Sightlines: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Conrad Burgess

INTERVIEW BY MIKE WANGEN

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo:  Meet Minneapolis . Used under Creative Commons license.

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo: Meet Minneapolis. Used under Creative Commons license.

I first met Conrad in 1987 after being hired at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre as a lighting technician and immediately discovered what a unique and talented individual he was. Largely unknown, as he resided backstage at Chanhassen for almost 30 years, he is one of the best stage managers I have ever known. He has always been a creative problem solver and is equally at home working with tech crews or lending a sympathetic ear to actors in need. —Michael Wangen

MIKE: This is Mike Wangen and I’m interviewing Conrad Burgess about Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Conrad was a long-time stage manager and technician at Chanhassen and I just want to start by saying that I think everyone in the arts community probably has an idea of what they think Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is, but the reality of what it was might be quite different than what people think. Chanhassen is actually one of the oldest running theaters in the Twin Cities. It was begun in 1968 by Herb Bloomberg. So I’m going to start with Conrad. I think you started in 1979.

CONRAD: Yes. One of the most amazing things about the place, about Herb, is that he was a builder. He wasn’t a theater guy. He was a builder. He got hired by Don Stoltz to build the Old Log Theatre in, I think, the middle ’60s and decided he wanted one of his own. And the amazing thing about him is he found this incredible director to help him do it, Gary Gisselman—just a brilliant director. I don’t know how it happened, how he lucked onto Gary Gisselman, but he did, and that’s what made the place go. Herb was very visionary about that and he made it happen.

MIKE: How did you get started doing theater in the first place and, also, what were you first impressions of Chanhassen when you started in 1979? What was the place like?

CONRAD: I had been going to college and I was taking philosophy courses and sociology courses, you know, the ’60s had ended, and I was wandering around the country. I went to Canada, I went to the Montreal Olympics and saw two events there. After the Olympics, I went to New York, walked into Times Square and was just in awe and just obviously a young tourist and decided to see a Broadway show. I went and saw Pippin and I was overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed. The lighting, the costumes, everything. It was just like that! It wasn’t like I grew up wanting to be in theater. I found something that day in New York. Went back to Minneapolis and back to college, took every theater course they had in one year and got a job. At that time, I was really into lighting. I got a job designing lights for Bloomington Civic Theater. I did, like, four shows and then somebody there knew Brian Sanderson who worked at Chanhassen.

MIKE: He was the sound guy at Chan.

CONRAD: Yes. And you know, I need a job, as everybody else does. And I just called him up and met him. And he hired me and I was running lights in I Do! I Do! half the week and, the other half of the week, I relieved him running sound for Camelot with Richard K. Elison and it was just a brilliant, brilliant show. Wonderful. That’s how I started. And what was it like back then? It was electric. It was just so exciting. I don’t know, it was kind of the happening place at that time.

MIKE: Chanhassen did many more things other than musical theater, right?

CONRAD: That’s right.

MIKE: They had a history of doing dramatic work over the years.

CONRAD: In fact, they did Equus. Can you imagine?

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: It was exciting. It was very fun to do.

MIKE: At one time there were four theaters in the building, how many were there in 1979 when you started?

CONRAD: There was four.

MIKE: They had already established that.

CONRAD: They had established that by the time I started. They had a show running in each theater. I can’t think of the show that was in the courtyard, I Do! I Do!, and The Robber Bridegroom was playing in the Fireside, which used to be a bar.

MIKE: So you were saying in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was already a professional theater and people like Myron Johnson were choreographing out there

CONRAD: Choreographing—and he actually danced in several shows. Solo dances, you know. And he was the lead dancer, let’s put it that way, of course, with his wonderful talent. There were several others, wonderfully talented people working out there. Gary Gisselman had a way of drawing people to him. He brought a lot of Guthrie actors to the place and I think his biggest acquisition was was Ron Bruncati, the long-time stage manager there. He stole him from the Guthrie! And brought him over saying, “I’m going to create this wonderful artist place.” And I can remember Ron telling me that story.

MIKE: So what was Gary’s vision in terms of what he wanted to achieve?

CONRAD: He wanted to create a viable living theater with musicals in the main theater, which would provide the funding to do everything else.

MIKE: What was Herb’s philosophy about running shows? For a long time the theater did open-ended runs. Basically, they ran a show as long as they thought it would sell. Was that from the very beginning or did it change?

CONRAD: No. No, in the very beginning, Gary’s vision was to do six week runs.

MIKE: Okay.

CONRAD: They did that for quite a while. There was only one theater at first and then they added the playhouse after a year or two. I think How to Succeed in Business was actually the first show. And then ’71: Herb was going to close the theater because it wasn’t making any money and he decided to mount Fiddler on the Roof and, from all accounts, it was a brilliant production.

MIKE: Oh really?

CONRAD: It was a big hit. And it went past the six weeks—and they didn’t close it. Eventually, it ended up running almost a year or maybe it did hit a year; I think it was close to that. It basically saved the theater. That started a trend for longer shows. Most shows when I started were five months, six months long. They were doing quite well. In fact, Herb once told me that the dinner theater was the tail that wagged the dog. It made more money than his other businesses did.

MIKE: So, I should mention you started working as a lighting technician there but at some point, you made the jump to becoming a stage manager.

CONRAD: Yeah

MIKE: And working as the assistant stage manager on the main stage. How did it happen that you decided to move? Was it just a very natural thing for you?

CONRAD: It was. And Ron came up to me one day and said, “There’s only a limited future in working as a technician unless you're planning on becoming a lighting designer.” And we had a long talk. He was a wonderful mentor and I learned everything from him.

MIKE: So [Ron] saw your potential, in other words?

CONRAD: I don’t know. I guess you can say that.

MIKE: I’m sure he has. I can see that.

CONRAD: Yeah, he asked me. The assistant stage manager was quitting to go to Montreal, and [Ron] asked me and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Baptism by fire.

MIKE: Do you remember when it was? Was it the early ’80s?

CONRAD: It was the early ’80s. What show was it? I think it was… I can’t remember what show it was.

MIKE: It’s okay. They all blend together.

CONRAD: They sort of do. It was before A Chorus Line because I was backstage for A Chorus Line. Yeah, I can’t remember.

MIKE: Do you remember any other dramatic highlights of the other smaller spaces outside of Equus—whatever type of shows were produced? Because that’s what interests me, more so than the other musicals.

CONRAD: Let me think. We did lot of the traditional comedies like Earnest.

MIKE: The Importance of Being Earnest?

CONRAD: The Importance of Being Earnest. We did Somersaults, which was a wonderful show, with two wonderful Guthrie actors. We did The Dining Room

MIKE: By Pinter?

CONRAD: By Pinter, yes. What the Butler Saw, Same Time Next Year, Death Trap.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: The Promise, Crimes of the Heart, Mass Appeal.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: Sleuth.

MIKE: So the theater was quite diverse?

CONRAD: It was quite diverse.

MIKE: And Gary directed all of these?

CONRAD: I believe he directed everything at that time. And even when he left, somewhere in the early ’80s, he came back and directed every main stage show for many years there.

MIKE: Another aspect of this through the ’70s and ’80s is that the theater provided employment for a large number of both technicians and actors at the time.

CONRAD: Yeah.

MIKE: Which I think is very important in terms of the culture, which is sometimes overlooked. I mean, the Guthrie obviously, and the Children’s Theatre also did, but Chanhassen was also a big part of that.

CONRAD: Yeah, it was.

MIKE: Probably more important than people recognize.

CONRAD: It went all year round. You could make a living there quite easily, you know.

MIKE: Which also gave people opportunities for other outside work as well.

CONRAD: Yep.

MIKE: So talk a little more about Ron Bruncati, who was the long-time stage manager out there and was quite brilliant in his work. He was basically your mentor in how you developed as a stage manager. What do you think you learned from him and how has it helped you? And you’re still doing work, stage management work today, with Ben Krywosz and Nautilus Theatre. And just what you learned about stage management—what people skills there are. Because I think a lot of the people tend to think of stage management as a very technical thing, and it’s really much more than that.

CONRAD: Yes. Yes. Well, [Ron] was magical. Grace was the right word for it: grace. He had a grace about him and a charisma where he could deal one-on-one with any actor, any person, and get to the heart of whatever was going on at that moment. And that’s what I learned from him. Stay calm. He always was calm. I only saw him mad once and that’s another story.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: He would stay calm in any crisis and I learned that from him. He would have a grace, no matter who was mad or who was upset—the director or an actor or a designer who couldn’t get something accomplished. He had a way of smoothing it out, talking to people, and that was his greatest thing. And he could keep track of everything in rehearsals. It was amazing to watch him work. I admire him greatly. I miss him terribly.

MIKE: And in the environment—given the nature of the complexity of the stage there and moving things around—he had to keep and you had to keep all of that in mind. Because you’re putting a show together in a rehearsal room, which is actually much different than the actual stage.

CONRAD: Much different than the actual stage.

MIKE: In terms of really, you know, figuring out the logistics of putting that together.

CONRAD: We would talk sometimes for an hour after every rehearsal about, Is that going to work? Is that going to work? Yeah. And he was methodical in it—so well organized. And a lot of people didn’t see that side of him. I saw it and I’m sure Gary saw it. He was brilliant at it.

MIKE: Do you have any particular thoughts about the legacy of your years at Chanhassen?

CONRAD: My legacy?

MIKE: Yeah. And, you know, just what it means to the community—which, I think, is often forgotten these days.

CONRAD: It is. Gary came back one day and he and I were talking. We were standing outside of the main entrance, looking at all of the cars in there, and he was going, “It’s amazing. They just keep coming, just keep coming.” The legacy, I guess—you know, employment was a huge one. But there was a bond between all of us which was—you can’t put it in words. It was special. Everybody who worked there at that time.

MIKE: It was literally a family.

CONRAD: It literally was. It may be that now, I don’t know. But it literally was back then. And it was fun. Ron. I think Ron was the main reason.

MIKE: Ron Bruncati?

CONRAD: Ron Bruncati. It was the main reason that it worked so well. Him and his relationship with Gary. They would look at each other and know what the other was thinking. It was just amazing in rehearsals to watch them both. I don’t know. I guess that’s the legacy.

MIKE: Okay. Well, thank you.

CONRAD: You’re welcome.

Bringing Backstage into the Spotlight: Karen Sherman on 'Soft Goods'

By Karen Sherman and Kate Sutton-Johnson

Karen Sherman and I met at the Modern Times Cafe. It was a cold midwinter day, one that begs for a hot drink, a blanket and a hardcover book. We had never spoken before; I had heard of her, we had exchanged long emails and that was about it. But we spoke on many things about the performing arts industry that everyone here has probably discussed openly at length: long hours, poor working conditions, low wages, discrimination, social isolation, social anxiety.

Then we discussed what everyone here has probably discussed, but not quite as openly: the devaluing of manual labour (represented in the theatre by stagehands/technicians): both the activity and the people who do it, the inherent classism of the arts, the toxic brinksmanship culture of stagehands/technicians, depression, substance abuse, workplace abuse & harassment.

And then we talked about the things we all know but are only whispered in dark corners: suicide, assault, desperation, fear.

Karen and her ensemble of dancers and technicians are taking all that on this very weekend at the Walker Art Center. Running from December 8 - 10, Soft Goods is something all of us in the industry need to see. We need to think and talk about these things, and we need to help and support each other, both as Production folks, but also across all the false divides of Department.

This is a conversation between scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson (a local powerhouse in her own right) and Karen about the piece, its creation, Karen’s own place as a stagehand and a dancer, and much more besides. For many of us who work in the arts, this is our story. Thank you, Karen and Kate, for sharing it.

It was original run on the Walker Art Center's blog, and we are reprinting here with their permission and blessing. - Wu Chen Khoo

 

 

Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum

Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum

 

In the theater world, a raft of technicians—often clad in black and hidden just out of view of audiences—bring the work of dancers and theater artists to life on stage. They break down staging and sets and wrangle lighting units, adjust sound levels and manage “soft goods,” all the cloth elements used in productions, from drapes and curtains to scrims and masking. Their technical skill is matched by an ability to recede from view. In her new, Walker-commissioned dance/performance work, Minneapolis-based artist Karen Sherman looks at another type of “soft goods,” bringing the humanity of these crew members—and their vulnerabilities and mortality—into the spotlight in an arresting examination of labor, life, and loss. A longtime stagehand (including for many Walker productions) and independent dancer and choreographer, Sherman explicitly interweaves the two for the first time in Soft Goods. On the eve of the work’s December 8–10 world premiere, she sat down with scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson, who served as dramaturg on the show, to discuss Soft Goods, the tragedies that sparked it, and the challenges of crossing between worlds as performer and technician.

Kate Sutton-Johnson: Can you give us some basic background about Soft Goods? When did you first conceive of the idea that would ultimately become this new work?  

Karen Sherman: I’ve been a stagehand for as long as I’ve been a dancer/choreographer—since the early ’90s. The fact that I’ve worked both sides of the stage for so long has always informed my work in both fields: as a technician I understand where artists are coming from, and as a choreographer I know how to realize my work from a technical standpoint. But until recently I’d never considered making a show explicitly about this dual perspective.

I often backdate the project to 2012 when two technician friends of mine died within about a week of each other—one from alcoholism and one from suicide. One had been dead for a week before he was discovered, and the other’s body wasn’t found for four months. Production work requires you to disappear so expertly, and it struck me that these guys managed to slip away unnoticed even in death. The week we found out I was working a load-in at the Walker, where I’d first worked with both of them. We were hanging lights and trying to talk about it all, but there was no time and space to process the loss because, well, we had a show to install. The irony of that struck me. I began thinking about all of the death imagery in technician culture—the long hours; never seeing daylight; wearing black all the time; drinking too much and not sleeping enough; listening to disembodied voices over your headset; being entombed in booths, wings, dark cavernous spaces; thinking about the load-out as you load-in, which is thinking about endings even as you’re building and creating… I thought how spending so many hours steeped in that mindset influences how you experience the world outside of work—and yet the hours are so demanding there rarely is a world outside of work.

I’d long been aware of this, of course. I had a technician friend commit suicide more than 20 years ago. Her memorial was held in the theater where she worked and was mostly attended by production people, so of course afterward everyone went up the street to a bar, even though it was the middle of the day. She had hanged herself with electrical cord, and I remember one of the guys saying admiringly that she’d gone out like a true electrician. I was shocked by the deification, but I recognized the tendency, particularly in young male stage electricians, to revere self-brutality. Yet they are also a smart, literate bunch in the business of creating things, so they can appreciate artful gestures—as hers was. Still, the exaltation was chilling. So Soft Goods looks at the reality of the hazards but also the fetishizing of them in the industry. I’ve been careful not to pathologize the field—people struggle with depression and alcoholism in every profession, and to the degree the show is looking at those issues, we’re simply using the images and tools of our work to do so. The reason I called it Soft Goods was to get at this idea. “Soft goods” is an industry term for stage curtains, but here I mean it as a reference to the humanity, vulnerability, and mortality of the crew. They are the soft goods.

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s  Soft Goods  (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: I hadn’t thought of a double meaning for that term. I love that. I totally agree about the fetishizing of destructive habits inside the industry. I see it all the time, and I’m not entirely outside of it myself. It’s easy to fall into this kind of boundary-less mode, working an absolutely absurd number of hours for example. It becomes normalized to neglect your family, friends, and your own health. And there’s a strange pride in the sacrificing. Maybe it’s the neglect of what we need that proves how truly indispensable we are to the work. All of this is quite dangerous, actually, as we both know. So, yeah, this world you’re cracking open, I certainly recognize it.

Sherman: The indispensable thing is huge. In both dance and production you’re given the message that the project can’t happen without you (which is why you have to miss out on so many things or why you push yourself so hard), and yet it’s also implied that you could be replaced at the drop of a hat. It’s a very cruel dynamic.

