Sightlines: A Scott Peters Retrospective

An Interview with Scott Peters by Mike Wangan

Scott Peters has long been a fixture of Twin Cities theater and has served as a technical director, lighting, set, and props designer, and builder for many small and mid-sized theaters here over the years.  

Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park in the sixties, he began doing tech work for a small theater housed in a church basement while still in high school: the group that would become Steppenwolf Theater.  Moving to Minneapolis in the early seventies, he worked for several years with the Cricket Theater as well as working with both Penumbra and Mixed Blood in their early days.  He later became the technical director for Mixed Blood, working there all through the eighties and served as production manager with Penumbra again in the mid nineties.  In recent years he served as the lighting head at Orchestra Hall and is currently retired.

Mike Wangan: Scott, you grew up in Chicago, is that right?

Scott Peters: Yeah, I got into the theatre around 1972 in high school. I had a really good teacher, Barbara Greeners. She was an actress who worked in the area, but she was a wonderful teacher and she got me my first job in summer stock in Beloit in ’73 right out of high school. She was also an integral part of the Steppenwolf Theatre, which we started in high school and did four shows, a couple summer seasons not incorporated. We finally did incorporate, I forget the year, maybe ’76, ’77, something like that. We actually made a theatre in the basement of a church in Highland Park and were actually a company. So that was my start.

M: So you started with Steppenwolf, when you were actually a company?

SP: Yeah, correct.

M: That’s amazing to me.

SP: We were really lucky.

M: What did you do for them?

SP: Actually, the very first Steppenwolf, when we called ourselves Steppenwolf, we did this play, Philadelphia, Here I Come in the student auditorium. It was really good.

M: It’s a beautiful play.

SP: I actually acted in some of the things, and then I actually directed a Steppenwolf piece called Moon Children and we actually got permission from the nuns of a Catholic girls college to let us do it up in the dance studio. I directed that one and then my friend Mike Cowan, under the Steppenwolf banner, directed Grease: The Musical - which was an incredible hit and it was amazing. I mean, it was free, but there were just hundreds of people banging at the doors and we had to send people away because it was getting too dangerous with how many people were there. It was fun and that one summer, like I said, we incorporated and did four shows. There were some pretty talented people, but that’s the last I worked for them. Then I moved to Minnesota. I had been living in Minnesota, and I had done some work with the Minnesota Ensemble Theatre, but then I got a job with the Cricket Theatre.

M: Talk about the Cricket Theatre. It made a huge impact in the ‘70s in Minneapolis.

SP: It was a really fun place to work. I learned a lot from a guy named Dick Learhoff - who I think now designs for the Science Museum. He was a really talented fellow and it was one of those theatres that was really driven by a single individual, Bill Semens was the producer. They just did some really good work. I was there for a little while as a volunteer. At the end of one season I was just really impressed by their work. I was also in a movie theatre up in Northeast, the old Ritz Theater.

I remember once we had a fire [at the Ritz], in the fan room: the motor that drove the heating system caught fire. And we had to haul a huge motor that weighed hundreds of pounds up this narrow metal staircase and get it in so this guy could do it. We took ridiculous risks, back then, the things you had to do. I mean, putting life and limb at peril.

But it was a great theater and I remember doing a show I really love, it was an original Ray Bradbury. It was a season we didn’t have a show and Ray Bradbury called us and we did the Martian Chronicles and it was absolutely magical. Again, at that time, I was just being a general hand and running the light board and I remember doing things, like being told, make some instruments, some martian musical instruments. And just finding pipes and pieces of metal and different string things, and creating martian instruments. It was great fun, really good theater.

M: So what happened after the Cricket? You were associated with both Penumbra and Mixed Blood in the ‘70s?

