Reflections

ARTICLE BY MIKE WANGEN

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The legendary Mike Wangen has been tremendously influential on the lives of many people in the local industry, mine included. If you haven’t had a chance to see his work, and talk to him about lighting design, you’re missing out on a treat. Incredibly well- and widely-read, his excitement and lucidity on the industry and on art, aesthetics and politics are easily (and, I think often, and criminally) overlooked. He’s not one for public speaking, so this piece here is a rare and wonderful bird. -Wu Chen

 

The end of 2017 marks my fortieth year of working as a theater artist, and it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on that life - specifically, on what my friend, actor Jim Craven, calls the “arc of creativity.” It is the ability to stay engaged in the art of theater and to constantly question and push the boundaries of that art.  This is something which is often easier said than done.

    My work history in theater can be broken into roughly three segments: an early period from 1977 through the mid 80s when I was developing my ideas and laying a foundation for what would come later, often without realizing it;  a middle period from 1987 through the early 2000s when I began working at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and Penumbra Theatre and was actually earning a living wage as a theater artist; and a late period beginning around 2003 and lasting through today when I became what could be considered a mature artist.

    I am a completely self-taught lighting designer.  I still don’t know what possessed me to walk in and apply to work as a lighting designer for a small experimental theater in Minneapolis in 1977. It was probably a mix of my father’s career being a professional photographer, my high school education which centered on a strong Humanities program, and the fact that I had dropped out of the U of M as a History major to run lights for a local rock band.  It was at the Olympia Arts Ensemble that I learned the nuts and bolts of the art of theater, most importantly, the WORDS.  Theater is storytelling and the fact that we were a poor group which could not afford large sets and lots of lights meant that we had to find creative solutions to staging problems and rely on the strength of the actors and the words in the script.  This has colored my views on design my entire life, and I still feel that this is a real strength in my work; the ability to pare away extraneous ideas and get to the heart of the matter.

    Experimentation is natural for us when we are in our twenties. To couple that enthusiasm with the rather free lifestyles of the 70s and the theatrical environment I was in was magic - and not limited to theater.  I experimented with photography (like my father), poetry and set design as well as reading voraciously (including every text on technical theater that I could find).  I never thought of myself as establishing a career as a lighting designer. I was just in the moment, absorbing thoughts and ideas.  My creativity grew out of the need to translate and express the thoughts floating around in my head from all of the ideas and information I was absorbing. The theater group I was worked with nurtured that.  I became unable to separate my life as an artist with other parts of my life.  It was all one and the same.  I see these trends in a number of young designers today and I am very encouraged.

    Then, it all came crashing down when Olympia collapsed in the early 80s, another hard lesson.  Disillusioned and feeling betrayed (the SYSTEM had crushed our noble experiment in artistic expression), I moved back to my home in Albert Lea to pout.  I had become an adult child.  

    The next period of growth in my life began in 1987.  Michael Brindisi, who I had known quite well in Albert Lea where he had started the Minnesota Festival Theater, was hired as director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and asked me to come and work there.  At the same time, I had been put in touch with Lewis Whitlock, who liked my work and invited me to design what was the original version of Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre.  For the first time in my life I was fully employed in the theater.  After several years, I left my job at Chanhassen to pursue my designing for Penumbra on a more full-time basis.  This brings up a couple of points about the creative process.  At Chan, for the first time in my life, I had secure full-time employment in my chosen field.  Yet, something was missing for me. I had become complacent in my job, which led to a reduction in my incentive to create.  It’s a trade off which many of us have had to consider; how do you balance the positives of a secure income with the resulting loss of creativity which comes from doing the same thing over and over again? Yin and yang.  For me there was no choice, I went to Penumbra to try and further my growth as an artist in what I perceived to be a more open artistic environment.  The idea of trusting your intuition to act as an agent of change emerged as a conscious part of my decision making.  I still believe it is one of the keys to remaining creative in life.

    In my time at Penumbra I was exposed to a group of immensely talented artists who were in the process of coalescing into a finely tuned artistic unit with a strong, unified aesthetic.  It was, in many ways, a continuation of the process that I was exposed to at Olympia but which had failed there at a critical moment.  I was able to build on the foundations laid down in my early years, this time with more tools (lights) at hand to implement ideas.  My 13 years at Penumbra were some of the most productive of my life, and I made lasting friendships which remain to this day.  However, the negative aspects of that work began to become apparent to me as well.  I had developed my bag of lighting tricks and favorite colors which I tended to use again and again, “good” had become “good enough.”  To battle this, I believe it’s necessary to constantly strive to broaden your boundaries and pull yourself out of your comfort zone.  The Twin Cities is blessed with an amazing variety of theater, dance, music, and spoken word, and we need to cross pollinate all of these fields to remain creative.  Search for diversity in your work, embrace change and do not run from it; it will nurture you if you let it.

    I left Penumbra in 2001 after accepting a job at the Fitzgerald Theater, and I have since increasingly embraced a life as a freelance designer, leaving the Fitzgerald in 2015.  I am now 63 years old and feel that I’m doing the best work of my life.  I have been very lucky in many ways to have worked with an amazing group of artists.  I attribute a good part of my longevity to the fact that I have always recognized that change is a constant and have constantly sought ways to expand my boundaries.  As far as creativity goes, I’ll make an analogy to being successful at poker.  You can only succeed if the money you’re playing with does not have any value outside of the fact that it’s a tool, a means to an end.  You need to remain open-minded and be willing to try new ideas, always - even if they fail.  When they do, let them go, and move on.  This can be very scary and disappointing, but the rewards can be beautiful.  

    I’ve now reached a point where I consider myself a mature artist, which has freed me in many ways to do better work.  I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I feel free to explore and experiment in any direction I choose.  In many ways, this completes the circle that began when I started in the 70s.  I was doing the same thing then, but was not even aware of it.  It was just something new and exciting in my life.  There have been many trade-offs, I have no retirement options, no family, no job security, but I feel that I have made a difference in people’s lives, helped them to see the world in different ways.  Most importantly, I see these same sparks of creativity in many young theater artists here who I have worked with or observed over the last few years.  Be curious, see everything, explore, don’t limit yourself.

 

The Influence of Design

ARTICLE BY CARLYLE BROWN

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Esteemed playwright Carlyle Brown muses this month on how design elements in production have shaped and influenced his thought process in writing a play.  The idea that the words on the page can take on a sometimes surprising life through the efforts of the design team is just another example of what makes theater a magical and unique artform and one which we should all value.  A true collaboration. - Mike Wangen

 

In the very early beginnings of my career as a playwright, I had the good fortune of working with three extraordinary theater designers; set designer Doug Stein, lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, and costume designer Paul Tazwell. The theater was Arena Stage and the production was my now much produced The African Company Presents Richard III, the story of a group of free Africans putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in New York City in 1821. The play was yet unfinished and needed fixing in places that I was yet to discern. What I learned from these three talented gentlemen was that in the experience of a piece of theater what we “see” is as important as the text in the telling of a theatrical story. 

There is a scene in the play where the character Sarah has fashioned an old, worn “pigeon-tail coat” with colorful patches for Papa Shakespeare to make amends for her former ill-treatment of him and to celebrate the opening of their production in the ballroom of a hotel, next-door to the powerful white theater that previously had them shut down. Excited and joyful for the gift of reconciliation and the redemption of their production, Papa Shakespeare exclaims to her, “Oh Sarah, it be just like the Bible say you reap what you sow”. Instead of hearing “sow,” because of Paul Tazwell’s colorful patchwork costume, the audience heard “sew.” Suddenly, unintended and unforeseen laughter and a surprising pun was born out of text. We kept it, of course, because the colorful costume had transformed a piece of exposition into a theatrical moment.

Likewise, in another scene a character is reminiscing/reliving a hurtful moment in the past in a monologue when another character enters with unpleasant news of the present. The transaction of moving from the character’s internal moment to an external one eluded me. But Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes resolved the problem with a light cue, a shift and bump of light that simply said, now you’re in your head and now you’re not. Place also became an issue in that production. Of all the locations where scenes and action take place - a rehearsal loft, a hotel ballroom, two theaters, a street - which should be central? In the end, we settled upon the rehearsal loft because that was the place where the most interesting scenes took place and its design in relationship to all the other locations was the most serviceable to staging and direction. But, in a subsequent production to be toured with the Acting Company, Doug Stein designed the play around an idea rather than a location; a simple, raked platform from stage left to stage right framed by the wooden ribs of a slave ship symbolizing the journey of these new African-Americans in a cultural affirmation through Shakespeare to a new world. In its surreal way, it was a design that was more real than realism, speaking fundamentally to the ideals of the play.

Since that production, I have come to respect and appreciate designers as story tellers in their own right, painting around the edges of words to collectively create a theatrical world. The associated artists of Carlyle Brown & Company are mostly designers; lighting designer Mike Wangen, sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, set designer Joe Stanley, costume designer Clare Branch, and properties designer and instillation artist Kellie Larson. They support me, challenge me, and keep me honest. Their analysis is as good as the best of dramaturgs. Under their influence, my stage directions have become sparse to nonexistent. Their aural and visual imaginings are far more insightful. In some strange, ethereal and indescribable way, they are with me when I sit down to write. Not looking over my shoulder, but opening doors to imaginative possibilities. They are more than colleagues or even friends; they are this playwright’s family.

 

For more on Carlyle Brown & Company, click here.

HALF A YEAR

ARTICLE BY TONY STOERI

Professional lighting designer, current graduate student, Tech Tools Newsletter regular, and all-round smart and great person, Tony Stoeri is back! Hopefully, by now the electrician, designer and Fringe regular who splits his time between here and Bloomington, Indiana, should need no introduction. If he does, click here!
Tony continues his column as he muses on the tensions, politics and realities of our industry as reflected in his experiences in the professional and academic sectors of that industry. Always insightful and challenging, we’re so glad Tony is back with us again this year! 
-Wu Chen

 

When I was a kid, I loved Where's Waldo. I was entranced by the vast, labyrinthine splendor that comprised each page- hundreds of tiny stories overlapping and intersecting, each one frozen in time at a crucial moment. I loved extrapolating outwards from these crystallized points of time, imagining the adjacent moments that the drawings conjured so vividly. And above all, I think I loved the contrast between the sweeping vista of a Where's Waldo spread, and the cramped intimacy of those tiny visual stories. I loved that I could unfocus my eyes, take in the visual cacophony that soared across two large pages, and then dive-in, leaving behind the overwhelming tangle of tiny people to find myself caught up in the story of that one guy who just poked that other guy in the butt with a spear. In that moment, for those two guys, life was simple. Neither of them seemed to care at all that they were about to be run over by that rogue chariot, or that in the background there were clearly at least TWO different volcanoes in the midst of catastrophic eruptions. They experienced only what was occurring right in front of them, living totally in the moment, their tiny faces showing only untempered joy and overwhelming, immediate discomfort. As a seven-year old child, carrying all the pressures of second grade on my stooped back, I envied them.

But what I hated about Where's Waldo is that some people seemed to think it was a game. I would be standing at a table in the middle of the Scholastic book fair, enraptured by my own personal viewing of what I believed to be art on the level of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when some snot-nosed punk classmate would come up behind me and say something to the effect of: “I have this book at home, it's easy, he's right there.” They would stab their chubby, grimy finger at the page, and then scamper off to go buy an I Spy, or do whatever it is that second-grade philistines do. “I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT STUPID TOURIST IN HIS DORKY SHIRT” I wanted to yell after them, but they would already be gone, and with them my own blissful myopia. Turning back to the book before me, I would experience a sense of vertigo, suddenly realizing that what I had just seen moments earlier as a rich tapestry of stories was, in fact, a simple, chore-like puzzle, centered on finding a very confused man with a pathological fondness for stripes.

