What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Article by Tony Stoeri

This isn't Tony. This is a stock photo of a child suffering from end-of-summer ennui.

This isn't Tony. This is a stock photo of a child suffering from end-of-summer ennui.

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, this article is a good introduction! And here's his most recent article, on Southeastern Theatre Conference.

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! —Wu Chen Khoo

I remember it being significant as a child, that annual moment when I realized anew the transient nature of summer, when I started seeing back-to-school sales advertised in the catalogs that my parents tossed into the recycling, or when the section of Target dedicated to inner tubes and pool noodles was replaced with one dedicated to notebooks and folders. It would often throw me into a deep, Nietzschean funk: a nine-year old child wandering the sun-dappled lawns of a quiet south Minneapolis neighborhood, wondering what the point of playing with his friend Jimmy's stomp rocket was if all leisure time was inevitably doomed to be swallowed by the yawning maw of fourth grade. Summer bliss was a great Sisyphean lie, and the cyclical, almost ritualistic realization of that fact each July was a staple experience of my childhood.

I'm sure I was a blast to hang out with.

It’s not something I expected to still be facing in my mid twenties. I'm not sure why. It's not like the inherently ephemeral nature of all experience goes away once you can legally drink. But for some reason, that sense of nihilistic despair that marks the end of a summer of leisure seems like it should be an artifact of childhood. I'm an adult, dammit. I can legally rent a car. I go to bars and order the fancy, hard apple juice. Once, I drank a cup of black coffee—like, no sugar or anything. It was horrible, but I did it. And yet, despite the numerous milestones of adulthood I have passed, I feel a sense of dread rising as July draws to a close and my return to grad school draws closer. My stomach drops a little, and that old Nietzchean funk sneaks up on me again.

It's not exactly a secret, if you've read my other articles, that I've struggled with my grad school experience. I've found myself often questioning why I made the choice I did or whether I would do it all over again. But in spite of my dissatisfaction, I am also incredibly proud of the design work I have done there, and feel like I have grown greatly as a designer during my time at IU. So instead of dwelling on my impending return, I have decided to reflect on the work I have done this summer as a freelancer with the goal of ascertaining how grad school has changed how I work as a designer, for better or for worse.

The most surface-level difference between designing a show as a freelancer here and designing a show as a grad student at IU is the number of meetings I attend over the course of a production. At IU, we have meetings about everything. And then, after the official meetings, we have unofficial meetings in which we figure out what we are going to say in the next official meeting. It feels like whack-a-mole without the catharsis of hitting anything. But I try to keep quiet about that. In this area, at least, it's easier to get along in order to go along. So I sit and listen, waiting for my turn to tell everyone, for the third or fourth time, the linesets I want to use as electrics. And while I wait, I try my best to understand why we are doing this.

Staying patient can be hard. I once sat in on a meeting where we talked about tambourines for a solid fifteen or twenty minutes: How to play them, what they are made of, what sizes they come in. It was like someone opened the Wikipedia article on tambourines and excitedly yelled, “Hey, everyone! Get a load of this!!!!” before just reading the whole thing out loud in a monotone drone. At one point, someone suggested we look into getting an industrial tambourine and no one brought up the fact that THAT IS ABSURD WHAT EVEN IS THAT?!

Ostensibly, all these meetings exist to provide each member of the production team with as much information as possible about the other aspects of the production, so that the whole machine can work in concert towards a single goal. The first part of that usually happens. The second part—where we all work in concert—not so much. But the theory is sound, at least.

When I first got to grad school, the amount and depth of planning that went into each production was jarring. It’s not like I didn't conceive and execute plans as a freelancer, it's just that my actions were based on a much more limited pool of information. As a small freelance LD, there are often a lot of large questions still weighing on you when you walk into the theater to execute your design: Does the inventory you were given for the space match what actually exists in the space? Does it all work? Did you even receive an inventory? You try to build some of this into your planning or don't max out the inventory so you can offset broken fixtures, et cetera. But in many cases, you are forced to adapt on the fly. These adaptations are further influenced by your often limited labor budget. You may be able to create an awesome plot in that small space, but it’s worth nothing if you can't hang the damn thing by yourself and still have enough time and energy left to actually tech the show.

All of those niggling details are just some of the ones that arise as a lighting designer. Everything becomes exponentially more complex when discussing the role that planning plays in the collaborative process of small theater companies. The simple fact is that the economic realities of life as a theatrical artist or technician often necessitates juggling multiple projects or jobs simultaneously, making it extremely difficult to find the time required to get the whole production on the same page. And so, when it doesn't quite work out—when we can't have as many meetings as we want, when we find that we don't know everything about every element of the production (or everything we need to know about our own element, for that matter)—it is incredibly important that we are adaptable. We have to to be able to clear our heads of our plans and preconceived visions of what the thing is supposed to be and understand what it actually is.

