Way Around the Fringe: An Interview with Liz Neerland

Liz Neerland is a well-known person in the Twin Cities theatre community. She is co-Artistic Director of Nimbus Theatre, and the Technical Director for the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

The Fringe has been formative for many of the technicians of my generation: many of our most lasting collaborations and friendships began there, and the skills we learned have served us very well.

Liz and I met during the Fringe of 2001, and we remain colleagues and friends. To me, she’s an excellent example of the many different skills and talents we can and do bring to bear in this industry. Although this interview focuses on her Fringe career, by the time this gets published, Black Tie at Theater in the Round will have opened. Liz directed.

This Interview took place between Liz Neerland and Wu Chen Khoo on May 19, 2015.

Wu Chen: So you're Liz Neerland and you're the new, well, not that new, Technical Director of the Fringe Festival. How long have you been with the Fringe?

Liz Neerland: I started in 2000. In my first year, I was in the assistant box office manager, actually. The second year, 2001, I became a venue tech. Then last year, 2014, when Jeff became the executive director, I stepped into the TD role, so I've been with the Fringe for a long time!

WC: What first brought you in as the assistant box office manager?

LN: You know, I didn't study theatre in college, but it was the summer after I graduated from college and I was doing theatre. When I came back I was working as a stage manager at Jeune Lune and I just needed a summer job and when I had arrived back in town, I basically saw an ad that the fringe festival was hiring, and that was their seventh or eighth year, something like that. They were still, quite a baby festival. So I just went in and applied for the job and I loved it. It was so great that I actually went back the second year.There was shifting in the staff and I applied for the box office manager position, but ended up being a technician, which I had been doing freelance lighting and stuff anyway, so I ended up there and the rest is history.

WC: So when you say you applied for the box office position and “ended up” as a technician, how did that happen

LN: I don't remember exactly, it wasn't like I got rejected for one. There were a couple of really good candidates for box office and they needed more technicians and that may have been, I don't remember which year Jeff started as the TD.

WC: 2001

LN: Was that his first year? Yeah, there was a turn over in technicians and he knew me from Jeune Lune and knew that I could do the tech side of things, so he was like, “Your skills are better used over here because we have enough front of house people.”

WC: And then you stuck with it for 13 years, did you ever take a year off?

LN: [Laughs] You know that's a loaded question. There were 2 years I took off. One year I had a crappy desk job that I couldn't get the time off. Then there was the infamous 2005, where there was the weekend of the load-in and the first weekend afterwards I was at the Loring Playhouse. I'd gone home to feed the cat and was going to Rudolph's to meet the technicians for a beer when I got hit by a car. So I called Jeff from the ER before I called my parents that night. I had a broken ankle and couldn't do the festival that year.

WC: Although that wasn't really your choice; you would have done it if you could.

LN: I was in the hospital for two days, then I had to wait for surgery. It was great, that year the technicians did tech beers at Auriga, which was a bar right by where I lived, so I could hobble down on my crutches and join them for beer as an honorary.

WC: What made the fringe so attractive that you stuck with it? In this industry, you see a lot of people do a gig, as you and I were just talking about just before we started, you'll do something for a certain amount of time, especially summer stock, short summer festivals, and that amount of time usually happens before 14 years.

LN: Partly just that the fringe itself is such a neat thing. It's such a great organization to be a part of. To feel that I've really grown as an artist, as a person, as the festival has. It was only six or seven years old when I came along. The organization has matured from this scrappy thing to one of the largest and most respectable festivals in the country, if not the world, to be a part of that, it just feels so great. And I also run Nimbus Theatre with my husband.  Nimbus's first show was in the 2001 Fringe.  And we did the fringe for several years and we got to the point where we were producing a full season and doing a Fringe [show] wasn't part of that, but it's integral to who I've become as a person, it's tied up in working with the festival. And because of the car accident in 2005, I had been freelancing as my career and then wasn't able to climb ladders anymore, so that kind of shifted, but I was still able to do the fringe, so at least once a year I'd be able to come back to that world and to do that, it was grounding. As I grew as an artist, I was able to grow with the job and eventually have a chance to get promoted, so it's just been a nice journey, together.