To address this through tangible means, we’ve partnered with Behind the Scenes, a charity that provides financial assistance to production personnel struggling with illness or injury. I approached them about starting a new grant designed specifically to help alleviate the costs of mental health and substance abuse counseling. They’re launching it in conjunction with the show. We’ll be raising money for it, and the Walker is generously donating $1 of every ticket sold to the fund. It’s like the real-world social service version of the project.

Sutton-Johnson: Wow, awesome. Can you talk a little bit about how this piece was created with the ensemble of performers?

Sherman: I’ll do my best! First off, we’re calling it a dance but it’s really more of a dance/play/performance/exhibition of manual labor. The performance itself is structured like a live load-in, tech, and rehearsal for a show that never happens. We couldn’t make it in a rehearsal studio because we needed access to gear, equipment, lights, which as tools of the trade contextualize the human beings. Plus, the movement and choreography of the gear is part of the larger idea of “dance” in the show. So we made it almost entirely in production residencies in fully equipped theaters. Production residencies are rare in the dance world but we were very fortunate to have several partners who offered them, including the Walker, Alverno Presents, Concordia University, and LUMBERYARD.

An equipment rack, built by Walker lighting supervisor Jon Kirchhofer, in Karen Sherman’s  Soft Goods  (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman

An equipment rack, built by Walker lighting supervisor Jon Kirchhofer, in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman

I went in with a long list of images, ideas, and themes, and it was just a matter of figuring out how to manifest them. Rehearsals consisted of a lot of experiments in examining how the two worlds could overlap. For example, the crew had five minutes to verbally describe how to hang a stage curtain—no gestures or acting out the task—while the dancers wrote down whatever words, phrases, or images stuck out to them. Then the dancers had five minutes to create choreography based on their notes. In another example, the dancers had a trio that moved through the room with each dancer orbiting around the other. They taught it to the crew—just where they went in space and in relationship to each other, subtracting any “dance.” Then crew used that pattern while executing very basic tasks. We each made “memorials” using only lighting cues, shutter cuts and bodies in space. We used the IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] vocabulary test prep sheet to create text and original movement (there’s a move called “trim chain”). There was a lot of this culling from each others’ work and worlds.

Sutton-Johnson: Oooh, the “trim chain” move. Nice. I may have to learn that one to be ready for when you’re auditioning set designers for performance roles. Hey, it could happen, right?

Sherman: Maybe it already is happening and you’ve already been hired! 

Sutton-Johnson: Ha! So, speaking of casting, there are distinct roles that the performers play that reflect their real-life identities. Did this make the work harder or easier? What were you looking for when you cast the piece?

Sherman: Well, there are 10 core people in the project—dancers, technicians, designers, administrators. Everyone performs in the role they usually perform in their working life, and to some degree they may be performing as a version of themselves as individuals. But the great thing about live performance is that we get to point to, yet free ourselves from, our real lives. So in this show people are being somewhat true to their nature but only to the degree that it is being shaped and mediated by the story we’re telling. I’ve asked the performers to represent external identities, ideas, and certainly stereotypes to a greater degree than I typically do. They’re representing points of view that they don’t necessarily align with and are stand-ins for ideas about sex, gender, and power in our professions. In terms of what I was looking for in casting, I was pretty open-minded. But I was looking for a sensitivity to and awareness of the emotional, psychic hazards of living your life in a theater. Everyone in the show has been incredibly generous, insightful, brave, and willing. I imagine they could have made this show without me.

Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Joanna Furnans in   Soft Goods  . Photo: Sean Smuda

Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Joanna Furnans in Soft Goods. Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: Mm-hm, sure they could. [Audible sighing.] Well, speaking of your faint, hardly necessary presence, I know that during the creation of Soft Goods you wrestled with what your role should be inside the piece. Can you talk about that?

Sherman: The performer/technician crossover is not uncommon in the theater world, but it is rare in dance. The tech world is male-dominated and male-populated. Dance is dominated by women and gay men (though men have more power and opportunity in the field). So the fact that I’m a queer woman who is both a technician and a dancer is actually unusual. Of course, there are many variations and places on the spectrums of identity, but this project was trying to root itself in the complications of the status quo—I stayed true to a lot of stereotypes that have been my observed reality (most technicians are male, most dancers are female, most people working in either field in the contemporary touring dance world are white, etc.). Because of this, the reality of my duality had no place in the piece even as it was the locus for it. Yet presenting myself as only a dancer or only a crew member felt false. Still, there was no escaping that I was in control and directing things. So I’ve tried to acknowledge that.

Sutton-Johnson: Interesting. I’ve never heard you talk about it that way, but I completely understand what you mean. I’d like to touch again on the other two groups of performers: dancers and stagehands. Does it matter who has more power or which group the audience may identify with more strongly? Was it important to maintain a sense of balance in the piece? Is it important who controls the narrative?

Sherman: No, the identification doesn’t matter. I think there is balance between the groups, but it’s through them being shown differently than you are used to seeing them; we get to know the dancers by how little they do and the crew by how much. And let’s be honest, these are two very arcane professions that don’t hold societal power anywhere outside of a theater. They are each beautifully metaphoric for so many things—labor, power, death, race, sex, gender, loss, aloneness, suffering, isolation, self-erasure, aliveness, the body, relationship. I could make a million shows from this show. My goal was to pull them all into one piece. Which is impossible but also not. I think if you go in to this show with an agenda of what you want to see—a display of technical virtuosity, a meditation on loss, a cheeky lament on the lives of dancers, a visual poem—you will find that thing. I know that comes somewhat at my expense; I’ll want you to have all agendas and you may only have one. But that’s show biz.

Sutton-Johnson: So perhaps this has to do with my vantage point and what I’m looking for in the piece—my agenda, as you say—but I’m aware of a palpable tension throughout the piece between the stagehands and dancers. Sometimes this sense of conflict seems comical, and at other times, painful. Can you talk about the element of tension in the piece?

Sherman: Well, can you say more about your role as a designer? Someone who is neither crew nor performer but a unique role entirely? (I feel like my place in this piece is with the designers—I literally sit next to the lighting designer. In terms of the hierarchies, Designer is to Crew as Choreographer is to Dancers.)

Sutton-Johnson: Well, yeah, for me it feels a bit like a straddling act between the stagehands, the performers, and a third thing: the artistic vision. I want the performers to feel empowered and taken care of inside the process. I want the same thing for the stagehands, and I also want them to feel like the project—the artistic vision—is worthy of their best work and commitment. Demanding a lot of the crew without alienating them can be very difficult, and an absolute nightmare process is one where the crew is totally resistant. I find that I’m usually met with skepticism or at least some wariness when I step into the space with them, and so the initial impression I make on the crew is critical, I think. A make-it-or-break-it moment. Behind what I always hope is a relaxed, confident façade, I’m usually feeling pretty desperate for the crew’s help, their problem solving, willingness to hustle, focus, etc. It’s a neediness I hate, but at the same time, I have no interest in making art alone. Having to give up control comes with the territory, but it’s not easy and so, yes, clearly I’m very conscious of tension. It very well could be that I’ve zeroed in on this in Soft Goods. Perhaps I’ve even noticed it where you didn’t intend it. What do you think?

Sherman: I relate to so much of what you’ve said here, Kate: “the third thing”; taking care of people; wanting people to feel a part of the vision while also having to ask them to do things; the neediness against the difficulty in ceding control. The fact that I do both jobs complicates how crews see me as well as how I present myself to them initially when I’m “the artist.” It has sometimes worked well for me when my production background is known right away. Other times it raises suspicions. I’m sure the fact that I’m a woman complicates this even more. I think if I were a male artist/technician most crews would be more likely to right away believe that I knew what I was doing (even if I didn’t).

Sutton-Johnson: Do you feel like this piece is in conversation with any of your previous work?

Sherman: I think often my work deals with a certain amount of violence, loss, and a scrappy beauty, though the violence is usually more implied and internalized than acted out. For sure, these themes are present throughout Soft Goods and certainly within the reality of my day-to-day work as a stage technician and dancemaker. Both fields deal with self-sacrifice whether the public is aware of it (the romance of the suffering, passion-driven dancer) or not (the invisibilized stagehand who worked 70 hours that week). My work is also usually quite funny and wry. Soft Goods deals with a lot of big themes, but it’s also funny and beautiful and (deceptively) simple. I think that would describe most of the work I make. I hope.

Sutton-Johnson: Can we circle back to something you talked about earlier regarding the rather unusual tech demands associated with rehearsing this piece? The necessities of a theater space and a significant amount of lighting gear made the creation of Soft Goods a serious logistical challenge. Can you speak to that and also to how this will impact you as the piece tours and plays in different kinds of spaces?

Sherman: I refer to it as the show that eats itself. From a logistical standpoint, this is the hardest show I’ve ever made. Just finding rehearsal spaces that suited our needs, that were available when all 10 of us were, and raising the money to pay for it was extremely involved. I’m used to making a piece in a rehearsal studio over a couple of years with time to come and go from ideas. But with Soft Goods, every time we worked it would be for a solid 40- to 60-hour week. It was basically like being in constant tech, which as you know is not the most low-stress environment! Then the week would end and I’d spend months just writing grants, trying to set up the next residency, and having no hands-on creation time. It was very all or nothing. Making a show under those conditions was definitely a new challenge. The show has turned out to be quite tuned to its own poetics; how to make those resonate in different venues requires more adaptations than I’d like. We go to PS122 (New York) and Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (Los Angeles) in 2017. They’ve co-commissioned the show along with the Walker. The Walker is one of the few US venues presenting contemporary dance of this genre that actually has a fly system, so we were always going to have to adapt it to fixed grid houses on tour. But we did turn down a few opportunities due to lack of a suitable venue. That was very hard, but it was the right thing to do. You can’t always know at the beginning the constraints you’ll have built by the end. I’ve spent years having to adapt shows to challenging conditions so prioritizing rather than sacrificing the needs of Soft Goods has been a lovely line to hold.

Sutton-Johnson: Yes, that also makes me think about how defining the limitations of the art can be the biggest challenge but ultimately the thing that feels the most freeing. Seeing the edges of it means that you finally know what in the world itis. I think that’s been my experience as an artist, anyway.

Sherman: Yes, as if the world did turn out to be flat after all!

A ball of gaffer’s tape in  Soft Goods  (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

A ball of gaffer’s tape in Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: So, big picture: what are your hopes for Soft Goods?

Sherman: Well, Kate, as you know, Soft Goods has been fraught with some pain for me because my lighting designer and our close, mutual friend, Carrie Wood, died unexpectedly in March, midway through the process. After that, every time I went back to work on the project it felt like renewed trauma. I wasn’t sure how I could even continue the piece. (I felt a related feeling after the election: how do I go back to work after this?) I eventually found my way back, but there was just so much… I don’t even know… the word ”pain” almost ties it up with too pretty of a bow. There was something profoundly fatiguing and enervating in there. A looming dread that I had shackled myself to. But recently, I could feel how the show had grown its own legs and set out on its identity. It’s cliché and hokey, but we give life to these projects and then they exist outside of us. So that has freed me, released me from much of the pain and struggle. I feel proud and moved by what we’ve made so far. And incredibly lucky to work in such a beautiful, expansive medium. I’m looking forward to shepherding Soft Goods along. It’s like my new companion. It’s very alive, which is ironic considering some of its themes. It’s also weirdly uplifting. But I’ve come to think that our work can be a place to alchemize sorrow and cruelty and turn them into energy and image, something beyond ourselves. It’s like burning off the excess to be left with a substance more pure. So I hope that for the show as well as for myself.

Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods makes its world premiere in the Walker’s McGuire Theater December 8–10, 2016. 

A Costume Designer's Prospective

Article by Trevor Bowen

Trevor Bowen is a relative newcomer to town, but you’d never know it. A powerhouse of a costume designer and critical thinker, Trevor’s designs have thundered onto the scene and he quickly became a fixture of Twin Cities theatre. However, for me, what’s really fascinating is his mind. More than anyone else, talking to Trevor has transformed the way I think about costumes - not just for the stage, but the way humans costume themselves for their very lives. We are all richer for having him here. -Wu Chen

My name is Trevor Bowen and I'm a Twin City area based costume designer. I have been working in town for about three years. I just wanted to share with everyone a brief, very personalized view of costuming and costume design. This by no means encompasses everything that costume design encompasses, from the ways in which designers choose to tell stories and methodologies, practices, theories, or whatever. This is based on the way that I've learned how to work and how I have adjusted what I do when going into a project. A somewhat formalized definition of costume design goes as such: costume design is about creating clothing for the world of the play that helps delineate time, place, season, socioeconomic status, nationality, emotional state of the character. Telling stories through clothing. I do whatever I can to simply create garments that further action, define action, and place characters in the defined reality.

There are two parts to costume design. First is the art part:  analysis, conversations amongst the director and team, research, sketching, and then eventually putting it all together. Second is the craft part: taking two-dimensional fabric, sometimes three-dimensional materials and then sculpting them on the body. Sculpture, which is often not thought of as a part of costume design, is a term most often associated with the art world or something that is in the world of the scenic designer. However I think we costume designers do so many things to augment the body, to enhance the body, to obstruct the body in some sort of way, and it is through these sculptural augmentations that we really served to create a character, create a version of life.

With that being said, I will lay out a few tips and rules of the road as you go out into the world of costume design. Below are a few things that I have found as I have been working and learning in the field:

“If there is anything else you can do as a profession, do it.” This translates literally.

Costume design is not a gentleman’s profession…unless you are a gentleman. What we do for a production is not for big money, unless you get that big moment, or if you enter into this with big money.  Love what you do, because you enjoy storytelling and being part of a team.

Take ownership of your work. You were hired because you have a unique visual language that serves to contribute to the whole story.  

Listen, listen, listen.

Ask questions. Ann Roth said in an interview that the first thing she does is ask questions, lots of them. Never shy away from this.  Of yourself, the director, the design team. It will only make you a stronger, clearer designer.

Read everything in your design contract…then ask more questions.

Costume design is still seen as “less than” other technical areas. You may be contractually obligated to do much more labor than other technical areas, without adequate consideration. Stand up for yourself, and request needed resources for the job at hand.

No crying in costumes. That is to the designer, not the actor….

Learn and keep learning. Become a costume design assistant for a few gigs. Learn how to sew. Know how to use metaphor in clothing.

Be curious. If you have a favorite TV show or movie for the costumes…seek to understand why you attracted to them. Ditto for celebrities, historical figures, and fashion houses.

Just because the color of a garment changes during tech, does not make it any less your design. Remember a big portion of what we do is provide clarity.

Respect the team of artisans helping to fulfill your design.  

We help create a moving composition on the stage…revel in that. And now a few words from those who say it better:

It’s taking noses out of these (bleep) fashion magazines and getting to the roots of it, finding the key to inspiration. It’s the library and its treasures.
— John Galliano
…The joy of dressing is an art.
— John Galliano
We have learned that beneath the surface of an ordinary everyday normal casual conscious existence there lies a vast dynamic world of impulse and dream, a hinterland of energy which has an independent existence of its own and laws of its own: laws which motivate all our thoughts and our actions.
— Robert Edmund Jones
The theater is a school we shall never have done with studying and learning.
— Robert Edmund Jones

The Costumer's Toolkit

Article by Andrea Gross

Costume Designer Andrea Gross is a well-known and highly regarded designer around the Twin Cities. A company member with Nimbus Theater, Andrea and I have worked together at the Jungle Theater. She is a sharp thinker and a frequent contributor to this newsletter; I always look forward to her essays. - Wu Chen Khoo

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Costume designers in the Twin Cities do a remarkable variety of work. We shop, we build, we rent, we alter; we create costumes for every kind of theatrical experience on every kind of budget. And over the years, we’ve collected techniques and tools we employ over and over for all kinds of effects. I asked a few costumers who work in all areas and types of theatre to share their favorites with me. The best answer by far: A HEALTHY SENSE OF HUMOR.

