Sightlines: Warren Bowles Retrospective

Article by Warren Bowles

Warren Bowles is a well known veteran actor/director who has worked at most area theaters over the years, although he is most closely associated with Mixed Blood.  He brings us a fascinating article about his roots in the theater community here, and what drew him to it in the 60s and 70s.  His story left me hanging at the end and I’m hoping to persuade him to continue it with his observations about the 80s here. - Mike Wangen

I’ve been asked to make a few comments about the history of theater locally. First let me say that I am neither a designer nor a theater technician. I have worked as both a sound and lighting board op but I remember working on a “state-of-the-art” manual, two-scene lighting board that took up almost all of the booth. I am not old enough to have performed under gaslight but I have worked in more than a few theaters that still had the Bunsen burner-like gas jets on the wall. Secondly, my view of history is my own. My observations and hypotheses are my own and the “facts” are only as I remember them.

I came to Minnesota from southwestern Kansas in 1962. I thought I wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. I didn’t realize that I was seeking a lifelong career in theater. The pre-Vatican Catholic Church had the best show in town, unless you had a black church with a great choir and choir director. Luckily, I was arriving in Minnesota at the same time the Guthrie was being founded. Our senior class came down to Minneapolis from the seminary in Onamia to see The Cherry Orchard. I was fascinated. The whole Guthrie philosophy was to see actors on a bare platform like they would at the Globe or up in Stratford. The costumes and set props were fabulous but the focus was solely on the actor. Watching the actor playing Firs slowly fall asleep in the midst of the ongoing action on stage touched me deeply. Maybe because as a young black man I identified with a character ignored, undervalued, and largely unseen. Maybe because I was amazed at the skill and discipline of the actor.

The Guthrie was great and a real source of civic pride. Although it was a good source of inspiration for a career in theater, it wasn’t often a good source of opportunity for work in theater. The Minnesota Twins can be a source of civic pride. However, unlike the town teams of St. Cloud, Bertha, or Alexandria, the Twins don’t scour local playgrounds, high schools, and colleges looking for talent. So it was with the Guthrie. If you were a McKnight Fellow part of your education was an internship at the Guthrie but otherwise few had any real hope of appearing on that stage.

Still the Twin Cities was an exceptionally good theater community. That was how community leaders were able to lure the Guthrie here. The University of Minnesota produced a children’s play every spring and the Minneapolis school district would bus in thousands of students to see the performance. Theater in the Round was a nationally known and respected community theater but there were a number of other community theaters in the area. The University of Minnesota had a premier MFA program but there were a number of other college programs in the area. There were opportunities to work at a semiprofessional level. I worked two seasons with Shakespeare in the Streets - no pay for rehearsals; $10 a performance; building sets and costumes; and, a minimal per diem when on the road. And periodically Jimmy Heggs would go through the ritual of opening the curtains on the shrine to local theaters in his downtown bar. There were about 100 theaters represented. But if you wanted a career as an actor you had to head to New York.

I left Minnesota for a while and returned in 1976 and the landscape had totally changed. It was nice that the regional theaters were decentralizing professional theater but they were not often involved in or speaking to the community in which they resided. In fact, they seem to be speaking down to the audience with their repertoire of classical plays. Now was a period of numerous mission driven theater companies. I think this movement was inspired by agitprop and political and social companies across the nation. Now theatre companies rose up as part of and speaking to the local community. El Theatro Campesino. Free Southern Theater. Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Firehouse Theatre (nationally known but founded in what is today known as Patrick’s Cabaret’s firehouse). These companies and others made strong social and political statements, challenged the very nature of theater, and defended and spoke to marginalized communities.

I remember: the Playwrights’ Center (Playwriting Lab) founded by Barbara Nosanow Field, Eric Brogger, Charles Nolte, Tom Dunn, John Olive, and others; Bill Livingston’s Theatre of Involvement with its spiritual and Christian inspiration; Out and About, exploring GLBT issues; The Shoestring Playhouse, run by Bob Samples and focusing on racial harmony; At the Foot of the Mountain, with Martha and Paul Boesing and concerned with feminism and women’s issues; Alive and Trucking Theatre, with concerns of marginalized communities and social issues; and, once the Federal Government started delivering anti-poverty funds to communities through the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), Mixed Blood Theater Company and Penumbra Theatre; In the Heart of the Beast, with its exploration of puppetry and its commitment to community involvement; Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park; Walker Church a great venue for community-based theater and where I first saw an ASL interpreter; and who knows how many others. These companies focused on their mission theme, their audience, and their actors. The fact that they were low-budget was more of a source of pride than a feeling of inadequacy. One of their bona fides was that they neither had nor needed much tech.