Coming up on the halfway point of my final year of grad school and reflecting back on my experiences thus far, I found myself thinking a lot about those two guys with spears from that half-remembered Where's Waldo book. During my first two years at this place, I found myself operating under a set of rules and assumptions that appeared, from the outside looking in, inscrutable and illogical. You spend so much of your time in school, at school, working on school related projects, hanging out with friends you know from school, that any minor shift in the environment has a major ripple effect. That passive-aggressive email exchange about whether the money for the practicals the scenic designer specced is coming from props or electrics isn't a thing you can leave at work. It's not something you can get any meaningful separation from because everything in your day-to-day experience connects back to that place. The result is a feedback loop; no one can step back and gain separation and perspective, so everyone becomes more and more stressed and anxious about whatever is the crisis du jour. Events that are relatively minor and insignificant loom large and prominent, while other concerns recede into the background, regardless of how important they might be. We all become that guy from the Where's Waldo page, so utterly and totally intent on poking the other guy in front of us with our spear that we are completely oblivious to the onrushing chariot or the multiple erupting volcanoes.

But then, in your third year, the rug is yanked out from under you, the camera does a big old dolly zoom, and suddenly your professor calls you into his office and asks what you're doing after you graduate. And just as in that moment where that jerk points out where Waldo is without even being asked, everything shifts. The immediate concerns of your day-to-day stresses fall off, and those big, vague thoughts that have spent the past two years looming in the back of your mind come rushing to the fore with an urgency that takes your breath away. What comes after?

And you're not sure. Which is logical. I mean, changes this big always come with uncertainties and anxieties. But you're caught in the feedback loop, and there's no room for something to be an unknown. So you listen to your professor talk about your social media presence as a designer, and you listen to him talk about your portfolio, and you soak it all in. Deep down you're pretty sure that the fetishistic way that professors here treat portfolios is just an attempt to make up for the lack of practical career development material. No one is gonna tell you how to negotiate a contract, but they will be able to tell you that the gray background for this page is perhaps a bit too charcoal, and in the absence of any more meaningful input, it becomes easy to settle for the illusion of an answer in place of a real one. And so as you listen to a one-sided discussion about how maybe you should change where on your resume you list your references, you suddenly realize that this place has taught you to look at your career as a problem to be solved. Something with a definitive answer, and - by extension - a definitive right and wrong path.

A few weeks ago, some friends from the Twin Cities were visiting Dayton, Ohio. It's about a three hour drive from Bloomington, so I drove up to meet them. Dayton feels empty as a city; a downtown filled with old industrial buildings that stand derelict and boarded up, surrounded by a tangled fringe of old houses from the sixties and seventies. Beautiful, but not particularly well kept. There not being much in the way of sights to see in Dayton, we spent the day hanging out just like we would if we were back home. We got pizza, watched T.V., talked shop. It was one of the precious islands of normalcy that comes along every so often to interrupt the sustained insanity of grad school.

I left to drive home at about nine pm. Driving back, with little to distract me, my mind turned to worrying. Just a day or two before, Intermedia had announced it was laying off its staff, and my friends had expressed anxieties over the state of the Twin Cities theater scene. This brought to mind my own anxieties about leaving grad school, about all the things that could go wrong or poorly, all the things I needed to solve. But somehow, in that small car on a darkening highway, basking in the aftermath of a day spent with friends, I was able to shrug off that voice in my head. I felt in that moment thankful that I was able to follow this career path, that I had a chance of getting to do what I wanted. And I found myself looking forward to the ride. I'm trying to hold on to that feeling.

Half a year left.

 

Scaffold Seating and Precarious Pipes: Tech in the Time of the Guthrie 2

This is the second of our articles about the Guthrie 2, the entity that existed on the West Bank from 1976-79 before it evolved into the Southern Theater that we know today.
Jeff Bartlett is a well known regional theater and dance lighting designer and was the founding artistic director of the Southern Theater, serving from 1981-2008.  He is currently the production manager and lighting designer for the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College.
-Mike Wangen


Many in our theater community know the Southern Theater: artists and audience are fond of its unique warmth and ambiance; technicians have great fear and loathing of its pipe grid.  (You think it’s bad now boys n’ girls? You shoulda seen it when there weren’t even planks!)

Many folks know that the Southern opened as a vaudeville house in 1910, and that the building was subject to multiple uses/abuses over the decades: gutted and turned into a garage/warehouse, a restaurant and sundry other identities

Fewer and fewer though, may remember the brief but oh-so-critical juncture in the building’s history when it re-emerged from its derelict state and returned to its role as a performing arts venue, under the visionary if perhaps slightly crazy leadership of Artistic Director Eugene Lion: its 3-year stint as the “Guthrie 2” from 1976-79.

The “G2” was a grand adventure in “experimental theater.”  An artistic adventure, yes, featuring such contemporary scripts as The Future Pit and Krapp’s Last Tape.  But a true physical adventure for the audience as well, with no actual seats; rather a rickety, unsightly and entirely uncomfortable makeshift seating structure fashioned from construction scaffold.  And what an adventure for technicians, doing all their grid work on a series of pipes held up with chains, swaying with our every move!

Background: the story as I heard it (in my early days as in tern at the G2) was that Eugene, who had some sort of working relationship with the Guthrie, had pretty much on his own initiative received funding from a major national foundation to set up an “alternative,” second, performing space for the Guthrie.  Although then-Guthrie Artistic Director Michael Langham apparently wasn’t thrilled with either Eugene or his non-traditional approaches to theater, once the grant was awarded Guthrie management had little choice but to give the project a chance.

So the project had minimal financial support, and only “begrudging” conceptual support, from the Guthrie especially at the very beginning.  And/but/also, the whole endeavor was seen by those of us working on it as a brave and bold venture into uncharted realms of “experimental theater.”  So no one needed to bother themselves with petty bourgeois concerns like audience comfort or technician safety.

And the space needed to be (of course!) flexible!!  (Can’t be “experimental” if it isn’t flexible, right?)

The formula thus became: lack of money + desire for flexible seating + this is a brave and bold experiment = let’s put the audience on scaffolds that can be rolled around the room into any configuration we want!  

What are they going to sit on?  Why, we’ll build a bunch of box-like structures that can sit on the scaffolds and serve as both benches and steps.  (Come to think of it, this very design idea is echoed in the concrete stairs on the north side of the new Guthrie… hmmm…)

Flexible, they were.  Comfortable, not.  Plywood over a 1-by frame, with the cheapest imaginable carpeting laid down over some super-cheesy foam-type material that was forever dissolving and getting all up in everything.  Good times.

But the best part – the really really best part for the techies among us, was the grid at the time.  

The grid was literally just that: a grid.  Pipes, spaced on 5’ x 6’ rectangles (except 5’x5’ at the far north and south sides).  No other pipes than that basic 5’6’ grid.  No planks. The grid was hung by chains and not fastened to the walls in any way, so the whole thing swung side to side when you were up there moving around.

Yup – up there moving around.  On no planks.  Oh and also, no access.  How did you get up there?  You climbed up the seats-that-were-boxes on scaffold, you got to the top row and you climbed the railings of the scaffold.  That put your head around grid height, from where you shimmed yourself up onto the grid whereupon you were standing on: a pipe.  Holding onto a chain with each hand.

And if you were carrying, for example, a lighting instrument or a cable or 2 or 3, you were also holding those with one of those same two hands that was holding one of the chains.  So now you made your way across the grid, your hands moving Tarzan-style from one chain to the next (simultaneously holding onto the lighting gear), your feet on - did I mention? – nothing but bare pipes. (1-1/4” Sched 40, G2 couldn’t afford 1-1/2.”)

Maybe it was good we didn’t have much gear.  A bunch of Altman 6” fresnels and some old step-lens Kleigl ellipses that the Guthrie no longer wanted (go figure).  500-watt units replete with that lovely characteristic concentric-dark-circle beam pattern those funky old lights used to put out.  Beam angle?  Can’t say for sure, but they had come from Guthrie and were designed for that type of throw so in that room they put out like a 6-foot circle as I recall.  

24 circuits in the grid (6 circuits each – 1 receptacle per – in each of 4 boxes).  24 dimmers and a Teatronics 2-scene preset, and that was our lighting rig.

I should mention too that at this time, the proscenium arch was filled with a sheetrock wall.  The space behind the arch was the Scene Shop – except for the little bit at what’s now backstage left, that was the Costume Shop.  (The Guthrie 2 was fully staffed mind you: it had its own Equity Company, 2 or 3 Equity Stage Managers, a TD, resident set designer, publicity and financial staff, you name it.  The building was packed with people.)  But the playing area was entirely in front of the proscenium – that didn’t get opened up till later…

So while there wasn’t too much gear and we didn’t have to light behind the arch, the stage configuration changed from show to show so we had our hands full, me plus a couple other folk schlepping lights around, walking on pipes, swinging from chain to chain on the pipe grid. Thus we ventured into the opening production, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, directed by Eugene Lion with set and lights by Richard Hoover, in late January 1976.

The resident company’s – and Eugene Lion’s – opening season didn’t last too long.  Around April or so Michael Langham announced he was terminating the experiment.  The G2’s resident playwright Robert Hellman penned a play entitled Open and Shut, an allegorical tale of the G2’s brief adventures.  Lighting was by Karlis Ozols who brought in a ton of extra gear so a great part of the tech process was orchestrating the physical repatches.  With that, the Guthrie 2’s inaugural season closed in May ‘76, just 5 months after it opened.

But the G2 had left a lasting gift to the Twin Cities performing arts community.  Eugene Lion, with all his nuttiness, had the wonderful and unshakeable conviction that the space should be used by independent local artists, and so The 10:30 Series was born: late-night productions by all manner of artists including Barbra Berlovitz and Domique Serrand, pre-Jeune Lune; Michael Robins’ and Bonnie Morris’ Illusion “Mime” Theater as it was known at the time; Ken DeLap and the Ozone Dance Company which transmuted into Zenon a few years later…  and a most memorable production by Chris Langham, Michael’s son, of Pilk’s Madhouse, which production began at the G2 but by the end, the audience had been moved next door to the Dudley Riggs theater, in what’s now Town Hall Brewery.

But I digress…  turning our attention back to the gird:  Open and Shut featured as a primary design element, a couple dozen straw-filled dummies falling from the grid at intervals throughout the show.  A jerry-rigged maze of string and fishline permeated the grid space (making it even more fun to move around up!), leading back to a platform at what’s now upstage left which was control central for the “dummy fall operator.”

That platform, the first non-pipe structure installed in the grid, to my knowledge remains to this day and became the beginning of the plank system that has served as “catwalks” for the decades since.

After the resident company was disbanded, the space became used more and more by community groups, and the seeds of the present-day “Southern” artistic identity were sown.  The Guthrie also produced a number of plays there and in the process, decided (thank goodness!) that the scaffold seating had to go.  The Guthrie shop constructed some box steel frameworks, used theater seats were discovered at a movie theater that was being demolished, and “permanent” seating was installed.

But with the scaffold gone, there was no way to access the grid so my brother, visiting from New York, and I opened a hole in a sheetrock wall that’s no longer there, and installed a gangplank to get out to the grid.  The catwalk planking came later, after a G2 production left a bunch of lumber it had used for a set, which I single-handedly lugged into the grid and began creating the planking system that has grown somewhat over the years.

