Ready to Work?


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, read the article he wrote last year!

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

The Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) is an event which occurs yearly at a different city in the southeastern U.S., during which said city's convention center is briefly inundated by a number of incredibly anxious and overwhelmed theatre students who have spent their (relatively) young lives being told that a career in the arts isn't financially viable.

They spend the weekend lugging around awkwardly sized portfolios and having their self-esteem preyed upon by institutionalized narratives of “success,” and, when all is said and done, they leave with a summer stock job that pays too little and demands too much, and possibly a nice piece of paper telling them they had the prettiest poster board in the design competition, and thus are the best at art out of all the other people who brought poster boards.


Sorry. That wasn't fair. Let's start again: The Southeastern Theatre Conference is an event where students studying theatre in post-secondary institutions gather to receive feedback on their work and encounter opportunities for career advancement, all the while accompanied by their faithful companion, Virgil, and riding atop the back of Geryon, a beast with the the wings of a dragon, the paws of a lion, the body of a wyvern, and the tail of a scorpion. No, wait, sorry, that’s Dante's Inferno. My bad. Honest mistake.


The Southeastern Theatre Conference made me want to drink. A lot. There. I think that is as neutral as I'm going to be able to get.

But casting aside my grumpy/righteously angry persona (henceforth referred to as “The Curmudgeonly Crusader”), I can tell you that SETC is a conference that occurs yearly somewhere in the southeast U.S., where students and faculty studying theatre in academic institutions come to participate in classes, workshops, informational sessions, a job fair, and competitions of various sorts. This year it took place in Lexington, Kentucky, a beautiful little metropolis where anything you can think of has a picture of a horse on it. I attended as part of a contingent of students from Indiana University, which included graduate students from every one of the design/tech disciplines that IU offers a masters in.

Unlike the majority of IU’s delegation, I attended strictly as an observer. I did not participate in the design competition myself, though many of my friends did. Although I bummed around the job fair for a bit, I was already employed for the summer, and thus did not put too much effort into seeking out employment opportunities. I went to a few different classes—one was phenomenal, one was okay, and one was pretty useless, though the man who taught it was very nice. Mostly I wandered around, talked to people that I knew and people that I met, and just tried to understand what was going on.

I should be clear: Though I attended as an observer, it was definitely not as an impartial one. I had a vague idea of what SETC was like from stories told by last year’s attendees; from what I understood, I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I didn't need it for access to employment opportunities. And the idea of a design competition made me extremely uncomfortable, both in terms of the high-minded, hoity-toity, artistic considerations (I do not think design is a zero-sum game) and in terms of the effect it would have on my own self-esteem. Also, I had never been good at making poster boards.

For all of these reasons, I initially refused to go when my professor asked me to. When I was basically told “No, you need to go,” I responded by essentially yelling “FINE BUT I'M NOT GOING TO PARTICIPATE IN YOUR STUPID DESIGN COMPETITION! I HATE YOU!” and storming off to my room, slamming the door, and refusing to come down for dinner. Or something like that.

After my initial knee-jerk reaction had died down, I began to come around to the idea of attending. I reminded myself that one of the main reasons I had come to grad school was to experience my chosen profession from an entirely new perspective. I admonished myself to remember what I have come to think of as my grad school mantra: Keep what works, screw the rest. With those things in mind, I resolved that I would find some morsel of truth that I could bring home from the experience. When the day of departure arrived, I loaded myself into a school-owned van along with four other lighting designers, one costume designer, two poster boards, and numerous bags filled with soon-to-be-wrinkled dress clothes. And off we went.

It would've been a nice touch if the ghost of Rod Serling had been there to greet us as we pulled up to the Lexington Convention Center, ready with some ominous, fourth-wall breaking narration. The world I was about to enter was in many ways similar to how I imagined The Twilight Zone when I was a kid. The substance was all the same as reality, but something felt warped and different.

Interacting with any large organization as a lowly individual is an alienating experience. We entered into the convention center and made our way through the crowds to find the check-in point, where we would receive the badges that identified who we were and what we were allowed to do, based on what we had paid for. After waiting in line with everyone else whose last name started with a letter between R and Z, I received my magic laminated badge, and was free to go and frolic as I pleased.