WC: Later, I want to get back to the idea of working on the fringe and also producing in the fringe, but ell us more about how you personally have grown in the fringe and some of the things you've done.

LN: The fringe teaches you, especially being a venue technician, how to function artistically as part of a larger whole, which is a really interesting lesson, when art theatre can often be a vanity project that people carry around in a bubble, so suddenly when you're part of this bigger festival, you're not the only one. At your venue, you have to interact with 10 other companies and that gets you outside of yourself. As a technician, just from a job standpoint, it teaches you how to manage stress like nobody's business. Nimbus opened our most recent show the other day while we were cleaning and painting and counting down to curtain, I said I had a day job at a bank once and those people thought they knew what stress was. You don't know what that is until you've experienced – there's no greater deadline than opening night. And when you're doing that 11 times in a different order every day, the actual job skills of organization and keeping your head about you and crisis management are really applicable in a lot of places outside of the booth.

WC: Across fields too, I would argue. You've talked a little about the role of fringe technicians. As a producer yourself, running a theatre, do you see the fringe as something important to the theatre community, the audience, as a whole?

LN: Absolutely! It's fascinating. We discovered, with Nimbus, that there is an energy of the fringe that's very different from the energy of theatre the rest of the year. It's not a good or bad thing, it's just different. It's very offbeat and most often original work and it's not that offbeat doesn't work in the fringe, but our audience didn't mesh as much with the fringe audience. Again, not a good or bad thing, but it also teaches you, who is your audience? Who is going to come see the work that you do?

WC: Do you think that fringe audiences are representative of the theatre going audiences in the this town generally?

LN: My personal experience, and this isn't speaking with official Fringe statistics, but my personal experience is that there is something different. There's a lot of overlap, the Venn diagrams are very close, but I think there are people who Fringe who don't see a lot of theatre the rest of the year and there are big theatre goers for the rest of the year who don't Fringe, for whatever reason. I don't know why that is and I can't prove it, but it's really interesting.

WC: I think that would be an interesting study: Do you go to the Fringe and do you or don't you go to theatre otherwise. But I asked because we always hear people saying, It's Fringe time, if you're going to put on a show, you're going to have a hard time finding technicians. I hear people saying, where am I going to find my technicians? How many technicians do you employ?

LN: Last year I had a staff of 27 and I'm trying to shake out how that's going to happen this year. It'll be close to the same. There's 14 or 15 venues, usually two technicians per venue. They work as partners and as a team. Yeah, when you're hiring 30 of the best technicians in town, there's not that many of them.

WC: What sort of skills are you looking for?

LN: The biggest thing I look for is competency with lighting and as an electrician because the Fringe technicians really do design the lights for the show. So at least one person in the partnership needs to be a good lighting designer. Shows show up with their sound cues already built or designed, so the sound aspect is more of an engineering and board op, which is its own talent, but it's a different aspect of things. First and foremost you need to be competent in lighting, you need to be competent in sound, some of them need to be competent in video. So it's a pretty specialized set of skills, but you have some people who’ve never programmed a sound board and people who are amazing sound engineers who don't know the right end of a plug and that's fine, but you need someone who can really wear all the hats. You have to be personable. You have to deal with all of the artists, you have to understand how to talk in artists speak and actors speak. You basically are the venue manager. The technician doesn't just push the Go button on the board. They're the ones with the keys to the space, they're the first ones there and the last ones to leave. They're communicating with the house staff, making sure the bathrooms are stocked, they are the official clock of the festival. So it's up to them to keep every single performance running on time. It's not just are you good on a ladder, it's are you good managing a venue, managing people, being organized and punctual person. It's kind of a demanding set of skills.

WC: Where do you find these people?