Most important for me was the fact that there were more opportunities than ever for black actors. The majority of the aforementioned companies were racially diverse. It was all based on a foundation laid in the early 70s. The Guthrie continued its tradition of racially diverse casts and occasional black authored plays, a tradition started under Michael Langham. The University of Minnesota strengthened its African-American studies department (with Dr. Geneva Southall and later Dr. John Wright). The theater department offered Horace Bond a tenure-track position and his students included Lou Bellamy, John Wright, Tisch Jones, me, and others. And Ernie Hudson and Claude Purdy moved The Great White Hope from TRP to a professional setting and made it easier for black actors to demand pay for our services.

That was the 70s and suddenly actors were making the choice of seeking a career in theater without moving to New York. At least, I did.

Corporate & Industrial Gigs from a “Seasoned” LD Perspective

Article by Michael Murnane

Just as there are many theatre and dance lighting designers, there are many corporate and industrial lighting designers. But in the Twin Cities, few are as legendary in the theatre/dance community as Michael Murnane, owner of Footcandles LLC. A designer of tremendous versatility, he’s been an inspiration for many of my generation, and very few of us have not worked for Michael at some point. -Wu Chen

 Lighting by Michael Murnane

Lighting by Michael Murnane

Rumination on the experience of being a lighting designer/ director (aka solving problems with light) for corporate events and how that differs from the role of lighting designer in the theatrical environment.

My first corporate gig was a fashion show for a local department store. It was a large theatrical event that hired a dance company that I was working with to entertain and model. I was nervous and inexperienced, but I was surrounded by other theater artists so I felt comfortable enough to go for it. Since then I’ve managed a small business that has provided solutions for a wide variety of lighting and technical challenges to a diverse clientele while at the same time, maintaining my love for lighting the stage.

I’ll define a corporate event as any event that is not specifically serving art as product. In other words, any event with an agenda to educate or to sell something. The audience is often required to be at a sales meeting or a product launch, rather than there by choice at a theatrical event. Another example of a corporate event is an event that draws the audience in with the purpose of selling something. It sounds cynical, but a holiday walk through show is a corporate event - a strategic marketing choice to bring bodies to a location where things are being sold.

On a daily basis, here are some of the key differences I’ve found between corporate and theatrical lighting design.

Time is Money

The most obvious difference is more money, but that doesn’t mean I get  unlimited money. Perhaps my favorite aspect of having bigger budgets is that it often allows (and forces!) me to be an early adopter of the latest technology in entertainment lighting.. I am regularly challenged with recreating what a producer or a corporate executive saw in a show or concert somewhere else. Probably my least favorite job is explaining and proving to a client that their artistic vision is grander than their budget. I know that we all face that challenge but it’s a bit trickier when the executives are not used to hearing no from anyone.

It is surprisingly difficult to make the case for time onsite. To be fair, event producers often have their hands tied by the clients’ need to compress the schedule.  Regardless, it takes time to put on a show and if you don’t have time, you place more stress on the labor budget. I spend a good deal of my time on scheduling, negotiating budgets, and planning labor.

Business is Business

A theatrical design contract is fairly straight forward with generally only a few negotiable points – fee, rehearsal dates and materials budget. The wide variety of corporate events means that each  new client has its own billing requirements, insurance coverage needs and procedures to bid, do the work, get paid, purchase equipment or reimburse expenses. For example, I carry three different types of liability insurance (including one that protects my business from a client that sues me for screwing up their show. Yeah that’s a thing, and one of which I had never even heard of before, Inland Marine?) I have an accountant and a tax lawyer (really great to have when an accounting mishap lands you a three year audit.) and until recently I had a payroll service. I honestly don’t know if I would need all those services if I were lighting plays.