Thus the Guthrie 2 “opened and shut,” and paving the way for the next half-century the noble Southern Theater’s life.


 

Jeff Bartlett has been designing lights and production-managing in the Twin-Cities since his time as an intern at the Guthrie 2.  He is now Production Manager and Lighting Designer at the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College, and was known as the Founding Artistic Director of the Southern from 1981-2008.

Old School vs. New School

Article by Sonya Berlovitz

Costume sketch by  Sonya Berlovitz .

Costume sketch by Sonya Berlovitz.

I have observed Sonya’s costume design work for many years and she continues to inspire me with her creativity and craft. From her work with Jeune Lune to her current designs for shows such as Refugia, she always exhibits a strong aesthetic with a bit of whimsy attached. Her article about the way new technology has changed her process has led me to consider these changes in my own work as well, and where it will all lead in the future. —Mike Wangen

Over the last 37 years as a costume designer, my process has changed from beginnings of doing everything by hand. I am insatiably curious by nature and am always interested in new techniques that can enhance my work and process. Today I rely on a variety of tools to complete my work, some old school and some new school.

When I was younger—a lot younger—I was a purist. I went to school in France to learn the labor-intensive hand technique of draping. I honed my drawing skills there as well. Being in Paris and working very slowly to develop my skills felt very romantic and, due to a very good currency exchange rate, was available to me. That year of study laid the groundwork for my working process.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, I alternated between building a lot of the costumes I designed myself and supervising a team that worked alongside me to finish costumes. At that time, translating designs with my own hands was a very direct and natural way of working. 

In the early 2000s, I started designing shows out of town. Then the entire landscape transformed for me. Instead of building the costumes by myself, they were built in a shop; I was responsible for only the designs. I have to admit that it was clunky at first. I had to learn to communicate my designs to others to then translate them into realized designs. With practice, I thought of it as a gift to have someone more skilled than myself build my designs. Plus, I was able to spend more time on the details of any one costume and how it fit into the overall aesthetic of the production.

Working out of town meant I was only on site sporadically. A good portion of communications with costume shops happened online. It was efficient and, since I wanted to continue to design on a national scale, a necessary and essential part of the work.

Along with enabling long-distance design work, computer research exponentially increased my ability to find resources and inspirational materials. I have always loved libraries and sometimes I miss the days of scanning the stacks for books on whatever subject I am delving into. But I have to admit that being able to research any subject and have a wealth of information available via my keyboard is very handy for someone who gets up between 5 and 7 o’clock in the morning, before libraries are open.

In 2007, Dropbox came along for file sharing and many places I worked, both in town and out, started to use it on a regular basis. It has been a very handy tool to quickly convey design research and concepts to other production staff and the director, as opposed to trying to organize a meeting with everyone at the table—which, with many freelancers involved, is no easy task.

To some extent, I am nostalgic for days ago when everything was done by hand and, in some ways, simpler. I cherish those experiences and, when I have time, I still like to have hands on a project I can work very slowly with. That’s probably why, over the last several years, I have been collaging many of my renderings. I am grateful to my all-in-one printer for making the time intensive method that much easier and faster.

I have willingly embraced technology as an effective means of completing my work. I sometimes use Photoshop to help color some of my renderings for larger productions. As rehearsal times grow shorter and production periods are reduced due to financial constraints, speed of output is essential. In my mind, any tool that can help that process along is worth considering. As a former teacher of mine said, “a good designer needs to see and hear everything around them.”

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Article by Tony Stoeri

This isn't Tony. This is a stock photo of a child suffering from end-of-summer ennui.

This isn't Tony. This is a stock photo of a child suffering from end-of-summer ennui.

Professional lighting designer, current graduate student, Tech Tools Newsletter regular and all-round smart and great person Tony Stoeri is back! Hopefully, by now the electrician, designer and Fringe regular who splits his time between here and Bloomington, Indiana, should need no introduction. But if he does, this article is a good introduction! And here's his most recent article, on Southeastern Theatre Conference.

Tony continues his column as he muses on the tensions, politics and realities of our industry as reflected in his experiences in the professional and academic sectors of that industry. Always insightful and challenging, we’re so glad Tony is back with us again this! —Wu Chen Khoo

I remember it being significant as a child, that annual moment when I realized anew the transient nature of summer, when I started seeing back-to-school sales advertised in the catalogs that my parents tossed into the recycling, or when the section of Target dedicated to inner tubes and pool noodles was replaced with one dedicated to notebooks and folders. It would often throw me into a deep, Nietzschean funk: a nine-year old child wandering the sun-dappled lawns of a quiet south Minneapolis neighborhood, wondering what the point of playing with his friend Jimmy's stomp rocket was if all leisure time was inevitably doomed to be swallowed by the yawning maw of fourth grade. Summer bliss was a great Sisyphean lie, and the cyclical, almost ritualistic realization of that fact each July was a staple experience of my childhood.

I'm sure I was a blast to hang out with.

It’s not something I expected to still be facing in my mid twenties. I'm not sure why. It's not like the inherently ephemeral nature of all experience goes away once you can legally drink. But for some reason, that sense of nihilistic despair that marks the end of a summer of leisure seems like it should be an artifact of childhood. I'm an adult, dammit. I can legally rent a car. I go to bars and order the fancy, hard apple juice. Once, I drank a cup of black coffee—like, no sugar or anything. It was horrible, but I did it. And yet, despite the numerous milestones of adulthood I have passed, I feel a sense of dread rising as July draws to a close and my return to grad school draws closer. My stomach drops a little, and that old Nietzchean funk sneaks up on me again.

It's not exactly a secret, if you've read my other articles, that I've struggled with my grad school experience. I've found myself often questioning why I made the choice I did or whether I would do it all over again. But in spite of my dissatisfaction, I am also incredibly proud of the design work I have done there, and feel like I have grown greatly as a designer during my time at IU. So instead of dwelling on my impending return, I have decided to reflect on the work I have done this summer as a freelancer with the goal of ascertaining how grad school has changed how I work as a designer, for better or for worse.

The most surface-level difference between designing a show as a freelancer here and designing a show as a grad student at IU is the number of meetings I attend over the course of a production. At IU, we have meetings about everything. And then, after the official meetings, we have unofficial meetings in which we figure out what we are going to say in the next official meeting. It feels like whack-a-mole without the catharsis of hitting anything. But I try to keep quiet about that. In this area, at least, it's easier to get along in order to go along. So I sit and listen, waiting for my turn to tell everyone, for the third or fourth time, the linesets I want to use as electrics. And while I wait, I try my best to understand why we are doing this.

Staying patient can be hard. I once sat in on a meeting where we talked about tambourines for a solid fifteen or twenty minutes: How to play them, what they are made of, what sizes they come in. It was like someone opened the Wikipedia article on tambourines and excitedly yelled, “Hey, everyone! Get a load of this!!!!” before just reading the whole thing out loud in a monotone drone. At one point, someone suggested we look into getting an industrial tambourine and no one brought up the fact that THAT IS ABSURD WHAT EVEN IS THAT?!

Ostensibly, all these meetings exist to provide each member of the production team with as much information as possible about the other aspects of the production, so that the whole machine can work in concert towards a single goal. The first part of that usually happens. The second part—where we all work in concert—not so much. But the theory is sound, at least.

When I first got to grad school, the amount and depth of planning that went into each production was jarring. It’s not like I didn't conceive and execute plans as a freelancer, it's just that my actions were based on a much more limited pool of information. As a small freelance LD, there are often a lot of large questions still weighing on you when you walk into the theater to execute your design: Does the inventory you were given for the space match what actually exists in the space? Does it all work? Did you even receive an inventory? You try to build some of this into your planning or don't max out the inventory so you can offset broken fixtures, et cetera. But in many cases, you are forced to adapt on the fly. These adaptations are further influenced by your often limited labor budget. You may be able to create an awesome plot in that small space, but it’s worth nothing if you can't hang the damn thing by yourself and still have enough time and energy left to actually tech the show.

All of those niggling details are just some of the ones that arise as a lighting designer. Everything becomes exponentially more complex when discussing the role that planning plays in the collaborative process of small theater companies. The simple fact is that the economic realities of life as a theatrical artist or technician often necessitates juggling multiple projects or jobs simultaneously, making it extremely difficult to find the time required to get the whole production on the same page. And so, when it doesn't quite work out—when we can't have as many meetings as we want, when we find that we don't know everything about every element of the production (or everything we need to know about our own element, for that matter)—it is incredibly important that we are adaptable. We have to to be able to clear our heads of our plans and preconceived visions of what the thing is supposed to be and understand what it actually is.

That's a paradigm I'm pretty comfortable with. I learned how to tech a show as a terrified teenager in a Fringe booth, and there might be no better way of instilling the value of adaptability than having a confrontation-averse kid run a Fringe tech. So when I was finally liberated from grad school and returned to the Twin Cities for the summer, I quickly fell back into working in a style that I was comfortable with. I was excited. In spite of all the problems I had had at IU this year, I had also ended up doing some work there that I was very proud of. And I was looking forward to continuing that at home. I reveled in the fact that I was free from all the meetings, no longer held captive by interminable discussions about tambourines. I could mosey my way through a plot, and I didn't have to tell anyone what my trim heights were (mostly because it was a dead hung grid, but whatever). And come what may, I felt confident in my ability to adapt to whatever might arise.

In a sense, I was right. Nothing came up that I couldn't adapt to. But at the same time, I didn't feel quite as good about the work I was doing. Nothing was going catastrophically wrong. I didn't forget the fact that one scene takes place underwater or anything. But I did discover I was frustrated and angry with myself for having overlooked certain details: For not remembering that Act 1 ended downstage of the main drape. For not knowing that we had moved that actor's part down an octave, giving the song a different feeling. For not having done as much of my homework as I should have. Overall, I was satisfied with the work I was doing, but there were small, tiny moments that bothered me, that stuck in the back of my head and mocked me because they could have been much more than what they ended up as.

And I realized that what I was missing was the connection with the other elements of the production. Despite all my problems with the endless parade of meetings that seems to accompany every production at IU, they did have some usefulness. They provided a space where I could momentarily get into the heads of the other designers on the team. One of the parts of IU I actually enjoy is my fellow MFAs. I have been consistently blessed by being assigned as collaborators members of my cohort whose abilities I respect and whose creativity I enjoy. Working with those people, the endless, mind-numbing meetings slowly became a source of creative fuel. We were able to find wonderful moments where all the elements of a production clicked together and fell into perfect synchronicity, becoming just a little bit more than the sum of their parts. In many cases, it was these moments that became my favorite.

But it’s not as easy as just realizing, Oh, hey, maybe it’s a good idea to have meetings sometimes. As I said, the reality is that, in just under a year when I come back from grad school for good, I'll be back to working in a setting where there simply isn't time for all the meetings that IU has. And I will need to find some way to achieve the same effect, which will require me to change my process. It may require me to put more effort into engaging with the rest of the production team or perhaps to simply be more forthright in saying what I'm thinking. It may force me to use new tools to help communicate my thoughts more clearly or to be less passive in seeking out collaborators with whom I work well. But the point is, I will need to challenge the way I work when I'm outside of the structure of grad school. Because if I leave IU next May and return to the Twin Cities exactly the same as when I left, all the crap that I've put up with at grad school will be meaningless.

I know that, in the next few weeks, as I sit alone in my overly-air-conditioned booth running Fringe shows until my brain oozes out of my ears, I will inevitably feel that familiar Nietzchean-funk begin to overtake me again. And now, I have two important questions to turn to to distract myself:

1. How am I going to make sure I walk away from this whole grad school thing as a better designer, and avoid just slipping back into old habits?

