.  Most have never had an OSHA inspection since their founding, let alone an actively internally-enforced workplace health and safety plan.  Far too many illegally and incorrectly hire staff as “independent contractors,” and outside the protection of worker’s compensation and the employer/employee legal relationship.  And this can be dangerous, even deadly--because in such an environment, those who dedicate their lives to worker protection and could put a stop to the most egregious violations don't find out about the workplace in question until someone has been killed.

These are harsh words, and it is a harsh reality they are intended to illuminate.  Sporadically throughout history, and somewhat more consistently since the Industrial Revolution, various people and organizations have made protection of the lives and health of workers in their work environments a priority, and great strides have made in some industries.  But the many-headed beast that is live entertainment seems often to just fall through the cracks, mainly, I believe, because no one knows what the heck is going on here.

I should know--I am one of the few people who has worked extensively in both professional theatre and professional occupational health and safety, although as yet I have rarely had the opportunity to put the two together.  Most health and safety professionals have a hard science background, and their training is almost entirely limited to large-scale manufacturing.  They have no earthly idea what kind of hazards the typical scenic artist, costume craftsperson, assistant stage manager, etc. is exposed to.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and its state-based affiliates like MSHA (Minnesota Safety and Health Administration), are woefully understaffed and underfunded, and cannot possibly inspect all of the businesses that fall within their jurisdiction.  Large corporations, liable for lots of money if their employees can prove an unsafe environment, typically hire their own environmental, health, and safety (EHS) specialists as inoculation against the day the agency inspectors show up.  But by and large, for the world of theatre, safety is a thing that gets foisted off on technical directors, production managers, and stage managers, lumped in with their myriad other responsibilities.  Unions provide some protection to those lucky enough to be members.  But for the most part, health and safety specialists don’t know what theatre artists do, and theatre artists don’t have the specialized health and safety training or the resources to adequately manage their hazards, and this is a dichotomy that needs to change.

The good news is that this change has already begun, and is slowly being set in motion at various levels of the field. Specialists like Monona Rossol and Randy Davidson have worked through consulting and writing to spread the specialized health and safety knowledge that is needed.  Academic institutions like the Yale School of Drama, and performance companies like the Santa Fe Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival have actively appointed paid employees with theater safety as their main job priority.  In addition, many academic theatre programs are putting a much stronger emphasis on health and safety in their training programs, particularly for technical directors.  Momentum is building.  Good work is being done.

But there is still more to do.  The examples being set at larger institutions need to be followed at smaller ones.  The knowledge of these few specialists needs to be disseminated more widely, and expanded upon.  Tools must be developed that enable companies to do right by their workers even with limited resources.  Perhaps most importantly, the new generations of artists in training need to be taught from the very beginning that their lives and health are important enough to protect, that their work is important enough to protect its creators.  We need to put an end to the mindset that we are exempt from the restrictions of more mundane industries, or that we don’t deserve protections that workers in other fields take for granted, or that all health and safety is embodied in OSHA, and OSHA wants to shut us down (this is a real thing that a real theatre technician said to me, and it is absolutely untrue).  The importance of our work should make us more, not less, determined to be able to go on doing that work indefinitely.  Ours is an industry where one can be asked and expected to create almost any reality.  We must rise to the challenge of creating those realities without destroying our own.  Creativity, adaptability, innovation:  these are the currency the world of theatre has thrived on for centuries.  Let us take those qualities and apply them towards the goal of doing the work we need to do without harming our workforce.  We shouldn’t be worse at this than other industries, we should be better.

At the end of the day, people deserve work that does not harm them because they are human beings, and should not have to pay for honest employment with their lives or health.  But if this is too radical an idea to swallow yet (and the state of worker protection in the world suggests that it may be), consider the level of importance that the arts play in the shaping of humanity's course.  We owe it to ourselves, to each other, to the work, and to the world, to take ourselves seriously enough to do it right.

A Look Back At Year One

Article by David "dstew" Stewart

A year ago, all my correspondence with the Guthrie suddenly morphed into variants of this: “Do you know our new Production Director, David Stewart? NO?! Well, then, you simply have to meet him. We’ll discuss all this then.”

I’ve since met him. Indeed, we collaborate on a great deal, and I’m glad to have him in town. I’m always curious about what it is like for people to move far away, and live, work and play in a new place. Perhaps it’s because I’ve moved around so much in my life.

So I asked him to reflect on his year here, and he graciously agreed. What lies ahead? Time will tell, but getting to know David has given me a lot to be excited for. - Wu Chen Khoo

Wow, it’s already been one year for me at the Guthrie. How time flies when you’re having an absolute blast!

But let’s go back. In June of 2015, a friend of mine turned my attention to a job posting for production director at the Guthrie Theater and encouraged me to apply. “No way,” I said. “No way the most prestigious regional theater in the country wants an academic production manager.” See, up until then, I had been working – very happily I might add – in the academy, the university: first at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for nine great years as the production manager and head of the stage management program for the Department of Theatre and Drama, where I helped inspire young minds interested in the quirky behind-the-scenes thing I did, then at the University of Texas at Austin as the academic production manager. Austin is an amazing city, and UT is a first rate school; I’d hit the proverbial jackpot. Not only was I working at one of the top universities in the country, but I had bid farewell to Wisconsin winters and my collection of snow shovels. I was determined to finish out my career in the southwest.

