Sightlines: A Scott Peters Retrospective

An Interview with Scott Peters by Mike Wangan

Scott Peters has long been a fixture of Twin Cities theater and has served as a technical director, lighting, set, and props designer, and builder for many small and mid-sized theaters here over the years.  

Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park in the sixties, he began doing tech work for a small theater housed in a church basement while still in high school: the group that would become Steppenwolf Theater.  Moving to Minneapolis in the early seventies, he worked for several years with the Cricket Theater as well as working with both Penumbra and Mixed Blood in their early days.  He later became the technical director for Mixed Blood, working there all through the eighties and served as production manager with Penumbra again in the mid nineties.  In recent years he served as the lighting head at Orchestra Hall and is currently retired.

Mike Wangan: Scott, you grew up in Chicago, is that right?

Scott Peters: Yeah, I got into the theatre around 1972 in high school. I had a really good teacher, Barbara Greeners. She was an actress who worked in the area, but she was a wonderful teacher and she got me my first job in summer stock in Beloit in ’73 right out of high school. She was also an integral part of the Steppenwolf Theatre, which we started in high school and did four shows, a couple summer seasons not incorporated. We finally did incorporate, I forget the year, maybe ’76, ’77, something like that. We actually made a theatre in the basement of a church in Highland Park and were actually a company. So that was my start.

M: So you started with Steppenwolf, when you were actually a company?

SP: Yeah, correct.

M: That’s amazing to me.

SP: We were really lucky.

M: What did you do for them?

SP: Actually, the very first Steppenwolf, when we called ourselves Steppenwolf, we did this play, Philadelphia, Here I Come in the student auditorium. It was really good.

M: It’s a beautiful play.

SP: I actually acted in some of the things, and then I actually directed a Steppenwolf piece called Moon Children and we actually got permission from the nuns of a Catholic girls college to let us do it up in the dance studio. I directed that one and then my friend Mike Cowan, under the Steppenwolf banner, directed Grease: The Musical - which was an incredible hit and it was amazing. I mean, it was free, but there were just hundreds of people banging at the doors and we had to send people away because it was getting too dangerous with how many people were there. It was fun and that one summer, like I said, we incorporated and did four shows. There were some pretty talented people, but that’s the last I worked for them. Then I moved to Minnesota. I had been living in Minnesota, and I had done some work with the Minnesota Ensemble Theatre, but then I got a job with the Cricket Theatre.

M: Talk about the Cricket Theatre. It made a huge impact in the ‘70s in Minneapolis.

SP: It was a really fun place to work. I learned a lot from a guy named Dick Learhoff - who I think now designs for the Science Museum. He was a really talented fellow and it was one of those theatres that was really driven by a single individual, Bill Semens was the producer. They just did some really good work. I was there for a little while as a volunteer. At the end of one season I was just really impressed by their work. I was also in a movie theatre up in Northeast, the old Ritz Theater.

I remember once we had a fire [at the Ritz], in the fan room: the motor that drove the heating system caught fire. And we had to haul a huge motor that weighed hundreds of pounds up this narrow metal staircase and get it in so this guy could do it. We took ridiculous risks, back then, the things you had to do. I mean, putting life and limb at peril.

But it was a great theater and I remember doing a show I really love, it was an original Ray Bradbury. It was a season we didn’t have a show and Ray Bradbury called us and we did the Martian Chronicles and it was absolutely magical. Again, at that time, I was just being a general hand and running the light board and I remember doing things, like being told, make some instruments, some martian musical instruments. And just finding pipes and pieces of metal and different string things, and creating martian instruments. It was great fun, really good theater.

M: So what happened after the Cricket? You were associated with both Penumbra and Mixed Blood in the ‘70s?

SP: Yeah, I kind of came to a parting of ways with Mr. Semens. It was just, nothing ideological, just amount of work for amount of money. I was there for one year as technical director and at the end of that year, I just thought, we crew were being asked to do too much for too little. So that’s what really drove me, was economics, to seek out first Mixed Blood and then Penumbra. I was freelancing all over, did a lot of dance companies, small theaters. There were a lot of small operations back then and Mixed Blood was one.  I did some shows with them, but then I did the first opening year of Penumbra. I’m looking at the sheet (Penumbra’s production history) now and remembering that opening season.

M: When did you start doing set and lighting design?

SP: Sorta right away. Again, I just started out more as a hand and then running light board, hanging lights, building sets, and it just came naturally. I just did it to make a living wherever I could. Later on I found it, especially for small freelance jobs, colleges and high schools especially, I found it really economically efficient to integrate set, lights, props, to have a whole overall vision of how it gets done and then I could do that really time efficiently. I remember the opening of Penumbra, one of the snafus I remember is we were getting a bunch of new lighting equipment and it was coming real close to opening and it hadn’t shown up and the reason it hadn’t shown up was there was a storm on the east coast and it had flooded the loading dock where the lights were and washed them away. On opening day, the lights arrived unassembled, so we had to put them all together and have them up and ready to open the show, I think it was in a day. That was in ’77. The show was Eden, I remember. And The Taking of Miss Janie, that was kind of controversial. That had a lot of sexual content to it. So that was kind of putting them on the board. There were a lot of interesting things that year. They did a really kind of a more classical set with this historical piece, Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom. I remember it had like a drop in border set, it was really designed to be authentic to the period. Penumbra was all over the place, they did a lot of stuff.

