Garland Wright


A case can easily be made that Marcus Dilliard has been the most influential lighting designer in our community for almost 30 years.  From his work as lighting director and designer at the Guthrie in the 1980s and 90s, to his artistic relationship with Theatre de la Jeune Lune (which continues today with The Moving Company) he has been an inspiration to all of us and we have all learned from his dedication to professionalism, integrity, and precision.  He continues today as a professor of lighting design at the University, training the next generation of designers.

His article about his relationship with Garland Wright (artistic director of the Guthrie in the later 80s and early 90s) reveals a complex relationship with an uncompromising artist.  I hope to hear more from him in the future. -Mike Wangen

Garland Wright, 1984

Garland Wright, 1984

“He’s not a screaming visualist, like I am.” That was Garland Wright’s answer to my question about Michael Maggio, the director coming in from Chicago to direct the Guthrie’s 1988 production of Frankenstein (Playing with Fire).  Yes, I’m that old. And yes, it’s the same play that’s on the Guthrie’s stage as I write this.

Garland was indeed a “screaming visualist” but he was so much more.  Garland taught me more about the making of theater than any other single individual I have encountered in my career.  What impressed me most was his ability to articulate the “why” of every choice he made and to create theater that asked questions. It’s a rare gift to be in the presence of a director (and artistic director) who knows exactly why a given show is being produced now, today. I’ll write more on that in a little while. I want to back up a bit and provide some context for my experiences with Garland. And please remember that these are my experiences, filtered through the lenses of time and memory. Others had very different experiences and relationships with Garland; these are mine.

March, 1984. I was in Minneapolis for a job interview. The Guthrie was hiring a Lighting Supervisor and I was interested, sort of. The caveat was that I wanted to be a designer, not a supervisor. The only thing I remember from that trip (ok, aside from the fact that it was a lot colder than Boston) was Garland’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The scenery was WHITE. It turns out that Garland had designed the scenery and his friend and colleague, Craig Miller, was the lighting designer chosen to deal with all that whiteness. The production was beautiful; it was well directed and well acted, and then it was over and I didn’t give it another thought. I should have been paying more attention because that was not my last encounter with a Garland Wright production and the attention to detail that his work demanded.

Fast-forward a year to February 1985. Garland was back to direct Anything Goes, a massive undertaking that pushed everyone’s limits. That was my first time sitting in the theater with Garland; Craig Miller was back to light the show. It was during that tech process that Craig told me that he would light anything that Garland asked him to design. I was paying more attention but still didn’t see the brilliance of that quiet chain-smoker. It was Anything Goes, after all, not Waiting for Godot.

That would change soon enough, because by the spring of 1987, Garland was our new Artistic Director and directing both The Misanthrope and Piggy Bank. While the latter was an excellent production, the former was a brilliant production. I maintain that most people missed Garland’s point as to who, exactly, was the misanthrope. But maybe I’m the one who missed the point. Either way, it was brilliantly acted and directed and was visually stunning. More importantly, it all fit together; every choice was intentional.

And this is the production that taught me how Garland worked in technical rehearsals. It was a process unlike any I had experienced in my young career and to this day, I have not experienced a similar process. We all started at the top of the show and worked through, moment-by-moment. We stopped for everything, and I do mean everything. If a costume needed to be adjusted, we would stop. If a light cue was not timing out properly, we would re-do the moment as many times as it took to get it right. Sound cues would be edited (these were the days of reel-to-reel tape decks) while we all worked or waited. It didn’t matter; we simply did not proceed until the moment was right. Garland did not waste that time – while designers and technicians worked, Garland would be on stage, working with the actors. That was the essential truth of Garland’s work: there was always more to do. It could always be better.

That made for an atmosphere, in the theater, that was churchlike when things were going well but far more stressful when they weren’t. The stress could be overwhelming because with Garland, the stakes were always extremely high. I knew very few people who were not trying as hard as they could to not disappoint that man.

It took me almost 10 years to finally relax enough, in his presence, to have a real conversation. Until then I would listen but not speak very often, for fear of revealing myself to be an idiot. After a while I began to understand that most of us, if we were to compare ourselves to Garland, would have felt similarly inadequate. So the comparison was not useful.