That's a paradigm I'm pretty comfortable with. I learned how to tech a show as a terrified teenager in a Fringe booth, and there might be no better way of instilling the value of adaptability than having a confrontation-averse kid run a Fringe tech. So when I was finally liberated from grad school and returned to the Twin Cities for the summer, I quickly fell back into working in a style that I was comfortable with. I was excited. In spite of all the problems I had had at IU this year, I had also ended up doing some work there that I was very proud of. And I was looking forward to continuing that at home. I reveled in the fact that I was free from all the meetings, no longer held captive by interminable discussions about tambourines. I could mosey my way through a plot, and I didn't have to tell anyone what my trim heights were (mostly because it was a dead hung grid, but whatever). And come what may, I felt confident in my ability to adapt to whatever might arise.

In a sense, I was right. Nothing came up that I couldn't adapt to. But at the same time, I didn't feel quite as good about the work I was doing. Nothing was going catastrophically wrong. I didn't forget the fact that one scene takes place underwater or anything. But I did discover I was frustrated and angry with myself for having overlooked certain details: For not remembering that Act 1 ended downstage of the main drape. For not knowing that we had moved that actor's part down an octave, giving the song a different feeling. For not having done as much of my homework as I should have. Overall, I was satisfied with the work I was doing, but there were small, tiny moments that bothered me, that stuck in the back of my head and mocked me because they could have been much more than what they ended up as.

And I realized that what I was missing was the connection with the other elements of the production. Despite all my problems with the endless parade of meetings that seems to accompany every production at IU, they did have some usefulness. They provided a space where I could momentarily get into the heads of the other designers on the team. One of the parts of IU I actually enjoy is my fellow MFAs. I have been consistently blessed by being assigned as collaborators members of my cohort whose abilities I respect and whose creativity I enjoy. Working with those people, the endless, mind-numbing meetings slowly became a source of creative fuel. We were able to find wonderful moments where all the elements of a production clicked together and fell into perfect synchronicity, becoming just a little bit more than the sum of their parts. In many cases, it was these moments that became my favorite.

But it’s not as easy as just realizing, Oh, hey, maybe it’s a good idea to have meetings sometimes. As I said, the reality is that, in just under a year when I come back from grad school for good, I'll be back to working in a setting where there simply isn't time for all the meetings that IU has. And I will need to find some way to achieve the same effect, which will require me to change my process. It may require me to put more effort into engaging with the rest of the production team or perhaps to simply be more forthright in saying what I'm thinking. It may force me to use new tools to help communicate my thoughts more clearly or to be less passive in seeking out collaborators with whom I work well. But the point is, I will need to challenge the way I work when I'm outside of the structure of grad school. Because if I leave IU next May and return to the Twin Cities exactly the same as when I left, all the crap that I've put up with at grad school will be meaningless.

I know that, in the next few weeks, as I sit alone in my overly-air-conditioned booth running Fringe shows until my brain oozes out of my ears, I will inevitably feel that familiar Nietzchean-funk begin to overtake me again. And now, I have two important questions to turn to to distract myself:

1. How am I going to make sure I walk away from this whole grad school thing as a better designer, and avoid just slipping back into old habits?

2. Seriously, what the hell is an industrial tambourine?

History of the Guthrie 2

Article by Mike Wangen

The Southern, 1910. Photo: H. Larson/Minnesota Historical Society.

The Southern, 1910. Photo: H. Larson/Minnesota Historical Society.

The Southern Theater stands today as a well-established venue dedicated to promoting new work by young dance and theater companies. Yet, in my opinion, it would not exist as it does today without the time and energy that the Guthrie put into it in the mid 1970s. Here is a brief description of that history.

In the 1960s and early ’70s the Southern stood empty and abandoned. By 1975, the Guthrie Theater had decided on the need for a second, more experimental, stage and took out a lease on the Southern space. It was refurbished with seating and lighting and, in 1975, opened as the Guthrie 2 with its own acting company, artistic director, and crew. Within a year, the company was dissolved, although the Guthrie continued to produce work there until 1979 when they moved out (this idea would later become the Guthrie Lab in downtown Minneapolis during the late ’80s and ’90s). The theater was also opened up to local groups such as Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Illusion, Ozone (now Zenon Dance Company), and others who performed a number of shows there.