The design tricks and techniques that these great designers shared with me varied from the hands-on practical to the high-level philosophical, and I loved all of them.

In the larger philosophical sense, some good practice techniques: letting actors use shoes in rehearsal from fittings forward helps allows a character to be built literally from the feet up, and informs us of potential pitfalls from ill-fitting shoes, to shoes that won’t work on the set as designed. Treating first dress as opening night allows one to focus more completely on the notes the tech process generates. Keeping current on the nitty-gritty details in the show binder is at the core of sanity for some designers.

When it comes time to apply the design, the foundation of a look is exactly that: undergarments, undergarments, undergarments are indispensable for setting the period or the world of the play. A. Emily Heaney employs a technique (usually with skirts that hang from a yoke) where the inside of the pleat is a contrasting color: when standing still, the actor appears to be wearing a skirt of a single color; when the actor moves the surprise of contrasting color makes the garment and the character more dynamic. In my world, Barb Portinga and Rich Hamson are the masters of unconventional materials: the doily that becomes a crown, the kitchen gadget that becomes a hat, the sun-bleached velvet curtains from a thrift store that would be ruined to anyone else but become a purposefully streaked vest on stage. Kathy Kohl, who often works on expressionistic plays, loves to use markers and paint directly on clothes. I like to do distressing work with rasps and sandpaper, but also with spray paint as a poorman’s airbrush.

Tools:

While the thing I really can’t live without is a 60” measuring tape which counts up from either end (double sided, so no matter which end you grab you have 1” on one of the sides), my favorite tools also include a 1”x 6” see-thru ruler. When I’m working as a pattern maker, it’s perfect for adding seam allowance, especially in tight curves. When I’m rendering designs with textures and patterns, it’s a great way to keep the scale of things similar across the body.

Other specialty tools in my kit include tailor’s chalk, brought to me by a former student from Taipei. And a favorite technique with that tool I learned from Carol Lane: using a cheap toothbrush as an eraser to lift the chalk off the fabric.

And I do love my knife-edge tailor’s points: 4” scissors with a tip that can cause injury (ask me at a bar sometime about the time I thought I’d pierced my lower lip with them while exuberantly celebrating a pants crotch seam….). I can use them as a seam ripper, an awl, and scissors.

Heaney loves the walking foot on her sewing machine, and I agree: its grippy teeth add leverage to the machine’s foot by sandwiching materials between the feed dogs and the walking foot to allow more grip for stitching through slippery or otherwise difficult fabrics.

Kathy Kohl’s favorite tools include the 1 ½” sized safety pins that are large enough to use easily but thin enough not to mar fabrics; both scalpel-style seam rippers and single-edge razor blades are speedy ways to open up seams no matter how small the stitches were. (As a side note, Kathy raises a good point: “Isn't it interesting that costumers tend to be an accommodating, rather friendly if not downright shy breed that carry very sharp tools?”)

Lane loves her “old crappy dented, turn-my-finger-green open-top tailor thimble.” I love how often the tools we’re most attached to are the ones we couldn’t replace, or which wouldn’t serve us as well brand new as they do broken in.

Portinga’s favorite tool is “this irreplaceable needle. It is about 6" long and several millimeters thick. I use it for ALL sorts of weird ‘push that into there’ sorts of jobs, as well as ‘dig that out/apart’ things. It is slightly bent from its years of service and if I ever saw another I would TOTALLY grab it and pass it out as the best present ever to my pals.”

Which brings us to the idea that, as I suspect is true for all disciplines of theater, we often find the best success with a tool that wasn’t necessarily designed for the job. A carpenter’s chalk line will serve when a long enough ruler isn’t available. When I don’t have access to curved rulers, I’ve been known (or maybe this is a terrible secret I’m about to air) to true a curve with a coffee cup or dinner plate. One of Kohl’s favorite tools is a hem marker, but when I don’t have one, I’ve fashioned a standing measurement device out of a yardstick and a binder clip. Not ideal in every setting but a good way to get a consistent distance off the ground, especially in a large circumference garment.

A few things that came up that were combinations of technique and tool: Amy Kaufmann uses a cloth-covered headband as an anchor for all kinds of head dresses and animal heads on performers. “Flippy bones” are fabric covered short bones (3-5” of boning covered in fabric that matches the garment) at the neck, waist or arms’ edge; the “flip” into the actor’s undergarments to keep a garment in place. Known as a “Dior Belt” from its application in the waists of post-WWII “New Look,” a piece of belting or grosgrain ribbon sewn to the inside seam allowances of a garment gives a remarkable amount of control, and is a technique I like to apply whether it’s at the waist or somewhere else.

Favorite larger scale tools included an industrial serger (although I’m a fan of my old-school all metal home-ec-class style serger that I can toss in its case and take with me when I need to), a blind hemmer, a dye washer (a designer can dream….or make messes and clean up carefully), and sturdy collapsible rolling racks.  The prize for best large scale favorite tool, however, goes to Kaufman: “My favorite tool is Collective Spaces (cspaces.org)- a community of costumers and fashion designers who work together in a shared costume shop space have a wealth of knowledge and resources on how to solve the sewing challenges you run into on any project.”

And what a prize it is: a work space of our own might be carved out of a corner of our homes, or used after hours at whatever shop we’re otherwise employed in, but when it comes with a team of people who can help you think outside the box, or teach you a technique you’ve never considered, its value increases ten-fold. I think it’s the reason so many of us stay to work in the Twin Cities: the resources available to us include not only the number of companies producing work that we can be a part of, but also the number of people who are able to help us think about our work critically, and to continue to grow and evolve our skills as designers.

With special thanks to A. Emily Heaney, Amy Kaufman, Barb Portinga, Carol Lane, Kathy Kohl for participating in my small survey, and to all the shops I’ve worked in for teaching me so much, especially Rich Hamson.

In Focus: Interactive Theater - Part 3, Production

Article by Katharine Horowitz

Audience immersion and interactivity have always been the mainstays of haunted houses and historical reenactment sites, but the genre seems to be experiencing a recent eruption of popularity in the United States with such productions as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, or Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell, both in New York City. The last few years have also seen an increase in some impressive interactive theatre productions in the Twin Cities, but is there a lasting future for it here? And what challenges do companies encounter when building the kind of designs and stories needed to create a successful interactive experience?

This is the third in a series of articles 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 the designers of two recent interactive theatre shows. We will hear from audiences in the next article.

There’s an element of complexity in the technical process of interactive theatre that differs from traditional presentational theatre. The level of unpredictability is heightened. The excitement behind creating such constantly mutating intricacy is undeniable, culminating in an inescapable pride when it all knits together.

CTC Sound Director Sten Severson was the system designer for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (20K). Freelance composer and sound designer Michael Croswell designed the sound and music for Live Action Set’s Crime & Punishment (C&P). Working with very different budgets and in very different spaces, the two designers discussed their approaches and aesthetic.

FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING

Neither Severson nor Croswell had ever designed specifically for interactive theatre before. When approaching the system design for 20K, Severson drew from his experiences designing for modern museum installations and electronic opera. Croswell found inspiration from his 25-plus years of experience playing live music and becoming familiar with the changing nature of live accompaniment.

“When I composed the music for Crime and Punishment there were aspects of the work that required me to be meticulous like a composer, and there were aspects of the work that required me to have the ability to improvise like a live musician,” Croswell said. “It was a 50 minute show that asked me to essentially create a soundtrack for each room or speaker location... And each location was a different nugget of the story that I had to support or highlight.”

KEEPING UP WITH THE STORY

The bulk of the challenge for Croswell and Severson was keeping up with the audiences and the multiple performances areas, while still serving the immersive needs of the production.

“In a broad sense the goal of sound [for C&P] was to act like an emotional fog that blanketed the entire set,” Croswell said, “and to use sound as a timeline to allow for the cast to synch up throughout the playing space.” This necessitated Croswell integrating sound prior to tech.

As system designer, Severson had a similar task on a larger scale. The pressing question for 20K was: How to control an event that has multimedia, moves through the building, and overlaps?

“We identified the places we needed to be able to control,” Severson said. “And then we said ‘okay, well what technology can we use to allow someone at that location to control lights, sound, and video?’, realizing that we needed to be able to control ahead, too. It was impossible with the route to have someone run ahead and set things up.”

METHOD TO THE MADNESS

Severson wound up creating several control boxes, one for each performance area, networking each of them to a master computer that ran QLab and in turn communicated with the various audio and video playback computers, and the lighting console.

However, the boxes were just that: devices that sent out a signal via Telnet or web interface but had no way of knowing what happened and where. So Severson had to come up with a way for the boxes, and the people operating them, to communicate.

“I knew I had to find a way to tie these things together because natively QLab can’t talk to those little boards in those boxes,” he said. “So I had to find some way to connect the two and then provide sort of an overarching look at what’s going on.”

The answer was drawn from his experience with electronic opera in the early 2000s, during which he was introduced to Max, a visual programming language for music and multimedia (originally developed by IRCAM, a French institute for electronic arts and music, later distributed by Californian software development company Cycling 74).

“The basics of how [Max] works is really simple,” Severson said. “Even though it can really do incredibly powerful things, it doesn’t take a computing degree to figure it out. I know a little bit about programming but this sort of worked with my brain chemistry better. It’s meant to be used for audio and video. You can get very deep into very interesting programming stuff without having to be a programmer. Literally drawing lines between different objects and different things.

There were approximately seven control boxes on the wall, with the same number of modules in the Max software, each relating to one of the control boxes, and each with its own IP address.

Mac computers were distributed with QLab for each of the main performance areas. All communication originating from the master QLab computer was triggered by OSC commands, which in turn would trigger the appropriate performance area QLab computer, as well as sending out commands to each control box, which in turn would communicate what had just happened back to the master computer. A complete loop of information.

“The thing that made this take was being able to use Max and knit it all together,” Severson said. “It allowed me to use pieces of gear and software that weren’t intended to work together. QLab 3 OSC implementation made things a lot easier, so we didn’t have to try to control remote machines over MIDI, which is kind of the next best thing. Because Max also has an OSC component so it can receive and send OSC commands, I was able to translate everything back and forth from Telnet into OSC.”

Working in a more confined (and dusty) space, Croswell determined early on that the sound would be driven by multi-channel fixed audio playback driven solely by QLab, with each audio timeline divided into three-to-five minute blocks. However, with little to no staff to assist set-up, the process became a balancing act between time spent physically working on gear arrangement versus time spent working on the design.

“The very first steps of this project were to figure out how I could pull together enough gear to run a multi-channel audio system throughout the entire space,” Croswell said. “I had two 8-channel snakes that I ran to different halves of The Soap Factory's basement. (This means I had two 8-channel nodes that I could branch out from and run lines to each specific speaker location.) I had eight powered, full-range speakers that I used as main speakers to provide sound for the main soundtrack that synched up the cast. I then had six extra audio lines that I used in small radios and environmental effects.”

Croswell also made liberal use of QLab’s app for iPad, noting how much more difficult setting levels in such a fluid environment would have been without it. When not setting up gear, Croswell was working at night editing and tracking the music and sound to get it into QLab. He found the use of QLab’s app for iPad invaluable.

THE HEAT OF BATTLE

Because the system design, and the nature of interactive show, affected all the multimedia design aspects, Severson was sometimes concerned that any hiccups the system experienced held designers back.

20K lighting designer Craig Gottschalk never felt creatively stifled by the process, but did agree that it was a unique situation.

“It was interesting to be reliant upon a singular system,” Gottschalk said. “In a normal show setting, in which you’re in a space that’s designed for theatre, you can exist alone. If the sound board crashes, lights can still fire and the stage can still change scenery. In this case, if the system failed the whole show ground to a halt.”

He and Severson agreed that their struggles were not unique, with each department having the same challenge of how to make the show work in the space, with the existing budget, and everybody wishing they had more tech time. Looking back, Severson puts the integration of the control boxes and Max software into perspective.

“The truth of the matter is you don’t really learn how [things] work until you’re in the heat of battle, until you use it in anger,” he said. “You can do as much prep work as you want - it’s not going to actually fail properly until you try to use it for real.”

Croswell agrees, noting that the process required him to learn and adapt in real time and with limited resources. He also acknowledged how much the presence of an audience can change an interactive performance.

“Things really change once the audience arrives and starts to wander around inside the production,” he said. “When the fourth wall has been totally smashed and the very first audiences become part of the action the entire production team can expect to radically alter their work again (even after weeks of tech rehearsals).”

HINDSIGHT

For all the complexity - and complications - both men said they felt their designs were a success.

“The show ran very smooth, technically,” Croswell said. “The system was reliable and it sounded good. I felt that I created a lot of interesting sonic environments that worked well for each of the character areas and locations.”

Severson takes pride in his system design, but both he and Gottschalk wonder if interactive theatre is a financially sustainable method of performance, given the equipment, space, and limited audience capacity that can, in turn, affect ticket sales. Croswell, meanwhile, ruminates on the greater impact of live audience interaction than that of traditional theatre contained by the fourth wall.

Are audiences responding positively? Are they attending in numbers that make the effort it takes to produce worth it? In our fourth and final installment next month, we’ll examine audience reaction to interactive theatre in the Twin Cities.

Interview: Lighting Designer Erin Belpedio

Early in 2013, I heard that Erin Belpedio had taken over as the ALD at Bloomington Civic Theater (now Artistry), where I had been resident LD for 4 years. I had no idea who she was at the time, but I kept hearing good things. We didn’t ever meet - our paths just kept barely missing - though I did see her work. A lighting designer, lighting assistant (a whole separate set of extremely valuable skills from lighting designer!) and electrician around town, Erin has certainly made a place here, and I was thrilled to finally get to sit down and talk to her.

This interview was conducted at the Lake Street Dunn Bros. on December 9th, 2014 between Wu Chen Khoo and Erin Belpedio.

A Christmas Carol  presented by Lyric Arts Main Street Stage. Photography: Traynor Productions

A Christmas Carol presented by Lyric Arts Main Street Stage.
Photography: Traynor Productions


Wu Chen: How long have you been in town?

Erin Belpedio: Well, I've been in town and out of school since spring 2013. So it's been about a year and a half. But while I was an undergrad I went to Gustavus so I was in town during the summers.

WC: I know at least that you've been the lighting assistant at Bloomington, worked at Lyric Arts as the head electrician and lighting designer, [as well as] Lake Shore?


EB: Yup, just one show. I was also over at Hudson high school this past fall and did Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]. I was also down at Merlin players in Faribault, just for the summer. That was two summers ago but I'll be back this coming summer. They switch, I think, with a community group every summer? And I've only worked with Merlin.

WC: Did you make that connection while you were at Gustavus?

EB: I made the connection after I had left but it was through [Terena Wilkens, Gustavus Technical Director]. The director, Eric Parish, had emailed her and she passed the email along to a couple of us and I apparently was the only one who had responded and was interested. So I got that and Eric and I work well together, and I get to work with him again. I also worked down at Owatonna high school last fall and I'll be back there again this coming February.

WC: You also just came from the Children's Theater call, are there any other places in town you work as an electrician?

EB: Not necessarily. I'm on the IATSE electrician list. [since this interview, Erin is now also a Guthrie and Jungle Electrician -ed.]

WC: When did you sign up?

EB: Well, technically I signed up in 2007, but since I was away in school I mostly did calls since I returned last spring.

WC: How frequently do you get calls?

EB: It depends, really, on how busy they are. Maybe twice a month.

WC: What letter are you? [The IATSE Referral List is divided into letter tiers, with the A-list being the highest and currently the E-list being the lowest. -ed.]

EB: D list.

WC: In terms of the gigs, is that something that you have fallen into or that you sought out?

