Flashbacks to the Guthrie 2


Minneapolis, 1975. Photo: Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Minneapolis, 1975. Photo: Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Gail Smogard is a theater professor and director of the theater program at Metropolitan State University. In addition to writing a number of plays, she has served as a director/dramaturg for the Guthrie, Playwrights Horizons, New Dramatists, and many others. Her experience directing for the Guthrie 2 in the late 1970s brings to light an era in the history of the Southern Theater that many may be unfamiliar with. —Mike Wangen

When I was at the Southern in 1977–78, it was known as the Guthrie 2. I was there along with Scott Rubsam as part of a grant the Guthrie had received from Medtronic to do some kind of outreach to seniors and other individuals in the Twin Cities who might not normally consider going to the theater. Apparently, far too many pictures had been taken of our audience members in tuxes and other pricey clothing standing around the Guthrie’s main stage lobby. That and other factors had increased the intimidation factor, so the concern that the Guthrie was increasingly being perceived as an elitist organization was high.

Consequently, I had been hired onto the artistic and outreach team to help combat this perception, and to help create some kind of workshop or production that would link the community more closely with the theater and help break down that barrier. I was just out of grad school and was ready for something new, so I was happy to go out into the community and poke around to see what I could find. My friend Scott was there already directing a touring production, so I asked him to join me and we began the hunt for senior citizens and their stories.

Our primary approach was to contact community center activity directors for referrals of active and interesting “older” members of the community. We had no idea what the outcome of this would be, and thought that perhaps we would have to see many, many people. But our interviews were long and in depth, so we found stories with almost everyone we spoke to. The long tapes were transcribed for us back at the Guthrie, and then we went about the process of editing the stories down to one transformative incident or a strong perspective that generally explored some time in their lives when there was a singular challenge—and what it took to make it through—and their long, lived perspective on that now.

It became clear that the individuals we spoke to needed to agree to appear as themselves and to speak their own words as we had edited them. This was quite the undertaking: Our seniors ranged from 55 to 90, and each one had his or her own set of issues and opinions. So our rehearsal period was long. Adam Granger and Pop Wagner provided the musical interludes to this bevy of seniors, often filling a “gap” as needed (“We’ll wait just a few more seconds here, as Myrtle likes to take her time crossing the stage.”). For each of our “characters,” we had converted photos from their lives into slides which were then rear screen projected onto 7-foot-tall screens. The slides were on a carousel projector (also old), and conditions were such that those carousels (which were remotely cued as each story was told) were also highly unpredictable, noisy, and off-balance. We carefully weighted them with various sizes of potatoes—which seemed to help.

The two productions finally loaded into the Southern—then the Guthrie 2—as part of the season. Flashbacks: A Scrapbook of Personal Portraits and A Christmas Past Christmas Present were a huge hit and cutting edge at the time. The response from the community was terrific, and the shows helped bring in an audience that would not ordinarily consider attending a Guthrie production. Highly accessible and powerful, it was also rehearsed within an inch of its life in order to appear to be perfectly natural. Now you see this kind of autobiographical storytelling in any number of theaters but, then, it was new, it was real, and it was important.

It was also highly unpredictable. And between our fear every night about our dear seniors making it through the show alive—and our worry that the slides would not appear on cue because the potatoes had shifted—I can’t recall a more stressful directing experience.

Once Upon a Time in Scotland

Story by Bill Watkins

A Soviet stamp celebrating  Swan Lake , 1970.

A Soviet stamp celebrating Swan Lake, 1970.

Bill Watkins is known mainly these days as the man behind the Wednesday Pub Quiz at Merlin’s Rest Pub, but he has also worked as a stagehand for many years, both here and in the United Kingdom, and is a published author and sailor. He brings us some lighthearted summer reading about the time the Bolshoi Ballet came to visit the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Scotland in the late 1970s. —Mike Wangen

The late 1970s were a pivotal time in the vitality of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh. The 658-seat theater, replete with neo-Georgian façade, a union card-carrying theater cat named Emma Goldman, and the ghost of Edwardian actress Ellen Terry, was due for its hundredth year refit, and a prestigious visit from the internationally renowned Bolshoi Ballet.

The first hints of perestroika were in the air as the Russian company arrived and were welcomed into the fold. Many of our guests had never been out of the Soviet Union, but spoke very good English as we made great efforts to make them feel at home. Being a lighting engineer, I was impressed by the professionalism of their technicians and rehearsals went swiftly and with few hiccups.

Whether Assistant Stage Manager Sue Legg ever attended Britain’s ultra-posh Roedean School or Cheltenham Ladies' College, I have no idea, but her upper-class English accent was a real contrast to the guttural Scots voices of the majority of the house crew.

Opening night, last check of everything, and go! We on stand-by duty retired to the crew room and were enjoying a cuppa when the door burst open and a wild-eyed ASM Sue dived in, slamming the door behind her.

“I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!—how could I say such a stupid thing in the middle of all those Russians!"

“Eh?” “What?” “What happened?” was the response. Sue recounted her moment of acute embarrassment.

“I was standing by the rail when the curtain opened and I realized the back-stage work lights were still on. Suddenly, I found myself in the center of the Bolshoi performers shouting ‘Kill the workers! Kill the workers! Somebody kill the workers!’ I’ll never forget the looks on their faces!”

And I’ll bet she hasn’t!

Zen and the Art of Tape Editing

Article by Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards is best known these days as the head of the Guthrie sound department and a very accomplished sound designer. I first met him in the early ’90s at Penumbra Theatre where he was, indeed, putting together sound designs using two or more reel-to-reel tape decks and multiple cassette decks to create complex soundscapes. In this article, he shows us that even though we may have fond memories of the past, we should never go back. ——Mike Wangen

When I started my career in sound design, we were in the golden age of analog tape. This was in the early 1980s and tape was king. The technology had matured and the open reel tape machine was the standard recording and playback device in production audio. These days, one rarely sees or uses an analog tape machine; their use is relegated to playing back existing analog tape masters, mastering by diehard analog enthusiasts, or just gathering dust in storage closets. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, they became all but obsolete and forgotten.

Although the advent of the digital audio workstation has made my life as an audio designer much easier and productive, I do have many fond memories of thousands of hours spent editing tape. I thought I’d pass some of these on to the “digital” generation who may not have had the pleasure.

My first assignment as an intern in the audio department at the Children’s Theatre Company was to edit a “safety pancake” or “safety dub.” Now, at that point in my career, I really had no idea what that was—and not much of an idea of how to edit it either. Someone handed me a grease pencil and a razor blade and pointed me at the nearest tape machine.

Before I go any further I should explain some basic “tape” terminology:

  • Tape: The recording medium. Audio tape is a long strip of acetate plastic coated with a magnetizable compound made from ferric oxide. In the professional audio world, tape came in  ¼”, ½”, 1” and 2” widths. Generally, in a reel size of 10½”, that’s 2,500 feet of tape—or about 33 minutes at 15 inches per second (IPS).
  • Tape machine: The device used to record and playback audio tape. The three types in use are the open reel machine, cassette tape machine, and 8-track cartridge. For the purposes of this article, we will be talking about the open reel machine. The basic layout of the open reel machine has not changed since its invention in Germany by Fritz Pfleumer in 1928. It consists of two reels, side-by-side, with erase, record and playback heads, with a head stack between them. On the left is the supply reel; on the right, the take-up reel. Between the head stack and the take-up reel is the pinch roller and capstan. Tape travels from the supply reel over the heads, through the pinch roller, and capstan and is wound on the take-up reel. The reels and heads are not enclosed, such as in the case of the cassette tape or 8-track machine—hence the name “open reel.”
  • Capstan and pinch roller: The capstan is a machined cylindrical shaft directly driven by a powerful electrical motor. The pinch roller is a free-spinning, rubber-coated wheel pressed against the capstan shaft. The tape passes between the two and, when the pinch roller is pressed against the rotating capstan, it pulls the tape along. This mechanism is directly responsible for the speed of the tape and therefore must be precisely controlled, otherwise you will have variances in pitch. The supply reel motor exerts drag on the tape creating the proper tension of the tape against the heads. The take-up reel motor makes sure that there is no slack as it reels up the tape.
  • Wow and flutter: The measurement of speed variation in the tape speed.
  • Tape heads: Erase, record and playback. Tape heads are transducers that either convert electrical signals to magnetic fluctuations (or vice versa). The recording head imparts this fluctuation on the passing magnetic tape; the magnetic particles on the tape are rearranged in patterns that match the flux created by the recording head. The playback head transduces this flux pattern back into an electrical signal as the tape passes over it. The erase head is similar to the recording head, but simply realigns the magnetic particles on the tape back to their neutral state.
  • Pancake: Bulk tape wound on a hub with no reel flanges. You would purchase tape this way and then wind it onto reels when fresh tape was needed. Archives are typically stored this way also.
  • Heads out, tails out: Refers to which way a reel of tape has been wound. Heads out would be when tape has been re-wound onto the supply reel. Tails out, when wound onto the take-up reel. General practice is to store tape tails out since this reduces the effect of “print through.” That is, the magnetic flux on the tape can slightly alter or “print” on the layer below itself in the tape pack. This imprint can create a pre-echo or post-echo depending on whether it is stored heads or tails. The post echo effect is much harder to discern, so tails out is the preferred storage method.
  • Splice tape: Adhesive tape used to connect or splice two pieces of audio tape together.
  • Leader tape: Plastic or paper strip in the same size as the audio tape it is used with. Used at the head and tails of the reel to provide enough tape to wind on the reels before the audio tape starts. It’s also spliced between cuts of audio tape to demark cues. We generally used the plastic tape for the head and tails and paper tape for the cues as one could write the cue name on the paper.
  • Dub: Shortened version of the word “double” which in the audio world can mean to make a copy, add a track, re-record (over-dub) or add sound or dialog to an existing recording.
  • Safety dub: Copy of a master tape for backup purposes.
  • Scrub: Moving tape over the playback head either by hand or with a jog wheel or handle. This allows the operator to hear the audio very slowly so they can pinpoint it on the tape.
  • Editing block: Machined block of metal (much like a miter block) used to cut wood at precise angles. The block will have a longitudinal groove the width of the tape it is designed for and generally two angle slots—90 and 45 degrees—to guide a razor blade. On tape widths up to 1”, the 45° cut was preferred. The angle helped the splice transition over the tape heads without catching and tearing the splice.

Okay, back to the editing.

I had my tools and supplies to edit: Razor blade to do the actual cutting, grease pencil to mark the tape, splice tape, edit block, and leader tape. I threaded the safety dub onto the tape machine and rewound to the top of the reel. I played the tape until I heard the beginning of the first cut. The next step was to gently rock the reels back and forth or scrub the tape until you just heard the start of the audio. Now the grease pencil: make a small hash mark on the tape right over the playback head, which was the head farthest to the right on the head stack. This was the “cut” mark. Now draw the tape off the head stack pulling from both reels and press it into your edit block. Slide the tape until the mark was just to the left of the 45° guide. Now slice the tape with your (very sharp!) razor blade. Your first cut!

Now slide the tape pieces apart slightly and place the start of your leader tape into the block. Make a new 45° cut on the head of the leader tape and butt it up to the right hand piece of tape.

This is where things got a bit fuzzy for me: Did one put splice tape on both sides of the tape?

Yes, thought I!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Splice tape is only needed on the outside of the tape, the non-oxide side. I only found this out after I had finished the entire reel…

To complete a splice, you would hack a 1” piece of splice tape from a scotch tape dispenser (worked perfectly to dispense splice tape), place 1/16” or so of the splice tape on your razor blade and then using the razor blade, position the splice tape over the two pieces of tape in the block. It was important to make sure there was no gap between the two pieces you were splicing together because, if there was, the adhesive of the splice tape would be exposed and would stick to various parts of the tape path—often with disastrous or hilarious consequences, depending on your point of view.

Press down on the splice tape and pull the razor away. Smooth the joint with your finger. Now pop the completed joint out of the block. Pull about a foot of leader tape from your handy dispenser and put it in the block. Cut at the 45° angle and then splice to the left-hand piece of tape still in the block. Now you have inserted a paper leader into your reel. Write the name of the cue on it with pencil and pop the tape from the block. Use the supply and take-up reels to gently pull the tape back onto the machine.

Do all this about 40 more times and you would have completed editing the reel. I remember it taking me quite some time to do this, but after a few weeks I grew quite proficient.