2. Seriously, what the hell is an industrial tambourine?

History of the Guthrie 2

Article by Mike Wangen

The Southern, 1910. Photo: H. Larson/Minnesota Historical Society.

The Southern, 1910. Photo: H. Larson/Minnesota Historical Society.

The Southern Theater stands today as a well-established venue dedicated to promoting new work by young dance and theater companies. Yet, in my opinion, it would not exist as it does today without the time and energy that the Guthrie put into it in the mid 1970s. Here is a brief description of that history.

In the 1960s and early ’70s the Southern stood empty and abandoned. By 1975, the Guthrie Theater had decided on the need for a second, more experimental, stage and took out a lease on the Southern space. It was refurbished with seating and lighting and, in 1975, opened as the Guthrie 2 with its own acting company, artistic director, and crew. Within a year, the company was dissolved, although the Guthrie continued to produce work there until 1979 when they moved out (this idea would later become the Guthrie Lab in downtown Minneapolis during the late ’80s and ’90s). The theater was also opened up to local groups such as Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Illusion, Ozone (now Zenon Dance Company), and others who performed a number of shows there.

When it closed its doors again in 1979, people had recognized the value of the venue and the Southern Theater Foundation was formed to save the building and further restore it as a viable theater space. It reopened again in 1981 as the Southern and evolved into the venue we know today.

I leave it to the reader to consider the contribution the Guthrie has made to this community, both directly and indirectly.

Information for this article was obtained from the Guthrie production history online and the Southern Theater website.

Creating an Online Community for Scenic Artists

Article by Lili Payne and Sara Herman

Guild founding members Valerie Light, Tina Yager, and Angelique Powers (not pictured: Lili Payne and Sara Herman) at USITT 2017.

Guild founding members Valerie Light, Tina Yager, and Angelique Powers (not pictured: Lili Payne and Sara Herman) at USITT 2017.

The spark of an idea: Sitting around the break room table at lunch one day, a group of scenic artists were grumbling about a product that wasn’t working the way they expected. Their discussion turned to how they don’t always have time to test products, especially in more commercial settings. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to search online, negating or at least minimizing the need for a test?

For instance, a scenic could know that a certain product ACTUALLY sticks to metal the way it says it does. “You could always look on the Scenic Artists Forum on Yahoo Groups,” one painter said.

“But there is no search engine there," said another. “We would have to look through every post individually in the hope of finding an answer. That would take longer to do than the project we have to paint!”

A third scenic exclaimed, “That’s what we need! A central place online that stores product info, reviews, painting techniques, but in a searchable way.”

The discussion volleyed back and forth about ideas of how scenics could share their knowledge with other scenics across the country, about a safe place to talk about safety practices (or how to encourage unsafe shops to be better), a source for local workshops and professional development, and maybe even—gasp!—bundled health care. An association! The dream was palpable in the room. They all went back to work, thinking, wouldn’t that be nice...

In the mid 2010s, my scenic artist colleagues and I lamented that the only living digital attribute catering to our craft was an ancient Yahoo email list. This AOL-era technology was our only connection to colleagues further afield who might hold the answers to our many on-the-job queries. Sure, there are a couple of great book resources out there for scenics, specifically Scenic Art for the Theatre by Crabtree and Beudert, and Surfaces by Judy Juracek. But you can only write so much in a book—and you can’t ask it questions.

Scenic painting is not a widely held nor widely documented career. Scenics work in cities where they are sometimes the only theatrical painters in town. Their only resources are former colleagues and the internet. Googling is often fruitless; very little information about the skills of a scenic artist are shared online, especially information about products and their nonstandard uses in scenic art. The lack of information available online is especially inconvenient when your project requires a time-sensitive answer to your question, as is often the case in theater. Contact made with companies directly about their products often result in quiet representatives who aren’t able to give any solid information regarding their product in a scenic environment. They have never tested their product in the circumstances we scenics hope to use them. But they’re not to blame. It’s us scenics who dropped the ball. It is easier than ever to connect people across distances. It’s easier than ever to disseminate information directly to the people who need it.

Online forums and groups (controlbooth.com), trade associations (Costume Designers Guild, Costume Society of America, Society for Properties Artisan Managers), and unions have existed for some time, catering to other technical theater professions. Scenic artists have skirted the fringes of these groups, but no organization (other than the USA union, which isn’t a viable option for scenics working outside of the largest metro areas) has existed solely to cater to the needs of scenic artists. So in late 2015, a few colleagues and I sought to change this.

We knew what we wanted in our work lives: A central hub for scenics to gather, a modern forum to share information and connect with each other, and quick access to a database of products and techniques that was heavy with photographic content. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is never more true when describing steps of a painting process.

To make sure our desires were on par with the majority of scenics across the country, we reached out via the Yahoo email list to gather responses and gauge interest in such a venture. I couldn’t have imagined the response! In over 800 members on this email list, we received about 20 responses to our survey, a 2.5 percent response rate. I could not have imagined so few scenics would be interested in what we wanted to make. Were we that off base? Perhaps our industry didn’t need this after all or perhaps we hadn’t made our vision clear or, more likely, perhaps scenics were so busy, they hadn’t had time to respond. Spurred on by personal convictions of its necessity, we charged forward nonetheless.

Article authors—and Guild founding members—Lili Payne and Sara Herman.

Article authors—and Guild founding members—Lili Payne and Sara Herman.

Our first order of business was to literally order the business. We formed ourselves as a 501(c)(3), an educational organization whose mission is to help scenics find opportunities for professional development, new product knowledge, and help with other industry challenges. We organized ourselves as a board with formal titles and duties. We named our new organization the Guild of Scenic Artists.

We outlined our goals clearly and started an Indiegogo fundraiser in late 2016, advertising on the sputtering Yahoo list and any Facebook groups of which we were members. Two months later, we had earned $3,500 in donations from scenic artists across the country. Our initial tepid response was warming with the acknowledgement that actual work was being done to realize the idea. We hadn’t reached our initial goal, but the sum raised was just enough to hire a web developer and begin creation of our soon-to-be hub, scenicguild.org.

The Guild of Scenic Artist’s website has four sections:

  • A proprietary scenics-only forum
  • A public wiki database devoted to all things scenic art
  • A blog regularly updated with articles pertinent to scenic painting and those who practice it
  • Boards for events and jobs

We wanted to cover all the bases: spaces for scenics to troubleshoot, network, learn, and stay in tune with trends around the country.

Our website went live nine days before USITT 2017, an event we were able to attend solely with a last-minute generous sponsorship from Rosco. We hurried to make some swag gifts (because that’s what you need at expos!), hand-painted our newly designed logo onto a canvas dropcloth for a little booth flair (we’re scenics—we make do with what we have!), and went to proselytize the newly-formed Guild to any scenics in attendance.

The response was extraordinary. We left the two-day expo with 120 people signed up, only eleven days after launch. Fast forward to now, four months after launch, and we have some 275 members and counting. We’ve posted 19 blog articles ranging from interviews with industry heavyweights to instructions on how to turn astroturf into a realistic lawn. We’ve posted nine jobs and six events to our boards. Our forum has 177 posts, and our wiki is ever-growing with entries. Our first email newsletter had a 58 percent open rate and 22 percent click rate, compared to non-profit industry averages of 21 and 3 percent. Those numbers speak volumes: Scenic artists are excited about engaging with the Guild.

The feedback we receive from members is often what Carrie Ballanger, Charge Scenic Artist at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, expressed in the first comment on our website: “Glad to see you up and running! Thanks for all the work. I’ve been a scenic for nearly 20 years now and there is STILL stuff I need help figuring out.”

We were right to risk our time and energy. Our personal experiences as scenics did represent those of the industry at large. The future of the Guild is bright.

Devised Theater on a Grand Scale

Article by Sonya Berlovitz

Costumes by Sonya Berlovitz from  The Miser,  exhibited at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.

Costumes by Sonya Berlovitz from The Miser, exhibited at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.

I've never had the good fortune to meet Sonya Berlovitz—but I have had the good fortune to see some of her work with companies like Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater and, of course, Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Her costumes are sumptuous and joyful—the word that comes to mind is “bright,” although not always because they use bold colors. Her costumes, like their creator, are intelligent, animated and clear, and Sonya's love for her trade is clear in this essay. —Matthew Foster

I love the chance to develop costume designs in rehearsal. It's a laboratory, a place I am free to fail without recrimination. It presents the perfect opportunity to study an actor’s physicality, nuances, intentions, etc. The goal being to find a silhouette—architecture, so to speak—that enhances each character the actors are trying to portray. 

As a costume designer, a part of my role is to facilitate this process by trying on rehearsal costume pieces, padding, hats, wigs, cans, plastic bags or anything else that might enable the actor to "find" his or her character through improvisation. Sometimes it takes several attempts; sometimes I’m completely wrong. That's the beauty of it. By being wrong I can find something that is right.

Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where I worked between 1980 and 2008, was the Eden of this transformative process. It was a privilege to have a space devoted solely to theater which allowed for anywhere from five weeks to two months (and sometimes longer) to spend on this labor of love. It gave a thorough opportunity for directors, designers and actors to be part of the conversation about what worked or didn’t. The design of the show grew out of collaboration, a conversation, and cooperation between performer, other designers and the director. The Moving Company (Dominique Serrand, Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin) grew out of Jeune Lune, and I’ve had the fortune to continue that process with them.

In the larger regional theaters where timelines aren’t as flexible, completed designs are usually due well before the actors start rehearsal. A recent exception to this was creating costume designs for Refugia by The Moving Company at the Guthrie Theater. In this case, I was able, due to a generous grant, to attend a three-week workshop held at the Guthrie in the fall, seven months prior to the opening. Those weeks provided ample time to experiment with different actors’ looks for each of the chapters, each decidedly unique in setting and design. As part of the workshop, I spent time rough sketching various costume ideas to facilitate further discussion with the director, Dominique Serrand.

The show had been previously been workshopped with student designers at the University of Texas at Austin; it then consisted of five chapters addressing refugees and displaced persons in various locations. For this phase of the process, four chapters were added, including one about an immigrant couple from Marseilles, a scene of a polar bear speaking to displacement because of global warming, a scene between a father and his son who has run off to join ISIS, and a scene of Kurdish Syrian refugees arriving in Greece. 

Based on sketches and notes from the workshop, I pulled rehearsal costumes in April to give the actors a chance to “live” in their costumes long before they made it to the stage and to allow for any changes that might need to happen while the costumes were still in process.  

Providing these rehearsal elements is essential for scenes that include "choreography." Such was the case with the disguise skirt and shawl worn by Jamal Abdunnasir in the “Allah Akbar” scene in Refugia. He had to be able to slip both off at the right time and without skipping a beat during his impassioned text delivery. Trying various pieces in rehearsal made it possible to come up with the best solution prior to tech, ultimately saving time and making construction of the actual garment much easier. 

Costumes for dancers require the same advance planning and experimentation. Dancers need costumes that can move with them, that feel one with their bodies and that have fluidity. For this reason, it’s vitally important to bring in rehearsal pieces or actual costumes early in the rehearsal process. Sometimes “happy accidents” come about to everyone’s delight. 