Then my friend came calling about the Guthrie. At first, I shied away and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Then about a month later, and to my great surprise, I received an email from the Guthrie. See, usually when I get an email from large arts institutions, someone from the organization has seen me at a national theater conference presenting on equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I), specifically as it relates to production departments, and normally they need to fill a position and are hoping that I might recommend a colleague or peer. I suppose it was almost assumed that I know all of the people of color in the industry. So I was a de facto ED&I headhunter, if you will. Anyway, I proceeded to open the Guthrie’s email, and my jaw immediately hit the floor. The Guthrie’s human resources director was asking me to apply for the production director gig – me, the academic who was ensconced in his perfect oasis in Texas. I wrote back to ask the HR director how she had found me, and, sure enough, someone had heard me speaking at a conference. The Guthrie thought I should apply.  

So apply I did.

Round one was a phone interview with the Guthrie’s new artistic director, Joseph Haj, and Frank Butler, the outgoing production director. I hold both men in high regard. Frank Butler was a stalwart production manager and well respected amongst his peers. And Joe’s recent hire was all the buzz at that summer’s Theater Communications Group (TCG) conference, so I had read up on him and found him to be a kindred spirit. We shared a similar story about how this art form of ours had saved us. Perhaps more importantly, we both knew that it was time for the theater industry to stand up and take a hard look at itself regarding issues of ED&I.

I have to be honest here: as I picked up the phone for that first interview, I had convinced myself that I was simply window dressing – that I was brought into the hiring process to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. Imagine my shock when two weeks later I was invited to Minneapolis for the final round of interviews.

Upon meeting Joe Haj, the first words out of my mouth were: “You’re taller than I thought you’d be.” Smooth, Stewart, real smooth. Admittedly, it was a less than wonderful start, and I knew I had to make up for it by genuinely connecting with an extraordinarily talented staff. To their credit, that turned out to be easy. I immediately found the Guthrie’s production team to be smart, warm and personable. It was a great sign.  But, in the back of mind, I couldn’t shake the thought that if I somehow got this job I’d have to ask my family to uproot and move for the seventh time. The Guthrie had to be the right fit, all the way around. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it would be, and when the offer came down I couldn’t have been more thrilled to accept it with my family’s blessing…and some serious reflection about having to confront snow again.

My transition into the Guthrie last November was a fortunate one, as my predecessor remained onsite for my first two weeks. Frank graciously imparted his legacy knowledge, and I appreciated that. I appreciated any help really, because starting this job felt like standing at the foot of a great mountain, looking up, and wondering how I was ever going to make it to the top.

My first show as director of production at the Guthrie was a Twin Cities favorite – A Christmas Carol. I couldn’t have asked for a better project with which to get my feet wet. 2015-2016 marked the fifth season of this particular iteration of Carol, and all of the players knew their roles inside and out. It was the perfect opportunity for me to observe my various production teams in action. And when I say that the production staff at the Guthrie is good…they are really good. The theatrical marvels onstage point directly to remarkable work backstage. The Scrooge House is a living, breathing, moving entity; actors safely fly on cables; automation and expertly-built props elicit happy gasps from the audience. It’s awe-inspiring. And now here I was, in charge of this extremely well-oiled machine.

Then, right after the 2015 holidays, I learned that a production team can best be measured by how it responds to the unexpected. As we were preparing the Guthrie’s thrust stage for our production of Shakespeare’s epic Pericles – which also happened to mark Joe’s Guthrie directorial debut – I was arriving back in Minnesota from a quick trip to visit my family, who were still in Texas at the time. And my phone lit up like a Christmas tree. During load-in of the Pericles set, one of the staff had inadvertently collided with a sprinkler head in the catwalks above the stage, sending a deluge of water onto the deck. Not a bare deck, mind you, but a half-way installed, beautiful floor that had been meticulously painted by the artisans of the Guthrie’s paint shop. Thousands of gallons of water poured through the stage and into the trap room below. I feared the worst: that we’d have to push back the production schedule.

But when I arrived straight from the airport, I was met by an encouraging scene. My team, towels in hand, was in high spirits. As the events were relayed to me, the moment the water hit the stage, the entire production department showed up with towels, buckets, mops, shop vacs, you name it. The whole building sprang into action. I was impressed, grateful and not a little relieved. And we hit tech right on schedule. One year and 22 productions later, I can tell you this without a shred of doubt: my staff is a peerless one and they make me a better leader.

Outside of the hands-on work in our production shops, the past 12 months have also been rewarding in terms of how far we’ve come in our ED&I initiatives. Working at a nonprofit has been an interesting shift for me from university life in that I feel we have some agility here when we decide to pursue new policies. At the university, several layers of bureaucracy often slow such decisions. And while that process has merit, I was excited to see that things were moving much more quickly at the Guthrie.  

For example, as we work to diversify our theater staff – both onstage and off – I had the notion to remove all of the education requirements from our job postings. I’m not alone in feeling that such requirements present barriers to entry into an organization. I ran the idea by Joe, who was very receptive and requested only that I consult with the Guthrie’s HR department. A week later, the plan was policy.

In just a year’s time I already can see that we’re growing as an organization. And I feel lucky to have stepped into a theater whose storied past and strong foundation have made that type of meaningful growth possible. More than anything, since last fall I’ve been energized by the world-class theater that we’re making, the designers we’re collaborating with, and the production work that I’m able to facilitate here in our building. It’s a dream job like no other, and I look forward to many more years at the Guthrie.