Creative Stuff

The creative and logistics processes are different for every client. There is no uniform process for designing a corporate event, but here are two different ways a sales meeting can happen.

Client A is very well planned and organized. Upfront they supply me with a budget, a schedule, contacts, preferred vendors, site survey information and photos, travel plans and drawings ready for me to layer on a light plot. Often there are set renderings with lighting suggestions and they are interested in my input.

Client B, not so organized. They want me to supply the drawings because, you know, you’re the lighting designer. Oh, and by the way could you just throw a few decks down on the plot and masking and chairs and …  No venue information, the budget is kind of nebulous, the schedule is “the show’s on Tuesday” and “can you book your own travel.” Inevitably after doing the drawings the client wants to turn the whole room ninety degrees, just because they can.  These sound like extremes but I have clients like these and everything in between every year.

Communicating with Corporate People

In a theatrical production meeting we take for granted communicating in a kind of a shorthand – we all speak a common language. But in a corporate client meeting, I have to remind myself that they may not understand the sentence: “We will use swivel cheeseburgers connected from the upstage side of the downstage truss to the downstage side of the upstage truss to hang the masking.” Or “we’ll try some 201 to cool that off a bit for video.” It’s my job to translate.

Mind Business

Event lighting design is a service industry, rather than a collaborative art form. I find satisfaction in cultivating relationships with customers. I’ve found that clients want to feel like everything is handled. I learned that by listening carefully to the corporate event planners, participating in the overall design process and taking on problem solving responsibilities (not necessarily just lighting) the relationship shifts to more of a partnership - much closer to the feeling of the theatrical design team model. Long after I had learned this I attended a marketing seminar that a friend hosted, which gave me a clearer understanding  of what I had been doing right in terms of longevity with my clients.

The Theatrical Pyramid Verses the Corporate Event Pyramid

This is my favorite in terms of personal growth.

In the world of corporate events, the lighting designer and the entire production crew, are, in corporate speak, on the bottom of the pyramid. Everyone working on the project (except maybe the caterer) is your boss, they all have opinions, and they are not necessarily interested in working in a mutually collaborative way. Imagine spending eight hours of valuable programming time managing two programmers, 200 moving lights, media servers and atmospherics only to have an executive see the opportunity to impress their boss by telling you that what you are doing is not “properly honoring the brand, do it this way.” How you respond in that situation can have a lasting effect on your career. It takes a lot of self-control in that moment not to blurt out “but I’m doing what we talked about in that meeting!” See Communicating with Corporate People above. It’s in that moment when you remember that you are in a service industry and to respond by saying “How can we make this work for you?” Or, you blow up and lose a client.

Over the years of corporate lighting my designer’s ego has taken some significant beatings. Sadly, I have blurted on a few occasions but I think that learning humility, good listening skills and flexibility has been good for me and my business. I like to think that I bring that to my theatrical work as well.

Sightlines: Reflections of an Actor - Part 1

Article by Mim Solberg

Mim Solberg will not be known to many readers of this journal as she moved to New York in the late 80s and no longer performs.  In the Twin Cities theater scene of the late 60s, 70s, and 80s, however, she was practically a force of nature, a brilliant, fierce and uncompromising actress who threw herself wholeheartedly into her work.  

She and her partner, Peter Scangarello, were my friends, teachers, and mentors and laid the foundation for my entire life as a theater artist.  I am honored that she has written these words. -Mike Wangen

I begin with the following question which may have many answers or none at all:

“What happens to a body of work created by a theater company (a poor theater) that is no more, after directors, actors, designers are gone?”

The theater I knew still inhabits my heart, mind, and soul…two theaters that took hours, years of labor and birthing, seemed to just vanish into a thin stream of smoke dispersed in clouds… of what?  A few of us who worked together during that time are scattered, in some kind of touch with one another. Others who have passed, live on in our memories, still alive in grief and dreams. There are no production videos, few photos, posters, programs or reviews.