I wasn't really in the mood for frolicking, however, in large part due to the constant, low-level tension that hung over the convention center. It reminded me of the sort of tension at an airport security checkpoint that radiates off the one person in line who is constantly checking their watch or phone and trying to calculate if they are going to miss their flight. This feeling would be a constant presence throughout the entire time we were at the conference. Over three days, the entire Lexington Convention Center was transformed into pressure cooker filled with over-stressed graduate students and undergrads, wondering if they were good enough, if they would get the job, or if they would win the award.

By the end of the second day, with no end in sight to the the attritional anxiety that suffused the place,  I found myself wondering if I wasn't projecting. Perhaps my own discomfort with the setting was influencing my view of the conference. “Sure,” I said to myself, “I may feel uncomfortable here, but that doesn't mean everyone else is tense and on edge.” By the end of the third day, however, any doubt that I had had regarding the validity of my own perceptions was gone.

That was because the third day featured the award ceremony. After the winners were announced, the only thing that was left was to watch the effect the announcements had on the people around me. Standing outside the doors of the nondescript multipurpose room that had played host to the event, I watched as people who hadn't won emerged from the bathroom with splotchy faces and red eyes, insisting they were fine. A bit of a ways down the hall, in the midst of displays that were still set up, a third-place award winner stood alone in front of the display of first-place winner, intensely poring over all her materials, looking for what she had done that he hadn't. People stood in small groups talking quietly with intense looks on their faces or went off on their own, trying seeking desperately to avoid eye contact. It felt a lot like a funeral.

Later that night, I would learn that a friend of a friend had locked herself in her hotel room, and refused to come out. She was distraught over a comment that her reviewer had given her. He said that he wished she had “done more” with the production, which she assumed meant she was a bad designer and a failure.

Describing it now, it seems pretty baffling that things were being taken that seriously. The awards were definitely not undesirable; they were prestigious to win, looked good on a résumé and, in the case of the first-place winner, included a monetary reward. Furthermore, several graduate students in the design competitions would be selected to win the “Ready to Work” awards, which guaranteed the recipient a design with one of several regional theaters in the upcoming season. But the responses of some of the participants seemed wholly disproportionate to what was at stake.

Nor was I was immune to the anxieties that plagued my peers. I had come to the conference intending to observe as an outsider, but was unable to remain objective and unfeeling. As I left the building to head to a bar after the awards ceremony, I found myself retracing a well-worn mental path, one I had returned to often over the three days of the conference. If I had entered the design competition, would I have won anything? What would the reviewers have said about my work? If I had actually been in search of employment for the summer, would I have found it? I wanted to not care about the answers to those questions, but I couldn't.

As I approach the end of my second year of grad school and watch some of my closest friends in the program face down their third and final years, I am struck by the anxiety that hangs over this place at times. The unspoken question—“Will I be able to make it outside, in the real world?”—is never explicitly vocalized, but is almost constantly present in people's minds, especially among the third years who are preparing to graduate.

I occupy a relatively privileged position in relation to this question. I have been on the “outside” (this is starting to sound like a prison movie) and been able to survive there. I have a place to return to where I feel (relatively) confident I will be able to once again find work. For me, the idea of graduating represents a return to the familiar, a place and a system of structures that I had come to know and feel fairly comfortable with in the years before I went off to IU.

But I'm still not immune to that anxiety and doubt that my peers feel. I feel apprehension about the process of reintegrating that lies ahead of me. I can only imagine what my peers who are starting totally fresh feel. We spend three years being told we are “artists,” and as a result, no one talks about what it actually means to be someone that is going to make a living doing this. Instead, we just talk about art, as if by labeling ourselves “artists” we can escape the economic realities that the rest of the world has to deal with.

