Navigating a Career Around Age Bias


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




40th Anniversary.jpg

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Coming to Terms with the A-Word


Photo by Amy Anderson

Photo by Amy Anderson

Leading Twin Cities set designer, installation designer, fabricator, and globe-trotter, Kate Sutton-Johnson shares her reflections on her last year in light of the #MeToo movement, her experiences as a woman leading design teams of mostly men, and the subtle, systemic conditioning women (and men) face in society.  In this piece, I found myself recognizing the same secret fear of ‘the A-word,’ and the shame and uncertainty that comes with a secret hunger for base-line acceptance in a field where - consciously done or not - women feel pressured to prove their worth. Regardless as to whether you identify as a woman, man, or neither, Kate offers a compelling, personal perspective to the complicated interplay of identity, power, and leadership in the tech world. -Chava Curland


I began writing this essay back in March while on a work trip to Cambodia. I was in the midst of a busy spring of freelance work and felt like my career had turned an interesting corner. I had just finished work on SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION at the Ritz and wrapped filming on a MN Original that would feature SIX DEGREES and some of my other work. I was ending a six year stint as an exhibit designer at the Science Museum of MN. I was also working on a gorgeous production of DIAL M at the Indiana Repertory Theater with a kickass all-female design team, and I was designing the build-out for a commercial business in NE Minneapolis. There I sat, mid-flight on a thirty-plus-hour journey, en route to design a concept for a four-story restaurant in the heart of Siem Reap. Wow, I thought. This is pretty damn cool. I can’t wait to write a charming, feel-good story about all the unexpected twists and turns my career has allowed with only a bachelor’s degree in theater. I smiled a little mischievous smile and felt cozy and self-satisfied. 


So, here we are, and I never finished that essay. The summer flew by and then the fall. And as I circle back now to put the finishing touches on that little piece of literary whatever-that-was, I am not inspired to talk about that stuff anymore. Instead I’d like to talk about the conversation at hand. You know, the one you’re surely having if you know at least one female-identifying human. I’m talking about male dominance. About #metoo. About this week’s slew of outed celebrities and politicians. About rape culture and workplace gender disparities that seem to be forever stuck in a time warp. About women and silence. About men and silence. It’s the work at hand in this country, and thereby it’s the urgent work of our industry as well. I am not an op-ed writer and I can’t imagine that I have anything to say about this topic in any broad sense that hasn’t already been more powerfully articulated by some accredited New York Times writer or, you know, an actual psychologist or sociologist. Their gifts are to sort out for the rest of us what the hell is fundamentally going on. I won’t be doing that. I simply want to talk about what it’s like to be a mid-career female designer in an incredibly male-dominated industry. Because you know what? I’m fucking qualified to share my thoughts on this.

Do you sense some anger right out of the gate? That’s fantastic, because that’s one of the main things I’d like to talk about. If you have detected some rage-like feelings from women  lately, I would guess that this anger is not about the November news. It’s not even about the news of all of 2017 although, of course, raise your hand if you’re female and you haven’t fantasized about a padded room in the last six months. Anyway, I would guess that this anger you’ve sensed from the women in your life is not new, but in fact about the same age as whichever woman you are speaking with. In my case thirty-seven years old. Now, of course, I haven’t been mad for thirty-seven years. No way! I’ve been enjoying a fun, meaningful, joyful existence filled with a whole bunch of amazing people and experiences. But, I’ve also had a secret. And this secret lodged itself in the tender nucleus of my girl-identity at a very young age. It has been there so long I can’t remember a time that I was without it. And that secret is shame. From my lovely parents, from teachers, from other kids, from television shows, cartoons, movies, magazines, from strangers, religious figures, Santa Claus at the mall—from almost everyone that touched my life, I learned to feel shame around a bunch of stuff having to do with my feminine identity. 

An adult might remark with surprise (the tone in their voices signaling veiled criticism) when I would show an interest in something stereotypically male like “tomboy” behaviors, certain school subjects, physical play/sports, leadership roles in groups. I might hear another girl being discussed as troublesome: she’s too young for pierced ears, or lip gloss, or that type of dress. A relative might react with alarm to my unladylike behavior and I would see how this was designed not only to shame me, but to shame my mother. And this echo chamber became a chorus of voices everywhere, in tiny bits, tucked into everything. Policing women through shame. 

Did you see what she was wearing?     
Cross your legs and sit like a pretty girl.
Is she trying to look like a tramp? 

You get the idea. In short, there is just a tremendous pressure on girls from a very early age, through every stage of their development into adulthood, about how they look. So many people comment first on your physical appearance that you learn how much this is valued over other aspects of self if you’re female. A major source of my personal story of shame is about secrecy and the things “we don’t talk about” in our culture. This is an even more insidious part of policing women and embedding feelings shame. This unspoken cultural pressure is primarily about sexuality. American culture is positively riddled with anxieties about sex and it is a stew of contradictions and deeply unhealthy, confusing messages for women. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia and the policy of sex education there was, at the time, abstinence only. I still have my little booklet from my sixth grade sex ed class which has a purple and pink cover. It’s called Changing and it’s all about getting your period. When I think back about what I really took away from sex education, it wasn’t learning about my period. It wasn’t a bunch of healthy messages about my changing body. This is what I heard: Girls, puberty is an extremely dangerous time in your life as you take on the characteristics of a woman’s body. Boys will be aroused by your titillating new curves and they won’t be able to control themselves. This is understandable because they are hitting puberty too, but it’s up to girls to be on defense against the boys. Girls, be on the lookout at all times for horny boys trying to touch your tempting bodies. Police them. You are now the police.