Such was the case with the dancer in Refugia, Kendra "Vie Boheme" Dennard, who has an intricate dance with a polar bear. Originally, I had designed an elaborate Ethiopian tribal costume made from midweight cotton with many traditional accessories. During rehearsal, she started working with a lighter weight, cotton gauze skirt. The director and I quickly agreed it worked much better for the scene, which was going to be very windy via a fan. Luckily, there were several fabrics available to choose from in the Guthrie’s large stock, which we used to remake the skirt. I also simplified the accessories, both to make it easier to dance with the bear and to meld better with the clean and stark aesthetic of the scene. 

In Refugia, costumes were also used to create sound. In the same polar bear dance scene, Ms. Dennard’s brass bracelets were incorporated into the sound design during rehearsal by adding a pulsating, percussive element to her dance. In another scene, Kurdish Syrian refugees arrive on the shores of Greece after crossing the Aegean Sea and are given space blankets. During rehearsal, we discovered if the blankets were manipulated the right way, they produced the sound of the sea's rolling waves as the refugees prayed.

The freedom to experiment with costumes during rehearsal was new territory for the Guthrie—and it was tremendously gratifying to have the support, resources, and flexibility to help the Refugia designs come to fruition.

Sightlines: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Conrad Burgess

INTERVIEW BY MIKE WANGEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIKE: He was the sound guy at Chan.

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

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

CONRAD: That’s right.

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

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

MIKE: Yes.

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

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

CONRAD: There was four.

MIKE: They had already established that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIKE: Okay.

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

MIKE: Oh really?

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

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

CONRAD: Yeah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIKE: The Importance of Being Earnest?

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

MIKE: By Pinter?

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

MIKE: Yes.

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

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: Sleuth.

MIKE: So the theater was quite diverse?

CONRAD: It was quite diverse.

MIKE: And Gary directed all of these?

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

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

CONRAD: Yeah.

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

CONRAD: Yeah, it was.

MIKE: Probably more important than people recognize.

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

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

CONRAD: Yep.

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

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

MIKE: Yes.

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

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

CONRAD: Much different than the actual stage.

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

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

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

CONRAD: My legacy?

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

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

MIKE: It was literally a family.

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

MIKE: Ron Bruncati?

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

MIKE: Okay. Well, thank you.

CONRAD: You’re welcome.

Sightlines: My Digital Epiphany

Article by Roberta Carlson

Roberta Carlson has been composing music for theater for many years, doing an enormous body of work for the Children’s Theater and Illusion Theater, among many others.  This month, she offers the second of two perspectives on what we’ve lost (and gained) in today’s world of theater in a discussion of how  digital technology has the changed the process of modern sound design and musical composition. - Mike Wangen

I came of professional age in the era of massive rolls of recording tape which were hugely expensive and ran on large bulky machines which were prone to problems and required continual maintenance. Retakes were a financial consideration and multi track planning took careful planning between the composer and engineer or sound designer. (Anyone who was ever reduced to recording over the click track knows exactly what I mean). And then...the heavens opened and the digital age began.

Unlimited takes, no tape hiss, the huge rolls (which cost more than some of us paid for rent) gone forever. You could record on your laptop! No more editing the new cues into the existing reels. No more relying on the sound tech not to cut off the tail-outs of cues. But even better was the advent of digital editing. Nothing enhanced the collaboration between composer and sound designer more than digital editing. Now it was possible to work together on “soundscapes”, working together in the studio. Thanks to the new technology, the start point of sound effects or music could be moved, and experiments could be tried with no lasting damage.

I have mixed feelings about some things that came with these changes. I have done many shows using only synthesizers, and yes, some of those purely synthesized scores were the correct choice for the nature of the production. But when a director wants the sound of real instruments, but won’t or can’t pay for them,there is another price to be paid - and that price is artistic value. There is a very small number of instruments that truly sound “real” on a synthesizer. Some work for short lines that can be buried in the mix, others never sound right (brass and woodwinds), and some are relatively successful (string sections, harps, timpani, etc).

Another effect has been the advent of sound designer/composer all-in-one. I’ve heard scores done by sound designers who think that with a synthesizer they can be a composer. Just putting together a string of notes or chords that sound okay doesn’t make you a composer. And just choosing speaker assignments doesn’t make you a sound designer.

In the end, the richest, most satisfying work comes from the collaboration between artists: singers, drummers, instrumentalists of all kinds, sound designers, composers - all bringing their talent and understanding to the table. In all aspects of theater, collaboration is the very heartbeat of the process. But when it comes to technology, digital editing changed my process and my ability to work more freely with those artists.

Sightlines: What We Lose

Article by Roberta Carlson

Roberta Carlson has been composing music for theater for many years, doing an enormous body of work for the Children’s Theater and Illusion Theater, among many others.  This month, she offers perspective on what we’ve lost (and gained) in today’s world of theater and considers the importance of in person discussions and meetings as opposed to the very common long distance design meetings which are so prevalent today.  - Mike Wangen

It is easy to reminisce about the past and, looking through rose-colored glasses, be nostalgic about “the good old days”. That nostalgia is usually concerned more with the fact that our youth is receding in the rear view mirror than with old practices and philosophies. But there are some things that were accepted as the norm in the 70’s and 80’s theater world that are disappearing in today’s world. Some of them deservedly so; others regrettably being eliminated. One in particular I regret to see becoming “outdated” - design meetings.

I miss the practice of design meetings. The idea of the scene designer, the costume designer, the director, the composer, the sound designer, the lighting designer - and in the case of a new play, the playwright - gathering in the same place for a day of brainstorming is not and should not be a luxury. It is the process that fosters sharing ideas, bouncing design possibilities off each other, and even inspiring each other to develop new concepts. We all know the reasons and excuses: too expensive, too much trouble to get everyone together, the director is too busy, etc.. The first suggestions are always “ Can’t we do this online? “ “Just email everything ?“ “Use Goto Meeting ?” “Use Dropbox?” Sorry - but no.

There simply is no substitute for a group of artists gathered around a table, sharing ideas, sketches, possibilities - and that interchange strikes sparks that can infuse a production with coherent life. Exchanges on line simply lack the immediacy of the chemistry that lights those sparks. As to expense - there can be real savings sometimes. If a sound/music cue was recorded to be a normal transition suggesting change of location or time passing and you discover in techs that a particular piece of scenery or some mechanical function is disturbingly loud the first question is always to sound and music: “Can you cover that” Often the answer is “Yes, but it will mean first coming up with an idea and sounds that can cover it, and then we’ll have to go back into the studio and record it, then mix it, and then tech it in”. Which means rewriting the light cue, changing the timing of a costume change, which means some re-structuring of the costume in the shop - - - - all of which means further expenditure. And all of that could have been avoided with a thorough discussion between designers before construction and development began.

Some directors seem to think that it will all somehow come together, without all that time in design meetings. They apparently subscribe to the belief that mediocrity is good enough. And mediocrity is what they achieve.

Sightlines: A New Perspective

Article by Marie G. Cooney

I am very proud of the article that Marie Cooney has written.  She is a stage manager, writer, and stagehand with IATSE Local 13 in Minneapolis and has written a story outlining her battle with Traumatic Brain Injury and the strength and joy she has received through her art and profession in fighting and dealing with this handicap.  Her strength of spirit should be an example for us all. - Mike Wangen

I absolutely fell in love with theater as a college student at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Dr. Patricia Sankus didn’t choose the typical light-hearted musicals with large casts, that one might expect each spring. She chose challenging scripts, at a time I needed substance, not fluff. My senior year, I told her I wanted to work with her in any capacity. Without any acting experience and the desire to learn as much as possible, she said, “Be my stage manager.” Without even knowlng what that could be, I jumped at the opportunity. I never imagined how much that experience would change my whole life.

During the final dress rehearsal, I said to my friend, Paul, “Remind me to call home.” One thing led to another and another. I zipped right through “Warning. Places in 5 minutes,” to “Top of the show,” through intermission scene changes to “Top of Act II,” and all the way to the final curtain. I was in heaven! Around midnight, Paul said, “Damn. I forgot to remind you to call home.” As soon as I said, “It’s too late,” I had a sinking feeling in my chest. “Actors get butterflies, not stage managers!” Paul teased me. “Well if this damn elephant doesn’t leave after this weekend, I’m going to get it checked out,” I said. The next morning I learned my father had died of a heart attack.

My best friend, Michelle, drove me to Logan Airport to pick up my older sister, and then she drove us home. “Please go see the show,” I begged her. I later learned she was given seats at front and center, those reserved for the director’s special guests. In the midst of unbearable sorrow, that one gesture made me happy. A week before my college graduation, my Dad was buried.

Carol, who would later marry Paul, called the show, totally in the blind, from my stage manager’s book. In 1983, I graduated with a BA in Education, as did many of my friends. However, I remember saying that I wanted to be working in theater within three years of legitimizing my degree in education. I taught at Hudson Catholic for a few years, and then I started freelancing in theater!

In 1996, while I was working a Larkins dance recital at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, one of the younger dancers dropped a bow or a costume piece of some sort. I told Cindy, the stage manager, that I had an eye on the piece and to hold the blackout. As I snatched up the piece from the floor, the senior boys took the stage. Apparently, as I began to stand up, the boys began to spin to the music. Then, “Bang!” I was thrown into another world in one split second.

“Dad?” I asked in total confusion. Bright lights. Extremely bright lights!  Painfully, bright lights! Severe headache. “I’m sorry,” my Dad communicated to me without words. “Me too,” I mutely responded. He reached out. “No. My play, my play…” I drew back from his outreached hand. One of my plays was being produced the next morning. As much I missed my Dad, I couldn’t go with him. I had to come back. Later I learned I had sustained a Closed Head Injury. I waited for years before telling anyone about this encounter.

Almost ten years later, I had another life- threatening injury. I flew off the stage, while working as a member of IATSE Local 13, at a Carlos Santana concert. This time it was, “Splat!” I landed head first on the cement floor of the Xcel Energy Center. I don’t remember much of anything. I had been working with Collette. Apparently, Melissa rushed to my aid to slow the severe bleeding from my head. Numerous stagehands called 911. Matt was the first to get through, and an ambulance arrived within minutes. Many of my co-workers thought I was dead. But then I had a grand mal seizure. I woke to the angelic vision of Sherri, wondering what she was doing in the hospital. “No honey, it’s not me, it’s you,” she explained. “I need the keys to your apartment to take care of Tucker.” I had sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

The theater, which was a world that once inspired me, had become a world that overwhelms me. My brain could not quickly process lighting changes, differentiate between foreground and background noises, adapt between hot and cold temperatures, or handle overwhelming scents. The first six years after the TBI, any time I attempted to go to the theater, I became extremely sick. I begged friends to stay through the end of the show, so I could live through their experiences.

 

Now, I can return to some shows, because of compensatory strategies, which I have learned over many years. Wear dark glasses and a visor. Bring earplugs. Carry a black sleeping mask in case of strobe or strobe-like lighting effects. Ask friends about gunshots, pyro, or other troubling scents. Ask stagehands, stage managers, actors, directors and designers about how show might or might not affect me. All these friends have given me my life and love of theater back again.

Sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury has also given me a new perspective on what it means to broaden the notion of accessibility. It’s important to have American Sign Language translators, audio-describers, accessible seating for people in wheel chairs, allow service animal, give tickets to personal aids, and more.  I, myself, am very grateful to anyone or any theater reaching out to audience members with neurological illnesses, disabilities, and challenges. Thank you!

I hope the world of sports follows suit and stops using strobe lights to simulate the excitement of endless camera flashes.

Sightlines: What Does it Mean to be Human in this Place & Time?

