Behind the Well-Oiled Fringe Machine

Article by Liz Neerland

Liz Neerland and I first met at Fringe in 2001, and I think we’d both say that the festival and ourselves as people have come a long way together since running feeder cable from the belfry of St. Mark’s to the room with the skylight. Besides being the Technical Director for the largest unjuried performing arts festival in North America, she’s also the co-Artistic Director for the well-known Nimbus Theatre. Liz has done almost every job there is to do in the performing arts, and little escapes her sharp mind. -Wu Chen

I recently finished interviewing for Venue Technician positions for this year's Fringe Festival. This is what I say: “There are 15 venues. Each venue has 11 shows. Each show gets five performances. You are in charge of all of it.” It's a daunting task that, even after 16 years, continues to amaze me.

My first Fringe was in 2000. That year, I was the assistant box office manager. Our office was in a tiny room above the old Acadia Cafe, on Franklin and Nicollet. The cafe was also a venue with thin walls, so we had to be very quiet while counting tickets if a performance was going on downstairs. The next year I became a venue technician. Since then, I've missed two years – once when I was in the hospital with a broken ankle (which is a Fringe Festival story in itself, for another time) and once when I had a day job that wouldn't give me the time off for the festival. Three years ago, when Jeff Larson became Executive Director, I stepped into his role as Technical Director. It's the best job in the world.

The Fringe is an incredibly complicated beast. I'm sure no one thinks it's simple, but the amount of detail that goes into making those 11 days in August run smoothly is astonishing. It takes a year-round effort from an amazing group of dedicated people.

My job is to coordinate the technical theater side of things – the lights and sound and video, but also the facility maintenance and operation. Each of our venues is a fully-functional theater. We don't use cafes, bars, or storefronts like some other festivals do.

While I handle small details all year, my department really starts rolling in April. That's when the venues have all been secured and I can start planning. I need to know everything I can about each location – what the stage and seating layout will be, where the dressing rooms are and how the backstage is laid out, storage space and load-in locations, flow for the audience in the lobby and how that works or conflicts with access for the performers, light plots and sound rigs and equipment inventories.

I start hiring in May. This year I have a staff of 27 – a couple of venues have one technician, most have two. There are four rookies this year. Everyone else is back for their second or fifth or 14th year. Our technicians are all professionals who spend the rest of the year as lighting and sound designers, board operators, and stage managers. These techs aren't your stereotypical stagehand hiding in the wings in their black shirts. They need to possess a detailed and varied set of skills. They are responsible for designing the lights, programming the sound, and running the cues for each show in their venue. But they are also the train conductors for the whole festival – it is the technicians who keep festival time, who call places to the actors and tell the house manager to close the doors because the show is starting. And the shows start on time, without fail, across the city, over 800 times, with clockwork precision. The technicians manage the between-show schedule, too - making sure one group gets out in time so the next can come in; making sure the dressing rooms are clean and the stage is swept and the venue is kept in tip-top shape.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're still a couple of months before the festival. June is when the tech questionnaires are due – each show in the festival fills out a form that outlines what the technical elements of the show are. We ask about lighting and sound cues, special effects and messes, musicians and projectors and anything else that may be relevant. I read through every form and contact any producer that I have further questions for. We do have some festival regulations to follow – most are about either safety (no rigging!) or the reasonableness of what can be achieved with a 10-minute load in (no multi-channel wireless microphone systems!).

July is when things really heat up for me. I get back in touch with all of the venues to see if anything has changed, and a few technicians help me draw up light plots for each space. I coordinate with vendors and rental houses to line up equipment lists – some venues are ready to go from day one, but a few need supplemental gear brought in to suit our needs. I start to work on the supply bins for the venues. Each location gets a bin with everything they may need during tech week and the festival – technical paperwork, mic cables and light gels, pens and paper and six kinds of tape (Gaff, spike, glow, electrical, clear marley, and board.) I collect keys and check loading docks and put it all into a giant van that I drive around during load in.

Ah, load in. We try to get access to the more complicated venues a few days early to get ahead of the game, but really my crew hits the ground running the Saturday before the festival begins. Occasionally when a producer has a venue question for me, the answer honestly is “I don't know.” This is because we don't actually get into the venues until the day before tech rehearsals start, and no matter how much you plan, sometimes you just aren't sure until you're in the space.

All 27 technicians hit the ground running that Saturday morning. Everyone goes to their own venue first. The simple ones are done quickly, so they get sent somewhere else to help. By the afternoon the whole crew will be assembled at one or two locations, pitching in to get everything ready for the next day.

