Sightlines: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Conrad Burgess

INTERVIEW BY MIKE WANGEN

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo: Meet Minneapolis. Used under Creative Commons license.

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo: Meet Minneapolis. Used under Creative Commons license.

I first met Conrad in 1987 after being hired at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre as a lighting technician and immediately discovered what a unique and talented individual he was. Largely unknown, as he resided backstage at Chanhassen for almost 30 years, he is one of the best stage managers I have ever known. He has always been a creative problem solver and is equally at home working with tech crews or lending a sympathetic ear to actors in need. —Michael Wangen

MIKE: This is Mike Wangen and I’m interviewing Conrad Burgess about Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Conrad was a long-time stage manager and technician at Chanhassen and I just want to start by saying that I think everyone in the arts community probably has an idea of what they think Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is, but the reality of what it was might be quite different than what people think. Chanhassen is actually one of the oldest running theaters in the Twin Cities. It was begun in 1968 by Herb Bloomberg. So I’m going to start with Conrad. I think you started in 1979.

CONRAD: Yes. One of the most amazing things about the place, about Herb, is that he was a builder. He wasn’t a theater guy. He was a builder. He got hired by Don Stoltz to build the Old Log Theatre in, I think, the middle ’60s and decided he wanted one of his own. And the amazing thing about him is he found this incredible director to help him do it, Gary Gisselman—just a brilliant director. I don’t know how it happened, how he lucked onto Gary Gisselman, but he did, and that’s what made the place go. Herb was very visionary about that and he made it happen.

MIKE: How did you get started doing theater in the first place and, also, what were you first impressions of Chanhassen when you started in 1979? What was the place like?

CONRAD: I had been going to college and I was taking philosophy courses and sociology courses, you know, the ’60s had ended, and I was wandering around the country. I went to Canada, I went to the Montreal Olympics and saw two events there. After the Olympics, I went to New York, walked into Times Square and was just in awe and just obviously a young tourist and decided to see a Broadway show. I went and saw Pippin and I was overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed. The lighting, the costumes, everything. It was just like that! It wasn’t like I grew up wanting to be in theater. I found something that day in New York. Went back to Minneapolis and back to college, took every theater course they had in one year and got a job. At that time, I was really into lighting. I got a job designing lights for Bloomington Civic Theater. I did, like, four shows and then somebody there knew Brian Sanderson who worked at Chanhassen.

MIKE: He was the sound guy at Chan.

CONRAD: Yes. And you know, I need a job, as everybody else does. And I just called him up and met him. And he hired me and I was running lights in I Do! I Do! half the week and, the other half of the week, I relieved him running sound for Camelot with Richard K. Elison and it was just a brilliant, brilliant show. Wonderful. That’s how I started. And what was it like back then? It was electric. It was just so exciting. I don’t know, it was kind of the happening place at that time.

MIKE: Chanhassen did many more things other than musical theater, right?

CONRAD: That’s right.

MIKE: They had a history of doing dramatic work over the years.

CONRAD: In fact, they did Equus. Can you imagine?

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: It was exciting. It was very fun to do.

MIKE: At one time there were four theaters in the building, how many were there in 1979 when you started?

CONRAD: There was four.

MIKE: They had already established that.

CONRAD: They had established that by the time I started. They had a show running in each theater. I can’t think of the show that was in the courtyard, I Do! I Do!, and The Robber Bridegroom was playing in the Fireside, which used to be a bar.

MIKE: So you were saying in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was already a professional theater and people like Myron Johnson were choreographing out there

CONRAD: Choreographing—and he actually danced in several shows. Solo dances, you know. And he was the lead dancer, let’s put it that way, of course, with his wonderful talent. There were several others, wonderfully talented people working out there. Gary Gisselman had a way of drawing people to him. He brought a lot of Guthrie actors to the place and I think his biggest acquisition was was Ron Bruncati, the long-time stage manager there. He stole him from the Guthrie! And brought him over saying, “I’m going to create this wonderful artist place.” And I can remember Ron telling me that story.

MIKE: So what was Gary’s vision in terms of what he wanted to achieve?

CONRAD: He wanted to create a viable living theater with musicals in the main theater, which would provide the funding to do everything else.

MIKE: What was Herb’s philosophy about running shows? For a long time the theater did open-ended runs. Basically, they ran a show as long as they thought it would sell. Was that from the very beginning or did it change?

CONRAD: No. No, in the very beginning, Gary’s vision was to do six week runs.

MIKE: Okay.

CONRAD: They did that for quite a while. There was only one theater at first and then they added the playhouse after a year or two. I think How to Succeed in Business was actually the first show. And then ’71: Herb was going to close the theater because it wasn’t making any money and he decided to mount Fiddler on the Roof and, from all accounts, it was a brilliant production.

MIKE: Oh really?

CONRAD: It was a big hit. And it went past the six weeks—and they didn’t close it. Eventually, it ended up running almost a year or maybe it did hit a year; I think it was close to that. It basically saved the theater. That started a trend for longer shows. Most shows when I started were five months, six months long. They were doing quite well. In fact, Herb once told me that the dinner theater was the tail that wagged the dog. It made more money than his other businesses did.

MIKE: So, I should mention you started working as a lighting technician there but at some point, you made the jump to becoming a stage manager.