In my first year at grad school, I was required to take a class on collaboration, where the final project involved the class being split into groups which were each charged with… wait for it… redecorating the classroom. Short of possibly kickstarting my career in interior design, that class was utterly useless to me. And yet when I go to look for classes to register for next semester—the first semester of my final year—I still see no classes regarding the practical aspects of how to operate as an economic entity: how to market oneself, how to negotiate a contract, how the hell healthcare works when you’re a freelancer.

Considered from the perspective of people facing down their entrance into the “real world” but feeling unprepared for the economic realities of it, the reactions of the various students at the design competition no longer seem irrational. Products of an educational system which, by the nature of critiques and grading, places an emphasis on external validation, they were struggling for a sense of stability in the face of uncertainty; if they didn't receive it, and perhaps even if they did, they were left alone with their anxieties about the future. Ironically, those who had won the “Ready to Work” awards may have felt anything but.

For me, the biggest takeaway from the experience—the one morsel of truth I had been after—was the unsettling realization that despite all of my attempts to keep myself quarantined from some of the effects of this place, I am not always successful. The hope is simply to learn to recognize when and how I am being affected.

Post note: I want to give a special thanks to the people who reached out to me after the last article I wrote to offer support in any form. I was not able to respond to all of you, but please know that it was deeply appreciated.

(STEM + A) x Arts Integration = Opera


Backstage at the Vienna Opera. Photo:  Jeff Keyzer . Used under Creative Commons license.

Backstage at the Vienna Opera. Photo: Jeff Keyzer. Used under Creative Commons license.

As the Community Education Director, it made sense that Jamie Andrews and I first met in the context of Project Opera, Minnesota Opera’s excellent youth education program. Dedicated to building opportunities for young people, Jamie’s smarts and experience make him a joy to work with. It’s an honour to hear his thoughts on opera and education, and we’d do well to pay attention. —Wu Chen

STEM is defined as an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.

Arts Integration as defined by the Kennedy Center for the Arts is, an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meet evolving objectives in both.

Two ideas that have been making the rounds in the world of education is moving STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) and Arts Integration. One aspect of these two ideas that is similar suggests that, without the arts, the pedagogies of science, technology, engineering, and math (and any number of other disciplines), are not complete. To fully understand a subject, engaging with it artistically is a fundamental necessity. It is a belief that a student needs to create using the elements of an idea or concept to be able to internalize it. Or to put it in another way, that the benefit of the arts is through creation and not observation, similar to how the benefit of athletics is through participation, not watching it on TV.

The inclusion of the arts is an interesting idea, and one that has some non-alternative facts supporting it. Conversely there are plenty of people who believe a STEM education should remain STEM, and arts integration is only diminishes the understanding of the subjects studied. The arguments on both sides of the topic are quite interesting but beyond the scope of this blog post. I will focus on how opera, through STEAM and Arts Integration, is well-suited to advance the pedagogy of arts education, including technical theater education.

Making the case for STEAM (I’ll just assume we are all on board with this idea) and technical theater is fairly easy—math skills needed to create a flat, knowledge of technology to use the saw to cut the wood to build the flat, science to know that you need to stop the bleeding from the cut you sustained from using the saw to cut the wood to build the flat, etc.

But making the case for STEAM and opera education is not as obvious. Usually when one thinks of opera education, singing is what probably comes to mind first. I have worked as the Education Director for fourteen years at the Minnesota Opera and can attest to the many times the first comment people ask after they learn where I work is, “Oh! So you must be a singer.” And this is not just the random person on the street. This might come from a music teacher, college professor, or professional artist.

This default thinking is especially difficult when you get into the smaller subset work of opera education. The idea that education programs from an opera company would include technical theater is unsupported by current practice. For example, craftsmen and designers are not asked to make teaching part of their work. The companies that hire these workers are often uninterested in adjusting job descriptions to allow for this sort of engagement. And funders want to support what is most obvious to them—what they see on stage.

Moving towards the artists of the future

Obviously singing in opera is a key component. But how do we get past that? How do we leverage all the elements of the art form and resources of an opera company to serve the needs of the community? How do we change the way we teach about opera to the general public? Moreover, how we do create artists of the future who are not siloed in their understanding of the art form. Think of this as arts integration for the education of artists.