The editing of music on tape needed a higher order of skill. This was truly “destructive” editing because once you committed to a cut, that was that. There was no undo option. Management of the cut sections was also a bit tricky. If you cut 20 seconds of a song, that would equal 300 inches of tape. Keeping track of outtakes consumed lots of wall space and labeling was difficult. This type of editing usually involved a function on the tape machine called “dump edit” mode. This was a way to dump the tape from the machine while playing it over the playback head but instead of it going onto the take-up reel, it dumped onto the floor. (Hence the colloquialism from the tape era, “ended up on the cutting room floor.”) To do this, you would mark your cut at the beginning of the section you wanted to dump then make your cut. Now thread the tape from the left side of the cut across the heads and through the capstan/pinch roller. Hit “dump edit” and the pinch roller would engage and start playing the tape with the tape—unconnected to the take-up reel—would stream onto the floor. When you reached your out mark, you’d mark, cut and splice the take-up reel end back on. You could either throw this excess tape away, save it, or edit it back into another section of the score. It was the analog equivalent of cut-and-paste.

Another editing skill was creating the tape loop. In sound design, this was a very important skill and something you would use on every project. Looping is a common concept: Short sound or sounds repeat over and over to create a longer sound. The term “loop” comes from creating a loop when ends of tape are spliced to beginnings. For example, say you had a 3-minute recording of crickets and you need 15 minutes to cover a scene. You would create a tape loop of the three minute cut and play it five times through. In practice, we would play the loop on one machine and record onto another machine, usually a cassette tape machine or a DAT machine.

Playing a tape loop on a tape machine was very tricky. The method is simple: splice the ends of your tape loop together to form a continuous loop of tape. Thread the tape around the supply-side tension arm, across the tape heads and through the capstan and pinch roller. To play the loop, put the machine in dump edit mode. Now the pinch roller will pull the tape across the heads and since it is a loop, it will just keep going round and round until you stop it. The tricky part is managing the amount of tape in the loop. If it was a very short loop, say three feet long, there would be no problem. The loop would not even reach the floor and would just circle around. But, three feet of tape at 15 IPS would be a sound of 2.4 seconds. Not very useful.

Now take our three minutes of crickets: At a tape speed of 15 IPS, that three minutes of crickets would be 225’ of tape! So what to do with all that tape? You can’t just let it dump on the floor as it would, in short order, snarl. The solution is to stretch that tape all the way out to form a gigantic loop. This would involve several straight mic stands to act as tape guides. The loop would go out of the sound booth, down the hall, around a stand or two, back into the booth and back to the tape machine. Occasionally we would have to go all the way out the booth window, over the theater seats, to the stage and back. Now imagine if we were mixing three or four tape loops at once! This often resulted in snarls and ruined tape if something got snagged. Storing the loops was another issue since they tended to take up a lot of wall space and would inevitably get twisted up in knots.

Contrast all this with how fast and easy it is to loop a sound file in a digital audio workstation, and you will see why tape was so quickly made obsolete in the production world. One word: Efficiency.

Now that you know a little about tape editing, go out and find a tape machine and try your hand at it. It will make you appreciate your DAW just a little bit more.

Rules from the New Frontier of Video Design


Local lighting designer, media designer, electrician and Assistant Lighting Designer at Children’s Theater Company (and elsewhere!)—these are but a few of the titles held by Kathy Maxwell. Kathy’s a well-known figure around town, having made a significant mark on the theater scene since moving here from Texas about a decade ago. Always a smart and resourceful designer, Kathy is also an observant and insightful person and a conversation with Kathy is always an illuminating one.

I’m a lighting designer who just happens to get more video designs than lighting designs—which is a recent development. Video design as a medium is still relatively new, especially at many theaters in the Twin Cities. People, myself included, are still trying to learn where projections fit in and how to incorporate them successfully into productions.

Many times I feel as if the word projections gets thrown out by someone on the creative team and, before anyone knows what’s happening, there is a video designer sitting in the room complaining about throw distance and lumens and asking pesky questions like, “Is there a budget?” and “Does the theater own any video equipment?” Next thing you know, the whole team is arguing about midi and how many boards one operator can feasibly run at once—and whose responsibility is it to program said midi?

Finally everyone storms out not having reached any conclusions, but knowing that the show is gonna need more money. Yep, definitely gonna need more money.

The five other design elements are entrenched in our thinking and planning. No one needs to remind people that props and costumes have to be stored somewhere backstage. No one needs to explain the need for a stage crew to move large set pieces. No one needs mention that gear for a rock show is different from gear to do a straight play. These are simply tropes for anyone working in technical theater. When it comes to video, however, since everything is brand new, it is hard to come by a frame of reference or knowing what resources are appropriate to draw from.

Directors don’t instinctively know if the design they just described to you might cost roughly $20,000. Production managers don’t preemptively say, “Without two control systems for sound and video, tech will go extremely slowly since only one person can program at a time.” Companies don’t budget for video once the director has uttered the much-maligned words, “I want to add projections.” This means when I arrive at the first production meeting, I basically have to state some very hard truths including:

“No, your 8-year-old, long-throw projector will not work in this application.”

“No, your Mac Mini can’t run seven simultaneous video outputs.”

“I can’t rent projectors for free.”

“This is not the right cable.”

Usually, the first and most difficult thing I have to explain is the limitations of the gear the theater owns and what that means for the design. In a world where people expect computers and technology to do anything they want as fast as they can imagine, it’s hard to explain that what the director has asked for is not achievable. “Well, you see that’s not possible because the maximum output resolution of your computer—even with gear such as a TripleHead—is 2560 pixels by 1600 pixels which you are trying to divide over three projectors. Which means the closet native resolution per projector is 800 by 600 and, since you are trying to project across 30 feet with only 800 pixels, your image is highly pixelated. And…”

Did your eyes just glaze over? When I started talking about “TripleHead” and “maximum output resolution,” did you go to your happy place? Did you have flashbacks of your ex-boyfriend who worked in IT yelling about RAM and GPUs and how no one understood what they were?

This is where I become that ex-boyfriend.

Computers are not magic. Projectors do not just work. And not all of them are right for every application. While a computer and projector may have worked for your last show, they could be completely useless in your next one. I know, I know: You just bought that projector for that last show. I hear you. The computer was fully loaded when you purchased it five years ago. I understand. It works just as well as they day you bought it. Believe me, I know how expensive a projector rental is. But this does not change the fact that what you want from video is not achievable with the gear you have provided me.

You must change your expectations or provide different gear. Period.

The second thing I find myself reminding people is that, just because we have located the gear, that doesn’t mean we are done. As with lighting and sound, video must be programmed during tech and played back during performances. It sounds obvious—but you would be surprised at the number of times I have brought it up and heard, “Oh, yeah. I didn’t think about that.”

There are many options and solutions to accommodate the most bare-bones theater, but these options and solutions need to be brought up and discussed—preferably before tech. Waiting until the last day of tech to inform your video designer that they do not have a board op because the production manager couldn’t find one, and here is the midi cable they will need to be linked to the light board, is not totally fine.

Let me repeat: That’s not totally fine.

In my experience, most directors don’t understand the scope of the video design they are looking for and how it fits into the gear their company owns or can afford. Many production teams simply overlook such necessary things as additional control systems or additional personnel that may be required because they simply didn’t think about it.

Video is a whole new design area with specific needs and requirements that must be considered if the design is to be achievable—much less successful. If companies are interested in producing shows with video they need to start investing in it and providing it with the necessary resources.

I told you: You’re definitely gonna need more money.

To Cert or Not to Cert?


Roger Rosvold is a respected carpenter, rigger, technical director and educator around town. Equally comfortable in a black box theater as he is in a 100+ foot arena, Roger is a dedicated and capable teacher, stagehand and colleague. I first met Roger many years ago at the University of Minnesota (I honestly don’t remember the year…) when I was a Fringe tech on the Thrust Stage there, and was struck with his devotion to best and safe practices rooted in the real practicalities of our industry—this was someone who knew what it was like to be on the floor with us—and his clarity and smarts in articulating his point of view. Roger, alongside Kerry Korman and Levi Houkom, teaches our very highly regarded Arena Ground Rigging workshop. —Wu Chen

I regularly rig for Live Entertainment in theater and concert venues. I have rigged the full gamut from paper banners hung from railings (tape, please) to multi-ton line array clusters (three 2-ton hoists, please). I’ve used monofilament, tie line, rope, and steel cable. I’ve installed permanent rigs with lifespans of decades and rigs intended to work once.

I love rigging. It makes sense to me, appeals to my sensibilities, and is unendurably cool. I love it so much that I read every word I can find written about it, whether it’s for my industry or other industries. I take every work call I can fit into my schedule even if it means pulling a rope while another rigger makes the point. And I happily ground rig even though it pays quite a bit less than you’d expect and my hands get a lot dirtier than you’d think.

I find my coworkers’ skill levels quite high and their attention to detail typically immaculate. The deftness of the working rigger pleases my sense of rightness and assures me that they are skilled at their task. I respect their ethic and the work it creates. And I respect their understanding of the danger inherent in the industry, a fiercely real peril they struggle with each work call. However, I am sometimes disappointed at the knowledge level of my coworker riggers. My great peeve is the arrogance of the on-the-job–trained rigger who has worked for 20 years without incident, especially where ETCP rigging certification is concerned.

After I passed my first written test, I felt assaulted by co-workers who dismissed the certificate as meaningless. “So you have a paper—what does that mean?” implying I was personally responsible to show value in the certificate process. On some work sites, I was challenged with, “Every certified rigger I know sucks at actual work,” as though I should defend the skills of another. Yet the accusations continue, so as one of three riggers in Minnesota who is certified in both arena and theater rigging, I feel compelled to address their concern.

ETCP is a knowledge certification. You do not need to demonstrate a single skill during the test to pass it. You never tie a knot, make a connection, or handle a single tool. You handle no hoists and run no line sets, fold no soft goods nor pull a rope. You answer questions, written and reviewed by industry respect riggers who are the leaders of our trade. And you are responsible for a broad cross-section of information.

Also, not just anyone can take the ETCP test. You must demonstrate that you have worked in entertainment as a rigger for at least 3,000 work hours, though education and training can reduce that requirement slightly. For comparison, full time employment is 2,010 hours per year. So applicants are not newbie riggers and should have a reasonable skill set in place by the time they sit for the test. The test assumes your training and workplace have exposed you to a reasonable variety of rigging situations.

Knowing that, we wonder what you do on the test and how does passing the test matter?

You present your knowledge of a surprisingly broad field to a minimum standard. The topics you have vary pretty widely and include identification of hardware and materials, general principles of rigging, interaction of forces, usual rigging procedures and techniques, inspections, and rigging math. For those who are interested, here is a full list of topics. For those who are concerned, this information is not secret; ETCP is happy to spread the word on their test content.

Passing the knowledge test means you can be relied on to understand the principles and application of the rigging scenario. You can determine loads in a complex and unclear situation. And you can identify which force relationship applies to a situation at hand. You understand the difference between design factor and service factor, and know when to apply efficiency reductions (or gains!) and can demonstrate your decisions as more than, “That looks beefy enough.”

Passing the test means you accept the responsibility to ensure the rig meets “best practice” for our industry. You examine the rig to determine actual loads and apply design factors to ensure safety. You work through each load path, every connection, determine forces and loads at each step. You make sure every link is equally strong. You specify appropriate hardware and refuse to sign off where requested cuts would compromise safety, even though refusal may cost you future work.

ETCP was established to face a very real concern held by the rest of the world. You see, concert entertainment is no longer a young industry and, as the skills and demands have grown, so too have the costs and risks. A simple Google search of “concert accident” or “truss collapse” shows how risky rigging has become as more gear is used, more weight is flown, and ever-demanding needs arise (I’m looking at you, Kanye…).

As failures mounted and damages increased, we realized that, sooner or later, the U.S. federal government would take notice and decide to impose regulations on us. And they would put us into a category convenient for them but one we did not really belong in. Can you imagine trying to run a show under construction worksite conditions: hardhats and fluorescent safety vests on the performers? Full white light any time any piece of gear moves? Full volume alert chimes on moving scenery? Rather than risk such a fate, ETCP was created to head off that future.

One way to demonstrate our industry takes the risks seriously is for our events have a “Qualified Person” overseeing work practices on the job site. That title has a specific meaning attached to it in general industry, including legal weight and government recognition of authority. ETCP is the foundation our industry has built toward establishing a recognized “Qualified Person” program. At the end of the day, this is the reason we now have certification—to keep us from suddenly needing to conform all of our work practices to the rules surrounding cranes.

Which brings us to the question I am asked most: Do you, dear reader, need to be certified? Answer honestly. Do you plan on rigging something once a month, every month for the foreseeable future? Do you plan to rig anything other than a simple banner on a railing? Do you foresee rigging “tricks” like scenery that traverses or flips? Do you plan to move one rig to many different venues? Will your rig weigh more than 500 pounds total? More than 5,000 pounds? More than 50,000 pounds? Do you expect there to be more than ten different rigs in the air in the same room at the same time? Will they move past on another? Will the weight on your rig change for any reason? The more yes answers you provide, the more you should consider certification. If you think you might fly people, you must have a certified, experienced rigger involved.