SP: Yeah, I kind of came to a parting of ways with Mr. Semens. It was just, nothing ideological, just amount of work for amount of money. I was there for one year as technical director and at the end of that year, I just thought, we crew were being asked to do too much for too little. So that’s what really drove me, was economics, to seek out first Mixed Blood and then Penumbra. I was freelancing all over, did a lot of dance companies, small theaters. There were a lot of small operations back then and Mixed Blood was one.  I did some shows with them, but then I did the first opening year of Penumbra. I’m looking at the sheet (Penumbra’s production history) now and remembering that opening season.

M: When did you start doing set and lighting design?

SP: Sorta right away. Again, I just started out more as a hand and then running light board, hanging lights, building sets, and it just came naturally. I just did it to make a living wherever I could. Later on I found it, especially for small freelance jobs, colleges and high schools especially, I found it really economically efficient to integrate set, lights, props, to have a whole overall vision of how it gets done and then I could do that really time efficiently. I remember the opening of Penumbra, one of the snafus I remember is we were getting a bunch of new lighting equipment and it was coming real close to opening and it hadn’t shown up and the reason it hadn’t shown up was there was a storm on the east coast and it had flooded the loading dock where the lights were and washed them away. On opening day, the lights arrived unassembled, so we had to put them all together and have them up and ready to open the show, I think it was in a day. That was in ’77. The show was Eden, I remember. And The Taking of Miss Janie, that was kind of controversial. That had a lot of sexual content to it. So that was kind of putting them on the board. There were a lot of interesting things that year. They did a really kind of a more classical set with this historical piece, Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom. I remember it had like a drop in border set, it was really designed to be authentic to the period. Penumbra was all over the place, they did a lot of stuff.

M: And you were working at Mixed Blood at the same time?

SP: Yeah, I wasn’t with them for their first shows. I think in ’77 I started doing shows there. Boy, I can’t remember the name of the first one, but it was a black play and some of it took place in a person’s mind, a funeral at a church. And I remember just the audience getting up and talking to the actors and saying “signify,” and all this, it was like being in church and it was amazing because the light board was in the center of the house, it was an old 6 handle resistance board. So there were all these people going crazy and emoting and signifying. It was very live. It was very live theatre.

M: It was important work. Both Mixed Blood and Penumbra, I think, when they started. And the Cricket, too. It moved things in a different direction.

SP: Yeah, I was sad when the Cricket went down. I think that’s one of those phenomena of, I think, Bill Semens actually let himself out of that, out of the Cricket. And they moved downtown-

M: Yes, to the Hennepin Center

SP: -and it never really, its identity never changed. It kind of lost its identity when it left the Ritz. And both Mixed Blood and Penumbra are very much that way. They’re driven by the space, it’s so intimate. It’s so there.

M: Yeah, that’s an interesting way of putting it.

SP: You’re really right on top of them. I mean, a 200 seat house is very intimate. And Penumbra being a thrust, being right out there, it was very hard to design for, as a set guy, because you had those diminishing sight lines and it came to a narrow point in the very back. You always wanted to fill the sides, but you realize half the house isn’t seeing what you’re doing, but after a while, you just said, “Oh well, you see what you see.” And after a while, Mixed Blood changed their configuration constantly. I designed the seating there so that it would move and be modular and you could set it up for any configuration.

M: You put in the grid at Mixed Blood also, right?

SP: Yeah, that was a brutal experience.

M: For better or worse, it still exists today as it did then.

SP: It was terrifying, when I did a show there when it was the long way and put the lighting on, there was a back pipe there before the grid. And when I came back, they had put just lag bolt hooks into the wainscot and it wasn’t even into beams. They were hanging 3 and 4 lights off of pipes that were into wainscot! With cable, and the weight of cable! And I told Jack, “You’re going to kill somebody. You have to do this.” So one summer he actually cut loose with money and I went to Frank’s Plumbing [because] they would thread pipe for you. And so I made, oh probably 30 careful measurements, because the beams in the firehouse curved all over the place,. Each pipe was it’s own thing. And you went inside the beam and took away the wainscot to get to the I-beam. And to mount that, you had to screw through the I-beam. I had hand drills. Jack had found 3 different hand drills and I had no better sense than to work my way and drill all these holes in I-beams and then put in flanges with the specially cut pipe. So I would put one end on a ladder, walk the other end up, make a jig, put it in place, and did that to each end. And it took me, I’ll bet a month. But it’s still there.