EB: it's really been just falling into the positions. Having connections, finding out about a position and oh,  I have the time open, I might as well apply. The Hudson High School job was one that they had sought me out. They had got a hold of Kiki Mead and she was unavailable so she forwarded it on to me. So a lot of it I do have to thank her. Oh, and I also did a dance recital at the Phipps [Center for the Arts, Hudson]. But the Owatonna High School job was through the northern boundaries section of USITT. They made a posting notice and I got it on their email. I just applied and ended up getting the job. A lot of these just walked across my desk.

WC: Great. What other resources have you used to find gigs?

EB: Minnesota Playlist. I pretty much search through the design/tech jobs, looking for things that would more or less be in the design area. If it happens to be open in my schedule, I apply for it.

WC: Sure, and has that been a resource that you found to be very useful as a designer?

EB: Yes, definitely. I haven't used it to search for stagehand jobs. I guess it could be if I used it that way.

WC: Are you more interested in design work?

EB: Yes.

WC: More as the designer or as an assistant?

EB: I feel more comfortable doing both while there's still so much I have to learn about both design and the system, I feel I am stronger at it than, for example, a master electrician position. I feel less experienced in practicals and the technical side of it, putting up a show, than I do working with Vectorworks or Lightwright. I have more experience with that through my education. I'm better at it and I feel happier doing that.

WC: So how did you get into the industry?

EB: I got into theater and lighting in high school, at Lyric Arts, which was in my community in Anoka. I'm from Coon Rapids, which is next door. I got into running the light board but I didn't know anything about doing lights. At that point the light board operator also ran the show so in addition to pushing the Go button you also had to follow along in the script. I did that for two years in high school and then got a theatre scholarship for Gustavus with that experience. Then I started doing more work first as an electrician, then later as an assistant designer and designer at Gustavus under Terena Wilkens.

WC: What attracted you to theatre in the first place in high school?

EB: It was a backstage job that wasn't acting. My sister had been acting and I wanted to work on the same show but I didn't want to act necessarily. I enjoyed doing the lighting because I loved working with the timing and learning that sort of control which is less seen in theater and is usually done by the stage manager, calling cues. But I liked being able to have that experience.

WC: Have you ever run a show with a 2 scene preset?

EB: I have. It's okay. I like doing better. I mean, you still cue with a 2 scene preset but it's different obviously. It's a completely different experience. I actually like running...side note: when I was in high school I ran the board and it was an Innovator. (Both laugh) I know. Essentially, our technical director couldn't figure out how to program it so we ran everything by subs. He told me I could either run it by subs or read the manual. I did learn how to program it but I ran it by subs anyway. And I liked it! I liked being able to set the looks. It wasn't actually a 2 scene preset, but we just set it and did try to do some intricate fades. It was more manual, more... tactile.

WC: While you were in school in doing [lighting], were you aware that this was a reasonable career option?

EB: Nope. I learned while I was in undergrad [that] there are professors who make a living doing this in addition to teaching. As I got to my junior and senior and started thinking about what to do after college, it became more intriguing. Going into it, I know it was more of a fun hobby thing to do that later turned into a major.

WC: So even though you went on a theater scholarship you weren't thinking of being a major?

EB: I was thinking it would be a minor, honestly. And then I would do something with history, because I like history. But that flipped. I became a theater major with a history minor.

WC: I'll get back to that history minor in a bit. But you've been doing this for a few years now, do you still think it's viable as a career?

EB: Some days. Um, trying to find the balance between freelancing or in some case trying to find a part time job in addition to freelancing and being able to make somewhat steady income… I'd like to find something and stay in the field, that'd be ideal.

The past six months I was the master electrician for Lyric Arts, which is a new position for them. Honestly, I was trying it out, seeing if it would work with my Bloomington job and the other freelancing jobs. [But it] doesn't work as well with their season schedule. They tried doing more of a summerstock load-in which doesn't work as well when you're trying to go other places. So that was not as successful as a part time job. Having that as a part time job along with other temporary jobs was interesting. It was a little bit too busy, so that was kind of a drawback. Now I've gone back to just doing freelance and overhire. It's not too bad but there's more gaps where I don't have work, like a month or two.

WC: What steps do you take to look for work?

EB: In the spring, when companies put out their new seasons, I start applying for work just out of whatever postings come up. So often it is when the big summer or full season announcements come out. Usually in between when something gets posted or you hear from someone, “Hey we're doing a show, would you be interested?” But again, it's about general browsing online.

WC: Do you feel the town is friendly in terms of getting work?

EB: I do. Especially being able to make connections through Bloomington or Lyric Arts, or really any of the companies.

WC: Would you say that those connections are more valuable than browsing online as you mentioned earlier? Or would you say they are about equal?

EB: It's about equal, but I'd say the connections are even more useful. Having those coworkers and the Union work. That helps.

WC: How about school, do you think it prepared you for what to expect?

EB: Yes. I went to [grad school at] the University of Arizona, so those connections aren’t as relevant up here, just because it's a different part of the country. But Gustavus has been more of a connection for me, mainly because we're known as a school in the Twin Cities and we have a lot of alumni. I'm also still really close to a lot of the professors down there and whenever they hear something from different schools or companies, I hear about different jobs that come up.

WC: What about the the business aspects of what we do? Understanding individual contractor work vs employee work, health care, workers comp, filing taxes with a half a bazillion 1099s. Do you feel school did a good job of preparing you for that?

EB: Not really. I don't feel we really had many discussions about that, in grad school or undergrad, on those specific topics. I think [we] should, considering they're sending us off to the real world whether it’s undergrad or graduate school.

WC: Is that information something you've been readily able to get your hands on?

EB: A lot of it is talking to other people who freelance, especially those have been doing this a long time. You can ask, what sort of information do I need? Especially for companies that are requesting information for taxes you can ask what you need to do for that. They can suggest, all you need to submit X, Y or Z, things of that nature.

WC: How do you decide on things like what to charge, what's your rate? Like at Bloomington, you are offered a flat rate per show, how do you decide if that's enough or not?

EB: That's something I'm still trying to figure out. There are sometimes jobs where I have to supply my own rate. I usually base it off of the Bloomington rate, which is slightly lower than the union rate, at least for electricians. Those are two scales that I know, to help me know what is reasonable per hour or per gig.

WC: Besides at Bloomington, where I know you are in charge of hiring, have you done hiring other places? Perhaps at Lyric Arts?

EB: Lyric Arts doesn't do any hiring. They are volunteer based. When I was a master electrician I was in charge of getting people in, on a volunteer basis. So that's the only place I'm in charge of hiring, is at Bloomington.

WC: You don't set the rate at Bloomington?

EB: I don't. Though I think I could technically change it if we wanted to. What we really have is a budgeted lump sum and it equates to a certain number of hours based on the rate that we pay.

WC: How many hours is that?

EB: 100 hours. We have $1,500 to pay to electricians over 100 hours at $15 per hour.

[The Bloomington Civic Theater, now called Artistry, rate has since been raised to $16.50. -ed.]

WC: How do you go about choosing a number when someone asks you what you want to be paid for a design?

EB: That's a good question. I usually try to estimate how many hours I will spend on the gig. That includes load-in and tech. Typically you can figure out how many hours there are four tech and then tack on extra hours for work notes, cue notes, load in.

WC: Since you're talking about load-in are you counting on yourself as your own electrician?

EB: Yes.

WC: Do you ever negotiate that you won't be your own electrician?

EB: I would if I could. But recently most of the places I've been working have been high schools. They don't have electricians or any type of staff. The only places I have worked where I didn't have to load in my own show where at the Phipps and Lyric Arts because they have the master electrician. For a while, that was me. So I was the designer and the master electrician, but that's a different case.

WC: Were you paid an extra fee for being the designer since you designed as well?

EB: Yes, I was. But I would like to negotiate having an electrician if I knew that were feasible with the company or the school that I was working with.

WC: You said you would add some extra time on for notes?

EB: Yeah, for notes, gas, driving time.

WC: And then what? What would you typically pick as a rate?

EB: I usually try to calculate it to about $15 an hour. Sometimes I can flex it up a little bit.

WC: When you do flex it up, what encourages you to do so?

EB: The type of show. If it's a musical vs a straight show. If it's going to take more time, based on the load in, it depends on the space. A larger space requires more instruments. Most places I work in have some instruments pre-hung, as opposed to doing everything.

WC: Would you typically factor that in as more hours or as an increased rate? Or both?

EB: Sometimes both.

WC: How about the resources of the company itself?

EB: Yeah, knowing what their budget is. I haven't had to do anything out of pocket or anything because usually the companies I work for do have a budget of some sort.

WC: How would you handle a situation where you're essentially being asked to pay out of pocket for an expense?

EB: I always inquire about the reimbursement policy. I haven't encountered a place that doesn't have one yet, but I always try to learn what the stipulations are.

WC: Have you ever had to bring in your own gear from outside for any of your gigs?

EB: I have. Mostly rentals. I've done that with a couple of smaller companies that use larger spaces. Getting enough instruments so that you actually have specials.

WC: Where do you do your rentals through?

EB: Mostly through Norcostco. Some through EMI audio. Some with Monkey Wrench.

WC: So, did you choose to settle here because that's where your family is primarily?

EB: Yes.

WC: How do you feel this town is in terms of working in our business?

EB: Really good. I'm from the Twin Cities but now I'm learning more about all the other theater companies in town that I didn't know as much about before going to college. There's a lot of opportunities and a lot of companies that are around town.

When I was in Arizona a lot of the undergrads dream goal was to go to the larger cities. Which is great, but it was never mine. Some people thought it was weird and it was like no we have theater here. No offense to Arizonians. But I do like the Twin Cities and that's where I'm from and we have such a wide spread of theater here. Yes, maybe it's not as much opportunity for assistant design work and maybe the competition for lighting design work means branching out to high schools and smaller companies.

WC: Which you've done.

EB: Which I've done. Mainly because there aren't the higher paying jobs at the larger companies for someone of my experience level.

WC: Looking at the landscape and the people doing it now, do you feel hopeful about it?

EB: Yeah. It's nice to see them doing union work or part time work at larger companies, like electrician work at Children's Theatre Company, they're able to make a living. Which is nice to see.

WC: Going back again to some of the networking you've been doing at some of the high schools and companies you worked with, do you typically make those connections just threw working with them or do you tend to socialize with them outside of work?

EB: Primarily I've only socialized with the people at Lyric Arts because I'm from that area so we would hang out after work, but even the people around the cities, I see them at different work calls and hire them for different things so I get to spend more time with them even just on the call. It's been a good experience, and not just for getting hired.

WC: I saw this really great description of a British Union stagehand talking about being like a tortoise. You hide out in your dark shell and wait for the phone to ring and then you come out of your shell for 24 hours a day until the show is up and running and then you crawl back into your shell and wait for the phone to ring again.

EB: It's a good analogy.

WC: How do you handle finances? Not just in terms of being able to make a living wage, but also quality of life.

EB: Well, my schedule has eased up a bit and I eased up a bit. I mean I'm not doing three shows in a month. That was last month. It was not a good month, but I got through it. It's nice to go home and actually see my family and have a conversation or maybe be home for dinner.  things like that really help as opposed to coming home early morning and not seeing anybody.  even when I have down time it doesn't mean I get to see people so be able to actually see people or even just to communicate with them by text message. Anything that's not just the 10 people I see every day at work definitely helps me feel... like a normal person. Or even just getting to sit down with a book. I love to read but I don't get to do it that much because I'm constantly working. Which is great because it means I have work, but those take a break moments don't happen very often. I need to make those more of a constant in my life.

WC: Is there a way you can think of to restructure [to improve quality of life]?

EB: Not really. I mean you could not work but then you're not getting paid. Unless that means you're not working two 8 hour shifts because one starts at 8 a.m. and one ends at 1 a.m. Sure, you make the money, but you miss out. I'm not saying you should stop working.

WC: Does that again go back to the baseline pay?

EB: True. Or I could say I could design two shows instead of three because I could even each other out in terms of schedule and how much I'm getting paid. Instead of picking up a third job I could pay more bills with two.

WC: What do you think an obstacle to higher wages is?

EB:  Well, it could be more competition. If you pay higher you would expect more out of your product. Well, I don't know. It's a good question.

WC: Something to chew on. But going back to history. You were originally going to be a history major but then it became a minor. Did you have a specific focus in history?

EB: I didn't, but I ended up taking more Scandinavian studies classes. Gustavus is a Swedish school and I'm also part Scandinavian; Danish. It tied into my own family history. And I enjoy the countries, it's just something I had an interest in.

WC: Have you been?

EB: I haven't! I would love to plan a trip but I have no down time. But I'd love to go.

WC: How do you handle vacations?

EB: I don't have them because I don't have time to have them. That's pretty much how it works. Either that or I have to take a chunk of time and say I won't take work because I'm on vacation.

WC: And are you good at doing that?

EB: No, not at all. I need to be though, for my own sanity. Quite honestly.

WC: Back to Scandinavian history. Why did you switch? Why did you make that a minor?

EB: So when I was a sophomore and had to choose my major, I actually had more theatre credits than history credits, so I decided to declare theater major. And at that point I had already been asked to assist [lighting] and be a master electrician for that season. So I had that experience as well and was able to get more into actual design. And I had gotten a lighting design for the following fall and I had an interest in more of the classes.  So I declared a theater major with an emphasis on lighting design. That was pretty much it.

WC: Do you keep up with the history?

EB: I do. I know it's fictional but I enjoy reading fictional historical novels, just for content.

WC: How far out do you often book yourself? Besides Bloomington where you book yourself for a whole year?

EB:  Mostly, it depends on when I get the job offer. I got the job offer for Merlin Players last spring.  They knew it was coming up so they wanted to get me on board. So that one I booked about a year in advance. It depends on the company, but I'd say usually six to eight months. Usually less with high schools.

WC:  Do you work with students a lot?

EB: I do. Usually there are one or two students interested in lighting or a TA that's been sent over to the theater. In Hudson, they have an auditorium manager who works with lighting. She and I were able to work together really well.

WC:  Were the students you were working with interested in pursuing theater in school?

EB:  Not really. The few I was able to work with had other fields they wanted to pursue. The one gal I worked with, she did more stage management but she also enjoyed learning about lights. The students that I've had while working on musicals have been either my board ops or my spot ops, but they don't know anything about either position, so I've been able to teach them. I've had really good experiences with students being really excited and being able to teach them.  I've been like hey you're going to do spotlight and here's your cues and getting them really excited about it which has been really nice.

WC: So you went to graduate school. What do you think of that decision?

EB: Looking back I would have preferred waiting. I went straight out of undergrad. For me, that program was helpful in some ways. Some of the techniques and the way they set up theatre shows. They work with Arizona Repertory Theatre so they do more of a rep style, which I hadn't had much experience with, any experience, really. It was more of a challenge for me going from a smaller private school to that setting. In terms of working on productions, I was less experienced, which bit me a little bit. It wasn't what I expected, not that I knew what to expect. Education-wise, I enjoyed the courses that I had. They are very similar to the courses I had taken in undergrad, which was a pleasant surprise. Just the way that Gustavus structures their program and so I was able to do very well in academics.  Just not as much in the actual practicum, which did not work out well in the long run. I was only there for 2 years and decided to leave after my second year to come work in the cities. It was still a very interesting experience and I'm glad that I met some of the people that I did, I made some friends. But it's good being back.

WC: If someone asked your advice about graduate school, what would you say to them?

EB: I would suggest [they] talk to the students actually in the lighting program. For me, I got to talk to students but none of them were in the lighting program. I didn't get to hear as much of their take. And primarily I think talking to graduate students, asking them what the differences between undergraduate and graduate. Mainly, what types of things you're expected to do and what time frames, how the theater company is managed. Those are some of the questions I would have asked.

WC: Is there a particular resource, not necessarily just online, but any resource that you would find particularly helpful to anyone in your position in the Twin Cities or the Greater Minnesota area? Specifically within the context of the entertainment industry for someone who is recently out of school, working in the Twin Cities?