One last thought on ETCP certification: I believe holding the certificate signals that you want to be the best. It is a commitment to study and pursue rigging as a lifetime interest and career. It says you intend to read the entire rigging bibliography and find new sources to add to that library. It signals that you take further training to broaden your horizons. It is not a declaration that you know everything but have a desire to know more. It is a signal of your commitment to excellence.

Rig safe!

A Marxist Philistine Gets Woke to Theater


Peter Rachleff is a history professor who specializes in U.S. labour, Immigration and African-American history. Along with his wife Beth, he operates the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. He is a long-time activist and has a strongly developed interest In the world of theater, some of which he details in this article, about his awakening as a theater advocate. —Mike Wangen

For much of my youth, I swore by a line that a friend attributed to a character in a Godard film: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my checkbook.” I never did see the movie. But I swore by the line, from college to graduate school, as I dug ever more deeply into Marxism. And I kept my distance from live theater.

In 1982 I moved to Saint Paul and began teaching U.S. history—labor, African American, and immigration history—at Macalester College. I dove into the local labor movement with both feet, and I continued to research and write about the intersections of race and class. And I continued to ignore theater.

In the early 1990s, my resolve began to soften. Two labor movement comrades introduced me to the power of children’s puppet theater to tell stories of exploitation, resistance, and solidarity. The youthful participants were moved; the audiences were moved; and I was moved. I was beginning a new journey. With two more experiences, the veils fell from my eyes. On the heels of the nationwide UPS strike in the summer of 1997, Beth Cleary shaped and directed a production of Waiting for Lefty at Macalester College. She brought UPS strikers to meet with her cast, and she complicated the play by making its historic white maleness an issue raised by the discontented rank-and-file. She cast women and actors of color in key roles. She also prefaced the play with short plays by African-American writers Langston Hughes and H.V. Edwards and her own adaptation of Meridel LeSueur’s short story, “Women on the Breadlines.” And she ended the play with a Mother Jones character leading the audience in “Solidarity Forever.” Audience members, from labor activists to students, rose, joined hands, and sang. That same year I fell under the spell of Wendy Knox’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play. Wendy’s lead actor quit the night before opening, and she re-cast a woman, Bianca Pettis, in the male lead role, and she went on with script in hand. Even in these circumstances—or was it because of these circumstances—I was captivated. In reimagining Lincoln’s assassination, Parks, the cast, the production, asked us to reconsider “the great (w)hole of history.” And I/we did, night after night.

I was realizing how badly I had missed the boat. Theater was—is—a vehicle to tackle the complexities of race and class, of gender and power, of exploitation and resistance, and it is a collaborative enterprise, among the creative team and between the creative team and the audience. When it works right, I should add. And when it works right, everyone grows, new connections are made and imaginations are fired. We can imagine birthing a new world from the ashes of the old.

Once I became woke to the power of theater, I took advantage of every opportunity I could find to explore it. Oh, I had a lot of disappointments in my search for the grail, but I also found my share of inspiration. And I was able to bring students along, trying to open their eyes to this power so that they would not waste as many years as I had, sneering, boycotting, ignoring. We saw great works by Tony Kushner, Naomi Wallace, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ralph Lemon, and Kia Corthron, among others. But sitting in the audience was no longer enough. I became so inspired by August Wilson’s work that, with Harry Waters, Jr., I co-taught a course at Macalester we called “The 20th Century Through the Plays of August Wilson.” What a great learning experience that was for me! With another colleague, Bob Peterson, I co-taught a course we called “Telling Labor’s Story Through Music,” that concluded with a concertized staging of a jazz opera, Forgotten: Murder at the Ford Rouge, not only at Macalester but also at United Autoworkers Union Local 879’s hall. When, five years ago, Carlyle Brown invited me to act in his Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, I jumped at the chance. Under the direction of Noel Raymond and the mentorship of Gavin Lawrence, and in collaboration with a generous and brilliant cast, I learned the internal life of theater first hand. I will be eternally grateful to all of them.

I have learned so much. But, watch out! Being woke includes keeping my critical faculties at the ready. I know when a piece of theater works, and when it doesn’t. When my frustration with the Guthrie’s production of Clybourne Park provoked me to write a detailed screed for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I was delighted to learn how widely it was being circulated. While my Marxist scorn for “culture” has dissipated, my passion for social transformation is as strong as ever. I am especially pleased right now that our East Side Freedom Library is hosting Carlyle Brown & Company’s Down in Mississippi, which is creating a transformative experience for audiences members from youth to seniors. What an amazing—and appropriate—use of our space!

Life of a Wigmaker


I had heard the name of the legendary wigmaster Laura Adams shortly before I started working regularly at the Jungle, but I did not (to my knowledge) ever see her until many years later. I had heard many people—colleagues, mentors, friends—speak of her in the equivalent of hushed, reverent tones. But we only ever really crossed paths as I left the building and she entered. I’m very sad that happened. I’ve since had the honor of speaking with her a few times about wigs, theater, and education and economics, and I knew immediately that I wanted her to write for us. I’m so grateful that she has agreed, and I’m going to get out of the way now. —Wu Chen

I never intended to land here. I’ve never met anyone who thought, “I wanna be a wig maker when I grow up!” Yet here I am.

My fascination with wigs began as a child. My mother, being a fashionable woman in the ’60s, wore wigs, as many women did. It’s a very transformative fashion accessory and it transformed her so much that I wouldn’t let her near me when I was very little, because I didn’t believe she was my mom. I didn’t like the wigs at all, but later grew to be curious about them.

The first time I had to wear a wig in a professional theater, I was a teenager. The production was Alice in Wonderland at the Children’s Theatre and the wig was hand-tied, which means it wasn’t store-bought. I was intrigued by the amount of detail put into the construction of it. After being in a few shows and wearing wigs, I became more and more enthralled and wanted to learn how to make them. The wig master, Victor, was happy to teach me and thus my journey as a wig maker began at the ripe old age of 15.

Wig making is a beautiful craft… and painstaking… and tedious… and incredibly rewarding. It is truly satisfying to make, set and style a wig for an actor and, after putting it on, the actor gasps, “This is amazing! I found my character!” I believe the reason it is so transformative is because it is the thing that frames the face, which is one of the actor’s most important tools. When you watch actors perform, you look mostly at their faces, paying close attention to where the words are coming from. When a wig is good, it can make a character because it helps to suspend your disbelief and allows you to get lost in the story. When it’s bad, a wig can be very distracting and actually detract from the storytelling (which is why I think many directors don’t like them). Wigs are very hard to do well and require a skilled hand to do them right.

Most theaters don’t put resources towards wigs, in part because there are so few of us trained to do it well. When theaters do use wigs, they often don’t put enough resources towards them and the wigs end up looking bad. At the Guthrie, we have an incredible shop that does such good work and has an incredibly talented group of people doing them; most people are unaware that they are looking at a wig on an actor. In fact, when tours come through and see that we have a wig shop, they are truly shocked. “I’ve been coming to the Guthrie for 20 years and I never even considered that the actors were wearing wigs!” I hear comments like this, and it makes me smile. But it also makes me a little sad. Not because my work isn’t noticed—if done properly it shouldn’t be noticed and there is a strange satisfaction in that. It’s because I know that there are so few of us doing this work. If people don’t know we are here and how important hair is to the look of a character, the craft won’t have the support it needs to thrive in the theater world.

It takes a special kind of person to be a good wigmaker for theater. You need to be good with your hands. The work is very detailed and the scale is small. I use a magnifying glass when I’m building wigs. “You must have the patience of a saint” is often heard when tours come through and see us at work. Honestly, it does require patience, but once you know how to do the technique, it’s much like any other handcraft, like knitting or needlework. It can actually be sort of relaxing at times.

Once you have a wig built, you need to turn it into a style, which is basically sculpting with an organic material. We use human hair almost exclusively at the Guthrie because it allows for more control. You can use irons on it to manipulate the hair. Synthetic wigs melt if you do that. You also need an eye for being able to take a two-dimensional research image—such as a sketch, painting or photograph—and turn it into a three-dimensional object that can be worn on the head and stay looking the way you want whether or not the actor is dancing or lying down on a couch or, in some cases, getting drenched with water onstage. When mounting a show, I will either get research or sketches from a costume designer or I have to find my own, and I use that as a guide to create the styles that help facilitate the vision for the period of the play. I always laugh at those epic historical films of the 1960s, like Cleopatra, with all those beautiful period costumes and ’60s hairstyles. Again, hair is just as important—if not more so—than a costume because of the fact that it frames the actor’s faces, the thing we are looking at the most.

Having a good understanding of theater is important to wig making and design. If someone is interested in making wigs but doesn’t have theater experience, I tell them to start seeing plays. Lots of plays. Cosmetology school is really helpful, but not necessary. I didn’t go to cosmetology school; I learned while doing. I know of only three places in the country where you can get a degree in wig and makeup design. Because of this, I feel that intern programs in the field are especially important. It's imperative to the longevity of the field for those of us doing the craft to pass these skills on. It takes years to become proficient at it and even longer to truly master because of the nature of the medium we are working with. Hair reacts differently on any given day, and working with it is tricky business to begin with. I can teach basic skills relatively fast, but the development of the skill set takes years.

One thing that is difficult to teach is how to deal with actors—and it's a huge part of what we do. If you're not good with people or admire the craft of acting, I'd hesitate to go into the field of theatrical wig making. What we do is all about making actors look right for the parts they are playing, and sometimes that means making them look horrible. Actors by nature tend to have strong personalities. The actor’s job is to delve into the emotions of a character and bring it to life, and the people who do that craft tend to have passionate personalities. Most people care deeply about what their hair looks like. They identify deeply with their hair, which is one of the reasons it is so traumatic for some people when they lose it. Actors are no different. It is because of this that the job of the wigmaker/designer is so complicated. Actors’ opinions about their hair are stronger than most and they need to feel good about their look and own it completely or it can affect performances. It is our job to help them own the look.

So not only do you need to be good with your hands, have a sense of fashion through history, the ability to make a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional object and sometimes defy gravity, you need to work with a medium that has a mind of its own as well as have a small enough ego to not mind that people don't even know your work exists, let alone recognize the amount of time it took you to make it look that way. You also need to be a bit of a psychologist, understanding the characters you are helping bring to life while handling the complicated personalities of the people who will be wearing your work. If you are up for the challenge of all of that, a career in wig making might just be the right fit for you.

Plus, it's pretty fun to wear the wigs around the shop for no reason at all.

A Look Back At Year One

Article by David "dstew" Stewart

A year ago, all my correspondence with the Guthrie suddenly morphed into variants of this: “Do you know our new Production Director, David Stewart? NO?! Well, then, you simply have to meet him. We’ll discuss all this then.”

I’ve since met him. Indeed, we collaborate on a great deal, and I’m glad to have him in town. I’m always curious about what it is like for people to move far away, and live, work and play in a new place. Perhaps it’s because I’ve moved around so much in my life.

So I asked him to reflect on his year here, and he graciously agreed. What lies ahead? Time will tell, but getting to know David has given me a lot to be excited for. - Wu Chen Khoo

Wow, it’s already been one year for me at the Guthrie. How time flies when you’re having an absolute blast!

But let’s go back. In June of 2015, a friend of mine turned my attention to a job posting for production director at the Guthrie Theater and encouraged me to apply. “No way,” I said. “No way the most prestigious regional theater in the country wants an academic production manager.” See, up until then, I had been working – very happily I might add – in the academy, the university: first at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for nine great years as the production manager and head of the stage management program for the Department of Theatre and Drama, where I helped inspire young minds interested in the quirky behind-the-scenes thing I did, then at the University of Texas at Austin as the academic production manager. Austin is an amazing city, and UT is a first rate school; I’d hit the proverbial jackpot. Not only was I working at one of the top universities in the country, but I had bid farewell to Wisconsin winters and my collection of snow shovels. I was determined to finish out my career in the southwest.

Then my friend came calling about the Guthrie. At first, I shied away and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Then about a month later, and to my great surprise, I received an email from the Guthrie. See, usually when I get an email from large arts institutions, someone from the organization has seen me at a national theater conference presenting on equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I), specifically as it relates to production departments, and normally they need to fill a position and are hoping that I might recommend a colleague or peer. I suppose it was almost assumed that I know all of the people of color in the industry. So I was a de facto ED&I headhunter, if you will. Anyway, I proceeded to open the Guthrie’s email, and my jaw immediately hit the floor. The Guthrie’s human resources director was asking me to apply for the production director gig – me, the academic who was ensconced in his perfect oasis in Texas. I wrote back to ask the HR director how she had found me, and, sure enough, someone had heard me speaking at a conference. The Guthrie thought I should apply.  

So apply I did.