It was 1969, I had had a few years of classical theater training and experience in several “traditional” theaters, even musical theater.  Something was missing;  my hunt for a “new” theater was on, I was hungry and ready to find my voice in theater that reflected this time, 1969. Vietnam, cities burning, assassinations, riots raging, alienation, love from bed to bed, shared bread, brown rice, wine, and weed. Where was the theater telling these stories? The venerated Firehouse Theater, source of theater innovation and inspiration, had moved from Mpls. to San Francisco leaving behind a few actors and a void.  Minneapolis was a grooving place; Dinky Town, The Scholar where you could hear Snaker Ray, Spider John, even Dylan sometimes, the Podium and McCosh’ Book Store.

And there was the WestBank, Triangle Bar, Palmer’s Bar, Noah’s Leather Shop…angry anti war graffiti on brick walls, Electric Fetus Record and Headshop blasting Hendrix, Joplin, Iron Butterfly’s In a Gadda Da Vita, folks eating and tripping on benches, sidewalks, air pungent with herb of all kinds.  Wedged between Palmer’s and the Electric Fetus was The Guild of Performing Arts, a place for serious artists to practice, grow and perform…Nancy Hauser at the helm, brilliant modern dancer, choreographer whose work was forever growing, finding authentic  voice. There were practice rooms for classical and flamenco guitar, great teachers and performers…Michael Hauser, Jeffrey Van..The Guild was alive night and day with concerts, galleries, dance and theater rehearsals.  I stumbled into some scruffy actors and a director, at the Guild, who wanted to start a theater. They were renting the Guild Theater, performing Beckett’s “Endgame”. I asked what was next and could I audition. “No auditions, workshops…Dania Hall Cedar Ave.”( Dania Hall was built in 1886 , hall for meetings and entertainment for Scandinavian immigrants, it was destroyed in a fire in the mid 90s). If interested in the burgeoning theater, I had to attend three 4 hour workshops a week, for as long as it took to determine my endurance and ability to meet the physical and creative demands to become part of the Minneapolis Ensemble Theater. The workshop was bootcamp.  Workshops began with Yoga or Tai Chi, Peking Opera exercises. We were told to read and know Grotowski’s “Towards a Poor Theater”. I absorbed the book, slept with it under my pillow.  We practiced Grotowski movement and vocal exercises. As actors we were to do things with our bodies and voices that others weren’t able to do. Barefoot, sweating and thrilling through“Sound and Movements”, Endowments and Trust exercises. We practiced juggling and acrobatics till we collapsed onto those aged and scarred floors, which even now I see vividly.  We took treks in the woods exploring our animal natures, hunting and being hunted. The budding ensemble members didn’t become friends or lovers; I  don’t remember greetings or chatting, we only knew each other through the work, finding our individual strengths. We were about the business of stripping off our social masks  and opening ourselves to the furthest reach of imagination. The purpose was to forge an ensemble.

Experiencing “Belly or Total breathing” was one of the deepest spiritual experiences I’d ever had ; to discover  the most essential breathing (babies and animals do always).  The first time I gave myself over to breath, let escape a free unencumbered sound on my breath. It came, followed by silent tears. I think I was beginning the journey of a “holy” actor. I remember opening my eyes to the horseshoe balcony above of the decaying elegance of Dania Hall and knowing I’d come to the place I needed to be at this time of life… in 1969.

A few months later, I was asked to do a role in Genet’s ”The Maids”, the MET’s 2nd production; alter ego of Claire, to be performed at the Guild of Performing Arts. Intensive rehearsals began, workshops continued; near total immersion. One might ask if we had to work in day jobs as well. Some of us taught kids, clerked or bartended part time, had kids of our own and mostly lived cheaply, sharing resources with other artists. How did we pay for productions? We were minimalist, we borrowed and thieved, audiences gave to the cause, sometimes in homemade bread, rice and vegetables and hash brownies for the company. We put our own money into productions whenever we could.

We grew and produced more plays, had more company workshops and thrived.  Early productions were Michael McClure’s “The Beard” (Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid…my first nearly nude acting, on to “Alice in Wonderland: Related to Drug Experience”, acrobatic skills honed, vocal stretches, total use of Guild,  actors took audience members to the basement in an old elevator.

Plays birthed, ran for weeks to small and bigger audiences, closed, died…were no more. Plays escalated from rage to outrageous, wild plays which we thought told the truth, we hoped shocked Minneapolis audiences and maybe sometimes did. We thought we had a lot to say; defectors in our homes and city, and felt a part of a world revolution that I was beginning to understand.