M: It is still there. And for all those people out there who complain about the grid at Mixed Blood, remember where it came from and the work that went into putting it there. Do you remember what year that was?

SP: Boy, that was getting close to, maybe ’79, ’80? Really early. It was before we did Warp! and Colored Girls and all those.

M: Talk about Warp! That was kind of a landmark production for them.

SP: Warp! was incredible. There were two folks who came out of Chicago, the Organic Theater. I believe there was maybe another name with the company, too. But I had seen it in Chicago and it was incredible. It was in a very small space. It was very exciting that they were coming to do it at Mixed Blood. It was really hard. We put in 80 hour weeks for 6 weeks getting ready to mount the first one and it just had every kind of media you could think of.

M: It was a science fiction piece, right? But done in the ‘80s?

SP: We did it in the ‘80s, I think it was 1980.

M: So there was no technology that exists today?

SP: No, there were fog machines that you made yourself, mirror balls, little Edmund scientific lasers, you know, .5mW, whip all the lights out and throw little crinkly pieces of cellophane to make the atom. It was intense, had a rock band in it, and it was a serial. So we opened the first one and we were already rehearsing the second one, so it was just continuous. It was months and months of incredible work and I was just exhausted by the end of the second one. And I think I took a job touring Europe right when the third one opened. I just needed a tour to relax or something.

M: Who did you tour to Europe with?

SP: That was Ping Chong and the Fiji Theater. He came through Mixed Blood once and I liked him and they said, “We’re going to tour Europe, do you want to go?”

M: Was that as their technical director?

SP: Yeah, he had a real specific, I don’t know if you call it performance art or… he had his own niche, that was for sure. And I wasn’t designing, he had already conceived. He had worked a lot with fluorescent lighting and things like that, so all that was in place, so all he needed was for me to acquire a lot of the stuff when we got to Europe. We didn’t take a lot of it with us.

M: The voltages are all different.

SP: Oh yeah. But every little town in Holland had a really good theater and really nicely equipped-

M: Unlike America.

SP: Right, and a nice bar and food things. People ate together, they took all their meals together in the theater. It was about a 3 month tour of the provinces and a month in Amsterdam, which was lovely in 1980 for a young fella.

M: You were at Penumbra in the mid ‘80s when they did August Wilson’s Jitney for the first time. Did you ever meet August there?

SP: I did. You know, I didn’t speak with August that much. Mostly, hellos in passing. I was always pretty quiet at production meetings. And again, it’s so long ago. I know he used to like to sit in the follow spot booth and I had a little chair set up for him and many ashtrays. Part of my service there was, August would fill many ashtrays and the entire floor of the follow spot booth would be covered in cigarette butts. I always felt very honored to clean up the disaster after a long day’s rehearsal. He seemed like a pretty quiet, taciturn man. Most of our conversations were just hello and in passing.

M: Do you remember anything about that first Jitney? I think he re-wrote it later.

SP: I remember it was fun because we found an old Volkswagon that we could get into the theater. I think there were double back doors or something and we could take the divider out? Anyway, we managed to get an entire car to be behind the window.  So that was kind of fun. And I remember that’s when we started using the actual back wall of the theater as a scenic element. Making it into windows, or, I forget, sides of buildings or something. But we incorporated the actual outer wall into the set. So that was a fun one. And I believe Marion McClinton was in that, he was acting, as I recall. They were a very good cast, I remember that.

M: Claude Purdy is an interesting character. He directed Jitney and many other shows at Penumbra, but he’s also the man who brought August Wilson to St. Paul in the first place. They were both friends in Pittsburgh originally. I think, to say the least, Claude was a flamboyant character.

