Sightlines: Lighting Guthrie & Beyond

Article by Marcus Dilliard

Marcus Dilliard is a national Lighting Designer based right here in the Twin Cities and was Lighting Supervisor at the Guthrie under Garland Wright. Many lighting technicians currently around 40 worked and learnt from him, mostly at Theatre de la Jeune Lune.. To me and my peers, he was considered of the same generation as last week’s Mike Wangen, but their paths to and along the same career have been fascinating… and very different.

My introduction to Twin Cities theater was the Guthrie’s 1984 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Garland Wright, with lighting designed by Craig Miller. My apologies to the other designers but it was a very long day and as I had flown in from Boston that morning, had a full day of interviews and then attended the performance, my memory of the other artists is limited. I was interviewing for the position of Lighting Supervisor; such a position had not been part of my career path. I had graduated from Boston University’s School for the Arts with an MFA in lighting design in 1982 (OK, my thesis wasn’t finished until 1983…) and had been working as Boston Shakespeare Company’s Production Manager / Lighting Designer / default Technical Director for two years. And I was already burned out, so the offer from the Guthrie was, of course, something to take seriously.

I remember that the show was very smartly directed and the scenery was very white. More importantly, I remember thinking that I had only seen theater of this caliber at Yale Rep and occasionally on Broadway. It wasn’t a difficult decision to box up everything we owned that didn’t fit into our ‘72 Super Beetle, leave the boxes for the movers and drive to Minneapolis in May of 1984. The plan was to move on after two years. I have never once regretted the ongoing decision to stay.

Say what you want about the Guthrie, it was one of the primary incubators for the incredibly rich and diverse Twin Cities theater community. (Please note that when I use the word “theater” I include dance and opera.) Without the Guthrie as an artistic force to either leap from or push against, the list of theater companies displayed at the Ivey Awards would likely be much shorter.

(Tangentially, my role as an instructor in and Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, has made me aware of the importance of that department in the history of the Twin Cities’ performing arts scene. It would be lovely to have someone with a much deeper knowledge of that history write one of these articles.) we’re on it! - ed.

The Guthrie was, in 1984, under the artistic leadership of Liviu Ciulei, so it is not surprising that it was a very international organization. When I arrived in May, the production on the stage was Peter Sellars’ Hang On To Me.  My first production as lighting supervisor was Liviu’s Three Sisters, followed by Lucian Pintilie’s production of Tartuffe. What I did not fully recognize at the time, but is ultimately most important about my early years at the Guthrie, was Liviu’s commitment to talent at the international, national, and local levels. This commitment continued under Stephen Kanee during his time as interim Artistic Director. Stephen was the person at the Guthrie who gave me the all-important second chance as a lighting designer. My first Guthrie main stage design, for Howard Dallin’s direction of A Christmas Carol in 1985, was clearly the worst design I have ever created. How I ever got that second chance will be one of the great mysteries of my career.

The second chance led to a third chance (Rhinoceros, directed by Kazimierz Braun) in 1986. One particular lighting cue (a pin spot on a ringing telephone) led to a long association with Garland Wright, the Guthrie’s incoming artistic director. In some ways, that was the most important cue that I have ever written, for it was under Garland’s mentorship that I became a true lighting designer. Garland was committed to company building and his company included any non-performers who showed an interest in learning from him… and a serious commitment to hard work. I learned as much from Garland, the director, about light as I have from anyone else on the planet.

The high point of the company building process was, of course, the 1990 production of The History Plays.  To have been a part of presenting Richard II, Henry IV(both parts), and Henry V in rotating rep was like nothing else I have experienced. I still get goose bumps when I describe the standing ovation the company received when they entered the stage at the top of Henry V; this was on the first day that we presented all four shows in the span of 11 hours.

My point in all of this is that the institutions are important and the plays, operas, dances are important but most important are the people. Without a commitment to the highest level of artistic work that includes everyone, we are less of a community than we could be. As an in-house designer at the Guthrie, I could work with the likes of JoAnne Akalaitis, Jennifer Tipton, James Ingalls and Doug Stein. But this is also where I worked with equally great talents like Sally Wingert, Steve Yoakam, Isy Monk, Peter Rothstein, and, in what would be another career-altering moment, Dominique Serrand.

In 1993, as I was exiting the Guthrie staff, I had the opportunity to design the lighting for The Triumph of Love, directed by Dominique. This was a beautiful, thoughtful production that led to a long association with Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Jeune Lune was, in so many ways, the opposite of the Guthrie. The process was different, the personalities were different, the use of text was different, the very space itself was different. But the desire to create was the same. And this is what I have found to be true in almost every company in the Twin Cities – the desire to create something profound, something that has a voice and a point of view.

We all understand the importance of connections. As educators, we stress the need to “get your foot in the door” and make yourself known. But if the people on the other side of the door are not interested (or, more importantly, not interesting) what’s the point? Boston University connected me to the Guthrie, which connected me to Jeune Lune and the Minnesota Opera. Jeune Lune led to Minnesota Dance Theater; MN Opera led to Theatre Latte Da. And then there’s Pangea, Black Label MovementHistory Theatre, Mixed Blood, Open Eye…you get the idea. What is ultimately most important about this community is that it is a true community.

A few years ago, one of the higher-ups at ETC (a stage lighting technology company based in Wisconsin) observed that the Twin Cities lighting community shares equipment and expertise freely and openly. My response was a puzzled “yes but doesn’t everyone?” Apparently not, I learned. We are unique in so many ways. This sort of community does not exist in most other “major metropolitan areas.” I am grateful to have found it and thankful to have been accepted into it. Even after 31 years here, I still feel a little bit like one of the new kids. Thanks for letting me join.