M: And you were working at Mixed Blood at the same time?

SP: Yeah, I wasn’t with them for their first shows. I think in ’77 I started doing shows there. Boy, I can’t remember the name of the first one, but it was a black play and some of it took place in a person’s mind, a funeral at a church. And I remember just the audience getting up and talking to the actors and saying “signify,” and all this, it was like being in church and it was amazing because the light board was in the center of the house, it was an old 6 handle resistance board. So there were all these people going crazy and emoting and signifying. It was very live. It was very live theatre.

M: It was important work. Both Mixed Blood and Penumbra, I think, when they started. And the Cricket, too. It moved things in a different direction.

SP: Yeah, I was sad when the Cricket went down. I think that’s one of those phenomena of, I think, Bill Semens actually let himself out of that, out of the Cricket. And they moved downtown-

M: Yes, to the Hennepin Center

SP: -and it never really, its identity never changed. It kind of lost its identity when it left the Ritz. And both Mixed Blood and Penumbra are very much that way. They’re driven by the space, it’s so intimate. It’s so there.

M: Yeah, that’s an interesting way of putting it.

SP: You’re really right on top of them. I mean, a 200 seat house is very intimate. And Penumbra being a thrust, being right out there, it was very hard to design for, as a set guy, because you had those diminishing sight lines and it came to a narrow point in the very back. You always wanted to fill the sides, but you realize half the house isn’t seeing what you’re doing, but after a while, you just said, “Oh well, you see what you see.” And after a while, Mixed Blood changed their configuration constantly. I designed the seating there so that it would move and be modular and you could set it up for any configuration.

M: You put in the grid at Mixed Blood also, right?

SP: Yeah, that was a brutal experience.

M: For better or worse, it still exists today as it did then.

SP: It was terrifying, when I did a show there when it was the long way and put the lighting on, there was a back pipe there before the grid. And when I came back, they had put just lag bolt hooks into the wainscot and it wasn’t even into beams. They were hanging 3 and 4 lights off of pipes that were into wainscot! With cable, and the weight of cable! And I told Jack, “You’re going to kill somebody. You have to do this.” So one summer he actually cut loose with money and I went to Frank’s Plumbing [because] they would thread pipe for you. And so I made, oh probably 30 careful measurements, because the beams in the firehouse curved all over the place,. Each pipe was it’s own thing. And you went inside the beam and took away the wainscot to get to the I-beam. And to mount that, you had to screw through the I-beam. I had hand drills. Jack had found 3 different hand drills and I had no better sense than to work my way and drill all these holes in I-beams and then put in flanges with the specially cut pipe. So I would put one end on a ladder, walk the other end up, make a jig, put it in place, and did that to each end. And it took me, I’ll bet a month. But it’s still there.

M: It is still there. And for all those people out there who complain about the grid at Mixed Blood, remember where it came from and the work that went into putting it there. Do you remember what year that was?

SP: Boy, that was getting close to, maybe ’79, ’80? Really early. It was before we did Warp! and Colored Girls and all those.

M: Talk about Warp! That was kind of a landmark production for them.

SP: Warp! was incredible. There were two folks who came out of Chicago, the Organic Theater. I believe there was maybe another name with the company, too. But I had seen it in Chicago and it was incredible. It was in a very small space. It was very exciting that they were coming to do it at Mixed Blood. It was really hard. We put in 80 hour weeks for 6 weeks getting ready to mount the first one and it just had every kind of media you could think of.

M: It was a science fiction piece, right? But done in the ‘80s?

SP: We did it in the ‘80s, I think it was 1980.

M: So there was no technology that exists today?

SP: No, there were fog machines that you made yourself, mirror balls, little Edmund scientific lasers, you know, .5mW, whip all the lights out and throw little crinkly pieces of cellophane to make the atom. It was intense, had a rock band in it, and it was a serial. So we opened the first one and we were already rehearsing the second one, so it was just continuous. It was months and months of incredible work and I was just exhausted by the end of the second one. And I think I took a job touring Europe right when the third one opened. I just needed a tour to relax or something.

M: Who did you tour to Europe with?

SP: That was Ping Chong and the Fiji Theater. He came through Mixed Blood once and I liked him and they said, “We’re going to tour Europe, do you want to go?”

M: Was that as their technical director?

SP: Yeah, he had a real specific, I don’t know if you call it performance art or… he had his own niche, that was for sure. And I wasn’t designing, he had already conceived. He had worked a lot with fluorescent lighting and things like that, so all that was in place, so all he needed was for me to acquire a lot of the stuff when we got to Europe. We didn’t take a lot of it with us.

M: The voltages are all different.

SP: Oh yeah. But every little town in Holland had a really good theater and really nicely equipped-

M: Unlike America.