I was fortunate enough to design several productions for Garland. I always looked forward to the first day of rehearsal, when he would explain to his actors (and the rest of us) his reasons for choosing that particular play. But my fondest memories of working with Garland (and where I learned the most) were the “designer dinners.” Garland did not like to talk in his office. Those were almost always brief meetings about the business of making theater. The talks about the art were almost always in a restaurant. Our dinner meeting, at the Monte Carlo, about A Woman of No Importance (1994) was unforgettable. I had read the play, of course, but was essentially a blank slate going into that dinner meeting.  After listening to Garland talk, for at least 20 minutes, about his reasons for choosing that play at that time, I knew that I was in the presence of something very special. He spoke of the closeting of Mrs. Arbuthnot and how it spoke to the lives of the gay community in the U.S. in 1993. I can’t begin to do him justice so I’ll not try. I was overwhelmed with his ability to articulate a relevance that I just did not see when I read that play. When I finally spoke, I told him that I felt rather foolish for not having seen that in the play. He smiled and said something like “Well, how could you?” There was a kindness and generosity in that simple comment that I will never forget. And that’s when I learned that Garland was intentional about absolutely everything.

He made most of his choices for the benefit of his community. He wrote, more than once, that all theater is political. His play choices reflected that, with very few exceptions. His company reflected that… and his staging reflected that. There’s a moment, during the tech of Marat/Sade (January, 1992) that I’ll never forget.  James Williams had a powerful monologue that he was delivering brilliantly. I want to say that it was the speech about the thin veneer of civilization… but 1992 was a long, long time ago. Garland suddenly changed James’ location for that speech, something he rarely did on that particular show. He later explained that he wanted J.W. to be directly in front of the Star Tribune reviewer when he delivered those important lines.

Yes, Garland wanted a company and yes, he chose projects (The History Plays, 1990, for example) for the benefit of his company. But a company was vital to the level of theater Garland was always trying to create. And that has everything to do with the community Garland was trying to educate.

Garland was always, to quote a colleague, the “smartest person in the room.” That isolated him in ways that frustrated all of us, Garland more than anyone else. He was also an intensely private person, which made him very hard to read. My first design for Garland was The Imaginary Invalid in June, 1988. I was still a fairly young designer and appropriately insecure, so I asked him for feedback while on a break. He just said, over his shoulder, something like “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when I don’t like something.” And that was it.

It was a little later when he asked me to design for him again and I, like an idiot, made a comment about the fact that I knew he had asked either Jennifer Tipton or Jim Ingalls to light the show and she (or he) wasn’t available. My implication was that I knew that I was a second choice. He gave me that stare (with those pale blue eyes that could cut through steel) and said simply “I don’t do mercy fucks.” That’s when I decided that it was more than ok to come in just behind Jennifer or Jim in the “favorite lighting designer” contest.

And as proof that Garland was human and occasionally made a choice that was less than ideal, there’s the design for Hamlet (1988). The scenic design (by Doug Stein) included a very large trap / elevator that was covered with subway grating. The idea was that there would be scenes that were lit only from below, so there was as much wattage as we could cram into the Guthrie’s trap room.  The first time that Jim (Ingalls) turned on all those lights, everyone in the room looked up at the now obscenely ugly “temporary” lighting grid that had been there for at least five years. And the comments (or quiet thoughts) ranged from “ugh” to “holy shit, that’s ugly.”  That’s also the show that taught me not to give the director the “history of dimmer seven.” They don’t care.

One thing Garland told me, early on, was that if he could, he would direct only musical theater.  It was his sense of responsibility to his community that prevented that, of course. I like musical theater as much as the next person but I am very grateful that Garland did not go down that road very often. The work that we (all of us at the Guthrie from 1984 to 1995) did was work that many people will never forget. The Imaginary Invalid was one of the funniest and smartest productions I’ve ever seen. Uncle Vanya (1989) was beautifully human, The History Plays were monumental; a defining moment in the careers of so many theatre artists.

And then there were the plays that Garland curated. They are far too numerous to mention here, with one exception. Joann Akalaitis’ direction of The Screens (1990) is perhaps the most legendary of all Guthrie productions, along with The History Plays. Selfishly, I am very grateful to Garland for pairing me with Dominique Serrand on the stunning 1993 production of The Triumph of Love. I learned a new way of approaching design while working with Dominique. That opportunity was a gift that led to a collaborative partnership that has lasted more than 25 years. Thanks, Garland. I miss you.