ARTICLE BY CHRIS GARZA
There are a lot of roles one can play in the theater industry, and Chris Garza has at one time or another done many of them. His smarts and vast network have made him an respected figure in the intrapersonal relationships that make up Twin Cities theater, importantly bridging the artificial divisions between production, artistic, administration and more. For precisely these reasons, his reflections on the industry are always worth checking out. -Wu Chen Khoo
I was asked to write an article due to my experience working in multiple levels of theatre (small, medium, large) and because I often work at the intersection of administration and production. So…I’m going to do that. I’m going to start by talking about myself.
My name is Chris Garza. I’m a director, carpenter, production manager, socialite, logistics coordinator, volunteer supervisor, tour manager, arts administrator, and pretty much anything else you want me to be. I left Macalester College with a degree in theatre and wanting to be a director. Early on I took tiny stipends with tiny companies and did a lot of festival work. I’m not a performer but I try to perform in something about every other year to remind myself what it is to trust an outside eye. But, landing directing gigs is hard and it’s tricky asking a company to take a risk on you with a full production without seeing your previous work on a full production. This led me to accept any job in the field that I could get and to hope that through doing good work in any job, I would build my credibility.
One of my first gigs in theatre was Assistant to the Artistic Director of Frank Theatre, from August 2012 to August 2014. Frank is small theatre run by 1.5 people and I was the .5 person for two years. The job had me do a little bit of everything for $10 an hour, averaging 10 hours a week most weeks, and up to 30 hours a week when in a production. Since this was a part-time job, I had to juggle it with other contract work. Sometimes I would carpenter at the Jungle and sometimes I’d stage manage. My broad range of work experience borne out of economic necessity coincidently made me an ideal production manager. I had a good enough understanding of all of the technical elements of theatre, administrative elements, and artistic elements, and I think more importantly, I came from a deep belief that all of these seemingly separate elements are inherently supporting each other.
I became the Production Manager for the Workhaus Collective for their last season shortly after accepting a job at Upstream Arts as their Administrative/Program Assistant. Upstream Arts is an organization that teaches social skills using the arts to kids and adults with disabilities. Workhaus was a company of playwrights that took turns producing each other’s work and shifted company responsibilities based on availability/need with the producing playwright acting as a temporary Artistic Director. I was brought on as Workhaus’ Production Manager in an effort to systematize their company and alleviate their workload. They decided to end the company while rehearsing their second show of a three-show season. As the season progressed, the demands of the job became greater, and I had my first and only panic attack a few days before striking the last show.
In hindsight, the panic attack seems so anomalous and explicable. I had organized numerous strikes beforehand and I have always enjoyed working under pressure (I’m writing this very article the same day as the overdue, absolute last deadline). I’m not advocating that the theatrical creative process is contingent upon a “last-minute under pressure Hail Mary” situation, but that circumstance is not uncommon. I even suspect that some people make theatre for the adrenaline thrill of pulling off the impossible at the very last moment. I’ve been a part of processes that thrived on this mindset, especially with smaller companies, and I’ve been a part of processes that actively fought against this mentality. My Workhaus experience coupled with a raise at Upstream led me to consider taking a break from theatre. Then, for reasons not-entirely known to me, the Guthrie asked me if I would be interested in assistant directing in their 16-17 Season.
I took the meeting because I figured that’s what one does when the Guthrie asks to meet with you. Initially, I thought they wanted me to work on Native Gardens which is a show written by a Latina playwright and was being directed by a white out-of-town director. I thought I was going to balance out the artistic team by not only being a Latino but also a local artist. This was not the case. When they asked me what shows in their season interested me, without hesitation I inquired about The Bluest Eye not only because Toni Morrison is a genius but as I researched the director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, and I thought her aesthetic was stunning. I had a phone meeting with Lileana and I ended up assistant directing The Bluest Eye. The experience of working on this show is in many ways a high point of my career thus far and not because of the prestige or budget size.
More so than most projects, The Bluest Eye stands apart for me because the director carried out the extremely difficult task of both having a strong vision and genuinely collaborating with everyone in the room. When actors would investigate their characters or question the optics of the future soon to be majority white audience, she would listen and guide. She respected her design team and all of the artists building and making the show. The process in making the show was filled with kindness even though the subject matter was at times brutal. This is a lesson that can be applied to any size production team.
The biggest relief in working at the Guthrie was the lack of responsibility. In many rooms preceding this one I was responsible for all of things. If in a production meeting at a smaller company we decided we would need a fridge, I would often have to find the fridge, find a way to transport the fridge, find volunteers willing to help me move it to the theatre, ensure we had enough volunteers to remove it from the theatre, and then find a way to get rid of it after the show. At the Guthrie, I didn’t have to worry about any of it. My only job was to attend rehearsals and give my opinion if asked. It was both incredibly relaxing and also bit anxiety making as someone that used to do it all. This isn’t to say money and resources fix all problems. Theatre is still an artistic discipline focused on collaboration. Communication is often complex and more people just add to the potential of misunderstanding. There were moments when doing something yourself would have exponentially faster/easier. For example, finding the exact prop needed for the show. Instead of going to a thrift store yourself, the director gives a note in rehearsal, the stage manager puts it in a report, the props manager gets the note and assigns it to a props artisan. You repeat that process until it works out.
On this large of a scale, it is hard to find an intimate sense of comradery. On the very first day of rehearsal all of the departments are invited to a meet and greet with the production team. Joe Haj introduces the show and the director and then the director speaks about the project. Before the speeches are given, there is a casual mingle with everyone that shows up… except the interdepartmental mingling can be scarce. All of the carpenters chat together and all of the box office are together and all of the marketing folks are together, etc. I found myself knowing multiple folks spread throughout the departments due to my eclectic work history and I wasn’t sure where to situate myself. This sort of separation is of course expected; you’re going to chat with the people you know and the people you know are the ones you spend everyday with in the shop/office etc. I looked around the room and was very much aware of professional spaces cobbled together in the larger room.
Being both an artist and an arts administrator has amplified for me the importance of creating space. In both roles, I spend a lot time anticipating needs. As a director, so much of my artistic work is front-loaded, conceptualizing a production with designers and doing my own research. Then, during the rehearsal process, my attention is often split between creating a positive day-to-day space for the actors and imagining how the future audience will receive the play. As an arts administrator that does a lot of event planning, sometimes those anticipated needs are regarding access. Are there switches at the venue for patrons that use a wheelchair? Is anyone attending in need of ASL interpretation or large print programs etc. What can I do now to make tomorrow more manageable? I view all of my work history as a practice in empathy building. Theatre is an opportunity for empathy building not only in when we share stories with our audiences that might offer a different narrative than they are accustomed to but also in the method of production. If during the process of making theatre, we are kind to each other as artists, I think that empathy building ripples into our communities.