Opera has been described as the original multimedia art form for a multimedia age. It’s the combination of music, theater, and dance, all in an elaborate spectacle. The stories can be of epic love, tragic affairs and are even funny once in a while. One might think that for a contemporary audience that embraces The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones, opera might not be that far out there.

Yet the way in which we teach opera is segregated. Attend a pre-performance talk before almost any show throughout the country and you will learn about the music and plot. This is the same for ubiquitous education programs that go into schools.

In terms of artist training, singers learn vocal technique, languages, and acting. Instrumentalists learn their instruments and may learn a little about opera through their music history classes. Stage directors live in the spoken theater world. Dancers in the dance world. And the technical folks… well? How do you learn your craft?

Of course these are some very big generalizations, but my point is that the way we teach, talk, and advocate for opera may not serve us in the future.

What’s next?

Fellow Minnesotan Ben Cameron talks of the Cultural Reformation that is upon us. The 95 theses have been nailed to the door but are we, as cultural institutions, like opera companies, ready to open it? While there are many issues facing cultural organizations that are outside any one organization or one industry’s purview, rethinking how the art is taught and how one advocates for it, is not. What do we want opera artists to be in the future? And how do we get there? Do we want to continue to segregate training, so that singers only know about singing, and designers only know about design? Or is there a way we can train people under the umbrella of an “arts education” that encourages them to be stronger advocates for their art, whether that art form is theater, music, opera, or design? Or, through the lens of arts integration, can we teach music in a way that informs and enhances technical education (and vice versa), and does not diminish either subject area, to ultimately create better artists? I think there is.

But starting at the very basic levels of arts education and reconceiving its methodology and pedagogy, we can create artists truly versed in STEAM education. Imagine an elementary student learning the basic ideas and concepts of stage craft while learning simultaneously the basic tenets of storytelling and acting.

Additionally, imagine artist training that includes advocacy for their art as a basic skill that is as important as being able weld, memorize lines, and match pitch. When artists are trained from the very beginning to speak of the impact that the arts has on one’s life and community, then they can be empowered to really effect change in their audiences. Moreover making the assumption that the value of one’s art is self-evident to others may inadvertently elicit a negative perspective in an audience, thus erecting a barrier preventing them from experiencing new artistic expression.

These are large ideas and the path forward is not entirely clear, but moving from STEM to STEAM may be a place to start. It has many positive outcomes, including the potential to transform the way in which art is taught. We need to keep thinking about it and trying to define what success looks like. And before you know it, the artists of the future will be us.


To continue digging into any of these topics, I encourage a look at the following resources:

Health and Safety Info for the Monetarily Challenged Artist


I first met Rebecca in 2008. She was the charge painter for an event for which I was the house electrician. When she moved to town a couple of years later, it was a terrific addition to the Twin Cities community. Rebecca is now an Industrial Hygienist for 3M, but she’s remained close to the Performing Arts community, and her powerful and informed interest in safety on the job ought to be an inspiration for us all. A brilliant person with that rare intellect that cuts right to the heart of any matter while still remaining very cognizant of pragmatic concerns, Rebecca is the kind of person we should all have been paying more attention to long ago. —Wu Chen

Theatre can be a messy, dangerous place. In my last article, I talked about the need for greater attention to health and safety in the arts and how we as an industry need to respect ourselves, our skills, and our purpose enough to put a high value on protecting those assets. I'm aware that this can be easier said than done. Many, if not most, small theaters have zero dollars in the budget allocated for any kind of safety program. And if your technical crew is staffed even partially by independent contractors or volunteers, it is arguable whether or not they would technically be covered by such a program.

So the assumption we'll start with for the rest of this article is that the majority of theatre technicians do not have access to an active workplace safety program. This is unfortunate, and in coming articles we'll discuss ways to start changing that, but in the meantime, there are quite a few resources that are available to anyone with an internet connection, for free, to start arming themselves against the hazards of their work environments. I am going to share some of the most helpful ones that I have found.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the resources listed have been developed and are owned by 3M. I currently work for 3M, but I am not receiving any compensation from 3M for listing these products. I am not representing 3M or 3M’s products in these articles. I just know the most about them, and I know some of the incredibly intelligent, passionate, and dedicated people who develop them, so I trust the science behind them. It's possible other safety product companies have similar tools I don't know about. If you find some, send me a link through Tech Tools!