Just like other things I’d been policed on as off-limits for girls, I learned then that sex wasn’t for me. I learned that it was for men. I learned that women are responsible for managing not only their behaviors but the behaviors of men and boys. This is rape culture at its foundation. 
So, yeah, shame. That’s where it started for me in a nutshell. The thing about shame is that it doesn’t really modify the behaviors it’s trying to quell. It simply causes the person being shamed deep psychological distress, leaving them to feel immense amounts of guilt about their buried desires and instincts. I had no idea that I’d been carrying this kind of shame around with me until I hit my thirties, and looking back on what this past decade has been like for me, I really can’t believe what it’s meant to wrestle with this new information. As Gloria Steinem has said many times: the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. Um, yeah…
About five or six years ago I was having a phone conversation with a close friend of mine. This friend is a white, gay male who is, and was at the time, a successful costume designer. He was based in New York, and he was going through a painful experience, thinking of leaving the industry entirely and moving out of the city. He had graduated from a top program some years earlier, clearly a rising star, and he had aspirations to break into the elite echelon of Broadway costume designers. Of course this is what so many designers dream of, but it wasn’t like this was that far-fetched for where he was in his career. He had risen quickly through the ranks; he was getting major regional gigs, designing high-profile world-premiere operas, working in film, and on and on. But he felt like he couldn’t bust through a certain ceiling and attain the kind of success he wanted. I listened closely and kept thinking, yes, of course. God, I know, I know. It’s so hard. You can never break through. He said he felt ashamed that he and his boyfriend were living like paupers, barely able to afford rent. He felt like he had been hiding their financial situation from their friends and family because he needed to portray an outward appearance of success. He described how he had finally had the courage to talk with some of his friends about his feelings of shame around this. I told him I understood how difficult this must have been. And then I asked, “Did you also talk with your friends about the other shame you must be feeling? The shame you feel about being so ambitious?” And he paused, confused, and said, “What? What do you mean? Why would I feel ashamed about being ambitious?” 

Long, silent beat. 

So, that was, shall we say, eye opening. I realized then that this shame stuff was not just a little compartmentalized corner of my identity, but a tangled mess woven into my whole life, even my career. I felt so much shame about being ambitious that I had never been able to even say the A-word. I’m ambitious. Even the thought of it now threatens to make my skin warm in an uncomfortable blush. It’s a descriptor that clangs a big ole negative gong somewhere deep inside me, and I find myself frantically looking around, worried that other people may have heard it. Did they catch a glimpse of my ambition? I might as well grab a megaphone and announce, Hello, everyone! (thump, thump) Is this thing on? Great! Just wanted to announce that I’m incredibly greedy and will stop at nothing to gain status! Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I learned somewhere that ambitious girls are bad girls. 

So, let’s fast forward. This good girl grew up, graduated college and moved to Minneapolis. For fifteen years now I’ve spent my time working with directors, other designers, and shops. I have been the only female on many of these teams, although sometimes there has been another woman or two, often a costume designer or a stage manager. With the fabrication shops, particularly, it’s always been an overwhelmingly male world. It’s construction after all, and there certainly exists a full-on boys club in many of these shops and on house crews in theaters throughout the country. In the role of young-ish female designer, I’ve not only been wildly outnumbered, I’ve also been in a leadership position. My work has required that I provide direction and building specifications to large groups of men and then that I check in often, monitoring the outcomes and critiquing their work along the way. Yeah, really, it’s been as fun as it sounds. They love it too.

And the fun doesn’t stop there, because I am outnumbered by men on artistic teams too. My fellow designers are sometimes the most challenging. Maybe it’s a lighting designer on a project. Or a sound designer. I brace myself for another man making sure I understand how infuriating it is to them when I get too close to their turf. Those moments are particularly humiliating, being chastised by an angry man in front of your collaborators. I’ve shed many tears over those excruciating experiences, and for years I placed the blame squarely on my own shoulders for these encounters. And, I was partly to blame, of course. However, it is always a man exploding, while I stand there shaking, trying to act calm. And the exploding man is always a hetero male. Always.

Recently I have found myself on some all-female design teams, even working with some female carpenters and welders here and there, and the contrast with these experiences to what I’ve come to think of as “normal” is startling. For example, women don’t interrupt me incessantly mid-sentence. They don’t act aggressive and threatened. They don’t pick fights with me. They don’t criticize me in front of large groups of my peers in a humiliating fashion. They don’t blatantly exert power over me by speaking condescendingly. They don’t explain things to me that I already know, or if they do, they do so by first asking me if I know about the subject. From women, I never sense that they are holding back an avalanche of impatience and disgust. They aren’t tolerating me. Women aren’t looking for me to make mistakes so that they can point them out. Women are not gruff or short with me; rather, they often show an interest in my design work and ask about my experience on the project. They often identify something unique about my job that differs from their role and they remark on how they find that interesting. Women are professional. They don’t make odd, uncomfortable jokes. Women don’t say inappropriate sexual things to me or about other people we are working with. Women are highly productive almost all of the time. Women are incredibly resourceful and unafraid to ask for information when they don’t know something.

In short, women in our industry usually come with a heaping helping of emotional intelligence, an incredible work ethic, and a lovely sense of curiosity that is wildly refreshing when you’ve been dealing with only men for so long.