LN: It's a mix. There's a lot of technicians who've been doing it as long as I have, maybe longer. Definitely a big return group. Generally, when I need to hire new people, it's typically word of mouth and connections. People do send resumes, but it's a hard job to interview for. I can talk to you and look at your resume and see that you've designed this and programmed that, but a lot of it's personality and how you're going to fire under pressure and the best way to find that is to take a recommendation from someone I trust.

WC: So how do you train in new technicians?

LN: Generally, training is kind of trial by fire. I trust that if you say you know how to program a light board, you actually do. Because there is no way I can train you on that. We do a little orientation on the day of load-in. I basically put anyone new with a veteran, someone who's done it before and you jump in. So I give them a sense of what the schedule is and what the expectations are, but training is on the job, on your feet, as you go.

WC: So if you say you partner them with someone who's done it before, would you say you're building your own culture then?

LN: Yeah, it's nice to mix it up. Sometimes, in any group of 30 people, there are people who work better with other people. You try to balance making sure everybody is happy with who they have to work with but also not let partners get too set in their ways. Sometimes it's good to break up partnerships and not let these two people be the ones who have been at this venue forever and ever and that can never change.

WC: What do you see that culture of Fringe technicians being now?

LN: You know, we work hard and we play hard. I've never seen a more dedicated group of people, in terms of people who will show up when they're supposed and work their asses off for 14 hours and not complain. And when we say, we're done, sometimes they'll actually say, no, I'm not done yet. They're really dedicated people who want to get it right. I've seen people who choose to stay late to adjust a focus or check all the levels, just to make sure they got it right. They see it as a reflection of themselves if a show looks bad. The audience may not realize it, but if the sound is crappy or the lighting is crappy in a Fringe show, that's the technician's fault to a certain extent. They're not going to go to the bar until their job is done.

WC: Do you think that the culture has changed in the 16 years you've been there?

LN: I think it's gotten a lot more focused. There's a lot of us who've been there a long time and who were a lot younger when we started. We were a little more, unruly. Everything about the festival has become more and more grownup, is the best way to talk about it. Every year we figure out better systems to make sure that the artists are getting everything that they should be getting out of the festival and making sure that we are supporting them. It gets better and better every year.

WC: One of the things that I guess I've noticed about the Fringe is that a lot of the rest of theatre, there's this artificial divide of the “artists” and the “technicians.” It seems to be that in the Fringe, the technicians are deeply entrenched in what the artists are doing, going to the bar together instead of having separate tables, that sort of thing.

LN: Yeah I think that's something that's changed for the better versus the earlier years, the technicians were more of a tribe unto themselves, but again, because a lot of us have been working around town for so long and do other things, the Fringe artists are also our friends. I don't gain anything by sitting in a corner with only other technicians. I want to talk to my friends because I saw their show.

WC: But then you could apply that same argument of “I've worked around town so long” outside the Fringe and it seems there isn't necessarily the same attitude. What's different about the Fringe?

LN: It's again that big communal thing. Every company has it's own culture and it's way of handling, and I think my theatre company is probably a very different experience to work at as a designer than other theatres, partly because of the Fringe. I know who I am, as a director or a designer, am a pain in the ass, because I tech shows like the Fringe techs shows. Oh, we'll just program on the fly, we don't need to run it more than once. I don't know how other theatre companies work, but I think just because of that, you are out with artists and you're out of your bubble and you're part of that larger thing happening around you, it's hard to have blinders on and not notice what's going on around you.

WC: Going back to what we touched on earlier, what's it like to produce in the Fringe while working in the Fringe?

LN: It's weird. Often my company would do something and I think there was only once when I did the set design, a year that I was also the technician. The technician job is pretty demanding so it's hard to also be in a show, but I wouldn't say...I don't know. I'm being kind of vague, but it's been 10 years since we did a Fringe show.  I remember it being very positive. It's difficult, it's hard to do two things at once. Ultimately it's rewarding. It's fun to have a show on and tell people about it.

WC: You became Fringe TD last year. First of all, why did you become Fringe TD?

LN: Again, I have so much love and respect for the organization and was eager to grow in the job. So when the opportunity came up, it's such a small staff that there aren't opportunities like that very often.