Round one was a phone interview with the Guthrie’s new artistic director, Joseph Haj, and Frank Butler, the outgoing production director. I hold both men in high regard. Frank Butler was a stalwart production manager and well respected amongst his peers. And Joe’s recent hire was all the buzz at that summer’s Theater Communications Group (TCG) conference, so I had read up on him and found him to be a kindred spirit. We shared a similar story about how this art form of ours had saved us. Perhaps more importantly, we both knew that it was time for the theater industry to stand up and take a hard look at itself regarding issues of ED&I.

I have to be honest here: as I picked up the phone for that first interview, I had convinced myself that I was simply window dressing – that I was brought into the hiring process to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. Imagine my shock when two weeks later I was invited to Minneapolis for the final round of interviews.

Upon meeting Joe Haj, the first words out of my mouth were: “You’re taller than I thought you’d be.” Smooth, Stewart, real smooth. Admittedly, it was a less than wonderful start, and I knew I had to make up for it by genuinely connecting with an extraordinarily talented staff. To their credit, that turned out to be easy. I immediately found the Guthrie’s production team to be smart, warm and personable. It was a great sign.  But, in the back of mind, I couldn’t shake the thought that if I somehow got this job I’d have to ask my family to uproot and move for the seventh time. The Guthrie had to be the right fit, all the way around. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it would be, and when the offer came down I couldn’t have been more thrilled to accept it with my family’s blessing…and some serious reflection about having to confront snow again.

My transition into the Guthrie last November was a fortunate one, as my predecessor remained onsite for my first two weeks. Frank graciously imparted his legacy knowledge, and I appreciated that. I appreciated any help really, because starting this job felt like standing at the foot of a great mountain, looking up, and wondering how I was ever going to make it to the top.

My first show as director of production at the Guthrie was a Twin Cities favorite – A Christmas Carol. I couldn’t have asked for a better project with which to get my feet wet. 2015-2016 marked the fifth season of this particular iteration of Carol, and all of the players knew their roles inside and out. It was the perfect opportunity for me to observe my various production teams in action. And when I say that the production staff at the Guthrie is good…they are really good. The theatrical marvels onstage point directly to remarkable work backstage. The Scrooge House is a living, breathing, moving entity; actors safely fly on cables; automation and expertly-built props elicit happy gasps from the audience. It’s awe-inspiring. And now here I was, in charge of this extremely well-oiled machine.

Then, right after the 2015 holidays, I learned that a production team can best be measured by how it responds to the unexpected. As we were preparing the Guthrie’s thrust stage for our production of Shakespeare’s epic Pericles – which also happened to mark Joe’s Guthrie directorial debut – I was arriving back in Minnesota from a quick trip to visit my family, who were still in Texas at the time. And my phone lit up like a Christmas tree. During load-in of the Pericles set, one of the staff had inadvertently collided with a sprinkler head in the catwalks above the stage, sending a deluge of water onto the deck. Not a bare deck, mind you, but a half-way installed, beautiful floor that had been meticulously painted by the artisans of the Guthrie’s paint shop. Thousands of gallons of water poured through the stage and into the trap room below. I feared the worst: that we’d have to push back the production schedule.

But when I arrived straight from the airport, I was met by an encouraging scene. My team, towels in hand, was in high spirits. As the events were relayed to me, the moment the water hit the stage, the entire production department showed up with towels, buckets, mops, shop vacs, you name it. The whole building sprang into action. I was impressed, grateful and not a little relieved. And we hit tech right on schedule. One year and 22 productions later, I can tell you this without a shred of doubt: my staff is a peerless one and they make me a better leader.

Outside of the hands-on work in our production shops, the past 12 months have also been rewarding in terms of how far we’ve come in our ED&I initiatives. Working at a nonprofit has been an interesting shift for me from university life in that I feel we have some agility here when we decide to pursue new policies. At the university, several layers of bureaucracy often slow such decisions. And while that process has merit, I was excited to see that things were moving much more quickly at the Guthrie.  

For example, as we work to diversify our theater staff – both onstage and off – I had the notion to remove all of the education requirements from our job postings. I’m not alone in feeling that such requirements present barriers to entry into an organization. I ran the idea by Joe, who was very receptive and requested only that I consult with the Guthrie’s HR department. A week later, the plan was policy.

In just a year’s time I already can see that we’re growing as an organization. And I feel lucky to have stepped into a theater whose storied past and strong foundation have made that type of meaningful growth possible. More than anything, since last fall I’ve been energized by the world-class theater that we’re making, the designers we’re collaborating with, and the production work that I’m able to facilitate here in our building. It’s a dream job like no other, and I look forward to many more years at the Guthrie.  

Halfway Through

Article by Tony Stoeri

By now, Tony Stoeri is hopefully familiar to you, having written a brilliant piece about perceptions, standards, biases and “professionalism” here, and another about work ethics, culture, labour rights and the arts industry here.

He’s back again, and if you don’t know him, well, this is as good a place to start as any. And maybe this won’t be his last column, eh? - Wu Chen Khoo

Indiana University  Department of  Theatre  & Drama

Indiana University Department of Theatre & Drama

This is an intimidating column to write, if only for the fact that I know some people from my program might end up reading this, and this isn't something we generally talk about. But, as I sit here about two weeks away from being exactly halfway through my graduate school career, I find myself in a position that is very different than where I thought I would be, and it seems increasingly necessary to me to talk about it.

The Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance produces more than many other graduate theatre programs. Over the course of two 4 month semesters, there are  8 main stage theatrical productions and 3 dance concerts produced at IU. The design for virtually all of these productions comes from graduate students, who also provide the majority of the labor. In addition to this aggressive schedule, graduate students have a full workload from their classes to handle, which is important since the monthly stipend we receive to live off of is contingent upon maintaining a certain GPA.

The lighting department at IU is hit particularly hard. The five MFA design and technology disciplines at IU are lighting design, costume design, scenic design, technical direction, and costume technology. Each discipline contains 4-5 graduate students. However, there is overlap between them. The costume shop has 8 graduate student workers - 4 designers, 4 technologists. The scene shop has 10 graduate students who share in its work- 5 scenic designers, and 5 technical directors. Each of these departments also has 2 full time staff members, and undergraduate student workers. The lighting department has 5 graduate students that work in it, and 1 full time staff member.

In-spite of this numerical disparity we have the widest range of responsibilities. Along with costumes, we bear the brunt of the work required in producing the three dance concerts each year (there being little call for scenery in most modern dances). We are the only department that supports the smaller, studio theater that is used for undergraduate productions. Recently, we have, like most lighting departments across the country, been job-drifted projections - another item on a list of tasks that is already too long to complete.  In the interest of not boring you with all the details of how we are overworked, I will simply say that when students are subsisting on four hours of sleep a night (and often less than that) and struggling to find time to perform the basic tasks of adult life - like grocery shopping - for weeks at a time because of the workload they are being given, the situation has gotten out of control.

In part the problem being faced here is endemic to an academic institution. In any institutional environment speaking out against the status quo is a difficult and risky thing to do. This disincentive is strengthened in an educational environment where not only is there an institutional hierarchy at play, but also a student-professor hierarchy. The same forces that I find make it difficult for student designers to interact fully and honestly with faculty directors discourage students from speaking out when they find themselves in situations that are exploitative. The academic setting also provides an excuse to ignore any of complaints that are raised- “grad school is supposed to be difficult,” “you just need to work on time management,” or “I'm sure it’s not that bad” are all answers that are waiting in the wings as it were, ready to make their entrance when we raise our voices in complaint.

So the question now becomes why I just spent 600 words talking about how hard grad school is, and why that matters to anyone that doesn't go to grad school with me. It matters because of how dangerous it is to view this problem as something that is isolated. Its a problem I've encountered outside of grad school as well, and indeed is a problem our country is facing in the political realm right now. The prevalence of negative circumstances carries with it the risk of them becoming the accepted norm. I've seen theatre companies where nobody bats an eye when carpenters are asked to build huge sets with no time or labor, and worked with companies where no one sees anything wrong with the lighting designer being asked to run sound and projections without an increase in pay.  These situations are built on the backs of situations that have come before, where unfair circumstances became the expectation and the norm rather than an aberration. Anytime we work in an environment that is in some way exploitative and fail to confront it, we help perpetuate it. I worry about the people in my program who have little in the way of non academic experience- for them, what they undergo in grad school can become a standard for what they expect in the real world. As it currently stands, my grad school is turning out designers who are burnt out and who have been taught to accept exploitation as the norm.

But beyond the fact that exploiting people is....you know....bad, there’s another reason that normalizing it is problematic- it compromises the work we do. Here at school I was recently put in charge of lighting a small dance concert that showcased the work of student choreographers. The day we had to tech the pieces came late in the semester. I was exhausted, and the midst of being sick. I had pulled an all nighter the night before to finish a project for class. I was bleary eyed and had a hacking cough, but I persevered and cued all the dances. The next day, arriving at the theatre early before the run, I sat down to look at some of the cues.  I jumped through the cues for each piece, and when I got to the last one, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. It looked exactly like the second piece in the concert. And, come to think of it, pretty similar to the fourth one as well. Feeling burnt-out and tired, my brain had basically just built the same cues for multiple pieces, rather than expending the energy to come up with new ideas.

An environment that burns out its inhabitants does not make for good art. Creativity requires energy and passion to function, and its hard to muster either of those things on four hours of sleep. An exploitative environment is not only one in which an individual is unfairly compensated- it is also one where an individual is unfairly and unsustainably drained.

I guess since this is my last column I should say something deep and impactful about my experience at grad school thus far. But I definitely don't have anything like that. It’s been a weird and tough ride thus far, and I look forward to heading back to Minneapolis when it’s over.

Are You a Technical or Are You a Director?

Article by Adriane Heflin

Adriane Heflin is the Technical Director at the Children’s Theatre Company, and before that she was the Assistant Technical Director at the Guthrie, which is where I met her. Adriane advised me on many of my early builds as TD at the Jungle and I know I’m not unique: she’s been a mentor and leader to many people in this town.

Adriane and I have discussed the intricacies of the industry at various times and I’ve always wanted to get her thoughts on technical direction recorded - this was my chance, and I’m glad we get a chance to share these sharp insights with you. - Wu Chen Khoo

Last March, I had the opportunity to travel back to my alma mater to be a guest lecturer at the weekly Wednesday Seminar for the Technical Design and Production MFA Students.  I was honored and humbled to be asked.  It’s been almost 20 years since I graduated, and I hadn’t had the chance to go back and visit since I left.  I asked what the topic of the discussion should be, and they told me that I should just talk about my career path.  How did I get from there to here?  What did I wish I would have known back then?  What had I learned along the way?

At first I was terribly nervous – what on earth could I possibly have to say that would be interesting to them?  What cool technical solutions could I show them?  Which big name designers or directors had I worked with?  What have I learned?  How could I impress them the most?  

But as I went through photos from old summer stock productions and grad school notebooks, drafting from the Guthrie and production shots from the Children’s Theatre Company, I realized that the most interesting thing I could share had nothing to do with any of those things.  What I have learned over my career that has meant the most to me, is coming to terms with who I really am as a Technical Director, and using those strengths to bring out the best in the work that I do.  

I have often said that there are two kinds of Technical Directors out there:

First, there are the TECHNICAL Directors.  These guys are the gear-heads.  They love math, and structures, and can memorize and recite endless facts about sprockets and motors and the d/D ratios of cable.  Their strengths lie in solving the technical solutions in each production.  

Then there are the Technical DIRECTORS.  These are the classic Type A organizers.   They love checklists with check boxes and schedules and planning.  They are “people” people, who are constantly analyzing the process of how we get from point A to point B and trying to figure out the most efficient way to do it.  

I remember being in grad school like it was yesterday.  Everyone was playing the game, trying to out-TD the next guy.  Everyone was, on some level, pitted against each other to come up with the best solutions, or the coolest technology, or the most accurate budget, or the best production assignments.  While this kind of competition can be great for pushing students to learn, and it does bring out the best in some people, I found it incredibly draining.  I never felt like I had the best technical solution.  I wasn’t the best carpenter or welder or electrician.  I often felt like I was running to keep up with everyone else.  Much of the program focused on training us to be TECHNICAL Directors, and while I loved learning about the technical details and finding the sexy solution to a technical challenge, I knew that it wasn’t the whole picture for me.

When I graduated, I got a job as an Assistant Technical Director at the Guthrie.  Like most success stories in this field, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and at that time the Guthrie was moving from having one ATD to having two ATDs.  I had specifically looked for an assistant position at a large organization because I knew that while I had learned a lot at grad school, there was still so much I didn’t know about managing people.  I knew how to do a bit of the TECHNICAL, but I had no idea yet how to be a DIRECTOR.  

And the Guthrie was an amazing place to figure it out.  Here was a shop filled with experienced and talented carpenters, and all of them had been doing this for a lot longer than I had.  Believe me, I made a ton of rookie mistakes.  Here I was, this fresh-out-of-school face, who was trying to figure out how to earn the trust and respect of these seasoned artisans.  I remember thinking to myself, “why won’t they just do what I ask of them?  I’m supposed to be in charge!  Why is everything always a battle?”  I didn’t yet understand how respect and trust had to be earned over time.  