SP: Oh, absolutely. Exactly that, flamboyant, exuberant, a bit of a hustler. Yeah, Claude drove me crazy on many occasions. He was a good director, but he could be very whimsical in terms of what he was committed to from day to day and he could change very rapidly. No disrespect here, just story of the theater. We were doing an epic piece at Mixed Blood on Martin Luther King, which eventually was condensed and became a touring show that went with Mixed Blood for many years. But the original production was hours long with a chorus. Akey element was slide projections, which in the old days, as you recall, [meant] the carousels. It was a four projector, multi-carousel show. And every time you would make one change in the slides, you would have to change every other slide in the trays.

Hundreds of them. On opening night we were going along and all of a sudden, thirty pages of script are gone and the slides are hopelessly out of any sequence or meaning at all. I remember standing there horrified with my mouth open and Claude sticking his head in the booth saying, “It’s okay! It’s okay! Just run it ahead! Just run it ahead!” And I looked at Claude and said, “You get out of my booth.” What had happened was that Claude had cut 30 pages of script but had not bothered to tell me. And that was that night. So, wonderful director, but a character and sometimes a bit more whimsical than I cared for.

M: Yes, when I did the lighting design for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Penumbra, there was a stairway to the second floor in a cutaway house on the set and Claude came up to me one day and asked me to make sure I enhanced the chiaroscuro effect of the vertical elements of the scenery for the show. And all he was really saying to me was he wanted me to put a couple gobos patterns on the stairway, but he couldn’t just say that, he had to say, “enhance the chiaroscuro effect of the vertical elements of the scenery.” And then he just looked at me and chuckled.

SP: I just had a kind of thespian memory. That’s kind of always what I consider myself more than any specific part of the craft, lighting or set or stage management. Just kind of doing everything. But there was a show at Mixed Blood where I was doing the lighting, but it was a hotel lobby and there was the need for many characters to come in and out, so on that evening I ran the lights, but I also had three costume changes and would walk through the lobby of the hotel as just a person going to the elevators. Three different characters. So that was real common back then. You know, to run lights, but then have to move props for a set change or something. I just wanted to say, I was real lucky at the end of my work and career, the last 15 years, to be at Orchestra Hall. It was a really great experience and a really wonderful place to be and great people. I was really really fortunate.

M: I just have one more thing: You’ve done a lot of work at high schools over the years, and I know at least three people that have said they were pretty heavily influenced by you, which I think is important to bring out. Elizabeth MacNally, the production stage manager at Pillsbury House, and Karin Olson and Matt Tucker, who are both pretty well-known lighting designers who both worked with you when they were in high school. Can you talk about that a little? And about what your philosophy is when working with kids?

SP: Well again it was always to do the work and have that be the most important thing, what we’re actually saying here as a piece. And just to due diligence to the craft. Those kind of people you mentioned are the sparkling lights. You spot them right away. The great thing is, very often you see them immediately take and run and go past where you were, past your best. So they go past you and you recognize those guys right away. And it’s really rewarding to work with them because you see right away they, it’s like they say, find a home in the army. People find a home in the business, in the theatre, in the craft.

M: Elizabeth told me once that you saved her life in theater.  She was in 7th grade at the time, her mother was the Drama teacher.  She was trying to be an actress and wasn’t doing well and was frustrated, and you were the first one who explained to her that there are many aspects to theater beyond acting and it’s not all about that. It’s about the production as a whole and you pointed her in an entirely different direction, which she’s continued on very successfully.

SP: Yeah, that worked out great for her. They were bright, bright lights.

In Focus: Interactive Theatre - Part 4, The Audience

Article by Katharine Horowitz

Wandering through a dimly lit hallway, vaguely aware of action happening in the distance, orders were suddenly barked at us to run down the hall and into a waiting elevator. Shadows flickering on the concrete walls, we packed ourselves in and waited tensely for our next orders. The doors closed with a deep bang. Lights began to move upward in rapid sequence as the elevator seemed to shoot down into a rumbling abyss. Doors behind us opened up as the ride stopped and we stepped out into a vast room full of machines and an intimidating staff dressed in military uniforms. A little boy whispered his amazement. Discombobulated but ready for the next chapter, we awaited the scene before us to play out.