Article by Corrie Zoll

Corrie Zoll brings an entirely different perspective to our work this month.  He has served as an arts administrator for a number of local arts organizations including Pillsbury House Theatre, and is currently the Executive Director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre.  He writes a thought provoking piece on the dilemmas facing arts organizations attempting to restructure themselves. - Mike Wangen

September marks one year since I joined the staff at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre as Executive Director. I’m not too proud to say this is the toughest job I’ve ever taken on. At the same time, more than any other time in my life, I feel I am doing exactly the work I was meant to do. I am privileged to be there.

It’s been two years since HOBT narrowly survived an almost complete financial collapse. HOBT’s money crisis was not unlike those weathered by more than a handful of our esteemed peers in the arts community over the past decade. Producing vital artwork is always a challenge, and continually adapting to a shifting nonprofit economic environment that supports the work adds further risk.

As with our peers, HOBT managed this crisis by cutting back on programming and making appeals to longtime supporters, but (and I'll assume this is true of our peers), the most critical part of survival was the heroic efforts of the staff and artists who stuck around, worked harder, and got paid less. I am grateful for these people and their work, but not proud that the instability of the nonprofit arts sector is so heavily borne by artists who often can least afford it.

HOBT has passed out of that most recent crisis. In August 2016, we finished a second consecutive year on budget, and have plans for aggressive growth. But there should be no doubt that, even two years from this low point of the crisis, we are still rebuilding. In August we hired a Development Director and a Marketing Coordinator, and added capacity for a volunteer coordinator. These are jobs that haven’t been adequately staffed for years. We have still other areas where more capacity is needed, and it will be at least another year until we get there.

In managing a nonprofit turnaround like this, I am often confronted with a choice between rebuilding something that was lost or starting with something completely different. My son told me about a Project Success workshop he attended when he was at South High School. If I remember the story correctly, the teaching artist led an activity in which students built a structure out of popsicle sticks to represent their goals in life. When they were done, they showed off their sculptures. Then, one at a time, the teaching artist placed each of the sculptures into a bag and smashed it to bits. This is when the students were told they were learning a lesson about what sometimes happens with your best laid plans.

The students were then instructed to rebuild something interesting with what they had to work with. When things get smashed up, the only way forward is to start rebuilding. My son told me that the second set of sculptures was without exception more fun to make, and made for more engaging art when they were done, with bits of the original intention showing through in wild, new ways. With popsicle sticks, it’s easy to see that there’s no point in trying to make things look just the way they did before they were crumpled. But, evidently, that is harder to see from within an organization experiencing a turnaround.

In the midst HOBT’s turnaround, I find I need to remind myself – and others – to pay attention to the things we need to restore, while acknowledging that some things will be more solid if they are built, as we say at HOBT, from scratch. HOBT has been through many business models over four decades, starting out with federal CETA funds, passing through the Ford Era, repeatedly reinventing itself through programs like Bush Foundation’s RADP program and implementing tools like the Benevon model. Each of those periods in HOBT history had their value, but they’re gone, and they won’t be back. 

At the same time, the ability to loop back in time is critical. Through various funding and management eras and after repeated boom and bust cycles, at HOBT we see the value in reaching back through these decades to root ourselves in our mission and values. Aside from our mission statement, at HOBT we identify a central question that we ask ourselves. What does it mean to be human in this place and time? It’s a question that withstands a lot of shifting context.

Other Twin Cities arts organizations are doing some very interesting rebuilding with their popsicle sticks. The Southern Theater saved their building by creating a new model for owning and sharing a theater space. Penumbra turned their recovery into a leadership transition and the building of a whole new area of work. And so, as HOBT’s recovery begins to gain speed, what will we build and rebuild?

The most visible question for HOBT is our building. HOBT owns the Avalon Theater at 15th and Lake in South Minneapolis. The Avalon was a 1920s Art Deco movie house, a porn theater in the 1960s and 1970s, and a decaying, abandoned eyesore in the 1980s. When HOBT took over the building in the late 1980s, it was already a distressed building. HOBTs loving renovation made it into what was called a “Puppet Paradise”, but that building is now almost 30 years older, only marginally physically accessible, and has challenges with air quality and safety. The organization has accepted the reality that the status quo is not an option, and that the ongoing future of the organization depends on making a preliminary decision in the coming months about moving toward a solution within the next 2-5 years.

Owning a building has been a challenge for many great Twin Cities arts organizations. Crises at the Southern Theater, the Soap Factory, Bedlam Theatre, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Patrick’s Cabaret, and others have been heavily influenced by issues of real estate, and for some of these organizations, more than once. HOBT experimented with co-ownership of a second building, and that could not be sustained. Personally, I think we need to move past the trite question about whether an organization with an arts-based mission should also be an expert in property management – as if this were different for a shoe store or any other business. The question is finding the right model to keep arts programming grounded in place for the next decades. Again, multiple arts organizations in the Twin Cities are experimenting with new approaches, with mixed results, some of which are very promising. I feel lucky to have such an interesting pile of popsicle sticks to work with, and am excited to see what we build.

 

 

Sightlines: What’s a Channel? The Good Old Days

Article by Paul Brown

I have known Paul for many years.  We first met at Penumbra Theatre in the early 90s when he was doing set design for them.  He is a man of many talents, set and lighting designer for theater and television, and a longtime member of IATSE local 13 here. He brings a story about what may not have been so good about the “good old days” but, also, what we can value from those days.  - Mike Wangen

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography

When asked, with a pressed schedule, to put together something for this edition, one of the themes suggested was practices no longer in play – experiences of “older” designers. Well as a scenographer/technical director, this theme found resonance while multitasking on a lift - the veil of past technologies and materials leading to forgotten time-consuming routines resurfaced.

I recall visiting a facility where a two story slider patch panel that was not complete due to a copper shortage – 500 receptacles funneling into I don’t remember how many dimmers and non-dims for projector fans. There was a library ladder attached that rolled along the face of the unit and I was reminded that I don’t really miss the geeky pre-memory board wonder of plodding through how a show is going to eventually be run once the cues were recorded. You know, finding where you plug and replug circuits into a limited number of dimmers that go up and down by clutching, or not, onto a master shaft. Don’t even think about channels in the tens being’ in one sides’, etc. Channels were not; a concept to come later. It was dimmers that needed to have an interface to patch to. There were sliders where circuits engaged, telephone operator switchboard-like patching with weights that kept slack cable under control, plugs from circuits to patch to dimmers, and other patentable solutions to the dimmers – operator run auto-transformers (hopefully not round dials) or resistance dimmers…

Yes, I said resistance; a scenario I walked into when a famous summer theater proclaimed, “Come, we have new light boards.” They turned out to be reconditioned forty year old resistance piano boards from a NYC rental house – two, each with 12 - 3000 watt dimmer plates – with added 500w, six dimmer preset cabinets to be patched into the individual 3000watt dimmers. – all big toasters. And yes, one evening I actually cried, working in a sea of wire and heat, with my handy custom made sticks that would engage varied numbers of dimmer handles at once. They were labeled by cue and dimmer range. There were two of us – my assistant had to park cars until the 5 minute call. He looked snappy in his white pith helmet and red cone flashlight and was not allowed to be ill. The board, btw, melted down the day after we left the building.

The deal in making art with these boards was to tell the lighting designer, who had hopefully spent some time thinking about this in advance – guest designers were difficult to train to local conditions - where the bottlenecks were in execution, large cross-fades being particularly tough. (This is why many moons ago, two scene crossfading consoles were so the rage!) The Master Electrician had to figure out repatching and sometimes ghost loading, and reconfiguring the initial dimmer hook-ups to put dimmers that moved in like patterns or levels near each other. Staffing might be based, for show runs, on how many hands it took to bring each “six or twelve” pack of dimmers up and down. Turning the handles of dimmers on the way to engage or disengage them from the shaft on the master handles at the appropriate level. Cues and patterns of movement had to be notated for each cue as levels moved up and down. So the strategy was to stare at your cue sheets for patterns…make the physical sheets look like a grid…levels for each dimmer were written down by cue, levels changing for each cue were written down, ways to physically read these things were formulated in a fractional notation system…overnight homework the designer also got involved in and had to respond to when the words, “It can’t be done!” were uttered, a defeat no one wanted. Oh, to be a union house and only have operators having to use two hands, vs.having to utilize your feet as well.

I do not miss the older lighting instruments. Resident designers and MEs in the days pre-quartz lamps, had to deal with the decrease in lumens with the aging of lamps, no TD wanted to replace them until they failed.Really large wattage lamps, like followspot lamps, often had scouring particles – like sand – in the lamp housing.When carbon from the filament built up on the interior of the glass housing, one could remove the lamp and swish around the sand to clean the carbon off. That did not, of course, redeposit the carbon on the filament. The lamp died a slow death, getting weaker and weaker as there was less filament to glow. In conventional units, one became very aware of which units had the weakest lamps, as the hang had to take into account what units got the most saturated colors, the degree of saturation, and where the brightest and weakest units would be deployed - also imagining the values each unit would be run at. Hell could be, as it still is, having an even stage wash in lumens and tonality on the satin dresses of a period piece, or musical chorus.

Seriously, this was a really difficult undertaking, which could consume many hours of tweaking and rehanging, sometimes interfacing with the topic above in the solution to dimmer values and intensity changes. Watching a costume parade and realizing you had to rehang the front light because of lamp life and color temp. was such a bummer! A famous early author of a lighting book was being honored at a USITT annual Conference. A seminar attendee asked him how it was possible to obtain such even lighting with primitive units. He laughed and confessed that his hobby was photography and all the black and whites he took that were in his book that we admired, involved countless hours of dodging and burning prints in the darkroom to achieve the look he wished he could have put on stage.

A student who had taken all the lighting offerings, at that first college I taught at, traveled to The City to sit In on a week of lighting classes at NYU. He came back to report that the most important theme in his time with Professor Gleason was the notion of knowing what the purpose of each instrument’s use was and what it could be. That was a lesson of additional import when the color medium was roscolene, brigham, or cinemoid and mixing for mood and tonality was an important conversation had before the set was painted with the scene designer, especially as unit set details might require warms or cools to radically change the nature of the environment onstage. With lower lumens and fewer color choices, dimming levels, changing color temp. and various combos of color could turn everything onstage to mud quickly. Jean Rosenthal’s The Magic of Light was a conversation of practical import in discussing techniques for insuring sparkle and handling the rigors of musical theater and the balcony rail position, moving away from the theories laid down by Stanley McCandless.

While we are touching on color that we are reflecting upon, it started as a set design student made paint with cooking flake glue, diluting it into a binder medium, and creating paint with powder pigments. Shadow and highlight washes were painted in, as were the tonalities the lighting designer was expected to light for after collaborative consultation with the director in playing the tonality of the scene. I found myself designing in value vs. color often, props needing to be borrowed, the costume designer limited in fabric choices, and the opportunity to catch a rehearsal in which the actors might inspire and/or confirm emotional tone in their readings. Casein paints were a treat when their price became affordable. Woe was the time during the mid-70’s energy crisis, when it became too expensive to have casein bussed and latex became a default necessity. And how wonderful the Rosco concentrates, solving some of that shipping cost issue and singing with colorful beauty of the super toxic aniline dyes of yesteryear and drop painting.

There were several other themes that could have served, but, deserving greater development, in this essay, mindfulness in collaboration and methodology raise their heads. The joy of collaboration is something to pursue fiercely; making the creative endeavor – insistence that the creative endeavor - be respectful and nurture ideas fostering the discovery of the better idea – truth applied to the immediate performance problem – new work is so rewarding for this. At an LDI in Vegas, the LD of “O,” was presented with the four feet of pipe he had not hung a lighting instrument on during the three month investigation of the piece in development.A choreographer, when presented with my lights for one of his pieces, asked me to tear it up, lose the clichés, and re-imagine. I have always been better for remembering his words (and never ever again showed him my first work.)