CONRAD: Yeah

MIKE: And working as the assistant stage manager on the main stage. How did it happen that you decided to move? Was it just a very natural thing for you?

CONRAD: It was. And Ron came up to me one day and said, “There’s only a limited future in working as a technician unless you're planning on becoming a lighting designer.” And we had a long talk. He was a wonderful mentor and I learned everything from him.

MIKE: So [Ron] saw your potential, in other words?

CONRAD: I don’t know. I guess you can say that.

MIKE: I’m sure he has. I can see that.

CONRAD: Yeah, he asked me. The assistant stage manager was quitting to go to Montreal, and [Ron] asked me and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Baptism by fire.

MIKE: Do you remember when it was? Was it the early ’80s?

CONRAD: It was the early ’80s. What show was it? I think it was… I can’t remember what show it was.

MIKE: It’s okay. They all blend together.

CONRAD: They sort of do. It was before A Chorus Line because I was backstage for A Chorus Line. Yeah, I can’t remember.

MIKE: Do you remember any other dramatic highlights of the other smaller spaces outside of Equus—whatever type of shows were produced? Because that’s what interests me, more so than the other musicals.

CONRAD: Let me think. We did lot of the traditional comedies like Earnest.

MIKE: The Importance of Being Earnest?

CONRAD: The Importance of Being Earnest. We did Somersaults, which was a wonderful show, with two wonderful Guthrie actors. We did The Dining Room

MIKE: By Pinter?

CONRAD: By Pinter, yes. What the Butler Saw, Same Time Next Year, Death Trap.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: The Promise, Crimes of the Heart, Mass Appeal.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: Sleuth.

MIKE: So the theater was quite diverse?

CONRAD: It was quite diverse.

MIKE: And Gary directed all of these?

CONRAD: I believe he directed everything at that time. And even when he left, somewhere in the early ’80s, he came back and directed every main stage show for many years there.

MIKE: Another aspect of this through the ’70s and ’80s is that the theater provided employment for a large number of both technicians and actors at the time.

CONRAD: Yeah.

MIKE: Which I think is very important in terms of the culture, which is sometimes overlooked. I mean, the Guthrie obviously, and the Children’s Theatre also did, but Chanhassen was also a big part of that.

CONRAD: Yeah, it was.

MIKE: Probably more important than people recognize.

CONRAD: It went all year round. You could make a living there quite easily, you know.

MIKE: Which also gave people opportunities for other outside work as well.

CONRAD: Yep.

MIKE: So talk a little more about Ron Bruncati, who was the long-time stage manager out there and was quite brilliant in his work. He was basically your mentor in how you developed as a stage manager. What do you think you learned from him and how has it helped you? And you’re still doing work, stage management work today, with Ben Krywosz and Nautilus Theatre. And just what you learned about stage management—what people skills there are. Because I think a lot of the people tend to think of stage management as a very technical thing, and it’s really much more than that.

CONRAD: Yes. Yes. Well, [Ron] was magical. Grace was the right word for it: grace. He had a grace about him and a charisma where he could deal one-on-one with any actor, any person, and get to the heart of whatever was going on at that moment. And that’s what I learned from him. Stay calm. He always was calm. I only saw him mad once and that’s another story.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: He would stay calm in any crisis and I learned that from him. He would have a grace, no matter who was mad or who was upset—the director or an actor or a designer who couldn’t get something accomplished. He had a way of smoothing it out, talking to people, and that was his greatest thing. And he could keep track of everything in rehearsals. It was amazing to watch him work. I admire him greatly. I miss him terribly.

MIKE: And in the environment—given the nature of the complexity of the stage there and moving things around—he had to keep and you had to keep all of that in mind. Because you’re putting a show together in a rehearsal room, which is actually much different than the actual stage.

CONRAD: Much different than the actual stage.

MIKE: In terms of really, you know, figuring out the logistics of putting that together.

CONRAD: We would talk sometimes for an hour after every rehearsal about, Is that going to work? Is that going to work? Yeah. And he was methodical in it—so well organized. And a lot of people didn’t see that side of him. I saw it and I’m sure Gary saw it. He was brilliant at it.

MIKE: Do you have any particular thoughts about the legacy of your years at Chanhassen?

CONRAD: My legacy?

MIKE: Yeah. And, you know, just what it means to the community—which, I think, is often forgotten these days.

CONRAD: It is. Gary came back one day and he and I were talking. We were standing outside of the main entrance, looking at all of the cars in there, and he was going, “It’s amazing. They just keep coming, just keep coming.” The legacy, I guess—you know, employment was a huge one. But there was a bond between all of us which was—you can’t put it in words. It was special. Everybody who worked there at that time.

MIKE: It was literally a family.

CONRAD: It literally was. It may be that now, I don’t know. But it literally was back then. And it was fun. Ron. I think Ron was the main reason.

MIKE: Ron Bruncati?

CONRAD: Ron Bruncati. It was the main reason that it worked so well. Him and his relationship with Gary. They would look at each other and know what the other was thinking. It was just amazing in rehearsals to watch them both. I don’t know. I guess that’s the legacy.

MIKE: Okay. Well, thank you.

CONRAD: You’re welcome.