When it closed its doors again in 1979, people had recognized the value of the venue and the Southern Theater Foundation was formed to save the building and further restore it as a viable theater space. It reopened again in 1981 as the Southern and evolved into the venue we know today.

I leave it to the reader to consider the contribution the Guthrie has made to this community, both directly and indirectly.

Information for this article was obtained from the Guthrie production history online and the Southern Theater website.

Flashbacks to the Guthrie 2

ARTICLE BY GAIL SMOGARD

Minneapolis, 1975. Photo: Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Minneapolis, 1975. Photo: Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Gail Smogard is a theater professor and director of the theater program at Metropolitan State University. In addition to writing a number of plays, she has served as a director/dramaturg for the Guthrie, Playwrights Horizons, New Dramatists, and many others. Her experience directing for the Guthrie 2 in the late 1970s brings to light an era in the history of the Southern Theater that many may be unfamiliar with. —Mike Wangen

When I was at the Southern in 1977–78, it was known as the Guthrie 2. I was there along with Scott Rubsam as part of a grant the Guthrie had received from Medtronic to do some kind of outreach to seniors and other individuals in the Twin Cities who might not normally consider going to the theater. Apparently, far too many pictures had been taken of our audience members in tuxes and other pricey clothing standing around the Guthrie’s main stage lobby. That and other factors had increased the intimidation factor, so the concern that the Guthrie was increasingly being perceived as an elitist organization was high.

Consequently, I had been hired onto the artistic and outreach team to help combat this perception, and to help create some kind of workshop or production that would link the community more closely with the theater and help break down that barrier. I was just out of grad school and was ready for something new, so I was happy to go out into the community and poke around to see what I could find. My friend Scott was there already directing a touring production, so I asked him to join me and we began the hunt for senior citizens and their stories.

Our primary approach was to contact community center activity directors for referrals of active and interesting “older” members of the community. We had no idea what the outcome of this would be, and thought that perhaps we would have to see many, many people. But our interviews were long and in depth, so we found stories with almost everyone we spoke to. The long tapes were transcribed for us back at the Guthrie, and then we went about the process of editing the stories down to one transformative incident or a strong perspective that generally explored some time in their lives when there was a singular challenge—and what it took to make it through—and their long, lived perspective on that now.

It became clear that the individuals we spoke to needed to agree to appear as themselves and to speak their own words as we had edited them. This was quite the undertaking: Our seniors ranged from 55 to 90, and each one had his or her own set of issues and opinions. So our rehearsal period was long. Adam Granger and Pop Wagner provided the musical interludes to this bevy of seniors, often filling a “gap” as needed (“We’ll wait just a few more seconds here, as Myrtle likes to take her time crossing the stage.”). For each of our “characters,” we had converted photos from their lives into slides which were then rear screen projected onto 7-foot-tall screens. The slides were on a carousel projector (also old), and conditions were such that those carousels (which were remotely cued as each story was told) were also highly unpredictable, noisy, and off-balance. We carefully weighted them with various sizes of potatoes—which seemed to help.

The two productions finally loaded into the Southern—then the Guthrie 2—as part of the season. Flashbacks: A Scrapbook of Personal Portraits and A Christmas Past Christmas Present were a huge hit and cutting edge at the time. The response from the community was terrific, and the shows helped bring in an audience that would not ordinarily consider attending a Guthrie production. Highly accessible and powerful, it was also rehearsed within an inch of its life in order to appear to be perfectly natural. Now you see this kind of autobiographical storytelling in any number of theaters but, then, it was new, it was real, and it was important.

It was also highly unpredictable. And between our fear every night about our dear seniors making it through the show alive—and our worry that the slides would not appear on cue because the potatoes had shifted—I can’t recall a more stressful directing experience.

Wu Chen Recommends: Juliet Marillier

Article by Wu Chen Khoo

I like fairy tales. While casting about looking for something to read while holding a baby, I came across Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, the first in a series of seven, rooted in the old fairy tale of the six swans and I devoured it quickly. Other books in the series quickly followed (although the classic fairy tale connection waned) and I kept looking for others.

She’s prolific. What I’ve read have all been set in fantastic (as in fantasy), richly imagined settings, drawn on Celtic and Germanic myth and history. They’re fun, with believable characters that actually grow and change throughout. Marillier’s narratives are thoroughly enjoyable and her multi-book arcs have some real depth and range to them. If you read a lot of fantasy or adventure drama, you won’t find a whole lot here you haven’t seen before—which doesn’t mean that it isn’t executed very well or that it isn’t a good read.