We were in the middle of Children’s Theatre Company’s production of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Directed by Ryan Underbakke, the show took place in nearly every corner of CTC’s large building except its two actual stages. We shot past offices on the fourth floor, awaited orders in a transformed coat closet, tunneled through the orchestra pit, and watched tense scenes play out in the equipment rooms located in the bowels of the building. Video, sound, and lights enveloped us at every turn, fleshing out a fantastic achievement of immersive technical design and storytelling.

After developing the storyline, creating the space, and merging the technical elements, all performances eventually come down to the audience. This is the fourth and final article in a series examining the work involved to produce interactive theatre, and how we might foster its continued growth in the Twin Cities. We continue our discussion from last month with audience members of three recent interactive theatre shows.

AT THE TOP OF THE SLOPE

Local actor Ryan Lindberg was getting a bit tired of the dormancy of traditional theatre with a passive audience, so he was intrigued to see Live Action Set’s production of Crime and Punishment. He’d seen Punchdrunk Theatre’s Sleep No More in New York City and had a sense of what was possible in this kind of immersive theatre. He wasn’t disappointed.

With a performance space scattered throughout the cavernous confines of the Soap Factory, the set (designed by Sarah Stone and Donna Meyer) allowed audience members to walk around rooms that formed a collage of the world, and that integrated the architecture of the building into the theatrical design.

“Everything seemed to fit together extremely well,” Lindberg said. “Each room or space had a strong character to it, and the rooms felt real and extremely lived-in, not necessarily like sets at all. It honestly sort of felt like this creepy basement-city with several different distinct neighborhoods in it.”

Audience member Jim Larson, who also attended Crime and Punishment, agreed.

“We knew we were into something new and amazing,” Larson said. “Like being on the top of a ski slope that may well be more than we can handle, but exhilarated nonetheless.”

CREATING THE EXPERIENCE

Crime and Punishment and 20,000 Leagues audience members were led by a guide through the many playing areas, timing their arrival to the action taking place. Though Larson was game for being shown the way, Lindberg wished he could have explored the Crime and Punishment space on his own a bit more than the experience allowed. However, he appreciated the disbursement of audience members (as opposed to being moved in one large group), as well as the proximity to the performers.

Crime and Punishment co-director and producer Joanna Harmon tried to make sure that audiences felt a freedom to explore.

“Any way an audience member chose to engage with the experience was a “correct” way to engage,” Harmon said, noting that many participants returned for another show. “And if an audience member chose to seek out a narrative, there were narratives to be found.”

However, 20,000 Leagues director Ryan Underbakke learned early on that boundaries for his show were essential. Having done an earlier, more interactive version prior to the CTC production, with audience members allowed to walk around at their own pace, Underbakke found that he couldn’t control the experience or tell the story the way he wanted. When approaching the CTC production (and keeping in mind that much of the audience is children and the story is set in a military environment), he scrapped the idea of a free-roaming audience and instead made a structure-based experience.

“There is something fun about structure to audience,” Underbakke said. “It doesn't mean they have to follow it, it just means that it's there for them. It's a way of letting them know we are taking care of them, that with all the excitement of this new form we are still in complete control.”

In contrast to the structured experience was Sandbox Theatre’s This Is A World To Live In. Set in an empty retail space in Minneapolis’ City Center downtown, the production allowed for a free-roaming, highly interactive experience. Audience member Scott Pakudaitis described his initial experience upon entering the space as “mind-blowing.”

 Peter Heeringa, Derek Lee Miller, Heather Stone, Kristina Fjellman, Theo Langason, Tim Donahue in   This Is A World to Live In.   Photo Credit: Richard Fleichman for Sandbox Theatre 2013.