The Guild of Performing Arts had outgrown us, it was time to move on, some actors left, others joined and we managed to get a space mostly our own…the old Walker Church on 31st, (no more, due to recent fire). We became the Minnesota Ensemble Theater, still in intensive search to discover our voices, insanity, anger at injustice and our ecstasy. Our connections to each other were strong and we were amassing a following of skeptics, fans, critics, curiosity seekers, and perverts.

The move to Walker Church was a quantum leap for the MET. We changed our name to Minnesota Ensemble Theater. The company had more space for workshops and productions. The space had balconies to swing from, levels to construct minimal sets. Actors and directors emerged out of workshops and the Minneapolis theater community. We expanded our vision to include Shakespeare (Macbeth), T.S. Elliot (Murder in the Cathedral, where an actor hung from church ceiling over audience through entire first act, Chekhov (Seagull) Williams (Glass Menagerie). Our objectives were  for authenticity, probing, asking deep questions while maintaining our physical and vocal vigor and imagination.  The move to Walker Church meant higher stakes, rent and costs; the company needed to produce not only larger audiences but going after funding,  marketing our skills to schools and community arts organizations.  We continued to produce at least five main shows a year. We explored and composed a play based on R.D. Laing (Knots). Jim Stowell created  and directed Fresh Meat, Used Meat and Sailor George which demanded even more awareness, physical, vocal endurance and ensemble trust.  We were at the top of our game, even increased audience, volunteers and the “faithful”.   Being a single mom, my son often came to the theater, participated in a play or two, and fell asleep in the pews. I was doing a lot of the major roles , my greatest teachers in successes and weaknesses.  There was a shadow creeping into the MET, whose advent into the company, was not felt or acknowledged by some of us.  Menacing secrets lurked within the hierarchy, the center being the Artistic Director’s private life and demons which began to contaminate  the life of the theater, but we went forward with David Ball’s adaptation of “Everyman”. It was based on a circus theme and became a hit, although storms threatened performances. I played Death and swung from balcony to balcony on a handmade trapeze. Every performance the stunt was a success, until one night, when on the count of three, I took off with  strong momentum. At a designated point over the audience, I let my hands go of the bar and held on tightly with my knees. It was a hard fast flight, expecting to swing back to my perch on takeoff balcony, I realized I wasn’t slowing down…then a thud as I slammed face first into the balcony, screams from audience, I recovered the bar, blood spattered all over me. My dear partner Peter Scangarello scrambled down from his post where he had been hoisted as Everyman, lights came down, I was carried to dressing room and told not to look in the mirror. I survived, the show went on a day or so later, but there was visible darkness in the theater.

The MET continued for a while, struggling for breath. The company was in conflict and divide, eventually splitting. Half of the Met became The Palace Theater. Peter and I became theater hunters again until we KNEW we had our own vision and voice to launch a theater…it became OLYMPIA Arts Ensemble, a story of it’s own that must and will be told.  These stories at least partially answer my question, ”What happens to a body of work created by a theater company that is no more?”

What Teaching High School Has Taught Me About Theater

Article by Suzy Messerole

Suzy Messerole has a long history of education through theatre. Much of her work as a director has been rooted either in bringing to light rarely-told stories, or specifically using theatre as medium for education. Suzy and I have worked on many of these projects together, and I’m still with many of them. Her work and life have been inspirational and deeply meaningful to many many people, and not a few of them are now either patrons or practitioners of the performing arts themselves. I can think of no greater measure of success. -Wu Chen

Five years ago I transitioned from a full time artist to an (almost) full time teacher at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA).   I took the teaching job at a time when my daughter was starting elementary school and I wanted employment that did not involve weekends or evenings.  I wanted time with her.  I wanted a job with a regular schedule.    

SPCPA is unique because it is a pre-professional performing arts high school that is also a public (i.e. no audition) high school.  My job is to treat every student in the theatre program as if they are going on to a conservatory program or into the profession (even if they are not).  It is a rigorous and highly creative training program.  What has surprised me the most about teaching there isn’t how I have impacted the students, but how the students have impacted me.  When I began teaching, I was overly worried that I would lose myself as an artist.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Working with and learning from students has made me a clearer, more passionate and more creative artist.  

