Sightlines: Twin Cities Theater in the 1970s

A Personal Memory
by Mike Wangen, Lighting Designer

For as long as I’ve been in the industry, Mike Wangen has been regarded as a pillar and fixture of the lighting community, and a frequent name around town, most recently (and very commonly) at the outstanding Pillsbury House Theater. An experienced and very skilled designer, he is a prominent member of a generation of theatre professionals that served as mentors and role models for me and my peers. Like most great designers, Mike is also a great storyteller, and I knew I wanted him to write a piece for this column. - Wu Chen Khoo

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I was raised in Albert Lea, MN, about 90 miles south of Minneapolis and attended a very progressive High School.  It had a college level Humanities program which I was a part of, and, in my senior year, we took a class trip to the Guthrie Theatre to see Michael Langham’s landmark production of Oedipus, the King.  It was one of the most powerful pieces of theatre that I have ever seen and it still resonates with me today.  At the time, I had no inkling that 28 years later, I would be designing the lighting for a production of Fences on that same stage.  I am living proof of the profound effect that live theater can have on young people.

When I moved to Minneapolis in the fall of 1972 to attend the U of M as a History major, my friends and I discovered a vibrant and burgeoning theatre environment.  Rarig Center, a state of the art, 4 theatre complex on the campus was nearing completion.  The west bank was a hotbed of theatre activity centered around Theatre in the Round (still there), Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop (the current Town Hall Brewpub), the Guthrie 2 (at the Southern Theatre) created by the Guthrie Company to do experimental work, the Guild of Performing Arts, located next to Palmers Bar, and numerous clubs and coffeehouses which presented an eclectic mix of music, poetry and performance art.  The Cedar Theater showed classic art films from the 20s and 30s.  In 1975 Mixed Blood opened as well.  At the Foot of the Mountain, a woman’s theater collective begun by Martha and Paul Boesing had gained national attention and worked out of the Cedar Riverside People’s Center.

 By the mid 70s a number of theaters still in existence had opened.  Penumbra in St Paul, Illusion in downtown Minneapolis, the Cricket Theater performed at the Ritz in NE Minneapolis, Chimera Theater had a space in the old Science Museum (now History Theatre), Jeune Lune appeared on the scene; and, of course, the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre which were both nationally prominent and have been written about before.

The warehouse district on the west side of downtown Minneapolis was a thriving mix of cafes, artist studios and small theatre and dance companies.  It was a melting pot of creativity and a time of trying out new ideas and pushing boundaries.

I stepped into that world in the spring of 1978.  I had dropped out of school and was doing lighting for a local rock band, but wanted to be more creative. There was no internet then, so theater auditions and job opportunities were placed in the want ad section of the Sunday papers.  One day I saw this ad “lighting designer needed for small theatre company, no experience necessary”; that was me!

The theater was on the second floor of the Harmony building on 3rd St. and 2nd Ave. north in downtown Minneapolis.   It was a 100’ by 60’ empty space with west facing windows and a 12’ ceiling, the most beautiful loft space I’ve ever seen.  As I walked in I saw a beautiful, blond woman speaking with a short, dark haired man wearing a black beret and chain smoking Pall Malls. The woman was Mim Solberg, one of the finest and most powerful actors I’ve ever known (she played Lady Macbeth opposite Jim Stowell’s Macbeth in a beautiful production directed by Bain Boelke at the Southern Theatre in the mid 80s).  The man was Peter Scangarello, a transplanted Sicilian from New Jersey who became my best friend, mentor and teacher.  What I learned about theatre and art from Peter and Mim laid the foundation for everything I have accomplished since.  They had established a group called the Olympia Arts Ensemble (named after the Olympia Theater in Paris where Edith Piaf had performed).  It had splintered off (along with Jim Stowell’s Palace Theatre) from the Minnesota Ensemble Theatre which had formed in the late 60s and performed at the Firehouse Theatre (now Patrick’s Cabaret) and the Walker church (which also housed a puppet theater company which would become Heart of the Beast).  All these groups had been heavily influenced by Jerzy Grotowski’s “Towards a Poor Theatre” and did very powerful, raw, physical theatre.  

After I explained that I had answered their ad and had no real experience, Peter looked at me with an impish smile and a gleam in his eye and said “the show opens in a week, anything you do will be fine.”  I looked around at the 60 old seats on portable risers, the homemade lightboard with 6 household dimmers, and the 15 coffeecan spots (for those who don’t know; paint a 3 lb. coffeecan black, cut a hole in the back and attach a cliplight socket with coat-hanger wire, cut small holes for ventilation, screw in a 150w spot or floodlight and tape a gel to the front.  I eventually made about 40 of these things.) and I intuitively made a decision which changed my life and set me on my 37 year path to today: I said ok.

Olympia was a loose collective of visual artists, poets, dancers, and musicians as well as theater artists. It was there that I discovered the secret of collaborative art that is theater.  We had no money and shared everything, including the chance to both succeed and to fail, brilliantly.  It’s a luxury I don’t often see in today’s world.  My first show there was Yerma by Garcia Lorca.  Over the next 4 years we produced work such as The Firebugs, The Chinese Wall, The Balcony, and Happy Days.  We did a production of Antonin Artaud’s The Cencii which began with all the actors crawling into the theater on their bellies, like snakes, accompanied by a live soundscape by free jazz percussionist Milo Fine and guitarist Steve Gnitka.

We never could make the rent on the space, which led to having fundraising parties.  This, in turn, evolved into a concert series, which included shows with new bands such as The Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs, Curtiss A, and others who had very few outlets to perform in at the time.  We also began monthly jazz concerts with local artists called “Jazz on Sunday.”  I found out years later when I worked at Penumbra that many of the artists there used to attend those shows.

The world is full of circles within circles and the 70s were a time of great cross-fertilization among artists here.  There was a strong current of creativity, openness, and experimentation in all the arts; a current that I see strengthening again in many of the performances of the young artists that I see today.  It makes me very hopeful for the future.

The current was strong then and there are many of us from that time still creating.  I personally feel that I am doing the best work of my life right now. However, it will soon be time to move on and I hope that those to come can build on the foundations we laid down and can understand our reluctance to leave.