I realize that there’s a lot I’m putting out here that’s broadly negative about men, depicted in contrast to a rosy, glowing view of women. There are nuances to all of this of course. There certainly isn’t always friction with men. I have found lots of these partnerships to be really healthy and genuinely fun. It’s extremely important to point out that developed, confident men who respect women in leadership positions are out there. But I don’t think we can underestimate the baked-in misogyny that leads to very biased behaviors in our industry. When it comes to unpleasant encounters with men, what have all of these micro or macro misogyny-aggressions triggered in me? Well, for years, it certainly wasn’t anger. For years, it was simply humiliation and guilt. And there are other ways that my feelings of feminine shame have intersected with my career. It’s pervaded everything, actually. I used to feel shame when I negotiated for more money. I used to be secretive about how much I was working. I knew that I didn’t have the work/life balance I was supposed to, but I wasn’t often focused on chores, grocery shopping, and making meals. I was intensely focused on my work. But it was hard to shake the feeling that I was failing as a woman in my disinterest with domestic affairs. While I actively sought success in my career, I also felt ashamed of it and for my insatiable desire for more. And until very recently, I never would have made any of this stuff about gender, because I was afraid that framing interactions in the workplace in this way would anger men.

This is my personal experience, but for all of us in this industry, where do we sit with this right now? We wonder about all of the news lately. How can so many men have done these things? Where are the good guys? And I would say that men are misogynistic and committing violence against women because they learned these behaviors. It’s the same soup of crap that bestowed on me the skills for behaving like a “good girl.” Our culture taught them that they are entitled to women’s bodies and so they are taking what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Maybe they themselves aren’t physically grabbing women’s bodies as they walk by in bars. Perhaps they’re the guys on the sidelines chuckling good-humoredly about the escapades of their male friends. My point is that these men are “normal men.” It’s men that we all know. I would posit that it’s men who are deeply insecure with extremely limited emotional skills. And I really hate to be negative, but that is an absolutely staggering number of men. Just as women are being taught a bunch of negative bullshit they don’t need, men are not being taught emotional skills beyond a very narrow sliver of the full spectrum. Our culture is equally failing men and women. I really believe that.

 These cultural issues facing all genders are, of course, manifesting themselves inside our industry. The tentacles of rape culture are vast and, even if there isn’t actual violence, there is certainly male dominance and aggression in many work settings. These abuses of power relating to sex that we see on the news are connected to far more subtle workplace power dynamics. The stuff is woven into the patterns of so many other, more benign interactions. It’s sometimes hard to see, because it doesn’t look like sexual attraction. It actually looks like repulsion. But it’s two sides of the same thing. It’s misogyny. When it comes to the fabrication end of our business, I have been treated as an intruder in my work world since the day I stepped into the room. If you think I might be harboring some anger about this after fifteen years, you would be right. However, I have really learned to listen to rageful Kate because she knows some shit.

 Interestingly, I started working with a new shop recently. Another thirty or so men to win over. (Excuse me real quick while I crack my knuckles and count to ten.) But, you know, this time it’s been a piece of cake. I mean it, really. Easy peasy. I felt like I resolved all the issues in the first design presentation. They talked over me. I internally rolled my eyes. They mansplained. I waited patiently. We did the whole ritual. But in the end, they acquiesced to my I’ve-been-dealing-with-this-BS-for-long-enough precision tactics. The fact is, I’m damn good at my job and I’m no longer waiting for a jury of men to come to some other conclusion. And this time, it doesn’t feel like these guys are just tolerating me. I think they actually respect me, perhaps even look up to me. 

So, have I simply done this so long that I’ve mastered being “male enough” to earn the respect of men? No, I don’t think that’s it, although over the years I’ve learned so much about construction, management, finances, leadership etc. that I think men can’t help but notice my expertise at this point. There’s more to it than that, though. Working with lots of women lately really has had a huge impact on me. It has revealed a work dynamic that I didn’t even know I was missing. I think the greatest takeaway from these experiences is probably the simple knowledge that there is a better way than the all-male way. There’s a way that centers women in the process that’s better. Period. I used to come to a project with a posture of, oh boy, here we go. What is this group all about? What’s the male culture and how can I be accepted? I saw myself as the outsider and I anxiously tested the waters to find out how to be palatable to the group. I thought that was what good leaders do: they read their group and then lead accordingly. That’s not really what I do anymore. I lead differently. I come into the room and in how I talk about the project, the subtext is this: Hello colleagues. I’ve come into this room today with an offering of community. It is a gift easily given and easily accepted. I will show you by example what this community is like because it’s mine. I am not an outsider, but rather, I’m resting comfortably with no effort in a position of strength. In this community, we listen to one another, we aren’t defensive, we make amazing things together as a team, we celebrate each other’s different skills, and we have lots of fun even when there are challenges. It appears that men sense my change in attitude. Maybe I just seem less needy. Or maybe it’s more like a form of reverse psychology. Of playing hard to get. I suppose I don’t know precisely what’s happening on their end because I’m not a man. I just know I’m more authentic than ever and the results are positive. 

So, is that a wrap? Have I beaten all of my shame demons? Good god, no. I am only at the beginning of this journey, I think. But I have figured out ways to bring my real feminine humanity and its power into my work-world with men, and I am very proud of this. 
Feeling like an insider rather than an outsider is allowing me to focus on new things. Having that bit of brain space back is glorious. I’ve spent so much energy on this stuff for so many years that I’m grateful to have the experience under my belt that allows me to finally command—if not admiration—at least some across-the-board courtesy from my male peers. I’m looking forward to channeling some of that extra energy I’ve spent trying to earn respect into simply doing my job well. I can also use the headspace for whatever is on the horizon in 2018. Unfortunately I think I’ll still be resorting to my knuckle-cracking-and-counting-to-ten ritual here and there. I do feel optimistic, however. Some men are really working to understand what women like me are talking about. Meanwhile, women are amplifying each other’s voices like never before. And I think--I hope--that men will begin to do more of this too. 