Here is some of what I have learned:

1.  Theatre should be fun

There is truly nothing like teaching acting for first year high school students.  It is all risk, all the time.  Ask for a volunteer?  20 hands go up.  Students are aching – literally aching – to get up and perform.  There is giggling.  There is laughter.  There are surprises at every turn.  The joy in the room is infectious.  Now containing that joy and keeping the chit chat down to a tolerable level is a whole other skill, but my point is this – these young actors love every moment.  The room is alive.  That’s what I want rehearsals to be – alive and joyful.  

2.  Learning to Pause

Teaching theatre at a performing arts high school means being surrounded by D-R-A-M-A.  Let’s just say that the young people I teach are very much in touch with their emotions.  When I first started teaching, I used to just move on with the curriculum.  Whatever I was teaching that day was surely more important than the student crying in the back.  I would hand over a box of tissues and continue the very crucial game of Zip, Zap, Zop.  Now I realize that how I encounter the student with tears is equally important as the teaching.  Some days, it’s a two minute pep talk and back to rehearsal.  And some days it is sitting with that student for much longer.  Some days, what the student is going through trumps the curriculum. I learned this from the students.  The instinct of the students is to always stop and take care of each other.  The reality is that I used to get in their way.  Now I try to balance that need for care and the need for continuing on.  There is no magic formula for when to stop and when to continue, but I find myself stopping more often than not.

Learning how to gracefully stop what is happening and address the reality in the room has helped me enormously as I grow as a director.  In 2015, I spent a year workshopping and directing a production of Aamera Siddiqui’s Freedom Daze.  The majority of the cast were Muslim actors and the play was about how the American media’s misinformation about Muslims has created a culture of fear.  For some of the actors, this issue of fear came up a lot.  And there were times in the process where we needed pauses for reflection, for breathing, for talking it through.  Prior to teaching, I couldn’t have done this.  The need to “accomplish” something tangible at each rehearsal would have been too great.  Teaching has taught me to think long-term and to realize that what happens in the pauses can be just as important as what happens in the action.

3.  Naming what is real

Students call things how they see it.  When they see or experience racism, they name it.  When another student or teacher makes a sexist remark, it gets called out.  When gender pronouns are not used correctly – its instant.  By no means is SPCPA a perfect school – all of the social injustices that occur in the outside world occur at the school (and I believe that’s true for all schools).  However, what the students exhibit is a willingness to name it and talk about it.  They are not afraid.  They are far more comfortable and willing to talk about race and racism than most adults I know.  For them, calling out homophobia is more important that making others feel comfortable.  For them, challenging gender binaries is more important than making others feel comfortable.  Inspired by them, I am practicing this skill more and more and as an artist who is passionately committed to social justice, name and challenging simply must be more important than making others feel comfortable.  

4.  It’s not a race

Sometimes as a full-time artist, I felt like my career was a race.  A race to the first Equity production, a race to get a certain grant, a race to get a certain level of recognition.  No one else put this pressure on me, but it was there.  What I have learned from teaching high school is that art is not a race.  I watch students grow over the course of four years.  They practice their craft for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months of the year for four years.  It’s astonishing how much they grow over that time.  And it requires patience.  Patience when training the body in physical theatre.  Patience in learning to understand objectives, barriers and tactics.  Patience in gaining vocal variety.  Growth happens over the long term.  It’s beautifully incremental.  No one project, class, assignment, role or opportunity is key.  The student actors often grow the most in the spaces in between – in the connections between the classes.  It takes variety.  And it takes time.  Teaching has made me a much more patient artist.   I can see the journey more clearly and am getting better at appreciating it.  There is no substitute for time in growing as an artist.

Life as a high school teacher is not always rosy.  Some days, the enthusiasm and passion of theater students can just be a lot to handle.  Some days, I wish I had a spell or potion for focusing.  But I have learned so much from teaching.  It’s given me renewed passion for the power of theater and profound optimism for the future of this art form I love.

Suzy Messerole is a teacher at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, Co-Artistic Director of Exposed Brick Theatre with long-time collaborator Aamera Siddiqui and a member of the Million Artists Movement.  In addition to theater, Suzy is currently training as a synchronized swimmer for the 2018 Gay Games.