Creating an Online Community for Scenic Artists

Article by Lili Payne and Sara Herman

Guild founding members Valerie Light, Tina Yager, and Angelique Powers (not pictured: Lili Payne and Sara Herman) at USITT 2017.

Guild founding members Valerie Light, Tina Yager, and Angelique Powers (not pictured: Lili Payne and Sara Herman) at USITT 2017.

The spark of an idea: Sitting around the break room table at lunch one day, a group of scenic artists were grumbling about a product that wasn’t working the way they expected. Their discussion turned to how they don’t always have time to test products, especially in more commercial settings. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to search online, negating or at least minimizing the need for a test?

For instance, a scenic could know that a certain product ACTUALLY sticks to metal the way it says it does. “You could always look on the Scenic Artists Forum on Yahoo Groups,” one painter said.

“But there is no search engine there," said another. “We would have to look through every post individually in the hope of finding an answer. That would take longer to do than the project we have to paint!”

A third scenic exclaimed, “That’s what we need! A central place online that stores product info, reviews, painting techniques, but in a searchable way.”

The discussion volleyed back and forth about ideas of how scenics could share their knowledge with other scenics across the country, about a safe place to talk about safety practices (or how to encourage unsafe shops to be better), a source for local workshops and professional development, and maybe even—gasp!—bundled health care. An association! The dream was palpable in the room. They all went back to work, thinking, wouldn’t that be nice...

In the mid 2010s, my scenic artist colleagues and I lamented that the only living digital attribute catering to our craft was an ancient Yahoo email list. This AOL-era technology was our only connection to colleagues further afield who might hold the answers to our many on-the-job queries. Sure, there are a couple of great book resources out there for scenics, specifically Scenic Art for the Theatre by Crabtree and Beudert, and Surfaces by Judy Juracek. But you can only write so much in a book—and you can’t ask it questions.

Scenic painting is not a widely held nor widely documented career. Scenics work in cities where they are sometimes the only theatrical painters in town. Their only resources are former colleagues and the internet. Googling is often fruitless; very little information about the skills of a scenic artist are shared online, especially information about products and their nonstandard uses in scenic art. The lack of information available online is especially inconvenient when your project requires a time-sensitive answer to your question, as is often the case in theater. Contact made with companies directly about their products often result in quiet representatives who aren’t able to give any solid information regarding their product in a scenic environment. They have never tested their product in the circumstances we scenics hope to use them. But they’re not to blame. It’s us scenics who dropped the ball. It is easier than ever to connect people across distances. It’s easier than ever to disseminate information directly to the people who need it.

Online forums and groups (controlbooth.com), trade associations (Costume Designers Guild, Costume Society of America, Society for Properties Artisan Managers), and unions have existed for some time, catering to other technical theater professions. Scenic artists have skirted the fringes of these groups, but no organization (other than the USA union, which isn’t a viable option for scenics working outside of the largest metro areas) has existed solely to cater to the needs of scenic artists. So in late 2015, a few colleagues and I sought to change this.

We knew what we wanted in our work lives: A central hub for scenics to gather, a modern forum to share information and connect with each other, and quick access to a database of products and techniques that was heavy with photographic content. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is never more true when describing steps of a painting process.

To make sure our desires were on par with the majority of scenics across the country, we reached out via the Yahoo email list to gather responses and gauge interest in such a venture. I couldn’t have imagined the response! In over 800 members on this email list, we received about 20 responses to our survey, a 2.5 percent response rate. I could not have imagined so few scenics would be interested in what we wanted to make. Were we that off base? Perhaps our industry didn’t need this after all or perhaps we hadn’t made our vision clear or, more likely, perhaps scenics were so busy, they hadn’t had time to respond. Spurred on by personal convictions of its necessity, we charged forward nonetheless.

Article authors—and Guild founding members—Lili Payne and Sara Herman.

Article authors—and Guild founding members—Lili Payne and Sara Herman.

Our first order of business was to literally order the business. We formed ourselves as a 501(c)(3), an educational organization whose mission is to help scenics find opportunities for professional development, new product knowledge, and help with other industry challenges. We organized ourselves as a board with formal titles and duties. We named our new organization the Guild of Scenic Artists.

We outlined our goals clearly and started an Indiegogo fundraiser in late 2016, advertising on the sputtering Yahoo list and any Facebook groups of which we were members. Two months later, we had earned $3,500 in donations from scenic artists across the country. Our initial tepid response was warming with the acknowledgement that actual work was being done to realize the idea. We hadn’t reached our initial goal, but the sum raised was just enough to hire a web developer and begin creation of our soon-to-be hub, scenicguild.org.