EB: The most helpful thing for me was, because I had interned at Children's Theatre Company, I had connections with the company. I was able to get on their call list, which was a big help. In addition I was already able to have the assistant lighting design job at Bloomington. Having the connections, Kiki, being able to know that I at least had work, as opposed to coming here and not, I would say it would be helpful if something like Minnesota Playlist had job search options so you could find electrician work and be able to apply or help you get on the IATSE list so that you can kind of get your foot in the door. To meet people, or to find companies if you're up from out in the suburbs. Someone to know your face. Someone to whom you can say, "hey can I volunteer or work for you?"


Way Around the Fringe: An Interview with Liz Neerland

Liz Neerland is a well-known person in the Twin Cities theatre community. She is co-Artistic Director of Nimbus Theatre, and the Technical Director for the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

The Fringe has been formative for many of the technicians of my generation: many of our most lasting collaborations and friendships began there, and the skills we learned have served us very well.

Liz and I met during the Fringe of 2001, and we remain colleagues and friends. To me, she’s an excellent example of the many different skills and talents we can and do bring to bear in this industry. Although this interview focuses on her Fringe career, by the time this gets published, Black Tie at Theater in the Round will have opened. Liz directed.

This Interview took place between Liz Neerland and Wu Chen Khoo on May 19, 2015.

Wu Chen: So you're Liz Neerland and you're the new, well, not that new, Technical Director of the Fringe Festival. How long have you been with the Fringe?

Liz Neerland: I started in 2000. In my first year, I was in the assistant box office manager, actually. The second year, 2001, I became a venue tech. Then last year, 2014, when Jeff became the executive director, I stepped into the TD role, so I've been with the Fringe for a long time!

WC: What first brought you in as the assistant box office manager?

LN: You know, I didn't study theatre in college, but it was the summer after I graduated from college and I was doing theatre. When I came back I was working as a stage manager at Jeune Lune and I just needed a summer job and when I had arrived back in town, I basically saw an ad that the fringe festival was hiring, and that was their seventh or eighth year, something like that. They were still, quite a baby festival. So I just went in and applied for the job and I loved it. It was so great that I actually went back the second year.There was shifting in the staff and I applied for the box office manager position, but ended up being a technician, which I had been doing freelance lighting and stuff anyway, so I ended up there and the rest is history.

WC: So when you say you applied for the box office position and “ended up” as a technician, how did that happen

LN: I don't remember exactly, it wasn't like I got rejected for one. There were a couple of really good candidates for box office and they needed more technicians and that may have been, I don't remember which year Jeff started as the TD.

WC: 2001

LN: Was that his first year? Yeah, there was a turn over in technicians and he knew me from Jeune Lune and knew that I could do the tech side of things, so he was like, “Your skills are better used over here because we have enough front of house people.”

WC: And then you stuck with it for 13 years, did you ever take a year off?

LN: [Laughs] You know that's a loaded question. There were 2 years I took off. One year I had a crappy desk job that I couldn't get the time off. Then there was the infamous 2005, where there was the weekend of the load-in and the first weekend afterwards I was at the Loring Playhouse. I'd gone home to feed the cat and was going to Rudolph's to meet the technicians for a beer when I got hit by a car. So I called Jeff from the ER before I called my parents that night. I had a broken ankle and couldn't do the festival that year.

WC: Although that wasn't really your choice; you would have done it if you could.

LN: I was in the hospital for two days, then I had to wait for surgery. It was great, that year the technicians did tech beers at Auriga, which was a bar right by where I lived, so I could hobble down on my crutches and join them for beer as an honorary.

WC: What made the fringe so attractive that you stuck with it? In this industry, you see a lot of people do a gig, as you and I were just talking about just before we started, you'll do something for a certain amount of time, especially summer stock, short summer festivals, and that amount of time usually happens before 14 years.

LN: Partly just that the fringe itself is such a neat thing. It's such a great organization to be a part of. To feel that I've really grown as an artist, as a person, as the festival has. It was only six or seven years old when I came along. The organization has matured from this scrappy thing to one of the largest and most respectable festivals in the country, if not the world, to be a part of that, it just feels so great. And I also run Nimbus Theatre with my husband.  Nimbus's first show was in the 2001 Fringe.  And we did the fringe for several years and we got to the point where we were producing a full season and doing a Fringe [show] wasn't part of that, but it's integral to who I've become as a person, it's tied up in working with the festival. And because of the car accident in 2005, I had been freelancing as my career and then wasn't able to climb ladders anymore, so that kind of shifted, but I was still able to do the fringe, so at least once a year I'd be able to come back to that world and to do that, it was grounding. As I grew as an artist, I was able to grow with the job and eventually have a chance to get promoted, so it's just been a nice journey, together.

WC: Later, I want to get back to the idea of working on the fringe and also producing in the fringe, but ell us more about how you personally have grown in the fringe and some of the things you've done.

LN: The fringe teaches you, especially being a venue technician, how to function artistically as part of a larger whole, which is a really interesting lesson, when art theatre can often be a vanity project that people carry around in a bubble, so suddenly when you're part of this bigger festival, you're not the only one. At your venue, you have to interact with 10 other companies and that gets you outside of yourself. As a technician, just from a job standpoint, it teaches you how to manage stress like nobody's business. Nimbus opened our most recent show the other day while we were cleaning and painting and counting down to curtain, I said I had a day job at a bank once and those people thought they knew what stress was. You don't know what that is until you've experienced – there's no greater deadline than opening night. And when you're doing that 11 times in a different order every day, the actual job skills of organization and keeping your head about you and crisis management are really applicable in a lot of places outside of the booth.

WC: Across fields too, I would argue. You've talked a little about the role of fringe technicians. As a producer yourself, running a theatre, do you see the fringe as something important to the theatre community, the audience, as a whole?

LN: Absolutely! It's fascinating. We discovered, with Nimbus, that there is an energy of the fringe that's very different from the energy of theatre the rest of the year. It's not a good or bad thing, it's just different. It's very offbeat and most often original work and it's not that offbeat doesn't work in the fringe, but our audience didn't mesh as much with the fringe audience. Again, not a good or bad thing, but it also teaches you, who is your audience? Who is going to come see the work that you do?

WC: Do you think that fringe audiences are representative of the theatre going audiences in the this town generally?

LN: My personal experience, and this isn't speaking with official Fringe statistics, but my personal experience is that there is something different. There's a lot of overlap, the Venn diagrams are very close, but I think there are people who Fringe who don't see a lot of theatre the rest of the year and there are big theatre goers for the rest of the year who don't Fringe, for whatever reason. I don't know why that is and I can't prove it, but it's really interesting.

WC: I think that would be an interesting study: Do you go to the Fringe and do you or don't you go to theatre otherwise. But I asked because we always hear people saying, It's Fringe time, if you're going to put on a show, you're going to have a hard time finding technicians. I hear people saying, where am I going to find my technicians? How many technicians do you employ?

LN: Last year I had a staff of 27 and I'm trying to shake out how that's going to happen this year. It'll be close to the same. There's 14 or 15 venues, usually two technicians per venue. They work as partners and as a team. Yeah, when you're hiring 30 of the best technicians in town, there's not that many of them.

WC: What sort of skills are you looking for?

LN: The biggest thing I look for is competency with lighting and as an electrician because the Fringe technicians really do design the lights for the show. So at least one person in the partnership needs to be a good lighting designer. Shows show up with their sound cues already built or designed, so the sound aspect is more of an engineering and board op, which is its own talent, but it's a different aspect of things. First and foremost you need to be competent in lighting, you need to be competent in sound, some of them need to be competent in video. So it's a pretty specialized set of skills, but you have some people who’ve never programmed a sound board and people who are amazing sound engineers who don't know the right end of a plug and that's fine, but you need someone who can really wear all the hats. You have to be personable. You have to deal with all of the artists, you have to understand how to talk in artists speak and actors speak. You basically are the venue manager. The technician doesn't just push the Go button on the board. They're the ones with the keys to the space, they're the first ones there and the last ones to leave. They're communicating with the house staff, making sure the bathrooms are stocked, they are the official clock of the festival. So it's up to them to keep every single performance running on time. It's not just are you good on a ladder, it's are you good managing a venue, managing people, being organized and punctual person. It's kind of a demanding set of skills.

WC: Where do you find these people?

LN: It's a mix. There's a lot of technicians who've been doing it as long as I have, maybe longer. Definitely a big return group. Generally, when I need to hire new people, it's typically word of mouth and connections. People do send resumes, but it's a hard job to interview for. I can talk to you and look at your resume and see that you've designed this and programmed that, but a lot of it's personality and how you're going to fire under pressure and the best way to find that is to take a recommendation from someone I trust.

WC: So how do you train in new technicians?

LN: Generally, training is kind of trial by fire. I trust that if you say you know how to program a light board, you actually do. Because there is no way I can train you on that. We do a little orientation on the day of load-in. I basically put anyone new with a veteran, someone who's done it before and you jump in. So I give them a sense of what the schedule is and what the expectations are, but training is on the job, on your feet, as you go.

WC: So if you say you partner them with someone who's done it before, would you say you're building your own culture then?

LN: Yeah, it's nice to mix it up. Sometimes, in any group of 30 people, there are people who work better with other people. You try to balance making sure everybody is happy with who they have to work with but also not let partners get too set in their ways. Sometimes it's good to break up partnerships and not let these two people be the ones who have been at this venue forever and ever and that can never change.

WC: What do you see that culture of Fringe technicians being now?

LN: You know, we work hard and we play hard. I've never seen a more dedicated group of people, in terms of people who will show up when they're supposed and work their asses off for 14 hours and not complain. And when we say, we're done, sometimes they'll actually say, no, I'm not done yet. They're really dedicated people who want to get it right. I've seen people who choose to stay late to adjust a focus or check all the levels, just to make sure they got it right. They see it as a reflection of themselves if a show looks bad. The audience may not realize it, but if the sound is crappy or the lighting is crappy in a Fringe show, that's the technician's fault to a certain extent. They're not going to go to the bar until their job is done.

WC: Do you think that the culture has changed in the 16 years you've been there?

LN: I think it's gotten a lot more focused. There's a lot of us who've been there a long time and who were a lot younger when we started. We were a little more, unruly. Everything about the festival has become more and more grownup, is the best way to talk about it. Every year we figure out better systems to make sure that the artists are getting everything that they should be getting out of the festival and making sure that we are supporting them. It gets better and better every year.

WC: One of the things that I guess I've noticed about the Fringe is that a lot of the rest of theatre, there's this artificial divide of the “artists” and the “technicians.” It seems to be that in the Fringe, the technicians are deeply entrenched in what the artists are doing, going to the bar together instead of having separate tables, that sort of thing.

LN: Yeah I think that's something that's changed for the better versus the earlier years, the technicians were more of a tribe unto themselves, but again, because a lot of us have been working around town for so long and do other things, the Fringe artists are also our friends. I don't gain anything by sitting in a corner with only other technicians. I want to talk to my friends because I saw their show.

WC: But then you could apply that same argument of “I've worked around town so long” outside the Fringe and it seems there isn't necessarily the same attitude. What's different about the Fringe?

LN: It's again that big communal thing. Every company has it's own culture and it's way of handling, and I think my theatre company is probably a very different experience to work at as a designer than other theatres, partly because of the Fringe. I know who I am, as a director or a designer, am a pain in the ass, because I tech shows like the Fringe techs shows. Oh, we'll just program on the fly, we don't need to run it more than once. I don't know how other theatre companies work, but I think just because of that, you are out with artists and you're out of your bubble and you're part of that larger thing happening around you, it's hard to have blinders on and not notice what's going on around you.

WC: Going back to what we touched on earlier, what's it like to produce in the Fringe while working in the Fringe?

LN: It's weird. Often my company would do something and I think there was only once when I did the set design, a year that I was also the technician. The technician job is pretty demanding so it's hard to also be in a show, but I wouldn't say...I don't know. I'm being kind of vague, but it's been 10 years since we did a Fringe show.  I remember it being very positive. It's difficult, it's hard to do two things at once. Ultimately it's rewarding. It's fun to have a show on and tell people about it.

WC: You became Fringe TD last year. First of all, why did you become Fringe TD?

LN: Again, I have so much love and respect for the organization and was eager to grow in the job. So when the opportunity came up, it's such a small staff that there aren't opportunities like that very often.

WC: The Fringe TD job, for the most part, is not a hands on job, it's a management job, at least it is now. This is very different from what you did as a technician. What you said earlier that you loved about being a technician was that it was a chance for you to get back and do some of the work you used to do. Is that something you miss doing?

LN: Not as much. As I myself have gotten older, I'm not as eager to spend hours on a ladder hanging cable. And now it's interesting because when I stopped freelancing it was great to return to it as a technician, but now that my theatre company got our own venue, I run our own space, so it kind of shifts again. I still do a lot of that for Nimbus so I don't miss it as much. It's interesting because as the TD, my job kind of winds down as everyone else's starts. My job is getting ready for the festival. Once we get to tech rehearsals, I'm just on call to put out fires. But I'm just waiting because my staff is awesome and they won't call me unless they really need help. It was very strange last year to go from, especially my last year as venue technician in 2013, my partner got sick and I ended up soloing a very large venue. So I was 100% had to work every show. That's very intense. To go from that to, “Okay, tech rehearsals have started, I'm waiting for someone to text me to tell me they need tieline.” It's been amazing to see shows. Some technicians, one guy, he basically, if he's not working a show, he's seeing a show and every year he tries to have a perfect fringe. So, that's the great thing about the techs, is they love theatre. So it was great last year, being able to go out and see a lot of shows, that I haven't been able to do as much when I was running them.

WC: What do you do to prep for the Fringe as the TD?

LN: Hiring staff is a big part of it. I handle all of the communication with the venues. Jeff is the one who really selects where we're going to be, but I make sure we really know what their sound and lighting system inventory is, making sure we don't have to bring in any rental equipment. Some of them are totally ready to go, we don't have to bring anything. Some of them are studio, an empty dance studio. We have to bring in seating, dimming, everything for that. There's quite a range of needs. I'm just making sure that all of that is coordinated and planned and ready to execute. Then just supporting my staff with whatever they need whenever they need it.

WC: Going back to Fringe techs, you talked about personality and all that. Is this a good job for someone starting out in the field?

LN: If you're brand new, probably not. I would probably be pretty reluctant to go with someone who is fresh out of college, which is hard to say because I was. That's not to say I wouldn't, but I think it's a job that benefits best from an experienced hand, from someone who has seen what can happen and understands how to handle it. The disasters aren't very big but they can easily get amplified because you have to fix it in 5 minutes. That means you have to fix it with what you have on hand because something can't get there. Last year, the light board at one of the venues died at load-in, 20 minutes before go, the light board was just dead. So I ended up having to run to a different venue and take their house board, which we weren't using for the Fringe, and cart it across to the other space. In the time that that took, we had to start. Shows don't start late. So we explained it to them and we explained it to the audience, and they performed in work light, basically. That's why if we have a new technician, I make sure they're paired with an experienced technician, so if we have a crisis, they can handle it. We don't have them very often, but they need to be able to solve it.

WC: So the defining moment is really when things go wrong.

LN: Yes, and you never know what that might be. It might be equipment failing, it might be an actor getting sick or something, god forbid, someone be in a car accident. You just got to keep everything running and figure out the best way to keep everyone happy; the artists, the audiences, keep the festival from screeching to a halt.

WC: Speaking of car accidents, I'd like to talk more about your career before the accident. Where did you freelance?

LN: I worked at the Walker, Jeune Lune, I did corporate A/V also, I worked at the Southern, did design for some smaller companies.

WC: How did you get into this? You said you didn't go to school for this?

LN: I kind of fell into it. I had started stage managing in college. I had originally acted and realized I wasn't very good. So I had just started doing the tech side of things in college and started stage managing and lighting was just a way to keep paying the bills. I liked not having a day job, though I worked at Barnes and Nobles for a long time to supplement freelance and stage management work. Kinda just fell into it really.