Peter Heeringa, Derek Lee Miller, Heather Stone, Kristina Fjellman, Theo Langason, Tim Donahue in This Is A World to Live In. Photo Credit: Richard Fleichman for Sandbox Theatre 2013.

“It was just so striking,” he said. “Nobody moved. It was like: All of a sudden here’s this new world that we’re entering. It was just a really bold and vivid moment.”

Wandering around Derek Miller’s set, Pakudaitis recalls participating in a photoshoot, painting art on a wall, playing music, and generally making his own experience in the world of the performance.

This Is A World Project Lead Matthew Glover said his team worked hard to take care of their audience.

“Once the show grew into itself, we had people dashing around the space looking for things to play on,” Glover said. “Some were discomforted, but many, many more found themselves playing in ways they’d never dreamed. We received a ton of feedback from our audiences, and a recurring theme within those returns was how surprised they were by their own level of participation.

DESIGN ELEMENTS

Aside from the storyline and performance, Pakudaitis was particularly taken with the scenic elements of This Is A World and 20,000 Leagues, taking special note of the sheer amount of props scattered throughout the playing areas for 20,000 Leagues.

“Walking through those rooms with all the equipment, the sound, the lights, everything was just so meticulous and well-handled,” he said. “I felt like I was in a submarine. It was a very well done experience that way.”

Lindberg was impressed with the lighting design for Crime and Punishment.

“This was all taking place in a massive basement, and without the proper lighting to create the mood and work as both theatrical and practical, the illusion of immersive-ness would quickly wear off,” he said. “I feel like it really helped to create the experience of the world while simultaneously setting the mood to tell the story.”

IMMERSIVE VERSUS INTERACTIVE

Having seen both This Is A World and 20,000 Leagues, Pakudaitis describes the former as a more individual and interactive experience, while 20,000 Leagues was more communal and immersive.

Glover said they attempted to make both.

“It was always going to be immersive,” Glover said. “And we worked very hard to make it interactive to the level each audience member dictated for themselves.”

Harmon described Crime and Punishment as largely immersive, but containing interactive elements. Elaborating on that definition, Lindberg felt his experience with Crime and Punishment could be defined as more individual than communal.

“There were certainly communal moments,” Lindberg said. “But for me it was mostly trying to piece together the details of what was happening, and staying open to my senses and feelings as the action unfolded. I wasn't as concerned with the rest of the audience, so it was very individual and introspective to me.”

THE FUTURE

The precise definition of when a show is immersive versus interactive remains as much in question as the future of the genre in the Twin Cities.

Though the demand for immersive shows, or at least the curiosity for them, is present, the longevity and ultimate success is unsure.

“I would wager the future is relatively unstable,” Lindberg said. “A show like C&P requires a massive stage and cast at presumably a significant expense both for setup and upkeep, and a dedicated space. For something like Sleep No More in NYC, you had a dedicated space and a really long run that helps to offset the startup costs for building the set. I think that's a challenge [in the Twin Cities].”

20,000 Leagues designers Sten Severson and Craig Gottschalk agree. While the show sold very well percentage-wise, both men noted that the limited audience capacity versus the amount of actors, shows, and tech was not enough to get a good return in ticket sales.

“I think it was successful in a lot of ways,” Gottschalk said. “The broader question is whether or not there are companies out there that can make this financially work. As with any season, you need to find balance of projects that are worth doing versus money-makers that help inject your season with the finances to stay afloat. I think to do something [like 20K] again we’d have to find some underwriting to do a production that would help offset [the costs].”

Pakudaitis, Lindberg, and Larson believe the demand is there.

“For me it’s certainly a more appealing theatrical experience than sitting in a seat watching people in a living room talking,” Pakudaitis said. “It’s more interesting and engaging. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s getting so popular. It kind of completes with the video game generation. You’re not passive, you’re active, and I appreciate that as a theatre-goer.”