I was a radio lighting designer; btw, the best opening line to break the ice in a job interview I have yet found. The discipline of leading reaction on a live stage with a live audience and a live listening audience was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done, imagine an audience of millions unseen. Oddly, working with such incredible talent, loose with systems of light set-up to be a win-win in real-time was great fun with little in the way of heavy intellectual art-making but joy in the moment of communal sharing. And as a lighting director for TV (TPT), there is joy in creating in the round…trying to give directors and videographers images and opportunities to make pictures foreseen in the mind’s eye…communicating how the set is going to work, sweating the details of specular light, exposure ranges, depth-of-field, framing with color…ideas from photography and ever-shifting points of view. Personally, it has proved a great outlet for a life-long interest in making pictures in a cross-over industry.

Our quiver is rich with thousands of years of practice and techniques, machines and magic.How wonderful it is to fall into a group of explorers who speak a language that shapes ideas and adds to them…where you can say,“I would have done that if I’d thought of it, thanks for adding value and a point of view making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. “Lighting,” Lee Watson said, “is planned darkness.” When someone asks what I do as a designer, I ask them to close their eyes in a world of darkness as this is where it starts usually. Darkness…a choice of reveal and the way to reveal it in time - add script, score, movement and imagine. We begin to sculpt…to shape our perceptions… and finding the language by which we tell our part in the story…trying to discover truth in the tale and the telling.

Sightlines: Managing Transitions

Article by Tree O'Halloran

Tree O’Halloran is a long time stage manager in town with a vast amount of experience both in the theater and in managing a family and she talks about the interrelationship of the two in her article.  She is currently the production stage manager at the Guthrie and it is a pleasure to have her writing for us. - Mike Wangen

As careers go, I won the lottery. In love with all things theater, from a very young age I discovered stage management while in college. I remember clearly the Equity stage manager telling us, "My job is about communication." Sign me up! I had, fortunately, landed at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a state university with a small undergraduate theater program and a resident LORT theater (my mother was under the impression that I was going there for the excellent journalism school!)  My four years of college were a four-year intensive internship; assisting on all the PlayMakers Rep productions and stage managing the department shows while being mentored by two experienced and remarkable Equity SMs.  By senior year I had my Equity card and a wealth of experience. Right place, right time, and a whole lot of hard work. 

I miraculously navigated the transition from college to career, benefiting from the many contacts I had made at Playmakers Rep and my grueling summer stock internship at Williamstown Theater Festival. I worked steadily; StageWest, Hartford Stage, Williamstown, off-Broadway. A move to Minneapolis in late 1987 meant introducing myself to a whole new market.  Surely my vast experience on the east coast would make for a quick transition.  Not so much.  In the late 80s the Twin Cities theater community was a vibrant and tight-knit group. But one small gig led to another.  By the early 90s I was employed regularly at the Guthrie and the Children's Theater Company and also continued to work out of town in Houston, Columbus, and back to Williamstown. Freelancing was financially and logistically challenging, but I thrived on the freedom it gave me to work with a variety of institutions and artists; a freedom only possible because I had the emotional and financial stability that comes from being in a strong, long-term relationship.  In 1993, my work with avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson (who I first worked with at the Alley Theatre in Houston) brought me overseas to a hilltop in Sicily and then to an abandoned train yard in Florence. I was barely 30 years old and doing the best and most exciting work of my career!  Must be time to have a baby.

The biological clock thing?  It's real.  I knew that stage managing moms existed, but I had never met one. How did they do it?  I was overwhelmed by the idea! My brand of stage management was hardcore - intensive and all immersive - and "balance" wasn't in my vocabulary.  My husband and I, both theater professionals, realized child care costs would kill us.  It was time for me to take a year off. When the year was up, I returned to work but with a limited scope, taking over a few shows that were already running. Soon a second pregnancy and a special-needs diagnosis for one of our children meant that returning to work was almost impossible. I was suddenly on indefinite leave.   

Fast forward 10 years. Kids are in school, money is tight, and college looms. I'd spent the decade taking the very occasional SM replacement work and being our school's "Talent Show Mom."  Going back to Stage Management full time would mean working nights, 6 days a week, and weekends. But my heart wasn't ready to explore alternative careers.  Even after my 10 year absence I was still passionate about being in the rehearsal room.  I started talking about it to friends, mentioning it at parties, and letting my network know I was ready to transition back to a stage management career.  Two months later the Jungle called and offered me a show. Right place, right time, hard work.

I didn't even know what a family-friendly stage management experience might look like. I did know that freelancing was now my friend because I could begin by taking shows that fit into our family schedule and transition slowly back to full time. It's an understatement to say that the juggling act of working parents is exhausting.  And the emotional toll is hard to understand if you haven't experienced it firsthand. Smaller theaters offered shorter rehearsal periods and more flexibility. I could dash from Illusion Theater right at 4:30pm, make it to the after school drop off in south Minneapolis, get my kids home, and then get myself back to the Illusion by 6:00pm, if traffic wasn't bad. I was now an SM who might be LATE!!!  I was now an SM who had to keep her phone handy and on vibrate, who had to step out of the room to take a call from her kid, who had to get up at 6:30am every day and drive kids to school no matter how late tech ran. And on top of it all, I was a "mature" SM who was 10 years behind on all things technological (smartphones, apps, programs, you name it!)  

But I was also an SM who had a new perspective, a new calm; a stage manager who could take more things in stride and who always managed to see the bigger picture, a stage manager who could use the word “balance” often and with pride. My focus was still the work but I had a new confidence when it came to working with colleagues, giving notes to actors, and having opinions on the work we did. I was also the only stage manager of my years who was giddy as a kid to be in the rehearsal room!  As my kids grew I took more and more work including two out of town gigs in Hartford and Houston which my kids now describe as their favorite vacations. They grumbled when I missed school events and stayed up way too late to talk to me when I got home from performances. They told me they didn't like me working but then I would hear from neighbors and teachers how proud the kids were to talk about the shows I was stage managing.  My "kids" may be 17 and 19 now, but I will always be a working parent.

My freelancing days are behind me, at least for the time being. I landed back at the Guthrie in 2010 stage managing a few studio shows and moved to full-time in 2012. In January 2014, I became the theater's Production Stage Manager (I still have to pinch myself when I say that!)  Right place, right time, hard work.  The new and broader perspective on my return to stage management sparked my interest in positively influencing the organization as a whole. I want to support and help actors, stage managers and staff to manage their own transitions; whether it's negotiating a change in leadership, embracing new attitudes and initiatives in diversity and inclusion, or creating the balance between vibrant career and healthy family as we all grow and mature in this business.  Not a shabby second act.

Sightlines: The Pony Goes

Article by Heidi Arneson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow and tomorrow crept… and the animals remained.

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

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

“Heidi, it’s time to walk the pony.”

“What?”

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

“Come on, we gotta walk the pony!”

“Walk the pony?”

“Yeah! Look!”

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

“Come on!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sightlines: Learning How to Play Cricket

Article by Kathy Kohls

Kathy Kohls is a long time freelance costume designer in town and is known for her very creative style.  She has worked extensively with Frank Theater, the Cricket, and many other groups over the years and here she explores a little bit of that history. - Mike Wangen

Photo Credit: Earl Leatherberry

Photo Credit: Earl Leatherberry

The  ‘80s. It was an eventful decade for the Twin Cities: the downtown skyscrapers were finally topped off, giving the city a confident new skyline; the Walker had installed the Cherry & Spoon as the centerpiece of its Sculpture Garden, to the delight of PR people; and the Ordway was the shiny new home of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and The Minnesota Opera.

Music from the likes of Husker Du, The Replacements, The Suburbs, and Prince  garnered national attention and helped First Avenue shape the flourishing rock/punk scene.  Hennepin Avenue was still seedy.  Jeune Lune had its offices in the Dickensian maze of the Berman Buckskin building on the banks of the Mississippi, as it waited for the wrecking ball to clear the way for the new Federal Reserve Bank.  The Twins won the World Series.  And the Cities were absolutely teeming with theaters.

I relocated from northern Wisconsin to Minneapolis in 1983 as a graduate student in the U of M’s Theatre Tech & Design MFA program, at that time a three-pronged approach that required a working knowledge, if not a mastery, of scenery, costume and lighting design.  I was hired by Vern Sutton as the Costume Shop Teaching Assistant at the School of Music’s Opera Theatre, whose venue was Scott Hall on the East Bank. With all that on my plate—plus a couple of sons to help raise--there was little time or money to participate in all the burgeoning excitement; I mostly observed it from a distance.   

By late 1988 I had completed my MFA thesis and oral exams and was casting about for work in a local professional theater.  There were a few big companies with in-house costume shops: the Guthrie (Jack Edwards’ domaine), Children’s Theatre Company (under Riccia Birturk), Minnesota Opera (Carol Sahlstrom),  Chanhassen (Sandy Schulte).  In Saint Paul, the smaller Chimera Theatre made its mark as a  producer of big musicals. Housed in what is now History Theatre, it had a costume shop with a nearly full-time staff to produce costumes for its large casts.  Rich Hamson apprenticed here under Ed Jones in the early 1980s, as did Lynn Farrington.  Performing at the Jemne Auditorium in the Minnesota Museum, Park Square quietly persevered, building up its subscription audience with plays from the classic repertory.

There was also an impressive second tier of theaters launched in the ‘70s, all hitting their stride around this time.  Edgy, energetic and well-respected, they included Penumbra, Illusion, Mixed Blood, Red Eye Collaboration, The Cricket.  Company lists from their playbills read like a “Who’s Who” of our current & beloved Old Guard.  Jeune Lune, Frank Theatre, Theatre Exchange were just entering the picture.  

There were many companies headed by women:  Frank (Wendy Knox), Theatre Exchange (Julia Carey), At the Foot of the Mountain (Martha Boesing), Eye of the Storm (Casey Stangl), Lyric Theatre (Sally Childs).  

And then, as now, the number of enthusiastic small theater companies outnumbered all the others, popping up regularly, lasting a few years, moving on.

I had met The Cricket’s set & lighting designer, Chris Johnson, at a memorable lecture she gave at the U (she likened the properties of lighting instruments to the timbres of musical instruments, an important insight to this musician!). When she later designed for Opera Theatre, she mentioned to me that The Cricket was looking for a props person, and that, though this wasn’t my main area, at least it was a foot in the door.  I figured I could stand it for a while, so signed on with Bill Partlan, the artistic director.  

The Cricket had recently moved from an old movie theater (now the Ritz) in Nordeast to downtown Minneapolis, and was housed in what is now The Music Box on Nicollet and 14th.  This was before they renovated the theater, and it was pretty shabby, it’s lovely architectural details hidden under plasterboard, layers of paint, false ceilings and some nasty carpet. The theater’s second balcony was open but rarely used, the basement dressing rooms dingy, the props storage (in the unfinished hallway under the stage) badly lit and downright creepy.   And yes, there were rumors of a resident ghost . The smell of Ping’s Restaurant permeated downstairs.

The design team was hired per show, with a strong base of freelance regulars: Tina Charney and Chris Johnson covering lighting,  an unstoppable Nayna Ramey on sets and costumes, Lynn Farrington, Anne Ruben, Rich Hamson on costumes.