So as we move to amplify women, let me just say... 

Ahem. Hey, guys. (thump, thump) Is this thing on? Awesome. My name is Kate, and I’m unapologetically ambitious. I’m a dream-chasing, wild thing. 


To learn more about Kate Sutton-Johnson, visit her website by clicking here.

The Influence of Design



Esteemed playwright Carlyle Brown muses this month on how design elements in production have shaped and influenced his thought process in writing a play.  The idea that the words on the page can take on a sometimes surprising life through the efforts of the design team is just another example of what makes theater a magical and unique artform and one which we should all value.  A true collaboration. - Mike Wangen


In the very early beginnings of my career as a playwright, I had the good fortune of working with three extraordinary theater designers; set designer Doug Stein, lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, and costume designer Paul Tazwell. The theater was Arena Stage and the production was my now much produced The African Company Presents Richard III, the story of a group of free Africans putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in New York City in 1821. The play was yet unfinished and needed fixing in places that I was yet to discern. What I learned from these three talented gentlemen was that in the experience of a piece of theater what we “see” is as important as the text in the telling of a theatrical story. 

There is a scene in the play where the character Sarah has fashioned an old, worn “pigeon-tail coat” with colorful patches for Papa Shakespeare to make amends for her former ill-treatment of him and to celebrate the opening of their production in the ballroom of a hotel, next-door to the powerful white theater that previously had them shut down. Excited and joyful for the gift of reconciliation and the redemption of their production, Papa Shakespeare exclaims to her, “Oh Sarah, it be just like the Bible say you reap what you sow”. Instead of hearing “sow,” because of Paul Tazwell’s colorful patchwork costume, the audience heard “sew.” Suddenly, unintended and unforeseen laughter and a surprising pun was born out of text. We kept it, of course, because the colorful costume had transformed a piece of exposition into a theatrical moment.

Likewise, in another scene a character is reminiscing/reliving a hurtful moment in the past in a monologue when another character enters with unpleasant news of the present. The transaction of moving from the character’s internal moment to an external one eluded me. But Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes resolved the problem with a light cue, a shift and bump of light that simply said, now you’re in your head and now you’re not. Place also became an issue in that production. Of all the locations where scenes and action take place - a rehearsal loft, a hotel ballroom, two theaters, a street - which should be central? In the end, we settled upon the rehearsal loft because that was the place where the most interesting scenes took place and its design in relationship to all the other locations was the most serviceable to staging and direction. But, in a subsequent production to be toured with the Acting Company, Doug Stein designed the play around an idea rather than a location; a simple, raked platform from stage left to stage right framed by the wooden ribs of a slave ship symbolizing the journey of these new African-Americans in a cultural affirmation through Shakespeare to a new world. In its surreal way, it was a design that was more real than realism, speaking fundamentally to the ideals of the play.

Since that production, I have come to respect and appreciate designers as story tellers in their own right, painting around the edges of words to collectively create a theatrical world. The associated artists of Carlyle Brown & Company are mostly designers; lighting designer Mike Wangen, sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, set designer Joe Stanley, costume designer Clare Branch, and properties designer and instillation artist Kellie Larson. They support me, challenge me, and keep me honest. Their analysis is as good as the best of dramaturgs. Under their influence, my stage directions have become sparse to nonexistent. Their aural and visual imaginings are far more insightful. In some strange, ethereal and indescribable way, they are with me when I sit down to write. Not looking over my shoulder, but opening doors to imaginative possibilities. They are more than colleagues or even friends; they are this playwright’s family.


For more on Carlyle Brown & Company, click here.



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. If he does, click here!
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


When I was a kid, I loved Where's Waldo. I was entranced by the vast, labyrinthine splendor that comprised each page- hundreds of tiny stories overlapping and intersecting, each one frozen in time at a crucial moment. I loved extrapolating outwards from these crystallized points of time, imagining the adjacent moments that the drawings conjured so vividly. And above all, I think I loved the contrast between the sweeping vista of a Where's Waldo spread, and the cramped intimacy of those tiny visual stories. I loved that I could unfocus my eyes, take in the visual cacophony that soared across two large pages, and then dive-in, leaving behind the overwhelming tangle of tiny people to find myself caught up in the story of that one guy who just poked that other guy in the butt with a spear. In that moment, for those two guys, life was simple. Neither of them seemed to care at all that they were about to be run over by that rogue chariot, or that in the background there were clearly at least TWO different volcanoes in the midst of catastrophic eruptions. They experienced only what was occurring right in front of them, living totally in the moment, their tiny faces showing only untempered joy and overwhelming, immediate discomfort. As a seven-year old child, carrying all the pressures of second grade on my stooped back, I envied them.

But what I hated about Where's Waldo is that some people seemed to think it was a game. I would be standing at a table in the middle of the Scholastic book fair, enraptured by my own personal viewing of what I believed to be art on the level of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when some snot-nosed punk classmate would come up behind me and say something to the effect of: “I have this book at home, it's easy, he's right there.” They would stab their chubby, grimy finger at the page, and then scamper off to go buy an I Spy, or do whatever it is that second-grade philistines do. “I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT STUPID TOURIST IN HIS DORKY SHIRT” I wanted to yell after them, but they would already be gone, and with them my own blissful myopia. Turning back to the book before me, I would experience a sense of vertigo, suddenly realizing that what I had just seen moments earlier as a rich tapestry of stories was, in fact, a simple, chore-like puzzle, centered on finding a very confused man with a pathological fondness for stripes.