Tech week starts Sunday morning, and this is when my job switches gear. Up to now, my push has been to get everything that my staff needs ready to go. Once they start rehearsals they are in charge, and I'm there to support them as necessary. This is when the Whiplash Stage begins.  I call it that because I will have long periods of downtime followed by intense bursts of activity. When things happen, they all happen at once, and there's a very short window to fix it in. Each tech rehearsal is 3 hours. So I generally get 3 hours of peace, followed by one hour (the break between rehearsals) of constant text messages and supply runs. From the start of techs to the end of the festival, I am basically constantly on call.

The technicians work their butts off during tech week. Most days they have three rehearsals. If they're lucky they get a full run-through of each show. They take as many notes as they can, put that script into its folder, and move on to the next. Inevitably the first show they tech will be the last one to have its first performance.

It all flies along at a crazy breakneck speed until suddenly...it's done. It's 5:30 on Thursday evening and at the same time, 15 house doors close for the first time. 15 audiences get their first listen to this year's curtain announcement. The box office starts counting tickets as 15 technicians take out the preshow music and hit go on the light board. The house lights fade to black. The actors step onto the stage, and the festival is underway again.

At 5:31 on Thursday, I start to relax. A little. I'm still on call. There will still be things that break and problems to solve and a long ten days of hard work. But this well-oiled machine of ours takes on a life of its own every year, and watching that take form is an amazing sight I never grow tired of. On August 16 I will sleep for 12 hours. But for now, there are shows to see.

 

Sightlines: The Pony Goes

Article by Heidi Arneson

Heidi Arneson is a local actor, performance artist, painter, recently published author, and self- described  toublemaker  with a unique perspective on the world and she has written a wonderful story about an early show (with live animals) that she was a part of at the Olympia Arts ensemble in the 1970s, an event mentioned in Mim Solberg’s article last month as “a story in itself.”  Here it is.  - Mike Wangen

There is a pony. And there is a freight elevator. The pony is in the freight elevator. The freight elevator is in a warehouse and the warehouse is in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis in December of 1978.

The Harmony Building at 200 North Third Street still stands on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. A freeway now screams by, and the troupe of theater artists, dancers, painters, ex-cons, drug addicts, drug dealers, musicians, poets and creative maniacs that made theater on the second floor, called OLYMPIA ARTS ENSEMBLE, is long gone.

Led by Peter Scangarello, transplanted New York Sicilian, the ensemble put on play after dark European play. Blonde goddess Mim Solberg aced all the lead roles, and Peter Scangarello passionately directed, encouraging us from the makeshift wings at every opening with his tender whisper, “Go fuck ‘em in the heart! Fuck ‘em in the heart! Fuck ‘em in the heart!”

The winter of 1978, Mim needed a rest. Peter said, “Let’s the rest of us put on a Christmas show! For the kiddies! Let’s put on a CLOWN show! And let’s call it… ‘THE CLOWN SHOW’! And let’s have CLOWNS! And ACROBATS! And (what vaudevillian W. C. Fields warned to never have onstage), LIVE KIDDIES and LIVE ANIMALS!”

Peter and Mim somehow got hold of a pony, a goat and two children. The little girls were no problem; they learned their lines, cues and blocking and were turning cartwheels as we adults fumbled with page one of our scripts. The animals were another story. We actors crowded into the one bathroom shared with the audience to put on our makeup and costumes, because the tiny dressing room was occupied by the pony, the goat, great stacks of straw bales and steaming piles of horse mush. Many times the pony escaped from the dressing room to relieve itself on the wooden floor of the theater, leaking urine into the machinery of the machine shop below. Many times the cops came to tell Peter, “You can’t have animals in this building, you cannot have animals in this building, you can’t have animals in this building!” Every time Peter nodded, “Yes, of course, Officer. Of course! I’ll get rid of them tomorrow, tomorrow.”

Tomorrow and tomorrow crept… and the animals remained.

THE CLOWN SHOW, with the admission price of one dollar and seventy-five cents, was not much to speak of. We clowns and acrobats, such as Paul Smith, Tony Thomas, Giselle, the lead Clown Ollie played by Colin Rich and I painted our faces and talked loudly with enthusiastic gesticulations, but we were upstaged by the animals. The most exciting parts of The Clown Show were improvised: When a resident mouse ran over the feet of the front row, setting an audience member screaming, and when Mavis the goat trotted downstage, broke the fourth wall and put her feet up on an audience member’s knees, bleating,“Maa-aa-aa, maa-aa-aa,” and leaving a trail of marble-sized nuggets behind, or when the pony, during the climax of the children’s show, spontaneously sprung a horse-sized erection.

After an all-night Christmas party that left several of us asleep in the theater, Tony Thomas woke me with a smile.

“Heidi, it’s time to walk the pony.”