My first assignment was a new piece, Diamond Cut Diamond, set in the 19th century. It had an unusually large cast (The Cricket tended to do small-cast plays in contemporary settings).  I had the good luck to work under scene designer G.W. (Skip) Mercier, brought in from New York early in his far-reaching career and very kind to this new kid on the block.  

However, the props list was challenging—was it really 15 pages?--and I quickly became overwhelmed.  Amongst the predictable period table settings, linens, doilies occasional chairs and lamps, it listed an Eiffel Tower paperweight that I managed to build out of not much, and–now I was in trouble--a functional inventor’s whiz-bang box of wonders.  Of course, the budget was minimal.  This was a big order for a costumer who had never propped and didn’t really know the Cities’ resources yet.  I learned them quickly.  Thanks to someone else (Michael Klaers?) who took over the Box of Wonders, I was able to gather the list and had time to re-upholster a big pouffe requested late in the game, a project that probably kept me my job.

It was tough show on other designers as well: I clearly recall Nayna exhaustedly chanting “No more notes…” during an over-long post-rehearsal notes session. Lynn and I bonded while working on those endless notes overnight in the lobby space, which has a wall of glass doors onto Nicollet. The street people found us fascinating.  

Nevertheless, I went on to prop several more shows there, many under Skip Mercier: All God’s Dangers was a one-man show starring Cleavon Little.; Drinking in America, for which I was promoted to Skip’s design assistant;  Reckless introduced me to the amazing set designer Jack Barkla.

After a year I felt I had paid my dues as props person, so I revealed to Bill that I was really a costumer and would much prefer that job.  Not only did he invite me to costume upcoming shows, he also spread my name to other directors (Julia Carey at Theatre Exchange, Michael Robins at Illusion).  In About Time, I worked with director George C. White of New York’s O’Neill Center.  George guided me on my maiden sushi-tasting tour at Ichiban’s during a tech week break.  I found my first style niche while costuming Drugs, Sex, Rock and Roll, tricking out JC Cutler in leather studs and chains.

Around 1989-90 the Cricket followed a downtown trend and took on a massive renovation project to bring the old building back to its original glory. 

They uncovered and restored the lobby and theater, closed off the unused upper balcony, spiffed up the dressing rooms.  It took at least two years to finish (longer for the balcony), went over budget and resulted in a delicious Baroque bonbon of a building.

Alas, the theater never recovered.  It finally had to give up its lovely venue and moved to a less accessible suburban location, never regaining its vitality.  I had caught on to the Cricket’s back legs in what turned out to be its final leaps, & I am more than grateful that I was given the opportunity to fire-start my design career with this fine company.

The fact that so many of these theaters and a large number of directors, designers and performers are still active today is remarkable. These people grew up together in the business, which helps to explain their enduring camaraderie and the surprisingly low level of job competition here.  They have indeed taken the long view of our community that doesn’t hesitate to extend a helping hand, knowing that it will be repaid with interest at a future date.   

My thanks to Rich Hamson, Lynn Farrington, Sally Childs, Wendy Knox for their remembrances and insights, and to the Star Tribune reviewer Peter Vaughan, who donated his files of theater programs—with his scribbled notes--to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Sightlines: Ode to Olympia

Article by Mim Solberg

Mim Solberg continues her history of her work here in the 70s and 80s with an essay on the creation of the Olympia Arts Ensemble, an outgrowth from the MET Theater and the theater with which I began my career in 1978.  Mim is currently living in New York and continues to perform whenever she can. - Mike Wangen

Olympia Arts Ensemble

Olympia Arts Ensemble

We trudged our way up a dark and skewed staircase…unbolted a heavy fire door, pushed our way into a huge dusty loft, mid afternoon light and shadows twisting, turning, kaleidoscope patterns ….piles of lumber, rusty metal, machine parts piled in a corner of the 2,500 sq. ft. floor, years of dust on windows across the front;  brick walls, layered with paint.  The only thing in perfect order and evenly spaced were metal pillars. A bathroom and a small room in the back were next to a freight elevator.  

Peter’s dark eyes were on fire, I hollered, squealed and danced around the open space…”listen to our voices Peter, the sound is alive…feel the energy of this space…the call is out, the answer is YES!” Through the dust we saw actors in masks, processions, crawling, writhing, leaping through the ample space. Plays we’d dreamed of doing emerged from the light and shadow of that portentous afternoon.

Peter and I were talking at the same time…”We can haul out the debris, sandblast the walls, sand and varnish these fucked up hard wood floors,  paint the bathroom, make dressing rooms out of the small room in the back.” We could see the whole space come to life for artists and a theater. It would be the first of its kind in Minneapolis, in a warehouse, unique, we’d design and build the whole thing.  The brick walls in front would be gallery space for our painter friends.  Halleluia! close to downtown Mpls, 2nd floor, formerly a Levis blue jean factory.  

It took us an hour or so to come down from the heights…to “where were we going to get the money ? The answer came…we can get artists to chip in whatever they could.  We had about $200 in the bank and figured others could come up with a comparable amount. We had talent, could do fundraisers. We got most of the money and, remarkably, the engineering company on the first floor rented the space to us.  Neither they nor we had the slightest idea what we collectively were in for.

First we had to renovate in order to open with a fundraiser. We rented sandblasting equipment for a weekend, rallied a few artists, who had never seen such paraphernalia and began the work at about 7:00pm Fri. It was the most disgusting labor we’d ever done .  The core group didn’t emerge from the space until 6 am Mon. layered in paint dust and asbestos, but we had an exposed brick wall (a rather new concept in 1976) for the gallery and lobby. We recovered for a few days and then tackled sanding 2,500 sq, feet of hardwood floor. A new and very poor theater was being born out of factory ashes, lost theaters and “impossible dreams”.

Peter Scangarello and I were partners both at home and in the theater, sharing a common vision for the theater based on Jerzy Grotowski’s “Towards a Poor Theatre” Peter said he wanted to direct; I said I want to help direct a new company and act.  We would continue to call on Grotowski to be our guide.

An unlicensed opening to public fundraisers launched our dreams.  Soon after, we opened the Olympia Arts Ensemble to workshops in the spring of 1976,  from where we would create a space for artists and a theater company; same principle as the MET (Minnesota Ensemble Theater)…no auditions, workshops until we were ready to perform. “Times were a changing”, and so were we, in the mid 70’s …seemed more difficult to challenge and keep actors who were ready for the “poor theater” ideals and regimen. There were warriors who came and stayed, thrived and we grew together; Heidi Arneson (brilliant wild child), Colin Rich, Doug Berry, Tony Thomas, Marlo Thielen, Eleanor Giametti, Molly Olin,  Michael Yonkers… to name a few.  

After a few months, it was time to take a leap with a production: Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s “ Mary Stuart.” Hildesheimer was a German Absurdist playwright .  Our production preceded the 1981 Public Theater production in NY. The play takes place during the night of Mary’s execution and begins with her sitting on the chopping block, praying wildly and in dialogue with her soon to be executioner. Mary’s throne becomes a toilet before her execution.  Mary Stuart remains one of my favorite characters and Hildesheimer, a beloved playwright, though our production wasn’t exactly a box office smash.

Financial struggles mounted even with every production’s minimal costs. Peter and I and a few of the tribe kept going…productions followed one after another. We lost actors, we gained others. We “hosted” after hours musicians when the theater went dark, we opened the door to music,  Bonnie Raitt, the Suicide Commandos, whoever had the bread to promote themselves and support the Olympia Arts Ensemble. This was of course illegal and we were visited often by the vice squad, fined but never busted or put behind bars.  

Olympia Arts Ensemble was about artists of all disciplines. We had our gallery in the front, hung paintings by Sean McLaughlin, Jan Attridge, Heidi Arneson and more.  We hosted poetry readings. Almost all our plays were done with live music, Milo Fine, Michael Shelby, Steve Kimmel….

Our theater life continued to breathe and even thrive with Pirandello’s “Six Character in Search of an Author” a children’s holiday play created by Peter, complete with borrowed live goat and pony (a story in itself).  Then we made a brilliant choice to do Lorca’s “Yerma”with full Flamenco,  dancers Susana (de Palma),Valerie, Eleanor, guitarists Michael and Tony Hauser, flamenco singer Elena Cordebesa and a full cast of 24 young women and 2 men. We made great use of our 2,500 sq. feet and usually filled what was left of the space with a sizable audience.  Yerma was barren, I played her.  I often joked ..,”wonder how many of these 24 beautiful fertile women will become pregnant, in real life?” The production of“Yerma” also delivered a great gift to Olympia, bringing unimaginable light and shadow to every play going forward,lighting designer Michael Wangen. Mike and Peter synchronized their visions,  painted coffee cans black, bought a few spots and gels and Mike built a magic board to light “the way of our plays”.  He arrived in time for “Yerma” in 1978 and stayed with us through Jean Genet’s “The Balcony”, Max Frisch’s “The Firebugs”, Peter’s and Fred Gaine’s “La Ville Sanglante”  and many others.

During rehearsals for “The Balcony”, while playing Mme. Irma, I discovered I was pregnant.  Peter and I were thrilled, even without employment, a beautiful 12 yr old boy, Kristofer, and a theater that took 85% of our time and funds, but somehow we weren’t worried. Our lives took on even more meaning.  Next, Antonin Artaud’s “Cenci”, Mim as Beatrice slithered and wailed down a red carpet, on my belly full with child. Doug Berry masterminded great bird masks as well as played the lead.  We delved into taboo shadows of incest...by exposing to light all we knew at that time.

A glorious little girl, called Beret made her entrance in March of 1979. She was welcomed with joy by the company and her infant self was held by Peter as he directed in whispers, or passed her to me or other actors during breaks. Workshops and productions continued. We mounted and closed Hungarian Imre Madach’s “Tragedy of Man”.   Mama Mim and Colin Rich tackled Beckett’s “Happy Days” which drew large audiences and critical acclaim.

Theater and personal debt were mounting, stress was dimming our bliss. We wanted to hold on to Olympia. I felt I had to make a change to help support our now family of four. I auditioned for the Guthrie and after a long process was accepted.  Peter was using some of his many skills as a carpenter to pay the bills and we managed to hold on to the theater through the early 80s. Olympia produced Max Frisch’s “Chinese Wall” and collaborated with Frank Kinniken on George Buchner’s “Lenz”.

The 80’s were upon us, funding and critical support for small arts organizations was almost non existent. It hurt that we might have to give Olympia up. I watched Peter’s silent pain and the darkening shadows cross his dream. I felt like my heart was being torn off a frozen window pane.

One day we walked out the heavy metal door and the Olympia Ensemble was no more. So many dreams came to life during that time. Peter you claimed your voice and vision and passed them on to your company, Mike, me, Beret and Kristofer.  Peter, Marlo, Paul Smith, Elena, Jane Berry, Colin,  all of you who have crossed to the other side…you are remembered, we are grateful for the work and love that made those days possible. Love to all who still carry the torch to create, Heidi, Mike, Yonkers, Tony and Michael Hauser,  Susana, Larry Becker, Alan Gardiner Atkinson...

Why do we want to tell these stories, beyond nostalgia?  It is because we want theaters and arts ensembles to continue to rally, to fight, to realize all you can be as artists with unique visions and voices.  Your financial struggles may be as crazy as ours, but hang on...live and love your work.  Remember, there are a few wild elders wishing you the best.  The length of shadows is constantly changing as the earth rotates and those of us that remain, go on to tell the story.  When does the story end? When the tellers feel it’s enough to tell.