And it got harder before it got easier.  Nine months after I arrived, the TD left, and for 13 months, while they did a national search, Craig Pettigrew (the other ATD) and I became Co-Acting Technical Directors of the Guthrie Theater.  I was 26 years old.  I was still greener than the grass and now Craig and I had to steer the whole ship!  To our credit, we got the job done.  We got the shows up on time and on budget, in part due to the wonderfully talented folks who were in that shop who helped us figure it all out, but the experience left little room to learn the management skills I was looking for.  

It wasn’t until they hired a new Technical Director, and I could step back into the assistant role that I had expected to fulfill that I finally started to figure out what was important to me.  For better or worse, the  experience of being given too much responsibility had forced me rely on help from others to get the job done, and in doing so, I learned that in order to gain control of an overwhelming situation, sometimes the best thing to do is to let go a little bit.  I had to let go of some of the details in order to be able to keep my eye on the bigger picture.  I had to trust that my staff had the experience and knowledge to get the job done without me micromanaging every detail.  And they did, of course they did!   

From that experience I learned that sometimes it’s more important to just get from point A to point B, and it’s less important for me to specify exactly how we are going to get there.  Giving people the freedom to make choices and do the work in the way that makes the most sense to them is often the most efficient and empowering way to get something done.  Once people understand that you trust them to get stuff done, they are more willing to listen and work with you when you need them to make changes for reasons that might not seem clear to them at the moment.  

When the new Technical Director was hired, I finally had the chance I was looking for - to learn more about management from someone who was way more experienced than I was.  And I learned a ton - not only from things he did that worked, but from also things he did that didn’t work.   I remember that one time we were going to split the shop into two groups because we were working on two shows at the same time.  He said, “ok, we’re going to call them the A Team and the B Team.”  I said “What, are you kidding?!”  I told him there was absolutely no way we could do that.  He couldn’t see anything wrong with the idea, but I sure could.  Both teams were equally skilled, but no matter what you do, calling a group of people “the B Team” makes them feel inferior.  I told him we could call them colors, or birds, or ANYTHING else, just not A and B.  In the end, I think we went with the Purple Team and the Gold Team, but the lesson stuck with me.  This was the beginning of my understanding of what it meant to be a Technical DIRECTOR.

For many years I stressed over the technical details, always trying to prove that I knew enough, that I could rattle off the right acronyms, or spout off the correct math to prove the structural analysis of a project.  I knew that a deep mastery of the technical details was not my strength, and I was terrified that someone would find out I didn’t know everything.  I knew a lot - enough to ask the right questions, and design the appropriate solutions for the technical challenges, and above all, make sure everything was safe onstage, but I thought that I was supposed to know it all, supposed to be the TECHNICAL in Technical Director.  As time went on though, I found that my strength was really in the DIRECTOR part of the job.  My best work is done in discussions with the directors and designers and the production staff.  I love organizing the process, and not just the product.  When I learned to embrace that as my strength, that is when I feel like I really settled into becoming the manager I am today.  

Now, I am the first to say that the one thing I know, is that I don’t know everything.  How could I?  We work in a constantly evolving field, where we never do the same thing twice.  I have come to embrace my inherent Type-A, list-maker, box-checker, organizational tendencies.  I revel in the planning and the collaborative process that is putting on a show.  I am the first one to say I may not have the answer, but I know who I can ask, and I’m not afraid to do so.  

And that’s what I told those students at that Wednesday Seminar.  Embrace yourself.  Whether you are a TECHNICAL or a DIRECTOR, there is room in this field for both.  Use your strengths and surround yourself with great people who can help with your weaknesses.  I love my job for so many reasons, but the part I love the most is that I get to collaborate with passionate, talented people everyday, creating magical worlds for others to enjoy.  And knowing that I don’t have to figure it all out myself makes the journey so much sweeter.

Adventures of a First-time Fringe Technician

Article by Emmet Kowler

Welcome Emmet, first-time Fringe tech, to Spotlight and the Twin Cities theater community! This young man, fresh from UM-Morris, shares his experience as a new MN Fringe Festival technician. We all have start somewhere - remember what it was like as you stepped from the safety of your comfort zone into the hustle and bustle of a busy production schedule? Relive the excitement and chaos through the Emmet's Fringe virgin eyes. - Jen Rand

These aren’t my words, but I think they’re relevant:

“The Fringe is bullshit, and that’s awesome.”

They were spoken from one best friend of mine, Sulia Altenberg, to another, Cecilia Johnson, late at night in the house they share, and then published in Minnesota Playlist.

I can’t help but agree. After teching 11 different shows, sitting through all those performances, and going way over my beer budget at Fringe Central, it’s nice to know that yes, that experience was as ridiculous as it sounds when you describe it to outsiders. And yes, it’s awesome.

Intimidating, for sure. I’m 21 years old, fresh out of a marginal experience at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Fringe is an institution, and I’m green. I’m worried that the two wouldn’t mix. Fringe is where all the crazy vets around town congregate once a year to swap stories and blood and sweat, to catch up and make new inside jokes, to constantly introduce themselves to people they’re trying to impress. And this, for all intents and purposes, is my first professional theater gig. This town has a long memory. Pressure’s on.

The experience starts with a quasi-orientation at the Fringe office in Northeast Minneapolis. The techs introduce themselves, and I meet my partner, Ursula Bowden. We don’t talk, just say hi. I feel kind of bad about it. Overwhelmed.

Liz Neerland, spinning an extensive spiel. It’s stupid hard, she says. There will be lots of dumb things that happen. But it’s OK, because it’s also awesome.

(Awesome is a theme here.)

And the other techs interject techniques or strategies they’ve tried in the past, things to watch out for in certain buildings, certain artists. Be merciless, they say. Be forgiving, they say. Be accommodating, be strict, be empathetic, be rude, be kind, be mean, be nice. Oh, and do a good job.

I don’t think I can keep up. I’m confident in my abilities, but these people are out of my league. “We’re all here to support each other,” Liz says, and that puts my mind at ease. Then we go across the street to Dusty’s for what’ll be the first of a great many tech drinks.

This is the first big highlight: finally going to the bar after the theater gig. This has been a dream of mine for years. And in practice, it’s low-pressure and entertaining and relaxed — exactly what I need.

So then we have load-in. I’m at the Barbara Barker, the U’s dance building. It’s a beautifully maintained space, with a strong rep plot but no greenroom. Doable. I can make this work. I even get an ION, just like at school. And even though the day is filled with small agonies like seating and mold and awkward spaces and dust and dirt and how many times do I have to count chairs? It’s a fun day. This work is fun to me.

Load in slides into tech on Sunday morning, and the first three shows are off the bat, no big deal. Ursula and I have a great thing going: I press buttons and she takes notes. I hate to say synergy, but synergy. The days are long, but the time passes quickly. I can disappear into that headspace and satisfy a host of obsessive tendencies. I can click my brain into the mode where problem solving becomes de facto.

And it’s also incredibly hard. Four days of this process, of welcoming in the artists, giving them the spiel about Fringe protocol and the restrictions of our space. We sit down and muscle through cues. Some shows don’t get full dress rehearsals. With some groups, we keep having to go back and rectify errors due to poor preparation. (Please, Fringe artists, please please please bring a stage manager who keeps a good book.)

So many cues, so little time. Drinks afterward, sometimes too many. Y’all know the drill. I’m rambling.

We get to the actual festival. Ursula has graciously stepped up to work opening night so I can have a break. I take the day off and don’t see any shows. I go to a movie instead, and then pop in to Fringe Central afterward to exchange broken legs. Right away, I can tell these people are really, really pleased with themselves. For good reason.

Running shows in Fringe is a strange experience, because after you tech your first show, you may not actually run that show until their fourth performance in the second weekend of the festival. It’s disconnected, and time moves very erratically. Depending on the show, the hour-long slot can feel like forever or a hot minute. And the 15 minutes or so you might have between shows is a liminal space made of terror and relief.    

Managing the space can feel like turning a cruise ship full of unruly cats. I have to kick myself over and over again to get my head in the game and act in charge — to not let that age-related inferiority complex stop Fringe from running on time.    

And nearly every night, I go to Fringe Central, where the techs are gathered in the little balcony seating (the “booth”), and I get my beer and a snack. I’ll sometimes catch sight of some friends and run away, or play trivia, or talk to curious volunteers in pink shirts.

And eventually, by the end of the festival, I’ve settled into this comfortable little spot in the blackshirt army. Most of the time I’m listening, observing, asking for advice from the other techs. And they give it, enthusiastically. Just like that. None of the pushing or prying on my part that I had expected.

Exhausted, and after herding my very last cat out of my theater after the encore performance, I walk myself over to Triple Rock Social Club for the wrap party. And instead of a sea of strangers, I’m in a field of friends. The music blares, and the dancing is terrible. Drunk selfies forever.    

The next morning consists of an efficient strike and a fun lunch with all the other techs. Liz announces the inaugural Feral Tony Awards to techs who created outstanding design and who generally kicked ass, nominated by our peers. I win one. Feels great.

Awesome has been a theme this whole time, but it hits me that validation is a more important one. In just over two weeks, I’m given a tremendous opportunity, validated and supported at every turn, making meaningful connections with places and people and beer flavors, and slowly being stripped of all the imposter syndrome I’ve developed since leaving school.

So now here I am, ecstatic about the prospect of growing into this Emmet-shaped hole in Minneapolis theater. Gigs are lined up. New emails have been added to the address book. I can’t wait to run into so many of the people I met around town.

Thank you, Fringe, for this most incredible launch into young adulthood. I’ll see you next year.

Working in NYC

Article by Kristina Haupt

I’ve known Kristy since very early in her career. It’s been an honour and pleasure to have our relationship shift from being her boss to being her colleague. Kristy is an excellent stagehand: curious, adventurous, and smart. I was really excited for her when she told me about wanting to move to New York City (I had no idea that I was “the final linchpin”) and immediately knew that I wanted to hear all her great insights on the adventure so far. -Wu Chen

One night while hanging lights at the Jungle with Wu Chen I brought up that I was thinking of moving to NYC. He told me to go. He told me that Minnesota would always be here and I would always wonder if I didn’t go. In hindsight, that was the final lynchpin in the scariest decision of my life, to move to New York City. I first moved to NYC in February of 2014. I had just finished working on the Superbowl and decided to spend two months working in NYC. As my aunt was driving me to my subleased apartment in Brooklyn, an ad came on the radio. They were looking for people to shovel out fire hydrants for $12/hour. I laughed and said, well, if this whole theater thing doesn’t work out, I am from Minnesota, gosh darn it, and I know how to shovel. I had no work lined up, I was terrified and on that first night Richard Girtain, the former TD at the Guthrie and the current TD at Juilliard emailed me. One of his carpenters had called in sick and did I want to come into work? At Juilliard I met a guy who needed help for Fashion Week. During Fashion Week I met countless electricians that continue to hire me two years later and so on. Freelancing is much the same in NYC as in Minnesota. It is all about meeting people on the first gig that can hire you for the next gig. While there are a lot of similarities to working in NYC versus Minnesota, there are a lot of differences as well. The work expectations of what tools to bring, the terms they use and the hours you work are vastly different on the east coast. The venues you get to work in are incredible and often have historical significance. Then there is Broadway. Broadway is it’s own world and runs differently than any other job I have had, including regional Theater.

As a freelance electrician in NYC there are three types of work I do. I primarily work industrials. An industrial is any event that is not theater or tv/film. This includes fashion shows, bar mitzvahs, annual company meetings, etc. I also work for IATSE local 52 as an electrician for tv/film and thirdly for Broadway or off Broadway in theater. Each job requires a separate set of tools. Besides the basics of a C-wrench, gloves and a multi tool (which is what I bring to all calls in MN) on Broadway you have to bring dykes because they zip tie all their cables. On Industrials you have to bring your hard hat and your hi vis vest. On TV/Film shoots you have to bring a secret service type ear piece so that your radio doesn’t make sound while they are rolling. You also need clothespins to attach gel to the barndoors. I bring my C-wrench, but the fact that it is attached to a lanyard immediately marks me as a theater electrician and I rarely use it on set. Most of the lights are on stands and hand tightened down.

The terms for a lot of basic things are different, especially on tv/film sets. A female edison to male stage pin is called a FED, the opposite, a MED. Tie line is called trick line. Cable ramps are called cable crossers or yellow jackets. A standard stage pin cable is called a single. A martini is not only a drink, but the final shot of the day. In the beginning I sometimes felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language, despite having worked in the industry for ten years.