SP: Right, and a nice bar and food things. People ate together, they took all their meals together in the theater. It was about a 3 month tour of the provinces and a month in Amsterdam, which was lovely in 1980 for a young fella.

M: You were at Penumbra in the mid ‘80s when they did August Wilson’s Jitney for the first time. Did you ever meet August there?

SP: I did. You know, I didn’t speak with August that much. Mostly, hellos in passing. I was always pretty quiet at production meetings. And again, it’s so long ago. I know he used to like to sit in the follow spot booth and I had a little chair set up for him and many ashtrays. Part of my service there was, August would fill many ashtrays and the entire floor of the follow spot booth would be covered in cigarette butts. I always felt very honored to clean up the disaster after a long day’s rehearsal. He seemed like a pretty quiet, taciturn man. Most of our conversations were just hello and in passing.

M: Do you remember anything about that first Jitney? I think he re-wrote it later.

SP: I remember it was fun because we found an old Volkswagon that we could get into the theater. I think there were double back doors or something and we could take the divider out? Anyway, we managed to get an entire car to be behind the window.  So that was kind of fun. And I remember that’s when we started using the actual back wall of the theater as a scenic element. Making it into windows, or, I forget, sides of buildings or something. But we incorporated the actual outer wall into the set. So that was a fun one. And I believe Marion McClinton was in that, he was acting, as I recall. They were a very good cast, I remember that.

M: Claude Purdy is an interesting character. He directed Jitney and many other shows at Penumbra, but he’s also the man who brought August Wilson to St. Paul in the first place. They were both friends in Pittsburgh originally. I think, to say the least, Claude was a flamboyant character.

SP: Oh, absolutely. Exactly that, flamboyant, exuberant, a bit of a hustler. Yeah, Claude drove me crazy on many occasions. He was a good director, but he could be very whimsical in terms of what he was committed to from day to day and he could change very rapidly. No disrespect here, just story of the theater. We were doing an epic piece at Mixed Blood on Martin Luther King, which eventually was condensed and became a touring show that went with Mixed Blood for many years. But the original production was hours long with a chorus. Akey element was slide projections, which in the old days, as you recall, [meant] the carousels. It was a four projector, multi-carousel show. And every time you would make one change in the slides, you would have to change every other slide in the trays.

Hundreds of them. On opening night we were going along and all of a sudden, thirty pages of script are gone and the slides are hopelessly out of any sequence or meaning at all. I remember standing there horrified with my mouth open and Claude sticking his head in the booth saying, “It’s okay! It’s okay! Just run it ahead! Just run it ahead!” And I looked at Claude and said, “You get out of my booth.” What had happened was that Claude had cut 30 pages of script but had not bothered to tell me. And that was that night. So, wonderful director, but a character and sometimes a bit more whimsical than I cared for.

M: Yes, when I did the lighting design for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Penumbra, there was a stairway to the second floor in a cutaway house on the set and Claude came up to me one day and asked me to make sure I enhanced the chiaroscuro effect of the vertical elements of the scenery for the show. And all he was really saying to me was he wanted me to put a couple gobos patterns on the stairway, but he couldn’t just say that, he had to say, “enhance the chiaroscuro effect of the vertical elements of the scenery.” And then he just looked at me and chuckled.

SP: I just had a kind of thespian memory. That’s kind of always what I consider myself more than any specific part of the craft, lighting or set or stage management. Just kind of doing everything. But there was a show at Mixed Blood where I was doing the lighting, but it was a hotel lobby and there was the need for many characters to come in and out, so on that evening I ran the lights, but I also had three costume changes and would walk through the lobby of the hotel as just a person going to the elevators. Three different characters. So that was real common back then. You know, to run lights, but then have to move props for a set change or something. I just wanted to say, I was real lucky at the end of my work and career, the last 15 years, to be at Orchestra Hall. It was a really great experience and a really wonderful place to be and great people. I was really really fortunate.

M: I just have one more thing: You’ve done a lot of work at high schools over the years, and I know at least three people that have said they were pretty heavily influenced by you, which I think is important to bring out. Elizabeth MacNally, the production stage manager at Pillsbury House, and Karin Olson and Matt Tucker, who are both pretty well-known lighting designers who both worked with you when they were in high school. Can you talk about that a little? And about what your philosophy is when working with kids?

SP: Well again it was always to do the work and have that be the most important thing, what we’re actually saying here as a piece. And just to due diligence to the craft. Those kind of people you mentioned are the sparkling lights. You spot them right away. The great thing is, very often you see them immediately take and run and go past where you were, past your best. So they go past you and you recognize those guys right away. And it’s really rewarding to work with them because you see right away they, it’s like they say, find a home in the army. People find a home in the business, in the theatre, in the craft.

M: Elizabeth told me once that you saved her life in theater.  She was in 7th grade at the time, her mother was the Drama teacher.  She was trying to be an actress and wasn’t doing well and was frustrated, and you were the first one who explained to her that there are many aspects to theater beyond acting and it’s not all about that. It’s about the production as a whole and you pointed her in an entirely different direction, which she’s continued on very successfully.

SP: Yeah, that worked out great for her. They were bright, bright lights.