WC: The Fringe TD job, for the most part, is not a hands on job, it's a management job, at least it is now. This is very different from what you did as a technician. What you said earlier that you loved about being a technician was that it was a chance for you to get back and do some of the work you used to do. Is that something you miss doing?

LN: Not as much. As I myself have gotten older, I'm not as eager to spend hours on a ladder hanging cable. And now it's interesting because when I stopped freelancing it was great to return to it as a technician, but now that my theatre company got our own venue, I run our own space, so it kind of shifts again. I still do a lot of that for Nimbus so I don't miss it as much. It's interesting because as the TD, my job kind of winds down as everyone else's starts. My job is getting ready for the festival. Once we get to tech rehearsals, I'm just on call to put out fires. But I'm just waiting because my staff is awesome and they won't call me unless they really need help. It was very strange last year to go from, especially my last year as venue technician in 2013, my partner got sick and I ended up soloing a very large venue. So I was 100% had to work every show. That's very intense. To go from that to, “Okay, tech rehearsals have started, I'm waiting for someone to text me to tell me they need tieline.” It's been amazing to see shows. Some technicians, one guy, he basically, if he's not working a show, he's seeing a show and every year he tries to have a perfect fringe. So, that's the great thing about the techs, is they love theatre. So it was great last year, being able to go out and see a lot of shows, that I haven't been able to do as much when I was running them.

WC: What do you do to prep for the Fringe as the TD?

LN: Hiring staff is a big part of it. I handle all of the communication with the venues. Jeff is the one who really selects where we're going to be, but I make sure we really know what their sound and lighting system inventory is, making sure we don't have to bring in any rental equipment. Some of them are totally ready to go, we don't have to bring anything. Some of them are studio, an empty dance studio. We have to bring in seating, dimming, everything for that. There's quite a range of needs. I'm just making sure that all of that is coordinated and planned and ready to execute. Then just supporting my staff with whatever they need whenever they need it.

WC: Going back to Fringe techs, you talked about personality and all that. Is this a good job for someone starting out in the field?

LN: If you're brand new, probably not. I would probably be pretty reluctant to go with someone who is fresh out of college, which is hard to say because I was. That's not to say I wouldn't, but I think it's a job that benefits best from an experienced hand, from someone who has seen what can happen and understands how to handle it. The disasters aren't very big but they can easily get amplified because you have to fix it in 5 minutes. That means you have to fix it with what you have on hand because something can't get there. Last year, the light board at one of the venues died at load-in, 20 minutes before go, the light board was just dead. So I ended up having to run to a different venue and take their house board, which we weren't using for the Fringe, and cart it across to the other space. In the time that that took, we had to start. Shows don't start late. So we explained it to them and we explained it to the audience, and they performed in work light, basically. That's why if we have a new technician, I make sure they're paired with an experienced technician, so if we have a crisis, they can handle it. We don't have them very often, but they need to be able to solve it.

WC: So the defining moment is really when things go wrong.

LN: Yes, and you never know what that might be. It might be equipment failing, it might be an actor getting sick or something, god forbid, someone be in a car accident. You just got to keep everything running and figure out the best way to keep everyone happy; the artists, the audiences, keep the festival from screeching to a halt.

WC: Speaking of car accidents, I'd like to talk more about your career before the accident. Where did you freelance?

LN: I worked at the Walker, Jeune Lune, I did corporate A/V also, I worked at the Southern, did design for some smaller companies.

WC: How did you get into this? You said you didn't go to school for this?

LN: I kind of fell into it. I had started stage managing in college. I had originally acted and realized I wasn't very good. So I had just started doing the tech side of things in college and started stage managing and lighting was just a way to keep paying the bills. I liked not having a day job, though I worked at Barnes and Nobles for a long time to supplement freelance and stage management work. Kinda just fell into it really.

WC: Given the way you fell into it, do you feel that the way the job market was then is different from the way it is now?