The biggest difference for me, though, in work expectations, is the Hours. In NYC, especially on industrials,we often have to work overnights. It is because of one of two things: Either there is a really tight turn around in a space for example during Fashion Week when we do both Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs in the same space, each 7 minute fashion show take four days of around the clock crews to get them loaded in and set up. More often though, it’s because we are setting up an event in a space that people use during the day. All of the work on the stages for the ball drop in Times Square, for example, gets done overnight because Times Square has a strict, hard stop at 6am. The hours are also very last minute. I frequently get calls the day before asking if I can come in tomorrow. Most of the time it’s a 12 hour minimum day, frequently longer. If you take the call they expect you to be available all day. This makes it hard to schedule things outside of work and often, if I have something that I can’t miss at 7pm, I have to turn down work for the whole day.

The spaces you get to work in are amazing. I have spent a night (well several nights) in the American Museum of Natural History. We were setting up an event for CNN in the whale room and I wandered as much as possible over my breaks. It was pretty amazing to see the exhibits without crowds...and also without all of the natural lighting (the dioramas are creepy!). When we work at the ballroom in the Waldorf Astoria the only elevator strong enough to hold all of our gear is the elevator that was built to hold FDR’s armored car. It originally went to his secret, private train station below the hotel, but that level has been shut down. When you work at the UN you are reminded as you go in that you are leaving US soil and entering a different jurisdiction. I have worked at 1 World Trade Center on the 64th floor and I got to look down on NYC for three days with a constant reminder in the back of your mind of the horrible tragedy of September 11th. We shot an episode of Shades of Blue in a genuine pay by the hour hotel. We kept assuming things were set dressing and they kept assuring us that is really just want the hotel looked like. It smelled worse than anything I have ever smelled and the producers were getting yelled at by prostitutes on the street who were mad we had shut the place down because they needed to make their living….I can’t make this stuff up.

Now let’s talk Broadway. Unlike in MN where the in house theater produces the theater, on Broadway the house just houses it and it is produced by a different company. Because of this every show rents their lighting gear. Each show is prepped at generally either PRG or Christie Lights for three weeks or so before load in. While prepping you label conventional units, address moving lights/accessories, create cable looms for each position and create a paper tape for each position that states where each light is supposed to be hung. Broadway theaters are old buildings. They have shockingly smaller backstage areas than most theaters in other parts of the country. They frequently don’t have an in house fly system, but can rent them, if needed, for a particular production. To get to the fly rail or the jump from the stage you have to go outside along fire escape like stairs that connect to a few other theaters. There are no loading docks at most of the Broadway houses. We load and unload trucks in the street in front of the theater and push cases through the house.

Each theater has a head of each department. They are the only people contracted to the house itself. They hire the over-hire technicians for both the load in/outs and the run of the show. The best way to get work on Broadway is to stop by the stage door and ask for the head of the department you want to work for and then you hand them your card. Next in the hierarchy, there are positions hired by the productions. The production electrician, for example, will lead (and hire) the shop prep, assist with the load in and then runs the show as the assistant to the head electrician. The best way to get a running position on a show is to start out as a swing. Most swings work for a couple different shows at the same time. Light board programming is a separate job than running the show itself. Good programmers bounce from tech to tech while the board operator comes in during previews.

Working as a stagehand in NYC has been an education in all aspects of the entertainment industry. While I eventually want to be back in Minnesota full time, I am so grateful to have the opportunity of working and living in New York. NYC and IATSE local 1 have a reputation of being mean and arrogant. I have been blown away by the kindness and willingness to help me find work and am always looking for ways to pay it forward. If you have ever wanted to work in NYC, for a week, two months or permanently I am happy to answer questions and help you get work. Remember, Minnesota will always be there.

Multimedia & Collaboration

Article by E.G. Bailey

Many talented artist E.G. Bailey is a major force in Twin Cities performing arts; few disciplines are untouched by him. An activist through his art, E.G. has inspired many people through the years, myself included. I still remember meeting him for the first time - it must be nearly 15 years ago now - standing in the booth at Pillsbury House Theater. The fire in his eyes was palpable even then, and it’s an honour to have him write for us. -Wu Chen

For years I called myself a multidisciplinary artist, until I realized that it is not about the different disciplines but how you fuse them. How do you bring the knowledge and skills from other practices to what you’re doing in another field? Keith Antar Mason, of the Hittite Empire, who we worked with during our Sirius B rites of passage, often talked about the concept of transference. He explained it as taking the principles of one discipline and bringing it to another, and thereby push even further the boundaries of both. This in some ways describes what I’ve tried to do with the incorporation of media into my performance work. After years of experience and experimentation, I can bring in media into a performance work not simply for functional purposes but to serve as symbol, metaphor, analysis or commentary, sometimes all four.

The performance style Sha Cage and I have developed, which we call Freestyle Theatre, is a fusion of spoken word, movement, media, music, and theatrical performance, grounded in ritual, both in process and performance. Sha’s solo performance works, N.I.G.G.E.R. and U/G/L/Y, which I have developed and directed with her, are the strongest examples of this style of work. This process is also grounded in improvisational creation, found moments and materials, and artifacts collected along the process, woven into a into complicated non-linear narratives that may not always be easily digestible but necessary still the same. Our collaborative performance work, Patriot Acts, is the purest example of this. It was also a work that relied heavily on media, as it addressed our post 911 condition. The work, commissioned by Pangea World Theater, as part of their Bridges project, investigated international reactions and reflections of America following September 11. We traveled to the Belgrade, Paris, and Leeds, landing in London a week after the bus bombings. We spoke with artists, watched and recorded rehearsals, performances in the park, or impromptu sessions in cafes or hallways. We captured songs that played frequently in different cities, collected music from spoken word and hip hop artists. Once back, we took all this material, along with various fragments we wrote as we traveled, and started to weave together the performance. We gave way to improvisation and trusted in randomness, and let the synchronicity of the journey inform the work rather than a plan scripted structure. We created virtual collaborations. A poet we recorded in Leeds was paired with a musician via video. The Parisian pop song became the music for a contemporary dance piece. We recreated a spoken word cafe and a hip hop concert. But before some could experience the performance, they were ‘extracted’ from the line and taken for interrogation; unknown to the subject, the interrogation was being broadcast to the audience. It was challenging and required a great deal of technical resources but the process is something we’ve continued to pull from because of the freedom it gives us in creating the work.

Our first exploration of this methodology was a collaboration, birth strings and blessings, based on our respective returns to Africa. I returned to Africa for four months to see my family and reconnect with my home in Liberia, which was recovering from a recent bout with civil war. Sha had traveled to Mali to join a friend working in the Peace Corps. We explored the meaning of home, for a Liberian twenty years from home and an African American returning to spiritual and ancestral home. It was also when I began to more fully explore the use of media in my work, fusing documentary footage, interviews, spoken word recordings, along with letters, visual art, movement, and performance.

Soon after, I was asked to be the videographer for J. Otis Powell!’s performance work, Stigmatism, creating montages to be interwoven with spoken word and music performances. Following this, I joined the Langston Hughes Project as the videographer and technical director for their spoken word and jazz performance work, Ask Your Mama, based on Langston Hughes’ seminal poem cycle. A dense and heavily referential work, Ask Your Mama retells history through jazz poetics and the vernacular of the dozens. It required a great deal of research into Langston’s life and work, in order to best represent the images in the cycle and showcase the myriad of historical events highlighted in the work. It also allowed me to advance idea and techniques explored in Stigmatism, and move into a more directorial role. I hired a digital graphic editor and we created motion graphics to take the visuals of the show from a simple slideshow to an animated tour of Langston’s life and experiences using montage techniques Langston had use in his poetry. These visuals accompanied a spoken word and jazz performance of the cycle, which we toured to different colleges and performance halls. This was before motion software reached prosumers, so it was After Effects and Photoshop, then into Final Cut. The main hurdle was time but it also required an excessive amount of storage because visuals needed to be present the length of the show and layered archival footage, animation and photographs. I wish the resources and technology was there for us to push further than we did but audiences were happy with the results.

As the Hughes Project toured, and I with it as videographer and technical director, I continued to work on other theatre projects, including developing media for shows at the History Theatre and Mama Mosaic. The work with Mosaic included Brideprice, The Bi Show, Journals and others; it allowed me to experiment with media but also to refine the kind of animations we were making, eventually creating short films for inclusion in the shows. I expanded my skill set and began to work with a range of collaborators as I continued to direct spoken word and hip hop theatre projects and short films.

An extended sabbatical took me away from theatre and film for a number of years, as we ran two nonprofits and a record label. But have since returned after working with Amiri Baraka as part of the Givens Black Writers Retreat. Amiri has long been a looming creative influence, and to get an opportunity to work with him and begin a friendship was life-giving for me. It reinforced my need to get to return to theatre and film, to follow my passion. At the Retreat, I had an opportunity to share with him my vision of adapting his poem cycle, Wise Why’s Y’s, to the stage. I had first encountered Wise Why’s Y’s when Amiri performed at the Walker as part of the Beat exhibit in the mid 90s. I was working KFAI at the time, and working with J. Otis Powell! on the Write on RaDio! show. I was in attendance, recording the performances for the show. He was already in large influence, having studied his work with the Beats and the Black Arts Movement, but it was my first time meeting Amiri. It was also my first time meeting Professor John Wright, who would later ask me to become the videographer on the Langston Hughes Project, which was performing on the bill with Amiri. Later, as I worked on the Langston Hughes Project, a seed of an idea began to grow of doing a similar adaptation of Amiri’s Wise Why’s Y’s, since Wise was in many ways an evolution and an answer to what Langston was attempting with Ask Your Mama.

Where Ask Your Mama is expansive, Wise is dense and compact, and much of its power comes from that compression. It is only forty poems, mostly poems not longer than 40 lines, but courses through the history of Africans in America. After getting permission from Amiri to adapt the cycle, I begin to develop the work through different phases. It is currently in its third phase. The second phase was developed with Amiri through the Next Step grant from the Metropolitan Region Arts Council. I traveled to Newark to work with Amiri, who also participated in the presentation of the work. The second phase primarily focused on the development of the choreography and the music for the piece. The third phase will develop the media and staging of the work.

Once Wise Why’s Y’s was completed, I traveled to NY to train at the Edit Center, out of which grew an opportunity to work as an editor on the feature film, Petting Zoo. I love working collaborators, would often rather work with a collaborator than work in a silo. But I also believe that you need to continually study so that are no obstacles to facilitate the creation of your work. I often say that the work tells me what it will be, and if I don’t have that skill I learn it to create the work. Even if you work with a collaborator, the more you know about the discipline you are collaborating with, the more language you have to communicate about the work.

It was also around this time that I had the fortune to reconnect with Marion McClinton, who asked me to become his assistant director. We have been working together now for five years, as our collaboration as continue to change and evolve. It’s impossible not to gain clarity and confidence working with artists such as these. That clarity I have been able to take into my continued collaboration with Sha Cage, and new film productions currently in process.

Building a New Web

Article by Rebecca Bernstein

I met Rebecca when we were working on the Minnesota Opera Project Opera production together. She did a tremendous job on a daunting show - and it looked terrific, with a clear and spot-on aesthetic. I knew right away not only did I want to work with her again, I also wanted to get to know her better and learn from her. Then I found out that she was a recent transplant from New York City and I knew I had to hear what she had to say about these two major hubs of theatre. Keep an eye out for Rebecca. The Liar at Park Square Theater, opening September 16th is a good place to start. Visit her website to learn more -Wu Chen

Hoodoo Love   presented by The Cherry Lane Theatre, Lucie Toberghein (Director). Rebecca Berstein (Costume Designer). 

Hoodoo Love presented by The Cherry Lane Theatre, Lucie Toberghein (Director). Rebecca Berstein (Costume Designer). 

Theatre artists are storytellers by nature and profession; we like a narrative and look for the threads that connect people, ideas, and places. We come together to create, a small tight-knit group of souls working to share a story. “Who are you working with?” is every bit as important a question as “What are you working on?” when we talk amongst ourselves. Not surprising then, is the monumental task it has been has been to build a brand-new story in a new city.

Nineteen months ago we packed our small Manhattan apartment into a large truck and hoped that the nice gentleman driving it could find Minnesota in late December...without getting stuck in the snow. Two freelance theater parents, two kids, and a rent-stabilized one bedroom had become too much. Our lives there were unsustainable, and we needed a new path.

After seventeen years in New York City, my whole adult life, I was starting over. In that time I had built a web that stretched from post-undergrad internships, to grad school, to designing Off-Broadway plays, to motherhood. My career ranged from commercial Broadway costume shops where I worked as a first hand to large regional Opera companies where I worked as a draper, from designing so-far-off-Broadway-it’s-not-even-in-the-description shows in basements to investor backed Off-Broadway shows (still in basements, but bigger ones), into classrooms where I taught costume design and costume construction. Like most theater professionals I had dipped my toe into dozens of genres, organizations, and temperaments. Everywhere I worked and everyone I spoke to became – at least in a small way – part of my orbit. The people adjacent to my path became my close friends and confidantes, but everyone touched me in some way.