The Guild of Scenic Artist’s website has four sections:

  • A proprietary scenics-only forum
  • A public wiki database devoted to all things scenic art
  • A blog regularly updated with articles pertinent to scenic painting and those who practice it
  • Boards for events and jobs

We wanted to cover all the bases: spaces for scenics to troubleshoot, network, learn, and stay in tune with trends around the country.

Our website went live nine days before USITT 2017, an event we were able to attend solely with a last-minute generous sponsorship from Rosco. We hurried to make some swag gifts (because that’s what you need at expos!), hand-painted our newly designed logo onto a canvas dropcloth for a little booth flair (we’re scenics—we make do with what we have!), and went to proselytize the newly-formed Guild to any scenics in attendance.

The response was extraordinary. We left the two-day expo with 120 people signed up, only eleven days after launch. Fast forward to now, four months after launch, and we have some 275 members and counting. We’ve posted 19 blog articles ranging from interviews with industry heavyweights to instructions on how to turn astroturf into a realistic lawn. We’ve posted nine jobs and six events to our boards. Our forum has 177 posts, and our wiki is ever-growing with entries. Our first email newsletter had a 58 percent open rate and 22 percent click rate, compared to non-profit industry averages of 21 and 3 percent. Those numbers speak volumes: Scenic artists are excited about engaging with the Guild.

The feedback we receive from members is often what Carrie Ballanger, Charge Scenic Artist at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, expressed in the first comment on our website: “Glad to see you up and running! Thanks for all the work. I’ve been a scenic for nearly 20 years now and there is STILL stuff I need help figuring out.”

We were right to risk our time and energy. Our personal experiences as scenics did represent those of the industry at large. The future of the Guild is bright.

Once Upon a Time in Scotland

Story by Bill Watkins

A Soviet stamp celebrating Swan Lake, 1970.

A Soviet stamp celebrating Swan Lake, 1970.

Bill Watkins is known mainly these days as the man behind the Wednesday Pub Quiz at Merlin’s Rest Pub, but he has also worked as a stagehand for many years, both here and in the United Kingdom, and is a published author and sailor. He brings us some lighthearted summer reading about the time the Bolshoi Ballet came to visit the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Scotland in the late 1970s. —Mike Wangen

The late 1970s were a pivotal time in the vitality of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh. The 658-seat theater, replete with neo-Georgian façade, a union card-carrying theater cat named Emma Goldman, and the ghost of Edwardian actress Ellen Terry, was due for its hundredth year refit, and a prestigious visit from the internationally renowned Bolshoi Ballet.

The first hints of perestroika were in the air as the Russian company arrived and were welcomed into the fold. Many of our guests had never been out of the Soviet Union, but spoke very good English as we made great efforts to make them feel at home. Being a lighting engineer, I was impressed by the professionalism of their technicians and rehearsals went swiftly and with few hiccups.

Whether Assistant Stage Manager Sue Legg ever attended Britain’s ultra-posh Roedean School or Cheltenham Ladies' College, I have no idea, but her upper-class English accent was a real contrast to the guttural Scots voices of the majority of the house crew.

Opening night, last check of everything, and go! We on stand-by duty retired to the crew room and were enjoying a cuppa when the door burst open and a wild-eyed ASM Sue dived in, slamming the door behind her.

“I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!—how could I say such a stupid thing in the middle of all those Russians!"

“Eh?” “What?” “What happened?” was the response. Sue recounted her moment of acute embarrassment.

“I was standing by the rail when the curtain opened and I realized the back-stage work lights were still on. Suddenly, I found myself in the center of the Bolshoi performers shouting ‘Kill the workers! Kill the workers! Somebody kill the workers!’ I’ll never forget the looks on their faces!”

And I’ll bet she hasn’t!

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

ARTICLE BY KATHY MAXWELL

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?

ARTICLE By ROGER ROSVOLD

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

ARTICLE BY PETER RACHLEFF

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

ARTICLE BY LAURA ADAMS

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?

ARTICLE BY TONY STOERI

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.

NOT THAT I HAVE ANY STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT THE EVENT.

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.

ONE MORE TRY.

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

INTERVIEW BY MIKE WANGEN

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.

CONRAD: Yeah

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.

CONRAD: Yeah.

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.

CONRAD: Yep.

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

ARTICLE BY JAMIE ANDREWS

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.

Resources

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