LN: I'm not sure I could speak to that because I haven't actually freelanced for nine or ten years, so I'm not sure how it actually works anymore. It's a young person's game, to a certain extent. There's a lot of people who've made a great career of it, but if you're just working as an electrician or overhire, it's really long hours, it's crappy hours, it's very physical work, you're freelance, you don't have insurance, you have to pay taxes, you're not an employee somewhere, it's very unforgiving if you have a family or if you want to have kids or even if you have a relationship with someone whom you want to see when you're both awake. It's a hard job to do. So I think there's a reason why it's a lot of younger people. And as they get older in that world, they either figure out their career or, one of our long time technicians has become one of the most prominent lighting designers in town, she has built her career. She used to be an overhire electrician. She isn't anymore. I think that's why I was interested in moving up with the organization, because I have more to offer in a management and organizational standpoint that I do from the physical standpoint, doing the technician job. Someone younger, with better knees, can do that job.

WC: So I'm going to ask a personal question: after your accident and you couldn't do the physical demands, what did you do? You clearly didn't leave theatre.

LN: At that point, Nimbus really started to be a larger part of my life. It was a big shift for me then and it was difficult because the thing that I had done for a living and that I enjoyed and loved doing, I couldn't do anymore. It was hard for a while and to go get a desk job, and I had to figure it out how to keep this thing in my life that I loved. But eventually, you heal, in many ways, and because I had my theatre company I did that and I was at least able to look forward to doing the Fringe every summer. Eventually I was able to figure out ways to still pay the bills. Something my husband talks about the way we do theatre, as vocation versus advocation. Not just after my car accident, but just through the years, realizing, and I think that's a way you mature as a person and an artist, realizing what's the most important to you and how do you achieve it. The most important thing to me doesn't necessarily have to be the thing that gives me my paycheck. It's okay to do the thing that gives you a paycheck to allows you to do the thing that is most important. However you define that balance, you're doing okay. I've been able to figure ways to continue to do the art that I want to do and that I enjoy. After the year when I had the crappy desk job that didn't allow me to do the Fringe, I said I'm never doing that again, because I love doing the Fringe. So every time I've had a day job since then, I've made it clear that there's two weeks in August that I take off. And I don't need paid vacation, because I have my job with the Fringe, but this is a thing that I do. I just recently had a temp gig this winter at a bank and they were begging me to stay. They didn't understand what this other thing was and I was like, nope this is what I do. And I had no problem leaving that. Why would I stay at a bank when I could go to the Fringe?

WC: So you've been working in this town for 16 years, with the Fringe as a technician, now as the technical director, and you picked up a supplemental gig at a bank, is that a fairly typical situation?

LN: It has been. We're kind of a weird, mid-sized organization that's been around for 15 years, but none of our staff is paid yet. That's kind of our next step. I do all of the venue management and a large portion of the administrative work for the theatre company, so figuring out a way to pay me for that work. Because up until now I've always had a job, but I'm still doing that other job. It's a tough thing. And luckily my husband is in IT and has been the major breadwinner and allowed me to flaunt about being an artist.

WC: Although your husband is deeply involved in the arts and you waved this postcard around, “Written and directed by Josh Craigun.” That's no small thing.

LN: He started Nimbus, it's definitely his passion.

WC: Anything else you want to add about the Fringe?

LN: It's in your blood. It's so great to see what pops up every year. I think the lottery is such a great thing and sometimes there's you know, someone who's become kind of a Fringe star who doesn't get into the lottery, and it's like, well yeah, but that means that the new version of that person can get a chance. Some of the best pieces of theatre I've ever seen in my life have been at the fringe. And some of the worst. And everything in between. It sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid, but I guess I did.

WC: What are the dates for this year's Fringe?

LN: It's July 30th-August 9th

WC: If anyone is interested in being a Fringe technician should they just contact you directly?

LN: Yeah, they can just email me at Liz@FringeFestival.org. Or if you think the Fringe is interesting but being a technician isn't your thing, we need lots of volunteers, we need house staff, so there's lots of opportunities, you don't just have to be a lighting designer to be in the Fringe!