I had confidence that my skills would translate to a new environment. I had training and experience at the largest (and smallest) levels of theatrical production. But that web of people cannot be translated or transplanted.

Where to begin? At first the Twin Cities seemed impossible, the well-established theater community was buzzing with activity but felt too well established to need anyone new. My two small children made it difficult to just get out there and see shows and meet people. Needing to drive most places felt like an unbearable burden. And it was the middle of winter.

Slowly I was able to make a few connections. As always, it’s ultimately about the people. I was able to reconnect with a director I’d loved working with once, in NY, a decade ago, before she moved to Minneapolis. An actor friend from high school introduced me to a wonderful director and Shakespeare company that have provided much of the work I’ve done since moving. My husband, who had taken a job at the Children’s Theatre Company, has given my name to people there. And each job means meeting new people, who have been generous in their willingness to share my name within the community. It is the start of a new series of intertwined relationships that carry us, and the theatrical endeavor, forward. I am starting to see the smile and welcome that I always knew was at the center of an artistic community. There is no amount of resume sending, cold calling, or job posting that can compare to this personal and public, hidden yet completely exposed social network.

But where do you buy fabric?!?!?!?!? Not only did I leave 17 years worth of friends and colleagues, I left 17 years worth of knowledge of resources. On my first sizable show here I seriously considered taking a flight back to New York to go fabric shopping. While New York isn’t the mecca it once was for fabric (stores are being priced out by luxury condos and snooty bars) you can still usually find all the fabrics, trims, and notions you might need in few block radius. Again, it comes back to people.  People I’ve met here, even if just for a minute, have been so willing to take time to answer my questions and share sources in town. Is there fabric beyond Joann’s? Where can I get shoes rubbered with a reasonable turnaround? Who stocks theatrical make-up outside Halloween season? Armed with their answers and my GPS I’m learning what I can expect to find locally and what I need to source from the internet.

Every time I’m able to answer one of these questions or make a new connection I feel more at home and more comfortable existing with confidence in my new theatrical world.

So now, nearly two years into this adventure, I can say that shopping Goodwill here is an organized, air-conditioned delight (unlike the dank, smelly, jumble of most second-hand stores I frequented in NY...and thanks to a tip from someone who knew that Salvation Army was far more common in NY than Goodwill, and that I’d probably head there first, I was able to quickly experience the fabulousness), being able to throw costumes in the trunk is much nicer than schlepping suitcases full of them on the subway (though I still hate driving), and please, please, please SR Harris, don’t ever close.

I still feel like I have a long way to go, but give me another 15 years and I’ll be there.

In Focus: Women in Audio

Article by Montana Johnson

Over a decade ago, Montana Johnson was Lead Audio Engineer and Sound Designer at History Theatre and I was her audio technician. Montana now teaches at the University of Minnesota, while maintaining an excellent freelance design and mixing career. She’s been an inspiration and mentor to many over the years - including myself. -Wu Chen

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography


I’ve been working as a audio designer and engineer for close to 18 years. My first gig as a mix engineer made me wonder why anyone would do anything else for a living, in short I love my job for a multitude of reasons. But one thing has always bugged me about it as a profession, why aren’t their more women in it? If theatre is really meant to reflect or speak for society, shouldn’t its artists be representative of that society?  According to recent surveys only 9% of the sound designers at LORT theatres are women, and only 5% of audio engineers in live audio are women. That means 9 times out of 10 the person behind the audio console will probably be a man. I know from classes I’ve taught that this still plays out in education as well. One semester I actually taught a class with 0% diversity, as in all white men (wonderful students, but bizarre demographically). What is it that creates this disparity? Why aren’t women taking these fields by storm? What about audio as a profession leads to these overwhelming numbers? To answer these questions, I asked a group of female audio designers/engineers some questions about the course of their careers and opinions on why this is. The women I interviewed work as designers and engineers, with career spans as short as 5 years to over 27 years. In asking questions of these artists I hope to get one step closer to understand why it’s almost always a “sound guy” behind the console and possibly see if change is on the horizon.

II. How did you get into audio and why?

College and internships were most women’s access to opportunities in sound. However, in many cases a mentor was involved, often one who actively pushed them to strive more. A few women described stumbling into audio and afterwards just couldn’t imagine another path. Veronica Strain, a local audio engineer described her choice; “Audio was the only career I felt that I could/wanted to do for the rest of my life”. Others describe it as a slowly evolving career, which after a while “would feel wrong if I didn’t do it”. Most women I asked discovered it was a field that allowed them to combine interests such as music and technology, or music and theatre. "It allowed me to create music that fits into its own world and story line" said Shannon O’Neill, a professor and freelance designer from Louisiana. These women also seem to be people who enjoy a challenge. Amy Poliner, a freelance designer in California says she got into audio because “Audio was the design element I understood the least about. As a visual learner, it presented an exciting challenge for me, while simultaneously appealing to the musician and performer in me”. And Julie Ferrin, a California based designer and engineer, spoke candidly about the joy in being challenged by her job to use creative solving, “I pride myself on being able to make a shitty rig sound great. Anyone can be a great designer when given the best tools, but what can you make of a pile of shit?” These paths don’t seem all that unusual than men I’ve talked to in audio design, although the almost all of women I interviewed had formal training in sound through a college or technical skills. I don’t know how common this is for male audio engineers but it was very common for women.

III. Mentorship

One study I found, of fields such as computer engineering and the sciences, emphasizes the importance of mentorship and exposure to technology as factors in getting girls involved and engaged. Every woman I interviewed had professors, directors, audio engineers, or experienced designers whom, in a variety of ways, worked with them and actively mentored them. Most women thought that gender played little to no part in their relationship with mentors. However, only one of my interviewees had a female mentor. She described working with them “Seeing how they navigate the professional audio world as females helps me identify how I should act.” Although the majority of women didn’t have female sound designers/engineers to mentor them, often they found female colleagues in other areas. Katharine Horowitz, a Minneapolis based sound designer spoke to this phenomenon “The women who have influenced my career and allowed me to grow are those with whom I’ve worked alongside as directors or stage managers, sometimes evolving our careers in tandem”.

All of my interviewees have also gone on to mentor young technicians and students of both genders. There is some disagreement as to if mentoring women or men is a different process. One freelance designer responded, “I have mentored both and there is no difference”. But on the contrary although most of her students seem very comfortable working on diverse teams O’Neill, says that when mentoring women “we work on how to be assertive and what to do if she thinks she is experiencing sexism”. She also recognizes that gender norms often cause “some female students to seek out men to help them with technology”. Many of the designers I interviewed took on female mentees and assistants often due to communication skills. “I find that women are better communicators. Which makes design meetings and tech very smooth” says Cricket Myers, a Tony nominated sound designer based out of Los Angeles. Sound design has a long tradition of on the job training, and a quality mentor can make all the difference for a young technicians or designers success rate, particularly in a field that women don’t traditionally go into.

IV. Are their advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in sound?

In terms of advantages, many emphasize women’s skills as strong communicators and social agility. This can fix problems ahead of time “communication and personality are half the battle when collaborating in theatre" said Horowitz. For the educators I interviewed it is an advantage in recruiting, simply because of our scarcity. It can also be an advantage when working on projects with female artists, in building trust as was the case of one designer who worked with survivors of sexual abuse on a new play, as O’Neill described, “I was designer/composer on that project, and I think the fact that I am female helped me build trust with our cast, which was comprised of survivors (no professional actors)”

In terms of disadvantages, many of my interviewees acknowledged that there is sexism present but it can run the gamut from nonexistent to strong resistance. A few female technicians spoke of working on larger crews where as one audio technician described “Often my strength or knowledge is questioned or I am hit on. I dress down and don’t wear makeup because I don’t want this sort of attention.” One designer shared a story about budgets where her request for a budget upgrade (due to old, poor quality gear) was refused however “The year following me, the male sound designer made the exact same argument, and he received a $5000 budget…though, that the sexism doesn’t only come from the men. In the case above, the producer was a female”. Sometimes subtler kinds of sexism are trickier beasts because it’s often unclear if it is sexism or just frustrating co-workers. Often co-workers who have problems working for or with women will have problems working with men as well. How do you tell if it’s your problem or theirs? Particularly when you are in charge (as say the lead designer). Most women have developed specific coping mechanisms. “I don’t let their surprise or preconceptions linger. I don’t take offense to those preconceptions either, because that will only cause tension between me and the crew and will make it that much harder to gain their respect” said Myers. One hopes that potential gender dynamic pitfalls can be avoided however some situations of tension do crop up. With more transparency some of these differences can be overcome, the more people share info about compensation, working conditions, a host of things that influence how we do our job the more we can navigate and improve the situation. However, I do think that more female designers and engineers would make these situations less commonplace and I think that would be a good thing.

V. Gear Fear

The question I was most hesitant to ask was about something I call “gear fear”. In truth it’s a sexist question, but in my experience men are more comfortable talking about gear specifications earlier in their careers, potentially “faking it 'til they make it”. However, I wanted to ask the questions because it has been an issue in my career, initially I was overwhelmed by specifications and didn’t feel I have a concrete handle on them until I started teaching. Ironically it was answering student’s questions that made me realize how much I knew. Most, but not all, of the women I interviewed said this was not a fear they felt strongly, however a few mentioned how incredibly helpful internet is in getting more information on technical details of the gear in question. It allows anyone to look up specifications (on site if need be). Poliner described designing for a theatre company early in her career “I was horrified I might blow up their expensive gear, so I spent most of my lunches reading about different gear I found online and watching You Tube videos on how it all worked”. It is quite possible gear fear (whether its real or fictional) isn’t about audio gear, it’s about overcoming our desire to do it perfectly the first time. This may have something to do with how girls are often socialized, with a focus on perfection rather than risk, found in studies on educational gender difference. However, exposure to more gear and a supportive environment in which to fail/figure out were common stories among this group of successful women.

VI. Why women don’t get into audio?

Although the answers are diverse, visibility and access seem to be recurring themes. Some argued status quo of an all male profession is unappealing to young women. It’s a profession where we have to adapt our behavior to be accepted. As O’Neill explained, “There is a boys’ club when it comes to sound and audio, and if a woman’s first experience is working with a foul-mouthed curmudgeon who doesn’t think it’s a woman’s place to even plug in an XLR cable, girls are not going to want to join the field. Why deal with that on a day-to-day basis if they don’t have to?” This experience of “boys club” was not universal, Horowitz described how “Minneapolis is a fairly female friendly tech scene”. Others concluded that freelance work in particular may not be attractive to women, “I think that being a freelance designer is VERY hard. And most of the women I have encountered chose to find a different path with more security. They find house positions, or full time jobs that pay their bills, and then just design on the side.” said Myers. I would not disagree with the argument of difficulty in working as a freelancer it is not a path for everyone. However, that doesn’t explain why costume designers at LORT theatres make up 68% of designers. What does explain it is gender norms and visibility. In costumes women occupy positions in all tiers, which creates a clear precedent and a path for a young female designer to climb the ladder to larger freelance designs. Visibility can also play a role for women seeking role models “I think sound design/audio technology isn't a very visible field, so few seek it out. A large number of sound people I've met fell into it by accident, and in the past men have tended to take a greater interest in engineering and technology, so men most often were the ones who stumbled into it” said Poliner. However, seeing a woman do a job, is will at least make it clear that it is an option. Jeanine Tesori, the composer of Fun Home spoke in an interview of seeing a female conductor on a Broadway show:  

“I remember seeing Linda Twine conduct when I was nineteen. She is this beautiful African-American woman who was in complete command with all of the men on stage looking at her every move…I didn’t realize that you could make a life doing this at all. I thought music was something you just did; you practiced and then you played and there was no end game.” 

Despite some of these stumbling blocks it does seem that more and more women are coming into the field. The youngest designer interviewed sent me a list of 7 other interviewees. The three instructors in the pool spoke of greater numbers of females taking their classes. I also asked if the teams they worked on were getting more diverse. The overall answer to that was positive, as Poliner observed, “Crews that have been more gender diverse have tended to be more energetic. Those crews also seemed to get to know each other better”. Although diversity (beyond gender) is also a problem in design in general, one designer observed in sound, “I’ve seen almost zero people of color, it’s perplexing.” This is part of a larger conversation about technical theatre and its lack of diversity, however I think it’s the natural extension of all questions revolving around diversity.

I also asked these women about where they wanted to see audio in the future and beyond. Many had interest in interactive sound and installation work, particularly as it develops into cheaper and more available technology. A few designers expressed interest with more issues of legal/working conditions, specifically a unified copyright solution. Horowitz cautioned the most important thing she would want to pass on to younger designers to "learn your rights as an independent contractor and as a creator of intellectual property.”