“What?”

I open my eyes to the after-party scene, plastic beer cups half-filled with floating cigarette stubs, sleeping bodies scattered on piles of velvet curtains, the sagging couch, the floor, snores rising.

“Come on, we gotta walk the pony!”

“Walk the pony?”

“Yeah! Look!”

Tony gestures to the windows all around. In the night, as we partied, fresh snow fell. The Minneapolis warehouse district, coated in white.

“Come on!”

I rub my eyes, find my coat, and off we go, down the freight elevator with the pony into the dawn. Tony, the pony and I leave tracks as we pass empty warehouses and cross over the railroad tracks, down Washington Avenue, past a liquor store. A life-size statue of a white horse stands in the liquor store window.  The live pony stops at the white horse in the window. The pony nods. The white horse in the window doesn’t nod. We continue on our way as the sun rises orange over the empty city, over the railroad tracks and back to Olympia.

The play is over. It’s time to take the pony home to wherever home is. Perhaps, I think, the Como Park Petting Zoo. The cold has cracked. It’s frigid as we stand, Peter, Tony, Colin, Paul, Giselle and I, out in the fifteen-below, in a parking lot near the New French Café (on the corner of 4th St. and 2nd Ave.N.), trying to coax the pony into the trailer. The pony will not go. We try sweet talk. We try leading, we try pushing. We try gently slapping the rump. The pony will not go. Our noses dripping, then numb. Our fingertips freezing. We stamp our feet, we hug ourselves, we shout in steaming clouds. We pat the pony harder on the rump. The pony will not go. It stands still as the horse in the liquor store window. Tony Thomas pulls from his pocket a peppermint, a cigarette, a pipe, and offers them to the pony’s nose, encouraging it to step towards the dark mouth of the trailer. The pony will not go. Not one hoof on the ramp. Not one foot near.

From the theater, Giselle runs back with a broom, a bouquet, a candle, and entices with threats, blossoms, scented wax. The pony will not go. Paul brings pots and pans and bangs. The pony will not go. I stand with hands deep in my army surplus coat watching, no bright ideas from me. The pony will not go. We are frozen, tired, hungover and hungry. We want to go home and learn the lines for our next roles. The pony will not go. Finally Peter Scangarello says, “Everyone. Stop. Backup. Step aside. Just leave us alone for one moment.”

We back off, obeying our director. Peter puts his mouth to the pony’s ear. We cannot hear what Peter says to the pony. We see him gesturing as he repeats.

The pony nods and goes up the ramp into the trailer.

I did not know till thirty-five years later that the pony was not a pony. The pony was an old paint. And the pony was not going home. Or perhaps home. I learned, years later, from Mim, that the pony had come from a petting zoo and was going to the glue factory. The Clown Show gave it a few more weeks onstage…

No wonder he did not want to walk up that ramp.

I still don’t know what Peter Scangarello whispered to that pony. Some loving thing he’d later whisper to Mim when he got home from Olympia? Some Italian lullaby his grandma sang to him that he’d later sing to his baby girl? I’ll never know since Peter followed the pony a few years after, but perhaps he whispered, “Go fuck ‘em in the heart, fuck em in the heart, fuck em in the heart!”

-Heidi Arneson is a many-armed troublemaker. She first stepped on stage at age three. Now she paints, writes and performs in an attic studio that she finished by hand. She just published her first novel, INTERLOCKING MONSTERS, available from Amazon Books.

 

In Focus: The Production Manager

Article by Nancy J. Waldoch

Besides being the production manager and stage manager for Ten Thousand Things, Nancy Waldoch is a also scenic carpenter. She and I have worked together for many years. Her sharp mind doesn’t miss much and at this point, she’s got much more to teach me and I had to teach her all those years ago when she was a production intern in the scene shop at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Her calm competence at her jobs at Ten Thousand Things has made her a well-known and highly regarded figure in Twin Cities theater and I’m honoured to have her write for us. -Wu Chen

In the fall of 2006, fresh out of college, I started as an intern with Minneapolis based Ten Thousand Things Theater. I stuck around, made myself useful and eventually got a new title Production Manager.

My tasks have grown and shifted over the years as we as a company have grown and shifted. My specific responsibilities are definitely not “typical” production manager responsibilities. I have very little interaction with the budget aside from encouraging the artistic team to stick to it. Because for our size I stage manage all the shows but I also book all of our free performances and am the primary point of contact for all our partners.* In addition, I do all typical front of house duties. So why do I consider myself to be a production manager?