WC: Given the way you fell into it, do you feel that the way the job market was then is different from the way it is now?

LN: I'm not sure I could speak to that because I haven't actually freelanced for nine or ten years, so I'm not sure how it actually works anymore. It's a young person's game, to a certain extent. There's a lot of people who've made a great career of it, but if you're just working as an electrician or overhire, it's really long hours, it's crappy hours, it's very physical work, you're freelance, you don't have insurance, you have to pay taxes, you're not an employee somewhere, it's very unforgiving if you have a family or if you want to have kids or even if you have a relationship with someone whom you want to see when you're both awake. It's a hard job to do. So I think there's a reason why it's a lot of younger people. And as they get older in that world, they either figure out their career or, one of our long time technicians has become one of the most prominent lighting designers in town, she has built her career. She used to be an overhire electrician. She isn't anymore. I think that's why I was interested in moving up with the organization, because I have more to offer in a management and organizational standpoint that I do from the physical standpoint, doing the technician job. Someone younger, with better knees, can do that job.

WC: So I'm going to ask a personal question: after your accident and you couldn't do the physical demands, what did you do? You clearly didn't leave theatre.

LN: At that point, Nimbus really started to be a larger part of my life. It was a big shift for me then and it was difficult because the thing that I had done for a living and that I enjoyed and loved doing, I couldn't do anymore. It was hard for a while and to go get a desk job, and I had to figure it out how to keep this thing in my life that I loved. But eventually, you heal, in many ways, and because I had my theatre company I did that and I was at least able to look forward to doing the Fringe every summer. Eventually I was able to figure out ways to still pay the bills. Something my husband talks about the way we do theatre, as vocation versus advocation. Not just after my car accident, but just through the years, realizing, and I think that's a way you mature as a person and an artist, realizing what's the most important to you and how do you achieve it. The most important thing to me doesn't necessarily have to be the thing that gives me my paycheck. It's okay to do the thing that gives you a paycheck to allows you to do the thing that is most important. However you define that balance, you're doing okay. I've been able to figure ways to continue to do the art that I want to do and that I enjoy. After the year when I had the crappy desk job that didn't allow me to do the Fringe, I said I'm never doing that again, because I love doing the Fringe. So every time I've had a day job since then, I've made it clear that there's two weeks in August that I take off. And I don't need paid vacation, because I have my job with the Fringe, but this is a thing that I do. I just recently had a temp gig this winter at a bank and they were begging me to stay. They didn't understand what this other thing was and I was like, nope this is what I do. And I had no problem leaving that. Why would I stay at a bank when I could go to the Fringe?

WC: So you've been working in this town for 16 years, with the Fringe as a technician, now as the technical director, and you picked up a supplemental gig at a bank, is that a fairly typical situation?

LN: It has been. We're kind of a weird, mid-sized organization that's been around for 15 years, but none of our staff is paid yet. That's kind of our next step. I do all of the venue management and a large portion of the administrative work for the theatre company, so figuring out a way to pay me for that work. Because up until now I've always had a job, but I'm still doing that other job. It's a tough thing. And luckily my husband is in IT and has been the major breadwinner and allowed me to flaunt about being an artist.

WC: Although your husband is deeply involved in the arts and you waved this postcard around, “Written and directed by Josh Craigun.” That's no small thing.

LN: He started Nimbus, it's definitely his passion.

WC: Anything else you want to add about the Fringe?

LN: It's in your blood. It's so great to see what pops up every year. I think the lottery is such a great thing and sometimes there's you know, someone who's become kind of a Fringe star who doesn't get into the lottery, and it's like, well yeah, but that means that the new version of that person can get a chance. Some of the best pieces of theatre I've ever seen in my life have been at the fringe. And some of the worst. And everything in between. It sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid, but I guess I did.

WC: What are the dates for this year's Fringe?

LN: It's July 30th-August 9th

WC: If anyone is interested in being a Fringe technician should they just contact you directly?

LN: Yeah, they can just email me at Liz@FringeFestival.org. Or if you think the Fringe is interesting but being a technician isn't your thing, we need lots of volunteers, we need house staff, so there's lots of opportunities, you don't just have to be a lighting designer to be in the Fringe!


From Acting to Scenic Carpentry: An Interview with Max Gilbert

I met Max last summer, when he was one of our scholarship students (along with Terri Ristow) for our welding classes at Rarig. Max works at Bedlam. Soon I started running into him all over the place. I knew he wanted to work full-time in technical theatre and remembering my own struggles when I was starting out, I wondered how things were going.

This Interview took place between Wu Chen Khoo and Max Gilbert on December 15, 2014.

Wu Chen: So, Max, You’ve been around town for a while, but you haven’t necessarily been working in theatre, is that correct? You’ve been working for Bedlam the last couple of years?

Max Gilbert: Yeah, just kind of more informally, on a volunteer-basis, just doing some work whenever it needed to be done and I really enjoyed it and just kind of decided I could maybe turn it into something that I could get paid for. They offered the Tech Tools option and there are some skills that I would love to learn and so I decided to go for it.

WC: What did you do before this?

MG: I’ve done a little bit of everything here and there. I went to school for acting, for performance. I’ve been in theatre for quite a while. Growing up I thought I was a carpenter and contractor, so I kind learned all that stuff, basically as I went. When I got back from school, I landscaped for several years, just more building, a lot of cool stuff. I learned some masonry there. But then I kind of became more disillusioned with acting, as I think a lot of people do, as they get out of school and into the world a little bit and realize what’s really going on with it. But I loved being in theater and I loved being around the theatre environment and I thought building was just kind of a natural thing to fall into.

WC: What about acting disillusioned you?

MG: I think the constant search and struggle of looking for jobs.  I’ve got an agent here who’s maybe called me twice in six months, and that’s specifically for film work, which is maybe a little bit of a different beast. And Bedlam, I like doing acting with them. It’s great, but it can be a little bit disorganized. It can be hard to want to keep doing over and over again. I’m trying to think of an example here. Tempest was how I really got my foot in the door with acting with Bedlam, and that was really great. The first couple of years were really awesome. I think with the direction things are going, more the short-shorts things, it feels a little more like a flying by the seat of your pants sort of thing and it can kind of get a little more frustrating. I realized fairly quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to support myself in acting, which I think is true with most actors in town. I just kind of hit a point where I was ready to be done with pursuing it as a profession. I still love to do it and when Bedlam has something available that’s easy and simple that I can just go in and have fun with, then I’m totally game for that. That’s always a good time. But mostly I now decided that acting will definitely take a backseat to building and scenic carpentry.

I think I’ve been fairly lucky so far with Tech Tools, and they’ve hooked me up with the job at the Guthrie and that kind of came to a couple larger builds for bedlam and that’s still going on and they have a contract with Yellow Tree Theatre out in Osseo, MN to do all their building for them this season. So at this point, I’m the go-to guy for the carpenter for those builds which is great, and I’ve somehow fallen into getting more work through Grant (at Science Museum of MN) and the Guthrie and it just kind of keeps rolling. I went to Portland last month and I was sitting around for about a month and I was sitting around like, “Oh shit, what am I gonna do?” And all of a sudden, Grant called me back and then I heard from the Guthrie. Then all of a sudden this build from Bedlam was going on. So I feel pretty fortunate so far that the work has been pretty consistent and there haven’t been a lot of gaps so far and I cross my fingers that that’s kind of keeps up. I know it’s kind of heading into a slower point. I don’t know that, but it’s what I’ve mostly heard.

Max learns new welding skills from Guthrie Lead Carpenter and Tech Tools instructor Nate Saul.

Max learns new welding skills from Guthrie Lead Carpenter and Tech Tools instructor Nate Saul.

WC: What do you think has contributed to you being able to just jump into working? You said you had been doing a couple of volunteer builds at Bedlam before that?

MG: I hadn’t realized that that was something that I wanted to do. That was more, “You’ve got time. You can come in and help out with this build,” and it was just a really good time, especially at Bedlam, because it was working with my best friends.

I think, in general I’m a fairly quick learner when it comes to these things. I’ve been doing it since I was a child, because my dad was always working. Having that kind of basis in building just kind of knowing how things work and knowing how to put things together is an asset. It works to my advantage when people can see that I can do the job and they don’t need to walk me through everything step by step. I think that’s really been a benefit and it’s worked out that people recommend me to their friends and that’s really been great.

I would actually say I wouldn’t be where I am now without Tech Tools. That really set me up in a great spot. I got to meet you, meet Nate (Saul). Meet some people who worked in the field for a number of years and have a great amount of experience and it’s really been great getting to learn from Nate and you guys and everyone and it’s been great to keep the ball rolling. But networking has really been kind of a big thing there, moved it into a career, as opposed to just doing something for fun.

I think that’s true of just about anything, being able to move from one place to another fairly fluidly is, especially in the freelance world, one of the most solid ways to do it, in terms of getting consistent work.

WC: Have you been doing any other production work besides scenic carpentry?

MG: I’ve done a little bit of painting work with Sam Johns, whenever Sam finds herself in a little bit of a bind, I’m one of the handful of people she gives a call to. Carpentry is what I’m really interested in right now and what I’m interested in honing as a skill. In terms of a career and contacts, I’m not opposed to getting into lights and sound, it’s just not been my focus.

WC: Where did you go to school?

MG: I went to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They had a pretty good theatre program out there. It also worked to my advantage for acting because they do a lot of film work out there.  I had the good fortune to work on a lot of sets, exclusively film work, exclusively acting, which is terribly boring.

WC: So in your schoolwork, you didn’t do any production work at all?

MG: They didn’t require us to crossover, which I think is a little short-sighted I think on their part. I wish that I had a little more experience in a school scene shop, but I don’t know, I enjoyed it while I was there and while I was there I was exclusively performance. I didn’t anticipate at all.

WC: How did you get into theatre in the first place?

MG: Back in high school. I wasn’t involved at all until my senior year of high school. Tom Lloyd, who also works at Bedlam, he and I come from the same graduating class. He was directing a play, he said, “Why don’t you audition,” and I realized I wasn’t going to be the next big sports star. I kind of had a way that I transitioned out of sports, I swam and did track. I decided what the hell, I’d audition for the play and then I had a lot of fun so I decided to do the big school musical which was also a lot of fun. I got one of the big roles, which was a surprise. It really clicked with me so I decided that what I wanted to do in college and I kept on doing it in college. It was just more and more fun and I really loved it. I came back here when I wasn’t just in the school mode anymore and acting is a little different.

WC: What makes it different? I hear that a lot, “Now that I’m not in school, it’s really different.”

MG: When you’re in school, you’re always kind of involved, there’s always something coming up that you can be involved with and that your classmates are involved with and that you by proxy can be involved with. So I think that being in school and being in theatre is just really easy. You’re living it and it’s your day-to-day. Once you’re out of school you realize you’re not going to make a living at it, so you’ve got another job and you go from job to job. So you’ve got that other job that’s taking a huge chunk of your time away, which makes then going out and pursing acting outside of school pretty much working for free all over again. It can be really taxing, a big strain on your energy. Personally, that’s how I found it. I t just becomes a whole different burden when it’s not just something you’re doing in school for fun. It’s something that you’re trying to make somewhat of a living off of and usually that’s not going to happen or the first several years.

WC: That other job was landscaping?

MG: When I came back from Vancouver, it’s kind of what I fell into. My dad’s best friend owns a landscape design company in Southern Minneapolis and he took me on as an employee. About a year later, I was running his job sites, working into management.  Which was great, but hauling stone from one place to another kind of gets old. In a matter of a couple years, I knew that was not what I wanted to do long term so I started looking for other options. I worked in an office for a year and a half, almost 2 years, which drained the life out of me and I don’t know if I ever want to go back to a corporate office environment. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun. It broadened my horizons a little bit. I think it made me really realize that I missed working with my hands. That’s what I really like, building stuff, not sitting one place in front of a computer screen. It’s just terrible.

WC:  So, just coming out of school, you said you were working for free?

MG: When I came back my exposure to Minneapolis theatre was just through Tom. He was one of my few friends still living in town and I was just hanging around Bedlam with him and there wasn’t really much opportunity to make any money off it. I think that it was kind of because I didn’t go to school here. I didn’t go through four years while honing my skills and also meeting people within the larger Minneapolis theatre community. So I came back here and had training but I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have ins at any of the theatre departments here, it was exclusively around Bedlam. But it wasn’t like my phone was ringing off the hook or anything. So I just kind of realized that there was going to have to be another job that was involved. As the years went on, acting took kind of a backseat to paying my student loans and paying my rent and stuff like that. It became harder and harder to keep that dream, that I’m going to be the next big actor or whatever. So I started looking elsewhere for careers and I realized that working building theatre is what I love to do, it’s what I’ve been loving to do so far.

WC: It’s not uncommon for people to get out of school and try to make a living out of it and find that it’s not possible for them.  So the other job is necessitated because the acting pays next to nothing. The acting provides virtually no income, in that even a part time job wouldn’t cover it. How much do you think this influences the public perception of the performing arts as an unsustainable career?

MG: I think that is definitely sways public opinion about what it means to work in the arts or be an artist. There are three options: you’re a successful artist, you’re a starving artist or you’re a trust fund kid who has some sort of means to support yourself through that. I think that definitely has an effect on how people view careers in the arts.” You’re pursuing that, that’s great. How are you going to survive?” My family, when I wanted to be an actor was like, “That’s great, follow your dreams, but how are you going to live?” There is a lot of skepticism when you say you’re in the arts and that’s what you do, people assume that either you’ve got a trust fund or you’re okay with not having any money in your life. I don’t know. I’m still not totally certain that that isn’t true, but I think that in terms of acting it does take a certain kind of stability and security to pursue it if you’re going to go at it full time. I think that if that’s what you’re going to really pursue as a career, you need to have something to survive without bringing in any money for a while. For 99% of the people that’s really hard to do.

WC:  Does that tend to divide us along class lines?

MG: I think so. I think that within the community, as far as I’ve experienced, people are pretty accepting. People aren’t like, “Oh, that guy’s got a trust fund, I won’t work with him, screw that guy.” In terms of, I don’t want to say success, but people who are getting all this work at the Guthrie right out of school, a lot of them, and I’m thinking of someone in particular in my head, they did have a safety net and that does kind of define how far you can go. The access. I think that does kind of create a little bit of bitterness because there’s all these kids right out of school struggling and they’re trying to get jobs and a lot of this seems unattainable. They have this other job and because they have this other job they can’t commit to 12 hours of rehearsal a day for next to nothing because the only people who can take those are people who have that safety net. And that’s such a small percentage of the people who are pursuing it.

WC: Have you been making a living wage?

MG: Yeah, I don’t have another job. I’m pretty much surviving entirely off of scenic work. It’s been really great. I found that it’s a lot easier to feed yourself and pay rent doing scenic work than it is acting. I think I’ve been very fortunate getting consistent work since I’ve decided to switch over to scenic work and that’s really been to my advantage. It really hasn’t been too difficult yet trying to earn a living wage and do this work.

WC: May I ask what your average wage is?

MG: It varies. At Bedlam I usually get a stipend, but outside of that it’s usually been about $18-20 an hour, which is great. That’s a livable wage. My expenses are fairly low. I just have a minimal rent, utilities and student loan payments. That’s about it. It’s very workable at my age. It’s been really good to me and I’ve been enjoying it so far.

WC: It’s often been said that, for a lot of people, awareness of careers in performing arts outside of being a performer or director, is fairly low. Do you find that that is true in your case?

MG: Yeah, I’d say so. It goes all the way back to being in high school. Everyone who was in involved in theatre wants to be an actor because they want to perform and be the star. It seemed like anyone else who joined theatre and was on the tech side of things was there because they weren’t cool enough or popular enough to be in an acting spot, which, looking back, is bullshit. In terms of actually working in the arts and supporting yourself in arts, one side is clearly the winner, and it’s not acting. But there’s this stupid stigma, at least in the early stages, at least when you’re in high school and pre-college. That’s a pretty formative time for steering people in an arts direction. It is definitely too bad that tech is seen as, “well if you can’t act, then I guess you’re going to do tech.”