My interviewees also wanted to see a greater understanding of what sound can do, “Learning how to better educate directors, producers, and audience members in what high quality sound is and how it affects how we perceive experiences,” said Poliner. It is difficult often to communicate these things to directors, that unawareness of how much craft and technical is involved in sound design/engineering, or phrased better by Ferrin, “I wish people would understand how important sound is and what we have to deal with to get a good end product.”

The reason I wanted to write this is article is because I love doing audio, but I think it’s a mistake to remove who you are as a person from your artistic endeavors. And gender may or may not affect a small part of that. For my students who are becoming designers and audio engineers and I wonder what the work place will look like for them. Will it be more gender diverse, and more racially diverse? The students I’ve worked with are becoming more conscious of how their gender and race play into their position in the world, much more so in the last year than previous years of teaching. Does this awareness mean women will pull into the double digits percent wise in terms of representation in all levels of audio design? And will the term “sound guy” die a sad death along with stewardess etc.? Speaking to all these designers and engineers made me realize how diverse we actually are as a group and how ready we are to welcome new members. As one engineer put it “I would really like young women entering work where there is little female influence and representation to not at all be discouraged”. I think in order to increase that influence she described and foster female talent, we need (to use a sports analogy) a better farm team system. We need (and by we I mean audio as a profession) to get better early on at actively cultivating female talent, that may not look like the typical audio guy, but can bring different resources to the table. This is not to say that we should not promote competent men, but how can we be at our best as a profession without using the full talent pool? Recently I had student employee of two years graduate, and on her last day she told me that she “still couldn’t believe I hired her”. I really want to live in a world where young women can confidently stumble into audio and replace that with either “I’m so glad you hired me” or “ you were lucky to have me” because it is the last sentiment that I agreed with whole heartedly, and it makes me eager to find her replacement. 

In Focus: The Production Manager

Article by Nancy J. Waldoch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are dabblers and doers.

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

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

We are good listeners and so we are good interpreters.

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

We are artistic advocates and team players.

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

We’re big picture thinkers and problem solvers.  

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

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


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

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


In Focus: The Stage Manager

By Elizabeth MacNally

Elizabeth MacNally is the Production Stage Manager at the amazing Pillsbury House Theater. She’s also been a freelance stage manager, and held positions at the Guthrie and History Theatre. She works with theatre professionals from all walks of life. I always look forward to working with Elizabeth: it’s impressive to watch her work. -Wu Chen

When Wu Chen first asked me to do this, I thought the timing couldn’t be more perfect.  As I approach my 15-year anniversary with Actors' Equity and a member of the Twin Cities Theatre community, I started to reflect on where I’ve been in the past 15 years; where I thought I would go, and what I wish I would have known when I was still in school.  Wu Chen asked me to write about working in some of the rooms I find myself and how I navigated these rooms.

In order for me to understand where I am today, I had to go back to the beginning.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that valued art.  My parents took my younger brother and me to theatre all of the time.  I have very strong memories of seeing Children’s Theatre Company’s production of Cinderella at Saint Kate’s O’Shaughnessy auditorium; more on that later. I was also very lucky to meet Scott Peters at the very young age of eight.  My mother was a high school theater director and Scott was her set designer and builder.  I was allowed to ride along with Scott in his navy blue pickup and collect props from the basement of Mixed Blood and other amazing errands.  Scott told me if a high school student could figure out how to build something so could I.

After that I was ready to become a scenic designer.  Only there was a problem, I can’t draw and I lack an artist’s imagination, so it was back to the beginning.  I started to audition for summer community theatre with my mom, she would get cast and I would not.  Now being a young person, I thought my mom’s rule for her high school students was the way theatre worked (if she didn’t cast you but you volunteered for the crew, she would find a place for you in an upcoming production.)  So I thought, “Great, I can be on the crew at the age of 9!”  And it was amazing! I was in charge of getting Sandy, in the Elk River Community Theatre’s production of Annie (Directed by Mary Finnerty), to all of her entrances and catch her when she would exit.  The following summer I crawled around the Oliver set opening trap doors and plugging in specials no one else could reach. I had found my place.  I was made for the crew!  I did get cast in a production of Bye Bye Birdie, because the director of Oliver remembered what a good kid I was backstage.  I hated it. Right before we started tech, I asked if I could drop out and join the crew.  My mom informed me I had to follow through with my commitments.  Bye Bye Birdie at the age of 13 was the beginning and the end of my acting career.  I knew tech theatre was for me.

Now, I know this is not a common road to stage management.  Not many folks enter under wanting to be a professional stage manager. In fact, most folks don’t know what a stage manager really does.  But, there I was, 19 years old in the fall semester of my first year in college, registered in intro to stage management.  Little did I know I would be stage managing the first show of my first semester, with a cast of all upper class people!  This would be the first time I would have to prove myself, in a room I wasn’t sure I really belonged, and had to manage a group of people who didn’t need to trust me and could make my life very difficult.  Several of the cast members were known to put under class members through their paces.   I was lucky enough to have Angelique Powers, an upper classmate, give me the encouragement and advice to make it through that first show.  At the end of that first semester, Q informed me I was going to have to take on the spring musical, since she would be in London.  How? What? Why?  I was 19 and scared.  The spring musical was huge, and I really had no idea about musicals, but I made it, I was strong and got a lot of praise for the department.

While attending Rockford University, I received two internships. The first was a semester long internship at New American Theatre, a small SPT theatre in Rockford with their amazing stage manager Kathi Koenig.  The second one was a summer internship at the Guthrie Theater with Chris Code, Martha Kulig, Jenny Batten, and Sara McFadden.  I wish I could put into words what I learned from these amazing stage managers, but all these years later I can’t find the words.  I saw the best of the best handle big personalities, stressful moments with an amazing level of control and staying calm under pressure.  It was with their skills and guidance, I was able to enter this profession.  I strongly believe that without these internship I would not have been ready to enter this field when I did.

During my first show in the twin cities, Tamarack, at the Jungle Theater, I really started to understand managing a room.   At the time I believed I needed to come across older than I am, (I wanted them to think “I looked good for my age”), know the subject matter to support conversations that would happen in the room and most importantly know the equity rules.  I was young and right out of school, but there I was staging managing for Bain Boehlke and working with an amazing cast, Terry Hempleman, Barbara Kingsley and Stephen Yoakam.  I was scared, this was the big times.  Bain was tough on me, but remember earlier I said Children’s Theater Company production of Cinderella had a major impact on me?  It was here at the Jungle Theater, I would have flashes from my childhood of Bain creating magic on stage, and he wasn’t as scary anymore.  

It was also during this time at the Jungle I had a horrible interview for a stage management job.  I was asked two of the oddest questions.  The first, “How do I handle my height as a stage manager?”  I thought I had the perfect response, “I’m not short!  I can always make myself taller”.  And the second, “How did I work with such professional actors, Terry, Barbara and Stephen, when I had such little experience?”  It was this question that really caught me off guard, I said, “We are all professionals, I respect them as artists and they respect me to do the job, I was hired to do.”  Needless to say I didn’t get this job, and I didn’t lose any sleep over it.  

At the time I don’t think I truly understood why this interview upset me so much.  I thought “it wasn’t the kind of theatre I wanted to do”, because I only do “real theatre”, or so other bullshit like that.  After I had been out of school for several years I used to think my department should have me back to tech a master class entitled “When they didn’t teach me, in stage management class”.   In school I was taught technical side, the fundamentals of stage management, how to read a ground plan, how to tape out a rehearsal space, and all the paperwork I could even want.  But no one taught me what the emotional or human side of my job that I had to learn on my own.  How do you relate to a company that may not be trust you because of your age, your sex or your skin tone?  How do you help guide a company through a tragic event?  No one told me, when your phone rings at 9:01am it’s never good news.  It’s 9:01am so the person was waiting until after 9am to call you, to say the one phrase I hate more than any other “I’m okay but…” .  No you are not okay, you are calling me at 9:01am to tell me something has happened that will affect the show in a major way for some period of undetermined time.

It wasn’t until earlier this year when a national email forum I’m a part of addressed “the role of the stage manager in the room” that I really tried to understand my own process how I handled these issue and found some real understanding to this interview, so many years ago.  I’ve worked with a lot of amazing people on a lot of amazing projects.  And I’ve come to understand that I believe the best way for a show to be successful is if everyone is working together to serve the play first and foremost.  This is a new understanding for me and one I will continue to explore.  I know there is a fine line that I dance as a stage manager in a collaborative process. But, it’s this dance, this passion I have for theatre that allows me to be a successful stage manager even when I’m in a room I may not totally understand or belong in.  It’s my respect of art and process that allows me to be successful.

In Focus: The Stagehand

Article by Cindy Lindau

Cindy Lindau’s career is magnificent. She’s worked at theatres of all shapes and sizes, off the Union referral list and as staff. She’s done and seen more than I probably ever will in my career. They are, at the end of the day, the ones who actually get things done, and Cindy is one of the finest. I’ve learned so much from her, just by watching her navigate the stage and event floor. I’m honoured to have her write for us. -Wu Chen

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

What is a stagehand? To quote Wikipedia: “A stagehand is a person who works backstage or behind the scenes in theaters, film, television, or location performance. Their work includes setting up the scenery, lights, sound, props, rigging, and special effects for a production.” Simple, right?

I recommend the following webpage: http://flyingmoose.org/stage/stage.htm This particular page of the Flying Moose of Nargothrond website has a lot of hilarious and actually quite accurate descriptions of stagehandery, especially the comparisons between stagehands and pirates. Go ahead, check it out, but a word of warning: the site is tremendously entertaining and you might forget all about clicking back to this humble essay. Truth be told, I've had to tear myself away from the site once or twice in the past few days.

I have spent the majority of my professional stagehand career as a member of the run crew at the Children's Theatre and then at the Guthrie Theater (yes, two different spellings. It's a thing...). I have sat under a teacher's desk onstage for an hour in order to perform a one minute gag with a Tardis-like satchel. I have been the Invisible Man plucking the hat off someone's head. I have been invisible Bilbo Baggins unlocking a jail cell to free the dwarves; I have sat in the underworld at the old Guthrie countless times waiting for a scene change involving 1) an elevator, or 2) a trapdoor, or 3) a steering wheel that turned vertical panels on the stage above. I have even been the Grinch taking the log from the fire, and Tinkerbell drinking the poison.

Being a member of a performance run crew is only one aspect of being a stagehand, and it's the one I know best. I learned early on that it is an aspect that I am good at. I can hang and focus lights, or crawl under a stage to plug in a speaker or run feeder, or help to push a road box into a truck, but I have found that backstage during a show is the place where I am most content. I figured out in college that I wasn't going to be an actor; instead of leaving the business, I chose the backstage life.

Working as a stagehand has ruined going to the theatre. I walk in, sit down and soon start checking out the lighting rig overhead, the scenery on stage, speaker placement (if there are speakers in view) etc. etc. I might look at the set, see a thin seam on the floor and think “there's a turntable in the show” or “I wonder when that trap door will be used”. Many years ago during a performance, I heard a slide projector click on in the catwalks and pondered what that meant until moments later the lights went down and a pattern projected from said projector bathed the stage while a scene shift took place. I wasn't familiar with the show, but from that point I knew that every time I heard that projector click on there was a scene change coming up. It was still a great show, but I wonder if I'd lost part of the impact by knowing that.

There have also been times when I've seen a really cool effect and spent the rest of the act trying to figure out how it was done instead of watching the show. Sometimes that happens when the show is less than absorbing, but it can also happen in the middle of a riveting performance. (Sorry all my actor friends, it's not you, it's me.) That said, I think War Horse is one of the few shows I've seen where my sense of wonder and amazement stayed intact through the whole performance; one of the few shows in my 35 years of working in the theatre where I came out of the auditorium at the end of the night thinking “Yes! THAT is why I'm in this business.” The power of stagecraft to tell a story was overwhelmingly evident that night. That's what I've always loved about working backstage; being an unseen part of that power to bring a story to life. I'm not ashamed to tell you that sometimes I quietly (being backstage and all) filch a little bit of the applause for myself.

Corporate & Industrial Gigs from a “Seasoned” LD Perspective

Article by Michael Murnane

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

Lighting by Michael Murnane

Lighting by Michael Murnane

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

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

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

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

Time is Money

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

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

Business is Business

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

Creative Stuff

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

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

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

Communicating with Corporate People

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

Mind Business

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

The Theatrical Pyramid Verses the Corporate Event Pyramid

This is my favorite in terms of personal growth.

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

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

What Teaching High School Has Taught Me About Theater

Article by Suzy Messerole

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

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

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

Here is some of what I have learned:

1.  Theatre should be fun

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

2.  Learning to Pause

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

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

3.  Naming what is real

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

4.  It’s not a race

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

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

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