Production Manager made sense as a title for my position within Ten Thousand Thing (TTT) because, as far as our small staff could surmise, that was pretty much what I did, “managed” the production. In a small company and as the originator of my position what “production manager” means for me is very different than what a production manager means at another company. Every production manager I have had the pleasure of interacting with has had an equally hard time defining what exactly it is that they do and every definition is a reflection of the company (and in an ideal world) the company’s mission that they are coming from.

A few weeks ago I was able to attend (the first half**) of a panel put together by Technical Tools of the Trade on Production Managers. It was moderated by Chris Garza, a man about town and occasional production manager himself featuring David Stewart, the new Director of Production at the Guthrie and Matt Earley, Production Manager of Mixed Blood Theater. David gave the best simple definition of production manager that I’ve heard so far, he found it in his time in the corporate world as a project manager. Essentially, the job is usually to plan, budget, oversee and document a project from start to finish.

Even though the idea behind it all, planning and executing a production successfully is the foundation there are a myriad of reasons why this job title varies so greatly in specific responsibilities depending on where you are. In my humble opinion, the zero factor is generally budget. The size of the organization in terms of budget will affect physical space (or lack thereof), number of productions in a season, number of employees and staff, who your artists are and who your audience is. A theater with a $30 million budget, a huge physical footprint and multiple stages active all year long is going to require a much different set of responsibilities then a company that produces 3 shows a year with an annual budget of less than $800k.

Okay, so there is a lot of variability in what production managers might do within a specific company but I’d rather focus on some traits that describe who a production manager is.

We are dabblers and doers.

Most production managers come from one of two tracks, stage management or production/technical direction. It just so happens that about 33% of my job with Ten Thousand Things is what would typically be called stage management and for a number of years prior to going full time with Ten Thousand Things I moon-lighted as a carpenter and technical director around town so I fit the mold.

Whether someone got to production management from stage management, or another side of production be it technical direction, construction, sound, lighting, costumes, the common thread is that we have at least a rudimentary knowledge of most, if not all of the elements that go into putting together a show and at some point we’ve gotten our hands dirty in the action of it. One of my boss's favorite things to tell people about my skill set is that I can weld. I have never had to weld anything in any capacity for Ten Thousand Things, but you never know, maybe someday I will.  

We are good listeners and so we are good interpreters.

It often feels like different languages are spoken across the disciplines in theater, we are your interpreters. By knowing at least a little bit about most areas, not being afraid to ask questions and sincerely listening we can often quickly recognize and embrace the nuances of our team and learn to speak director, set designer, sound designer, musician, actor, managing director, whichever. One foot is the same on every tape measure but it is not the same in everyone’s minds eye. We can delicately say that, know that, and bring along a tape measure to get us all on the same page.

We are artistic advocates and team players.

We also tend to be pretty practical people and so when producers, directors, designers, actors come to us with what can seem at first to be outrageous ideas our first inward impulse may very well be, “that is ridiculous”. On the outside though we are going to be the best improve partner we can with “yes and” and work hard to see a vision through.  Our minds are constantly turning to figure out how do we do it? Is it possible to make this crazy idea come to fruition?  Sometimes we do say no. It’s true. But we are always searching for a way to not have to. A big part of our job is to keep an environment creative and open to possibility, if we start with no we shut that creativity down and aren’t doing our jobs.

We’re big picture thinkers and problem solvers.  

We have the whole productions, the whole season, in our heads. We’re constantly thinking ahead while doing our best to stay in the moment and keep room for creativity. We have very complex calendars and schedules rolling through our minds. On the same note, we are human and sometimes we need a minute to think.

We want the show to succeed and we’re dedicated to making that happen.

 

*It should be noted that TTT is pretty unique company. We are a small, professional touring company and we perform in non-traditional settings like gyms, cafeterias, and large classrooms for both traditional theater audience’s and not-so-traditional audience’s like inmates at correctional facilities or persons at a homeless shelter. We create beautiful work with fabulous artist with very little stuff and next not none of the usual theatrical flare. We perform in the round with all the lights on no matter where we are or who our audience is. We have 1 (maybe 2 if it’s a musical) live musicians and about as high tech as we get is a key board, maybe an electric guitar. Our set designers create simple and intricate worlds with stipulations like nothing can be taller than 7’2”, must fit through a standard doorway, be less than 40 pounds, usually on wheels, and everything must fit in the back of a cargo van and be assembled in less than 20 minutes with no tools. Out costume designers go in knowing that the actors take and maintain their own costumes so ironing is generally a non-started and dry cleaning is next to impossible. Yeah, it’s pretty unique.

**I have a 13 month old son that accompanied me to the Production Manager panel and it was his bedtime, hence only staying for half. Had I now had a sleeping disruptive child I’d have stayed. Make sure you are checking out these Technical Tools of the Trade panels people. They are good.