WC: In terms of building public support for the arts, would educating the public about the other career options show them that there is a viable economic option?

MG: Yeah, there’s a good amount of benefit of showing people that you can work in the arts and you’re not going to be a big performance star, but there are multitude of other options that you can do that are equally if not more interesting. For example, we’re about to build a spaceship at Bedlam. Who else gets to do that? Yeah, it’s not onstage and being the star, but it’s just as cool. Definitely, I think it’s more accessible for a lot of people, but they don’t know it’s a career option.  I would never have considered it until I got a little more involved in theatre and thought, “Hey I could do that, that sounds like a lot of fun.”

WC: In high school, if someone came up to you and said, “Hey, you could build a spaceship,” is that something you would have jumped on?

MG: I think that if it were a spaceship, I would have said yes. But if someone had said, “Hey, you can work in theatre tech for the rest of your life,” I would have stuck with performance. I think that if there was more of an outreach to kids in high school or kids in college that you can be involved in theatre your whole life, you can work and you can be on the production side of things and you can build or design or do whatever you want to do.  I think that would make it look a little more attractive, especially for younger people because anyone getting out of college now is having a tough time finding a job. And anyone in performance is probably having an even harder time finding a job. But I definitely think that building and constructing of theatre is totally a viable career. It really just doesn’t have much prominence, it’s not something that people would think of in terms of a career to pursue. Most people think it’s another career in the arts, but it’s not. I mean, it is, but it’s not the same as being a starving artist. There’s definitely more monetary options if you’re building than if you’re performing.

WC: Why do you think that is?

MG: Hmm. I think that with building here, at least in terms of my experience, and again I’ve been fortunate in that it’s been fairly consistent, I’ve found that I’ve had much more consistent employment because there’s a much larger demand for builders than there are for actors. For every production there might be 5 or 10 actors, but there are 15 builders, more if it’s an even larger scale production. It’s been great for me because they need the people. There doesn’t seem to be enough people to fill the demand which has been great for me. Maybe we shouldn’t encourage this career path? [Laughs]

WC: When first starting out, offering an actor next to nothing in exchange for something else, say experience, that’s common practice. But if you offer a job to a carpenter for next to nothing, that doesn’t tend to happen. Even a new carpenter coming in will get something, even if it’s less than the experienced carpenter. Why do you think we find it okay to offer actors nothing when we don’t find it okay to offer carpenters nothing?

MG: I think that it kind of comes down to the fundamental difference that one seems more like an art and one seems more like a trade and trades get paid for their work, as they should.  For actors, the public still has this mentality that he’s an artist, he’s committed to this mentality, we can pay him nothing and he’s going to be happy to have it. I think that definitely exists more in acting and it’s kind of the same thing with writers or painters, not so much scenic painters, more portrait painters. It’s just a lot easier to take advantage of those people, especially early on their careers.

WC: Why do you think that is?

MG: I think that there’s just been such a public attitude towards the starving artist because these people do all this for their passion and it’s what they really want to do. Which is kind of funny, because there are people in all kinds of careers who are passionate about what they do, but they’re all getting paid far more than actors.

WC: Do you think that we as a community contribute to that attitude?

MG: I think by their willingness to do that, but I think that’s what makes it harder across the class lines. There are a bunch of actors that are willing to do that and still be supported by that safety net. That kind of propagates that whole attitude that we can pay them next to nothing because this is their lifestyle, they’ll do that. I would love to see it be steered in a different direction. I don’t know that that’s going to happen anytime soon, but I think it’s really unfair to basically take advantage of these young people just coming into this and it skews the public opinion that that’s how it’s going to happen. It’s a little bit of vicious cycle. The next generation comes in and says, “Ok, I’ve got to be a starving artist, I can work for next to nothing, that’s just how it is.” I’m really happy that that’s not exactly how it works on the building side of things. I think generally people are paid very fairly, especially compared to acting. And I really like that attitude, I’m happier about it. They’re not working for free, they’re not working for next to nothing, they’re able to support themselves while at the same time staying in the arts. There’s something really satisfying about working in the arts. It’s great, having that creative potential. To really execute creatively, something that people normally wouldn’t if you’re just sitting on a computer working on spreadsheets all day. So I personally find that really appealing because it changes all the time, it’s not the same thing day after day. A lot of it is creative problem-solving which I find to be a lot of fun. I feel very fortunate right now to be where I am. Starting out, having work, it’s a lot of fun.

WC: You’re going to be the lead for Bedlam’s build for Yellow Tree Productions. How do you like that?

MG: I like it. I like the freedom of being able to dictate my own schedule a little more. In the day or two before deadline I feel little bit more pressure. I was the lead for the last Yellow Tree build and they were conflicting with rehearsal at Bedlam so timing was getting a little tight, because they were gearing up for Beaver Dance and we had a solid load in date for this last one. When we were building at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night, I was feeling a little nervous about it. But I think in general it’s something I enjoy. I like being able to make those choices. When there is something that’s a little vague, being able to make the call is something I find to be a lot of fun. A little exhilarating. I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I haven’t done a lot of Technical Director roles. Billing out shows is still a little daunting to me, but it’s something I’m looking forward to learning. I haven’t had a huge chance to do it so far. For future Bedlam builds I’m hoping to maybe step up a little more in that kind of a role. But at this point this is great. It’s building, which is very familiar to me, so it doesn’t stress me out as much. I’m really enjoying it.

WC: How much has your background, with your father as a contractor, influenced you in what you’re doing now?

MG: He was a finish carpenter. It’s a lot of what you do in theatre. A lot of trim, a lot of finish surfaces. I think that that definitely helped in deciding and also getting more work because I had that foundation set up from when I was much younger. It helped because I didn’t have to play catch up, it was pretty much all right there. I found being able to take what I had learned as a younger child, being around tools and such, and applying it to theatre was very easy. A lot of it is just power tools, and I’m very familiar with power tools.

WC: Especially at the Science Museum, people are just inches away, as opposed to the Guthrie where people are 40 feet away. It changes what’s important, because things look different.

MG: I think that’s something that I would actually have a little trouble with set building at the Guthrie is that I am maybe a little more perfectionist then they want. But at [the Science Museum], it’s meant to be seen at 6 inches away. With Yellow Tree, it’s a really small intimate theatre, there has to be more detail to it. The farthest audience member is 40 feet away, the nearest s probably 5-10 feet. So yeah, I think that it’s been nice to have that finished quality kind of ingrained. Maybe not for the Guthrie, but for the smaller theatres, which is where I’ve been working lately. It’s nice to finish something to a certain degree.

WC: You seem to be happy with where you are and what you’ve done. If you were to have a conversation with someone who wanted to get into this, what would you say to them?

MG: I would definitely recommend a program like Tech Tools. I would not have had the opportunities that I have without it. I would say something similar to it, but I can’t think of anything similar to Tech Tools.  It was a really accessible and easy to go in and learn a couple skills, but also a way to meet people in the community. Specifically, it was nice to get some face time with someone who is able to get you work and to show that you can do the work. In terms of the classes, the carpentry class, not the welding class, a lot of it was a little more remedial. What they taught was great for someone who knows nothing about it. It gave me an opportunity to show that I could do this, what else do you have for me to do? Show them that this was something that I could do, that I’m fairly good at it. It turned into an offer, let’s get you in touch with our technical director, let’s get you some work. It just went from there. I think that Tech Tools was completely invaluable; I wouldn’t have been able to do it without it.

WC: When you go places, do you make it a point to be social with the people there?

MG: Yeah, absolutely! I think that I just naturally tend to be more social while working, whiling away the time. It’s nice to keep a conversation going and get to know someone new while in the field, That’s definitely been a benefit to me, to be more social. The more people you meet, you know? Yeah, I’ve worked with five guys at the Guthrie and Nate is really the only one throwing work my way, but I get the chance to work with Mark Bauer and get the chance to shoot the shit with him. You know, hopefully maybe down the line, he’ll say, “A friend needs help with this, are you available?” It’s really important to have those kind of connections.  Developing relationships with people in the community and that’s what I’m hoping to base most of my career off of at this point. Knock on wood!

Click here to listen to the full audio of the interview.

Designing Romeo & Juliet: An Interview with Katharine Horowitz & Andrea Gross

Theatre is, by design, a collaborative endeavor. In reality, some departments typically work more closely together than do others. Most people automatically interrelate scenery and lights, or lights and sound. But –be honest now- costumes and sound? So when Katharine Horowitz and Andrea Gross suggested that they talk about how their work affected and drove each other’s process for Park Square’s Romeo and Juliet, I was beside myself with excitement.

As a huge part of a successful collaboration is knowing when to shut up and step aside, I’m going to do just that and let you get on with it.

A huge thank you to Park Square Theatre, especially Production Manager Megan West. Check out the Romeo and Juliet trailer here, then go see the show with this conversation in mind!

Katharine Horowitz is a fixture of the community and has been designing sound professionally for well over a decade.

Andrea Gross is a Nimbus company member, a familiar face around town, and a well-known and highly-regarded costume designer.

This interview took place February 23, 2015.

Katharine: I’m Katharine Horowitz and I’m a sound designer and currently designing sound for Romeo and Juliet at Park Square Theatre.

Andrea: I’m Andrea Gross and I’m a freelance costume designer in the Twin Cities and also working on this production of Romeo and Juliet.

KH: We thought it would be cool if we got together and interviewed each other since Sound and Costumes barely work together, we’re like two ships passing in the night. But for this particular show I thought it would be great because it was Andrea’s costumes which influenced my sound Design for R&J. I really was unsure with where to begin with our director, David Mann’s, concept of the world, so I contacted her and asked what the costumes were going to look like, what the concept and the feeling was. That was able to guide me in the right direction of the music and the sound. And that is first time, I think, I’ve ever asked for help from costumes for inspiration. So, costumes for R&J?

AG: Costumes for this production we started conversations in April of last year, which is probably the longest lead time on a design in a very long time, maybe not ever. One of the reasons that it matters so much is it’s a very tight cutting of the play. It’s being produced for the theatre for young audiences program at Park Square. We’re down to 90 minutes. We have 9 actors playing all the roles. Romeo, Juliet and Father Capulet don’t double, so that leaves us with six bodies to play 18 roles. Those are some of the physical parameters that had to be considered. The fact that it will be remounted, hopefully in perpetuity… [laughs]

KH: ...I think so.

AG: …is also a consideration from a design standpoint, but ultimately what I’m really glad we had as much time as we did to work on, what the design concept that David wanted to present which was that it was of most interest to him, with a high school audience, was to highlight the conflict between generations more so than the conflict between two households. We wanted to really create a world that supports the text, but supports it for young audiences, so it needed to be something that people felt some amount of familiarity and comfort with, but also understood as soon as you looked at it this wasn’t modern day, it wasn’t something you would wear yourself, or you would see someone in on the street, but it wasn’t so rigid as to be a full, rigid, pitch-perfect period Elizabethan production. We needed to be able to support the sword fight. That was of utmost importance. We also couldn’t create a universe in which carrying swords didn’t make sense and it mattered to me in that realm of finding something familiar but also foreign that we were serving to support the text in the same way. I think that high school students approach the language of Shakespeare assuming they can’t understand it, and find that it in fact, not that different from the way we speak now, provided it’s done well, which I would venture to say it is, in this production.

KH: I would say it is.

AG: So those are some of the places that we started in conversation. Where that ended up for us and the research that Katherine asked me for and worked off of, ended up as sort of a mash up of current high fashion and Elizabethan silhouette and detail. The best example of that I think, where it’s most successful, is in the men’s wear. The young teenage boys are in extremely high-waisted skinny jeans and short motorcycle jackets that are only connected at the shoulder cap so they function like an Italian renaissance fighting doublet, but they look like a modern motorcycle jacket. The adult men, Capulet and Montague, have far more Elizabethan influence in their clothes: hanging robes, big loose vests, high collars, big cuffs on their clothes. It also became a world where the adults are in more metallic, brocade heavy-duty fabric and the teenagers are in lighter weight denim, more flexibility, more transience. We talked a lot early on about the true teenage nature of these characters and how everything changes from minute to minute to minute for them and that the clothes needed to reflect that. So that was the research I presented to you, Katherine, when you asked for it. So why don’t you talk about what you did with that, because I don’t actually know what happened after I sent you all that stuff.

KH: It’s fascinating. It actually helped me to propel me down this sort of, divergent world of the two. David had mentioned inspirational music such as Moby, we were looking at. There was this particular Sia song called Breathe Me we were also looking at. Those also had the two kind of meshed up in that you could tell they were modern but they had a lot of different musical sensibilities. Like the orchestral wash over the acoustic guitar or the piano but they still had the beat to them.

AG: Like a classic support with a really modern take.

KH: David and I didn’t meet about this until November or December. I find it really fascinating that you had been working on it all back in April and had time to let it ferment. What’s so different about our working processes is that I really was not able to grasp the sound and the tone of this show until we really started digging into it and I was really actually was able to see everyone in front of me and see how it was flowing, but you had to have your stuff all set up right there from the start.

AG: I think that’s fairly typical, that sound works a lot later than costumes does. I think there’s something I’ve often envied about that, that you have a certain flexibility that I don’t have. I frequently feel like I’m in a position to say no to people because that ship has sailed, it’s already built, we already purchased it, it’s been in rehearsals, I can’t deconstruct it and make something else out of it-which isn’t to say that didn’t happen on this process. We deconstructed and reconstructed some things. But I think you have the opportunity to-I think in some ways you to co-create more than I do. Which is interesting because another thing that you and I have spoken about, in preparation for this conversation, is the fact that the actors have a much more intimate connection with my work than they do with yours. And yet, to a certain extent, I’m handing it to them finished. That varies with different relationships with different actors, with different rehearsal processes, how much give and take there is room for. But in this case, we really had the world kind of on lock down before the rehearsals started.

KH: And I was still sort of floating in free-fall. Panicking. But do you think, at least for this show, that the costumes are supporting the characters and the sound supports the atmosphere or the text?

AG: I do. I do. I think these costumes are so much more specific and again to use the word prescribed, that it is so much more of a character support than an actor tool. When I work on modern pieces and we’re using clothes that everybody recognizes and are comfortable in, I really try to consider my work to be a toolbox I’m giving a director and an actor to do whatever they want to with. And that’s been less the case here because these thing are to a certain extent more fitted and they don’t allow for as much conversation and shift and flow. But I also think that your work has created a world, which it’s interesting to me that you started your process out of my work and then there were times as we sat through tech during which I wasn’t sure what direction to go with something to go with, to stay in the world, the sound design is then what helped answer those questions because you had created something that works in the story and the text but also just rounds out the world. There’s so much underscoring, which isn’t always the case, I think. There’s a way that the arc of the story is supported but the world we’re in is really solidified by the soundscape. That often helped me as I considered what I wanted to shift or change. How modern to push it or how classically to base it.

KH: To touch on that a little bit, to touch on the dichotomy of our work, we were sitting around the production meeting giving notes and you were talking I think about Tybalt’s collar? And some way to…?

AG: Yes.

KH: See, I know nothing about costumes! It was something in terms of the stitching and how you could make it sit a little higher up, and I just found that, that tiny little thing that could shape the way a costume sits and the way that it looks, to be so fascinating and so I started thinking about the other ways that tiny little shifts in sound can change the design, like a cymbal swell can just sort of propel this scene and make it so much more emotional or more moody. Or even just the adjustment of three decibels.

AG: Right, or the timing of something too. The amount of time we spent working on, because it’s so heavily underscored, spending all that time in tech really working on getting the timing worked out. When we sat last week in tech in previews and watched it, it’s amazing how well it all fits together. I’ve worked with sound designers who feel that if their worked is not noticed, then they’ve done their job correctly.