Coming up on the halfway point of my final year of grad school and reflecting back on my experiences thus far, I found myself thinking a lot about those two guys with spears from that half-remembered Where's Waldo book. During my first two years at this place, I found myself operating under a set of rules and assumptions that appeared, from the outside looking in, inscrutable and illogical. You spend so much of your time in school, at school, working on school related projects, hanging out with friends you know from school, that any minor shift in the environment has a major ripple effect. That passive-aggressive email exchange about whether the money for the practicals the scenic designer specced is coming from props or electrics isn't a thing you can leave at work. It's not something you can get any meaningful separation from because everything in your day-to-day experience connects back to that place. The result is a feedback loop; no one can step back and gain separation and perspective, so everyone becomes more and more stressed and anxious about whatever is the crisis du jour. Events that are relatively minor and insignificant loom large and prominent, while other concerns recede into the background, regardless of how important they might be. We all become that guy from the Where's Waldo page, so utterly and totally intent on poking the other guy in front of us with our spear that we are completely oblivious to the onrushing chariot or the multiple erupting volcanoes.

But then, in your third year, the rug is yanked out from under you, the camera does a big old dolly zoom, and suddenly your professor calls you into his office and asks what you're doing after you graduate. And just as in that moment where that jerk points out where Waldo is without even being asked, everything shifts. The immediate concerns of your day-to-day stresses fall off, and those big, vague thoughts that have spent the past two years looming in the back of your mind come rushing to the fore with an urgency that takes your breath away. What comes after?

And you're not sure. Which is logical. I mean, changes this big always come with uncertainties and anxieties. But you're caught in the feedback loop, and there's no room for something to be an unknown. So you listen to your professor talk about your social media presence as a designer, and you listen to him talk about your portfolio, and you soak it all in. Deep down you're pretty sure that the fetishistic way that professors here treat portfolios is just an attempt to make up for the lack of practical career development material. No one is gonna tell you how to negotiate a contract, but they will be able to tell you that the gray background for this page is perhaps a bit too charcoal, and in the absence of any more meaningful input, it becomes easy to settle for the illusion of an answer in place of a real one. And so as you listen to a one-sided discussion about how maybe you should change where on your resume you list your references, you suddenly realize that this place has taught you to look at your career as a problem to be solved. Something with a definitive answer, and - by extension - a definitive right and wrong path.

A few weeks ago, some friends from the Twin Cities were visiting Dayton, Ohio. It's about a three hour drive from Bloomington, so I drove up to meet them. Dayton feels empty as a city; a downtown filled with old industrial buildings that stand derelict and boarded up, surrounded by a tangled fringe of old houses from the sixties and seventies. Beautiful, but not particularly well kept. There not being much in the way of sights to see in Dayton, we spent the day hanging out just like we would if we were back home. We got pizza, watched T.V., talked shop. It was one of the precious islands of normalcy that comes along every so often to interrupt the sustained insanity of grad school.

I left to drive home at about nine pm. Driving back, with little to distract me, my mind turned to worrying. Just a day or two before, Intermedia had announced it was laying off its staff, and my friends had expressed anxieties over the state of the Twin Cities theater scene. This brought to mind my own anxieties about leaving grad school, about all the things that could go wrong or poorly, all the things I needed to solve. But somehow, in that small car on a darkening highway, basking in the aftermath of a day spent with friends, I was able to shrug off that voice in my head. I felt in that moment thankful that I was able to follow this career path, that I had a chance of getting to do what I wanted. And I found myself looking forward to the ride. I'm trying to hold on to that feeling.

Half a year left.


Putting your hard-earned tax dollars to work: NIOSH health hazard evaluations

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

One summer I got hired to be a props assistant at a small summer stock theater company in Connecticut, my first summer stock gig.  I was still in college, and had just finished my junior year.  When I arrived at the posh boarding school campus that housed the festival, I found that, counter to my expectations, I was, in fact, the entire props department.  As the first of many professional “fake it ‘til you make it” moments in my career, it was a doozy.  

That summer hosted a lot of professional “firsts” for me, some more memorable than others.  But one memory that sticks out very plainly in a blur of colorful images was a moment when I found myself in a small, enclosed office, spraying foam insulation into a plywood frame in the shape of one of those mantelpiece clocks reminiscent of Napoleon’s famous bicorne hat, which was placed on the head of the assistant technical director.  We had had with the brilliant idea of having him wear it during construction as a head-shaped mold for the foam, so that it could be used during the show as a hat, because theater.  I know.  Whatever you’re thinking, I have already thought of.  To this day (fifteen years later) I cringe at the thought of all the things wrong with this operation, from every conceivable angle.  At the time, I just remember thinking, “Our job is weird.”  

Our job is weird.  It is weird, and it is inconsistent, and while you’ll have times when you go for months painting wood to look like wood, or building endless square platforms out of 2x4 and ¾ ply, you can also suddenly find yourself distressing a baby doll to look like a demon zombie child that can be hung around the neck of Richard III (or was it his mother?) to symbolize the emotional distress embodied by his physical deformity.  Because theater.  

Because of this, it can be difficult to figure out how to apply safety and health learnings from other industries to our trade, and, somehow, our trade doesn’t get nearly as much press as a lot of other trades, so it doesn’t get as many tailored learnings to begin with as something like construction or mining.  

This is just one of the challenges inherent in creating a stronger health, safety, and wellness culture within the performing arts.  However, there are places you can turn for assistance.  I’ve mentioned some of them in my previous column, but there’s one I’m going to highlight in particular today, and that is the NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation database.