The desire for theatre companies of all sizes to push past their comfort zones and experiment with interactive theatre is palpable among audiences and producers. However, whether or not they have the courage to move past the challenges of such productions remains murky. For the time being, the genre remains largely in the realm of small theatres who have the ability to explore and experiment. And in the end, it may be those small theatres who ultimately guide everyone else through the experience.

The Evolution of the Jazz Dance Movement in the Twin Cities

Article by Zoe Sealy

With introduction by Mike Wangen
Zoe Sealy is a local dancer/choreographer and a pioneer in the development of the Jazz Dance community here.  In a city primarily based in the Modern Dance aesthetic, she carved out the beginnings of a Jazz Dance sensibility which has since flourished.  She has written a great article about the development of that work beginning in the early '70s.

The dance community of the Twin Cities has been an amazing gift to my artistic life for almost fifty years.   

Since that time I have witnessed and been a part of some incredible changes in the dance community in Minnesota.  Last summer The Lost Voices in Jazz Project brought me full circle.  The project was the brainchild of Karla Grotting, partnered with Karis Sloss and dancers of Eclectic Edge Ensemble and guest artists.   The focus of the project was to pay tribute to the incredible work of four choreographers, William Harren, Jeffrey Mildenstein, Clarence Teeters and David Voss, all of whom died of AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties.  Each had set works on the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company (MJDC) some 35 years ago.  Karla, a former MJDC member during that time, painstakingly reconstructed the dances with the help of an amazing group of skilled and dedicated dancers.  The project had a huge impact on the community.  It was a nostalgia trip for many, a history lesson for a large portion of the current dance community not born when those dances were created, and a look back at the impact the MJDC and jazz dance in general has had in shaping the Minnesota dance scene.  The impact on me was profound.  That said, I found it interesting in the process of reconstructing the work from the archives of MJDC repertoire, how the dancers struggled with the jazz styles of that period.  I was struck by how the dance training has changed over the years in MN.  This caused me to look back and reflect on the MN dance scene then and now; my focus being specifically on jazz dance, how it developed and has changed over time.        

Looking back, I knew very little about Minnesota and its’ burgeoning artistic community.  When my husband and I settled into our new home, my intention was to focus on raising my two young sons and freelance as a dancer/choreographer on occasion.  That did not last long.     

 

In the early seventies during my introductory time here, I soon learned I had stepped into a predominantly modern dance community, which was not my forte.  Prominent at the time was The Nancy Hauser Dance Company and School, along with the relatively young Loyce Houlton’s Minnesota Dance Theatre. There were also a host of independent choreographers and dancers producing work.  From that group the Minnesota Independent Choreographers Alliance (MICA) emerged, later to become the Minnesota Dance Alliance.  Ballet had a strong presence too, but nothing like the visibility and support of modern.  Not being a modern dancer I capitalized on my professional background in ballet, jazz, and tap, and became quite active in the musical theatre community.  In many cases I found myself not only choreographing, but in rehearsals teaching crash courses in jazz and tap.  Professional training in that area was clearly lacking in the Twin Cities.  A void I soon began to fill.  

At the encouragement of many, I opened the Zoe Sealy Dance Center (ZSDC) in 1972.  It quickly became a primary training ground for jazz and tap artists, many of whom are still active in the field in the Twin Cities and throughout the country.   

Shortly thereafter, working with a group of dancers I began to choreograph works for the concert stage.  One thing led to another, and in 1975 the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company was born, which was the first concert jazz dance company in the Upper Midwest.  As its’ founder and Artistic Director I did a large portion of the choreography, but commissioned other choreographers on occasion, hence, my involvement with the aforementioned choreographers.  During that time jazz dance became a vital part of the dance scene, not without a struggle, I might add.  Most of the dancers in the company I trained, as there weren’t many accomplished jazz dancers in the area to choose from.  In the beginning years of the company, jazz dance was not considered a legitimate art form among a large portion of the funding community.  Refusing to take no for an answer, my perseverance paid off and acceptance prevailed.  I now look back with pride at the impact the ZSDC and MJDC had on the dance scene.  At the time I was just following my passion, not realizing the trail I was influential in blazing.  