KH: Right.

AG: And maybe you’ve felt that way about some projects you’ve done, but no one could feel that way about this project because the two are so integral.

KH: That’s the Sound Designer’s curse.

AG: And our curse is that people got up in the morning and put clothes on so they assume it’s easy. We can all sit and come up with what the thing is.

KH: David was very, very clear that he wanted a very cinematic type of feel for the whole show-for sound, costumes, lights , everything. And I think we’ve grabbed that.

AG: I do think so. I think in that same way that you’re talking about, so you’ve got this sort of structure and world that you’ve created, and you’re talking about small shifts in things, you’re right. Tacking things down in a certain way to create a sharper contrast is something that we’ve worked with a little bit on this show. We’ve worked both ways on this show: trying to make things more structural, usually for the adults, or more flexible for the younger people. Those are sort of then technical tricks, cutting, pattern, stitching that we’re doing that no one would necessarily notice. In the same way I might not hear the difference in 3 decibels, but I feel it. I know that something is different from the last time we ran it.

KH: Right. So what’s the trick, the technical trick that you have, if you’re not going to fully reshape a costume like I’m not going to fully reshape a sound cue or a piece of music, but you need to make it slightly different in shape, not literally, but you know what I mean?

AG: Or literally. So the example you’re talking about with Tybalt’s collar, I had found layers of fabric that, flat on the table at a certain distance created a really fantastic texture that I loved very much. In practice, once they were applied to this large shawl collar that stands up and floats out to his shoulders, there were too many things going on. It looked all muddy and mushy and he sort of looked like he had a scrunched up scarf instead of a sharp motorcycle jacket. Ultimately we ended up recutting that collar out of different fabric that had more body to it to create that stiffness, but before we got there, we started by sizing it. I folded it under and stitched it place to get it to be a little bit shorter so it wouldn’t flop so much, and then I placed swing tacks in certain spots at the shoulders and center back to get it to stay standing up, which helped, but didn’t totally fix the problem. So ultimately what we did was find different fabric to use, removed that collar from it and reapplied something that looks much better.

KH: It’s just-I can sew my socks when there’s a hole in them. And I knit. And that’s about it.

AG: Yeah?

KH: I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by the fit and the fabric in this show. What I think the compare and contrast of the costumes versus the sound is, more that I think about it, is the, not the theme that I created, the little waltz-y thing, but what is underneath it. So underneath that theme that we’ve got going on and in various other transitions or these orchestral washes or harps and little cymbal swells and things like that. Looking at the costumes, that deep color of the scarlet or crimson that the boys have on, really came into play in terms of the sound. The long, sustained, tension string wash. I don’t know if I’m describing that correctly.

AG: That’s cool.

KH: There’s a whole album on iTunes of orchestral washes. When I found that I was like, “Oh my God, my world has changed!”

AG: I would point out that when Katherine says “that little theme,” she’s talking about the thing she composed, which repeats itself in many ways that you never really understand that you’re hearing the same thing, you’re just having an emotional experience that’s tied together by these notes in succession with each other. It’s not a little thing at all.

KH: Well, here’s another thing we could talk about: it’s the first time for things, because this is the first time that I’ve really kind of composed a show from scratch in a deep, profound way. More than just, here’s a little bit of ‘euh’, a little ‘eugh,’ but an actual melody that goes on-

AG: A full compositional piece.

KH: A full composition. I’m super proud of it and it was a heck of a lot of work, but I think it’s made even more powerful by the fact that this is a show that’s going to go on in perpetuity and I think that’s what made probably both of us go just that extra mile, you know?

AG: Yeah, this is the first time, outside of an academic setting-I ran a shop at a liberal arts college, where I, in theory, had a tribe of labor that I could exact my designs out of, it didn’t always work that way-but as a freelance person, on my own, this is the first thing that I’ve built from the ground up.

KH: Really?

AG: Yeah, outside of an academic setting, without a shop support – well, by cobbling together a shop to support the work.

KH: Because all of these costumes, I mean, they’re not pulled, they’re all original.

AG: The two adult men are based on modern suits that we bought, but we bought two of each of them so we could use one for yardage to create other things. That is actually the only purchased thing. Everything else has been patterned and built from scratch. So that hasn’t happened for me in years, and certainly not when it was just me figuring out how to get it done.  With the fantastic help of many other people, by no means do I mean it was just me figuring out how to get it done. That, I think, has been personally really rewarding and professionally really rewarding, but I also am extremely gratified to recognize how much that supports the story-telling in this version. How much it matters that we didn’t just buy skinny jeans and try to make that work, that we built these pants with these really high waists that we couldn’t have gotten and how that elongates the form of the person wearing them and the way it creates this really dynamic physical element. Another thing that David and I talked about early on what the incredible importance of how dangerous this world is.

KH: Right, exactly.

AG: Never losing sight of how dangerous this time and place is. I think that by creating this line, to repeat myself ad nauseam, is both familiar and foreign, they’re pants and jackets, we know what that is, but we’ve never seen them in this combination, it’s a little bit strange, a little bit skewed. I think it helps people’s attention stay with it, I hope that’s what happens. I think we couldn’t have done that if we had tried to alter existing things.

KH: Exactly. There’s no way that he sound design would have worked if I had pulled pre-existing music.

AG: Right.

KH: The party scene has pre-existing music but that’s kind of because it’s of the world, they’re actually having this party so there’s music playing. I pulled that. And it’s true, I’ve thought of that. If I had pulled something, like some of Moby’s music that we used for inspiration, it would have been nice and it would have sounded great, but there’s no way I would have been able to shape it to fit the certain moods that we needed, the timing that we needed, to break it apart in the different layers, the multi-track layers of sound. It just wouldn’t have been the same and it wouldn’t have been as gratifying. That’s mainly what it is.

AG: That’s true. And it wouldn’t have been any less work.

KH: Yeah.

AG: There’s this methodology for all of our disciplines that, “If I could just do something with found objects…” I think that there is a world in which a design concept of found objects where they’re meant to continue looking like or sound like found objects, that’s one thing. But if you’re going to purchase something and pull it apart and put it back together as something else, then the only real advantage to that is that it has the texture that you want or another quality that you couldn’t replicate on your own. Otherwise it’s no less work. For sure.

KH: It’s the same amount of work, I’d say, and it’s less gratifying because you didn’t create it yourself. Now granted, I did pull the orchestral washes, because I don’t have an orchestra at my fingertips.

AG: Sure.

KH: But it’s the same. It’s just there to sort of boost it and support it. So here’s a question I think we both came up with: What sort of things capture your imagination about a script when you’re starting off the design process?

AG: I often tell theatre students or young designers, young theatre people that I am a just storyteller and that costumes are my medium. So there’s something about a story that captures my mind. It might be the relationships between people, it might be the way that language is used. It’s usually something image based, so in the case of relationships, whether they’re balanced relationships or inequitable relationships, or there’s a power struggle going on and how that manifests itself in an image is of interest to me. I think the style of language or the style of storytelling matters a lot to me, whether something is epic in nature or in short, small little vignettes, that can really influence, sometimes from a technical standpoint of how are they going to change clothes that many times or that fast, but hopefully before I get into the nitty-gritty of the problem-solving of it, I get an opportunity to sit with what it reminds me of, what it makes me think of and try to think about why that is. Like if a particular art style, a particular color comes to mind and what is that about and why. Sometimes I just grab it and run with it, sometimes it’s just yellow. But there was a version of this design early on where the Capulets were green, now they’re kind of a mustardy yellow. And I’m not even entirely certain that I can remember why the first was true or why it was changed, but having the luxury of being able to really think about what things play opposite each other well, what things play together well and how you can use that, I think is a really great thing. I don’t think I always have the opportunity to be really overt with that, but I’m also not sure that every story is served by it all being overtly designed with a heavy hand. This is super exciting because this story totally lets me go nuts with all of that in a way that, if we were telling The Cripple of Inishmaan, I don’t know, I’m just trying to think of something like really realistic and really immediately documentary and you’re not serving the story by doing that, you’re showing off. That you’ve got the paint brush and you got to do this.

KH: Right, Right! We were talking about that earlier when we went out to dinner, about maturing as designers to the point where we now think, “are we serving the story or are we just showing off?”

AG: Right! I mean I’ve had some moments this week where I’m like, I don’t want to make that change, what’s that about? It is because I’m attached to the idea I had or is it because I actually think the idea we have works better than a different idea?

KH: And there are a lot of moments during tech that I was acutely aware of, is the sound design insisting upon itself right now? Is it too – not is it too loud, but is there too much of it, is it too present? Could we do without this right here? Because we want it to be sort of cinematic, but I don’t want it to be like, “Hey hey!” For instance, we had a little sort of cello-y underscore for when Mercutio dies, and I saw that during one of our runs and I was like, “Nope, nope, too much. Too heavy-handed. Here’s a frying pan! Let me beat you over the head with it. We’re cutting that. We do not need that. Or we can pull back on the volume a little bit about this.” Because it’s not serving the story and it’s just making fireworks out of the sound design and that’s not the point. Even though sometimes I love to just have a big fat, sound show.

AG: Right. What captures your imagination about a script?

KH: Um, I am really fascinated about the psychological effect that sound design can have on a person. And so, if the script is something that serves in that capacity, I just glom onto it. The way that sound can sort of creep up on you, almost literally, and you don’t know that it’s there until it’s there and it’s like, what the hell? Or when it’s taken away. Or if we want to segue way to a different show, I’m currently designing Hir at Mixed Blood by Taylor Mac and it’s not a sound heavy show at all, but what it does have are a lot of different frequencies. So there’s a portable air conditioner that’s constantly running, and you’d think that’d be really easy, and in a way it is, but there’s like five or six different air conditioner sounds I have. It’s like, does this work? Does this work? Does this work? This is too low, this is too high, this is too – this, at one point, the director Niegel said, no this air conditioner sound matches too well with Sally Wingert’s voice. She’s the star of the show. Because she’s an alto and it’s competing with the tone and the timber of her voice and I was like, “Ah! Cool!” And when that gets taken away, you just notice the stunning silence that just hangs over the room.  And there’s also, they have NASCAR Racing on, so we’ve got that “nerrrrr” sort of beehive sound-

AG: I’m having a psychological reaction to this without even knowing the narrative of the story or anything else about it, but just the idea of these two things happening –

KH: And it’s supposed to be this discordant family drama sort of thing, so there’s a point to that. So anyway, that’s what I’m really fascinated about and I love, I mean, like you, I love creating worlds. So that’s what captures my imagination when I read a script. It’s like, alright, how I can most effectively capture the world of this show that people actually feel like they’re there? Another example is when I designed Ruined at Mixed Blood several years ago, I read, every book I could about the Congo and I wrote down in my diary – my diary, ha – I wrote down every sound description there was and I poured through all the ornithological sites for the birds that are specific to Uganda and the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] so that it was just like, there’s not a robin, it was a Rufous Nightjar. Which is also my drag name. [Laughs] But that’s what I’m really fascinated about, that’s what really captures my imagination is capturing that world and capturing the psychological essence of that world.

AG: I think again what we’ve managed to accomplish here is a real degree is specificity without it being any one time or place.

KH: Absolutely.

AG: Another thing that we were joking about when we were talking about how we’ve matured as designers, and I think that sometimes it is a lazy choice when someone says I want it to be all of the time periods and none of the time periods, and I think that in this instance it really is the best way to serve this version of the text. Because it’s so brief and so specific and so concisely cut, that it doesn’t make sense to put it on parade as a big period spectacle, but you can’t effectively tell it in jeans and t-shirts either. Maybe that’s an overstatement, to say you can’t effectively tell it that way, but that was never the idea here, that was never the desired outcome. We wanted to present something truly theatrical in spite of the fact that it has all these wonderful cinematic  qualities to it, there’s something about this experience and I think too, somebody else mentioned this is the first thing that’s been fully developed for the thrust space at Park Square, for the new three-quarter thrust.

KH: Oh really?

AG: Because they’ve done work there all year, but they’re plays that were written in other places or have been produced in other places in different ways, it’s not to say those weren’t successful, but I think there’s something about the immediacy and the danger we’ve talked about and the specificity that then having teenagers three-quarters of the way around the stage on top of what’s going on, is also really well-served by the way that we’ve produced this. I think that if we were going to do even the same 90-minute cutting in their proscenium space, with that much of a reserve from the audience, that much distance, that much throw, all these other things, I don’t think either of our work would be the same at all.

KH: No, vastly different.

AG: I hadn’t thought about that until just now, but that’s really interesting to me.

KH: The other thing that I find interesting is that this show is in perpetuity, so we have a chance to improve upon our work every year. Or bemoan it.

AG: We have permission at this point in the process to say, that’s not something I’m going to go after this time around.

KH: We do, but at the same time, since the public performances are this year, we want to get it on right now, but I’m really interested in, and I don’t know that we can answer this right now, but I’m interested in what we’re going to think about it next year, what we might change about it next year, and then four and five years from now.

AG: I’ve never had that opportunity before, this is the first time that I’ve done something knowing that it was going to be remounted this way and it’s a fascinating opportunity. To pace myself a little bit as a designer too, it’s so exciting, we’re going to build the whole show, it’s the first time I’m doing that, I could just keep going and going and going… and then where would I be? Or we can make sure that the goals we’ve set for ourselves have been met this time around. Nobody’s embarrassed by their work, certainly, but also at some point, there’s no reason to beat it about the neck and shoulders trying to force it to be something that we don’t have the physical or monetary or personal resources anymore to keep going at, because we’re going to have the opportunity to take a big breath, to literally put it away in a box and bring it back out and reconsider it again.

KH: Right, right. Check in again with us in like four or five years and see what we think. Anyway, I think you have to get back to work on the rest of your costumes. And I have to get back to my tech at Mixed Blood. So anyway, thanks!

AG: Thank you!

Oil Show: Lighting Love, Janis

Article by Barry Browning, lighting designer

When asked to design the lighting for the Ordway's production of Love, Janis, I knew I would have to recreate the iconic 1960s “oil effect.” I was aware that an overhead projector was involved in producing the effect, but there had to be more to the story - pictures from that period showed images that were too bright to be produced solely by a typical projector.

While researching psychedelic light shows, I found a treasure trove of information in the book Live at the Fillmore East by Amalie R. Rothschild.  During the late 60’s and early 70’s, the rock venue the Fillmore East was the West Coast's  psychedelia hot spot. The Joshua Light Show (named after the show's director) was so important to the culture that it received equal billing on the marquee alongside such names as The Who, The Grateful Dead, and Jimmy Hendrix.

According to the book, the images that "bubbled across the screen like giant amoebas" were created by a master artisan laying out a mixture of colored glycerins, alcohols, oils and water on immaculately clear, curved glass plates, projected by up to three projectors. 

"For projection plates, the show used the convex glass fronts of commercially manufactured clocks, choosing various sizes for various effects. A larger sized plate on the bottom carried a water base on which the carefully dribbled blobs of colored oil floated. A smaller clock face was then pressed carefully atop this, squishing the oils into patterns. Moving and jiggling this upper plate produced the sensuous pulsations of the projected images."

To get the intensity needed for the Light Show, the Fillmore East's projectors were fitted with aircraft landing lights, which made the oils so hot that they would begin to boil. I needed a different approach - not only would this be impractical, I also didn’t think the stage hands would appreciate having to artistically manipulate boiling hot oils!

The solution was fairly simple. Four Source Four fixtures with twin spins (with various breakups and a single spinner with balloons pattern) were pointed at a sheet of Rosco stretch mirror on a 4' x 4' frame reflecting back to a rear projection screen. The spinners, moving at different speeds, created the layers of movement while a stagehand could give the pulsing effects by pushing on the back of the mirror to distort the rotating images in time to the music.

Psychedelic, man!