Just as a reminder, NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and its mission is to promote productive workplaces through safety and health research.  Their website has a ton of useful information, but today’s focus is, as I mentioned, the Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) program.

This program brings safety and health experts from the institute to assess and evaluate hazards at a workplace, at the request of an employee, employer, or union.  The evaluation is performed at no cost to the company evaluated (your tax dollars at work—use them!) and has the advantage of providing EHS specialists who are not only highly skilled and experienced, but also as unbiased as it is possible for such a specialist to be.  An evaluation can be requested for any chemical, physical, biological, or even psychosocial hazard (or combination of hazards) that an employer or employee is concerned about, and as NIOSH is an agency dedicated to research and education, does not issue citations or fines of any kind.  What it will provide is a summary report with the results of the evaluation, recommendations for improvements, and potential resources for employers in implementing those improvements.

The HHE database on NIOSH’s website contains all 3521 reports completed since the program began in 1970.  Most are available for download (free) in PDF format, a few you can request a copy of from NIOSH (also free, they just don’t have them available for download). They are categorized by year, company, health hazard, and industry, and have a fairly robust search feature.  

As I mentioned, any employee, employer, or union representative can request an HHE.  Once they receive a request, someone from the program will contact the requestor, and find out more about the situation, and determine if an onsite evaluation is necessary.  If it’s not, they’ll provide the employer and employees with information about the hazards in question, general recommendations for ways to abate them, and resources on how to implement those recommendations.  This is typically the case for situations involving well known problems, with recognized solutions, and readily available guidance.

If it is determined that an onsite evaluation is needed, NIOSH will make arrangements with the employer to come to the workplace and conduct the assessment there.  This may include confidential employee interviews or surveys, task and environment observation, chemical sampling, noise monitoring, radiation monitoring, medical testing, and more.  It may require multiple days onsite.  And at the end, the company and employees will receive a full report with all the results, recommendations, and resources carefully tailored to their exact company and situation.  After an evaluation, NIOSH holds a follow-up session with the company and employees where they learn whether the recommendations were implemented, the impact of the investigation on the company and employees, and ask for feedback to improve future assessments.

You might think that a theater company has little chance of being selected for something like this.  But remember earlier when I said how it can be difficult to apply general industry learnings to the arts?  A NIOSH employee I spoke to this year said that this is exactly the reason why we have a greater chance of being selected—the more common a hazard situation is, the more likely it’s already been covered in the literature, and possibly by NIOSH themselves.  Onsite evaluations are for problems that are not well-known, don’t have recognized solutions, and lack readily available guidance.  I’d say that pretty much sums up the performing arts field, as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned.  

So far, only two HHEs have been performed within actual theater companies:  one in 1985, at the Palace Theater in New York, to investigate employee exposure to 1,1,1-trichloroethane, which was being used to spot clean costumes during performances, and one in 1994, to investigate employee exposure to theatrical smoke in Broadway performances.  That’s it.  The employee I spoke to, who was giving a presentation on the 1985 assessment, spoke longingly of his group’s eagerness to know more about this industry and its hazards.    If you wish, they will not tell your employer who called them.  There is no minimum number of employees who must be affected.  It’s free to apply, free for any assistance they give, and you have nothing to lose by inviting them to help.  

My summer as a first-time prop master eventually ended, and I knew a lot more about furniture, fake food, and what not to do in any work environment than I had before.  As far as I know, my unfortunate hat mold model is still just fine and still working in theatre, hopefully not breathing any more insulation foam fumes at close range.  Since then, though, I’ve learned a lot more about resources we can use to keep ourselves safe and sane at work, and one of my firmest beliefs is that if you’re going to pay for something, you might as well make the receiver work for it.  You pay taxes.  Get your money’s worth.  Make them earn it.  You deserve it.

The weirdness of theater notwithstanding, here are a selection of HHEs I found besides the two above that I feel have applications to theater.  If you do any digging and find more, please let me know through Tech Tools!

MGM Grand Hotel & Casino – employee exposure to pyrotechnic smoke

Flame retardant exposure

Paint exposure in aircraft finishing

Ventilation in aircraft restoration hangars

Organic vapors in screen printing

Lead and wood dust exposure in floor refinishing

Chemical exposure during spray painting

Chemical exposures, job stress, and other work-related concerns at a forensic crime lab

Exposures at a pottery shop

Lead exposure at a stained-glass studio

Airborne emissions from laser cutting

Scaffold Seating and Precarious Pipes: Tech in the Time of the Guthrie 2

This is the second of our articles about the Guthrie 2, the entity that existed on the West Bank from 1976-79 before it evolved into the Southern Theater that we know today.
Jeff Bartlett is a well known regional theater and dance lighting designer and was the founding artistic director of the Southern Theater, serving from 1981-2008.  He is currently the production manager and lighting designer for the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College.
-Mike Wangen

Many in our theater community know the Southern Theater: artists and audience are fond of its unique warmth and ambiance; technicians have great fear and loathing of its pipe grid.  (You think it’s bad now boys n’ girls? You shoulda seen it when there weren’t even planks!)

Many folks know that the Southern opened as a vaudeville house in 1910, and that the building was subject to multiple uses/abuses over the decades: gutted and turned into a garage/warehouse, a restaurant and sundry other identities

Fewer and fewer though, may remember the brief but oh-so-critical juncture in the building’s history when it re-emerged from its derelict state and returned to its role as a performing arts venue, under the visionary if perhaps slightly crazy leadership of Artistic Director Eugene Lion: its 3-year stint as the “Guthrie 2” from 1976-79.