It was a turning point in the expansion and availability of dance training in Minnesota.  Modern was still the predominate discipline, but there were now more choices available.  In the mid eighties there were six companies that in collaboration with The O’Shaughnessy started The O’Shaughnessy Dance Series.  The inaugural companies were Nancy Hauser Dance Company, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Ethnic Dance Theatre, Zenon Dance Company, New Dance Ensemble and the MJDC.  The styles were varied with the training being specific to each company’s needs. Each school/organization’s identity was clear, based on its chosen discipline.  There was very little blending of styles, which was to come.                

Jazz training in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s was driven predominantly by the influences of Jack Cole, Matt Maddox, Luigi, and Gus Giordano; all icons in the field.  There were others of course, but most teachers/choreographers of that era were influenced by at least one or more of them.  I certainly was.  The movement vocabulary was precise, somewhat contained, and always musical with explosions of release and attack.  Musicality was and still is at the core of jazz dance, unlike most modern.

Another turning point was the Dance Program at the University of Minnesota.  I taught some of the first jazz classes there in the early eighties under the direction of Nadine Jette Sween.  Before Professor Sween’s death in the mid eighties she led the program and its fight for survival.  It soon became a part of the Theatre Department and in a national search Barbara Barker was hired to head the Dance Program.  Being modern based, she saw the importance of a broader curriculum, adding more ballet and jazz classes, which is where I came in.      

At the same time the ZSDC was thriving and supported a scholarship program focused on jazz dance training.  The MJDC had established itself and was performing and touring more than any other company in the Twin Cities.  Barbara Barker was making waves at the University of Minnesota and I soon found myself intricately involved in the expansion and rise to prominence of the Dance Program.  

The ZSDC closed in 1988 and the MJDC the following year.  I joined the University of MN Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.  The concert jazz dance movement was carried on by Danny Buraczeski.   He too choreographed on the MJDC in the mid eighties, which was his introduction to the Twin Cities.   

Moving to academe was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  

As a faculty member in the Dance Program, I was instrumental in developing over the years a jazz curriculum that offered beginning through advanced classes, in which jazz dance through the intermediate level was required for the BFA major.         

The core curriculum in technique was modern, ballet, jazz in that order with elective options such as tap, flamenco, classical Indian, etc.  I have many memories of my 25-year tenure in the Dance Program, a highlight being the shows I choreographed in collaboration with the School of Music’s Jazz Ensemble 1.  Dancing to live jazz music was a tremendous thrill and growth opportunity for the dancers and musicians.   Sadly that has not been continued.  Today the program is a driving force producing many graduates who are well-respected artists in the area and nationally.       

The specificity of movement during the heyday of the MJDC is somehow missing, which brings me full circle.  Training now is so diverse that students in many instances don’t get the opportunity to hone in on specific styles or disciplines long enough to fully grasp them.  Dance training today is excellent, but has become a melting pot of styles based on each instructor’s personal experiences; a normal evolution, not only dance.  I am grateful there is video to help preserve earlier methods of teaching that unfortunately are becoming more diluted with each generation.  I find today’s dancers eager to soak up as much information as they can, at the same time exploring new ways to move and create work, which is all good.  Somewhere in this mix, I hope there will still be an interest in the importance of handing down some of those classic styles, regardless of the discipline.  Without knowing where we came from how can we effectively move ahead?  

In conclusion, the dancers in The Lost Voices in Jazz Project were immersed in another time.  As I said before, they were all skilled dancers that came together from different technical backgrounds to bring to the stage exciting choreography and ways of moving most were not accustomed to.  They learned about the breadth of jazz dance and the importance of its history in this community.  As we forge ahead as artists, let us not forget how we got to where we are today.