Article by Kathy Kohls
Kathy Kohls is a long time freelance costume designer in town and is known for her very creative style. She has worked extensively with Frank Theater, the Cricket, and many other groups over the years and here she explores a little bit of that history. - Mike Wangen
The ‘80s. It was an eventful decade for the Twin Cities: the downtown skyscrapers were finally topped off, giving the city a confident new skyline; the Walker had installed the Cherry & Spoon as the centerpiece of its Sculpture Garden, to the delight of PR people; and the Ordway was the shiny new home of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and The Minnesota Opera.
Music from the likes of Husker Du, The Replacements, The Suburbs, and Prince garnered national attention and helped First Avenue shape the flourishing rock/punk scene. Hennepin Avenue was still seedy. Jeune Lune had its offices in the Dickensian maze of the Berman Buckskin building on the banks of the Mississippi, as it waited for the wrecking ball to clear the way for the new Federal Reserve Bank. The Twins won the World Series. And the Cities were absolutely teeming with theaters.
I relocated from northern Wisconsin to Minneapolis in 1983 as a graduate student in the U of M’s Theatre Tech & Design MFA program, at that time a three-pronged approach that required a working knowledge, if not a mastery, of scenery, costume and lighting design. I was hired by Vern Sutton as the Costume Shop Teaching Assistant at the School of Music’s Opera Theatre, whose venue was Scott Hall on the East Bank. With all that on my plate—plus a couple of sons to help raise--there was little time or money to participate in all the burgeoning excitement; I mostly observed it from a distance.
By late 1988 I had completed my MFA thesis and oral exams and was casting about for work in a local professional theater. There were a few big companies with in-house costume shops: the Guthrie (Jack Edwards’ domaine), Children’s Theatre Company (under Riccia Birturk), Minnesota Opera (Carol Sahlstrom), Chanhassen (Sandy Schulte). In Saint Paul, the smaller Chimera Theatre made its mark as a producer of big musicals. Housed in what is now History Theatre, it had a costume shop with a nearly full-time staff to produce costumes for its large casts. Rich Hamson apprenticed here under Ed Jones in the early 1980s, as did Lynn Farrington. Performing at the Jemne Auditorium in the Minnesota Museum, Park Square quietly persevered, building up its subscription audience with plays from the classic repertory.
There was also an impressive second tier of theaters launched in the ‘70s, all hitting their stride around this time. Edgy, energetic and well-respected, they included Penumbra, Illusion, Mixed Blood, Red Eye Collaboration, The Cricket. Company lists from their playbills read like a “Who’s Who” of our current & beloved Old Guard. Jeune Lune, Frank Theatre, Theatre Exchange were just entering the picture.
There were many companies headed by women: Frank (Wendy Knox), Theatre Exchange (Julia Carey), At the Foot of the Mountain (Martha Boesing), Eye of the Storm (Casey Stangl), Lyric Theatre (Sally Childs).
And then, as now, the number of enthusiastic small theater companies outnumbered all the others, popping up regularly, lasting a few years, moving on.
I had met The Cricket’s set & lighting designer, Chris Johnson, at a memorable lecture she gave at the U (she likened the properties of lighting instruments to the timbres of musical instruments, an important insight to this musician!). When she later designed for Opera Theatre, she mentioned to me that The Cricket was looking for a props person, and that, though this wasn’t my main area, at least it was a foot in the door. I figured I could stand it for a while, so signed on with Bill Partlan, the artistic director.
The Cricket had recently moved from an old movie theater (now the Ritz) in Nordeast to downtown Minneapolis, and was housed in what is now The Music Box on Nicollet and 14th. This was before they renovated the theater, and it was pretty shabby, it’s lovely architectural details hidden under plasterboard, layers of paint, false ceilings and some nasty carpet. The theater’s second balcony was open but rarely used, the basement dressing rooms dingy, the props storage (in the unfinished hallway under the stage) badly lit and downright creepy. And yes, there were rumors of a resident ghost . The smell of Ping’s Restaurant permeated downstairs.
The design team was hired per show, with a strong base of freelance regulars: Tina Charney and Chris Johnson covering lighting, an unstoppable Nayna Ramey on sets and costumes, Lynn Farrington, Anne Ruben, Rich Hamson on costumes.
My first assignment was a new piece, Diamond Cut Diamond, set in the 19th century. It had an unusually large cast (The Cricket tended to do small-cast plays in contemporary settings). I had the good luck to work under scene designer G.W. (Skip) Mercier, brought in from New York early in his far-reaching career and very kind to this new kid on the block.
However, the props list was challenging—was it really 15 pages?--and I quickly became overwhelmed. Amongst the predictable period table settings, linens, doilies occasional chairs and lamps, it listed an Eiffel Tower paperweight that I managed to build out of not much, and–now I was in trouble--a functional inventor’s whiz-bang box of wonders. Of course, the budget was minimal. This was a big order for a costumer who had never propped and didn’t really know the Cities’ resources yet. I learned them quickly. Thanks to someone else (Michael Klaers?) who took over the Box of Wonders, I was able to gather the list and had time to re-upholster a big pouffe requested late in the game, a project that probably kept me my job.
It was tough show on other designers as well: I clearly recall Nayna exhaustedly chanting “No more notes…” during an over-long post-rehearsal notes session. Lynn and I bonded while working on those endless notes overnight in the lobby space, which has a wall of glass doors onto Nicollet. The street people found us fascinating.
Nevertheless, I went on to prop several more shows there, many under Skip Mercier: All God’s Dangers was a one-man show starring Cleavon Little.; Drinking in America, for which I was promoted to Skip’s design assistant; Reckless introduced me to the amazing set designer Jack Barkla.
After a year I felt I had paid my dues as props person, so I revealed to Bill that I was really a costumer and would much prefer that job. Not only did he invite me to costume upcoming shows, he also spread my name to other directors (Julia Carey at Theatre Exchange, Michael Robins at Illusion). In About Time, I worked with director George C. White of New York’s O’Neill Center. George guided me on my maiden sushi-tasting tour at Ichiban’s during a tech week break. I found my first style niche while costuming Drugs, Sex, Rock and Roll, tricking out JC Cutler in leather studs and chains.
Around 1989-90 the Cricket followed a downtown trend and took on a massive renovation project to bring the old building back to its original glory.
They uncovered and restored the lobby and theater, closed off the unused upper balcony, spiffed up the dressing rooms. It took at least two years to finish (longer for the balcony), went over budget and resulted in a delicious Baroque bonbon of a building.
Alas, the theater never recovered. It finally had to give up its lovely venue and moved to a less accessible suburban location, never regaining its vitality. I had caught on to the Cricket’s back legs in what turned out to be its final leaps, & I am more than grateful that I was given the opportunity to fire-start my design career with this fine company.
The fact that so many of these theaters and a large number of directors, designers and performers are still active today is remarkable. These people grew up together in the business, which helps to explain their enduring camaraderie and the surprisingly low level of job competition here. They have indeed taken the long view of our community that doesn’t hesitate to extend a helping hand, knowing that it will be repaid with interest at a future date.
My thanks to Rich Hamson, Lynn Farrington, Sally Childs, Wendy Knox for their remembrances and insights, and to the Star Tribune reviewer Peter Vaughan, who donated his files of theater programs—with his scribbled notes--to the Minnesota Historical Society.