The “G2” was a grand adventure in “experimental theater.”  An artistic adventure, yes, featuring such contemporary scripts as The Future Pit and Krapp’s Last Tape.  But a true physical adventure for the audience as well, with no actual seats; rather a rickety, unsightly and entirely uncomfortable makeshift seating structure fashioned from construction scaffold.  And what an adventure for technicians, doing all their grid work on a series of pipes held up with chains, swaying with our every move!

Background: the story as I heard it (in my early days as in tern at the G2) was that Eugene, who had some sort of working relationship with the Guthrie, had pretty much on his own initiative received funding from a major national foundation to set up an “alternative,” second, performing space for the Guthrie.  Although then-Guthrie Artistic Director Michael Langham apparently wasn’t thrilled with either Eugene or his non-traditional approaches to theater, once the grant was awarded Guthrie management had little choice but to give the project a chance.

So the project had minimal financial support, and only “begrudging” conceptual support, from the Guthrie especially at the very beginning.  And/but/also, the whole endeavor was seen by those of us working on it as a brave and bold venture into uncharted realms of “experimental theater.”  So no one needed to bother themselves with petty bourgeois concerns like audience comfort or technician safety.

And the space needed to be (of course!) flexible!!  (Can’t be “experimental” if it isn’t flexible, right?)

The formula thus became: lack of money + desire for flexible seating + this is a brave and bold experiment = let’s put the audience on scaffolds that can be rolled around the room into any configuration we want!  

What are they going to sit on?  Why, we’ll build a bunch of box-like structures that can sit on the scaffolds and serve as both benches and steps.  (Come to think of it, this very design idea is echoed in the concrete stairs on the north side of the new Guthrie… hmmm…)

Flexible, they were.  Comfortable, not.  Plywood over a 1-by frame, with the cheapest imaginable carpeting laid down over some super-cheesy foam-type material that was forever dissolving and getting all up in everything.  Good times.

But the best part – the really really best part for the techies among us, was the grid at the time.  

The grid was literally just that: a grid.  Pipes, spaced on 5’ x 6’ rectangles (except 5’x5’ at the far north and south sides).  No other pipes than that basic 5’6’ grid.  No planks. The grid was hung by chains and not fastened to the walls in any way, so the whole thing swung side to side when you were up there moving around.

Yup – up there moving around.  On no planks.  Oh and also, no access.  How did you get up there?  You climbed up the seats-that-were-boxes on scaffold, you got to the top row and you climbed the railings of the scaffold.  That put your head around grid height, from where you shimmed yourself up onto the grid whereupon you were standing on: a pipe.  Holding onto a chain with each hand.

And if you were carrying, for example, a lighting instrument or a cable or 2 or 3, you were also holding those with one of those same two hands that was holding one of the chains.  So now you made your way across the grid, your hands moving Tarzan-style from one chain to the next (simultaneously holding onto the lighting gear), your feet on - did I mention? – nothing but bare pipes. (1-1/4” Sched 40, G2 couldn’t afford 1-1/2.”)

Maybe it was good we didn’t have much gear.  A bunch of Altman 6” fresnels and some old step-lens Kleigl ellipses that the Guthrie no longer wanted (go figure).  500-watt units replete with that lovely characteristic concentric-dark-circle beam pattern those funky old lights used to put out.  Beam angle?  Can’t say for sure, but they had come from Guthrie and were designed for that type of throw so in that room they put out like a 6-foot circle as I recall.  

24 circuits in the grid (6 circuits each – 1 receptacle per – in each of 4 boxes).  24 dimmers and a Teatronics 2-scene preset, and that was our lighting rig.

I should mention too that at this time, the proscenium arch was filled with a sheetrock wall.  The space behind the arch was the Scene Shop – except for the little bit at what’s now backstage left, that was the Costume Shop.  (The Guthrie 2 was fully staffed mind you: it had its own Equity Company, 2 or 3 Equity Stage Managers, a TD, resident set designer, publicity and financial staff, you name it.  The building was packed with people.)  But the playing area was entirely in front of the proscenium – that didn’t get opened up till later…

So while there wasn’t too much gear and we didn’t have to light behind the arch, the stage configuration changed from show to show so we had our hands full, me plus a couple other folk schlepping lights around, walking on pipes, swinging from chain to chain on the pipe grid. Thus we ventured into the opening production, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, directed by Eugene Lion with set and lights by Richard Hoover, in late January 1976.

The resident company’s – and Eugene Lion’s – opening season didn’t last too long.  Around April or so Michael Langham announced he was terminating the experiment.  The G2’s resident playwright Robert Hellman penned a play entitled Open and Shut, an allegorical tale of the G2’s brief adventures.  Lighting was by Karlis Ozols who brought in a ton of extra gear so a great part of the tech process was orchestrating the physical repatches.  With that, the Guthrie 2’s inaugural season closed in May ‘76, just 5 months after it opened.

But the G2 had left a lasting gift to the Twin Cities performing arts community.  Eugene Lion, with all his nuttiness, had the wonderful and unshakeable conviction that the space should be used by independent local artists, and so The 10:30 Series was born: late-night productions by all manner of artists including Barbra Berlovitz and Domique Serrand, pre-Jeune Lune; Michael Robins’ and Bonnie Morris’ Illusion “Mime” Theater as it was known at the time; Ken DeLap and the Ozone Dance Company which transmuted into Zenon a few years later…  and a most memorable production by Chris Langham, Michael’s son, of Pilk’s Madhouse, which production began at the G2 but by the end, the audience had been moved next door to the Dudley Riggs theater, in what’s now Town Hall Brewery.

But I digress…  turning our attention back to the gird:  Open and Shut featured as a primary design element, a couple dozen straw-filled dummies falling from the grid at intervals throughout the show.  A jerry-rigged maze of string and fishline permeated the grid space (making it even more fun to move around up!), leading back to a platform at what’s now upstage left which was control central for the “dummy fall operator.”

That platform, the first non-pipe structure installed in the grid, to my knowledge remains to this day and became the beginning of the plank system that has served as “catwalks” for the decades since.

After the resident company was disbanded, the space became used more and more by community groups, and the seeds of the present-day “Southern” artistic identity were sown.  The Guthrie also produced a number of plays there and in the process, decided (thank goodness!) that the scaffold seating had to go.  The Guthrie shop constructed some box steel frameworks, used theater seats were discovered at a movie theater that was being demolished, and “permanent” seating was installed.

But with the scaffold gone, there was no way to access the grid so my brother, visiting from New York, and I opened a hole in a sheetrock wall that’s no longer there, and installed a gangplank to get out to the grid.  The catwalk planking came later, after a G2 production left a bunch of lumber it had used for a set, which I single-handedly lugged into the grid and began creating the planking system that has grown somewhat over the years.

Thus the Guthrie 2 “opened and shut,” and paving the way for the next half-century the noble Southern Theater’s life.


Jeff Bartlett has been designing lights and production-managing in the Twin-Cities since his time as an intern at the Guthrie 2.  He is now Production Manager and Lighting Designer at the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College, and was known as the Founding Artistic Director of the Southern from 1981-2008.

Old School vs. New School

Article by Sonya Berlovitz

Costume sketch by Sonya Berlovitz.

Costume sketch by Sonya Berlovitz.

I have observed Sonya’s costume design work for many years and she continues to inspire me with her creativity and craft. From her work with Jeune Lune to her current designs for shows such as Refugia, she always exhibits a strong aesthetic with a bit of whimsy attached. Her article about the way new technology has changed her process has led me to consider these changes in my own work as well, and where it will all lead in the future. —Mike Wangen

Over the last 37 years as a costume designer, my process has changed from beginnings of doing everything by hand. I am insatiably curious by nature and am always interested in new techniques that can enhance my work and process. Today I rely on a variety of tools to complete my work, some old school and some new school.

When I was younger—a lot younger—I was a purist. I went to school in France to learn the labor-intensive hand technique of draping. I honed my drawing skills there as well. Being in Paris and working very slowly to develop my skills felt very romantic and, due to a very good currency exchange rate, was available to me. That year of study laid the groundwork for my working process.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, I alternated between building a lot of the costumes I designed myself and supervising a team that worked alongside me to finish costumes. At that time, translating designs with my own hands was a very direct and natural way of working. 

In the early 2000s, I started designing shows out of town. Then the entire landscape transformed for me. Instead of building the costumes by myself, they were built in a shop; I was responsible for only the designs. I have to admit that it was clunky at first. I had to learn to communicate my designs to others to then translate them into realized designs. With practice, I thought of it as a gift to have someone more skilled than myself build my designs. Plus, I was able to spend more time on the details of any one costume and how it fit into the overall aesthetic of the production.

Working out of town meant I was only on site sporadically. A good portion of communications with costume shops happened online. It was efficient and, since I wanted to continue to design on a national scale, a necessary and essential part of the work.

Along with enabling long-distance design work, computer research exponentially increased my ability to find resources and inspirational materials. I have always loved libraries and sometimes I miss the days of scanning the stacks for books on whatever subject I am delving into. But I have to admit that being able to research any subject and have a wealth of information available via my keyboard is very handy for someone who gets up between 5 and 7 o’clock in the morning, before libraries are open.

In 2007, Dropbox came along for file sharing and many places I worked, both in town and out, started to use it on a regular basis. It has been a very handy tool to quickly convey design research and concepts to other production staff and the director, as opposed to trying to organize a meeting with everyone at the table—which, with many freelancers involved, is no easy task.

To some extent, I am nostalgic for days ago when everything was done by hand and, in some ways, simpler. I cherish those experiences and, when I have time, I still like to have hands on a project I can work very slowly with. That’s probably why, over the last several years, I have been collaging many of my renderings. I am grateful to my all-in-one printer for making the time intensive method that much easier and faster.

I have willingly embraced technology as an effective means of completing my work. I sometimes use Photoshop to help color some of my renderings for larger productions. As rehearsal times grow shorter and production periods are reduced due to financial constraints, speed of output is essential. In my mind, any tool that can help that process along is worth considering. As a former teacher of mine said, “a good designer needs to see and hear everything around them.”

Wu Chen Recommends: Angela Johnson

Article by Wu Chen Khoo

When I Am Old With You by Angela Johnson (cover)

When I Am Old With You by Angela Johnson (cover)

We read a lot of book to and with our children. Angela Johnson’s books have long been a favourite in our household, with her wide range of subjects and narrative styles, ranging from Rain Feet (a very short poem) to Just Like Josh Gibson (a narrative story). We recently acquired When I Am Old With You, and it’s spectacular.

A short story that explores the relationship between a child and their grandfather, aging, life and longing, the inevitability of death and the innocence of youth, it reads quickly and lyrically like most of her work. The art is beautifully wistful and the underlying themes are subtle and interesting and when they yield up their secrets the words will stick in your throat.

While not all of Angela Johnson’s work is quite that impactful, a lot of it shines with her brilliance at taking serious and powerful themes and creating accessible, often whimsical stories around them.

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


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 (, 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,

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.