Safety Data Sheets

These are going to be your first line of defense for chemical exposure. Formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets, Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) are legally required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to be provided by the manufacturer of a product, and are supposed to contain basic information about the ingredients of the material and the health, safety, and environmental hazards associated with them. They are not usually—okay, not ever—perfect, but they do tell you some things. Since the 2012 revision to the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom), they tell you a lot more than they used to. (Sort of. Sometimes.) And often you can get information from what they are not telling you as well.

While these are required for selling a chemical product, they can be much more difficult to procure from an intermediate vendor if you are not buying directly from the manufacturer. (For kicks, go to the paint counter at a big box store and ask them for an SDS for one of their faux finishing products.) In this case, your best bet is to use the internet. Most manufacturers now post these on their websites. If you can't get one from your vendor or the internet, call them up and ask them for it. HazCom also requires manufacturers to list a phone number for more information about the product. Make the people who staff those lines earn their paychecks. Next month in the second part of this article, we'll take a step-by-step look at how to read and interpret a safety data sheet for practical use in theatre.

GESTIS Substance Database

There's nothing little about this nifty little database—it contains exhaustive pertinent environmental, health, and safety data for hundreds and hundreds of chemicals. You can search by name or CAS number (which should be listed on the SDS) and it will tell you physical and chemical properties, personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations, and everything in between. It's basically an SDS database on steroids. Being European, it contains much more information than an average U.S. SDS, since Europe has much tighter regulations for chemical health and safety. It doesn't have every chemical I've tried to look up, but definitely has the majority of them. I especially love it for toxicology study data and glove recommendations.

The downside: It is only for single chemicals, not mixtures, and you can't look up a chemical if they don't tell you what it is on the SDS. We'll talk more about figuring out chemicals next month in the SDS analysis.

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that performs and provides health and safety research. It’s different from OSHA because OSHA enforces the law, based (partly) on scientific research; NIOSH does the research and publishes the data. The NIOSH website is an absolute gold mine of information. It would take way more space than I have to fully explain its useful parts, so I'll just highlight a few of my favorites.

I highly recommend just going to the page and searching for topics of concern to you. Most of the information is presented in a highly readable, easy-to-understand fashion, and it's completely free to access. This is important because most of the really well-researched, most unbiased literature about any scientific topic requires a subscription to a relevant trade journal or purchase of specific articles—and those are not free. A one-year subscription to just one respected trade journal can run you anywhere from $200-$1,200 depending on what access you purchase. But NIOSH provides some of the most solid scientific research about health and safety out there and it’s paid for by your tax dollars and available for the asking. You paid for it. Go use it. Get your money’s worth.

  • PowerTools Database: This database has the noise levels of many of the common power tools—down to manufacturer and model. This information can be very useful for scene shops and prop shops in purchasing new tools, or assigning PPE for existing tools.
  • What Does a Hearing Loss Sound Like?: This site has computer-generated samples of what normal sounds hear like with normal hearing and moderate hearing loss, both with and without background noise. It can be a very effective tool in communicating the importance of using available tools for hearing protection effectively and consistently.
  • Health Hazard Evaluations: This program is one in which qualified health and safety scientists performs an evaluation assessing and controlling possible work-related hazards in a workplace, and provides custom guidance for improving health and safety in that workplace. There is a database of hundreds of reports from these evaluations, many of which can have relevance to the work done in theatre. You can even request an assessment of your own workplace.
  • Workplace Safety and Health Topics for Small Business: Guidance specifically aimed at small businesses with limited resources
  • Work Schedules: Shift Work and Long Hours: some pointed guidance regarding work schedules and long work hours may be of special interest to those working “summer stock” schedules.

There is so much more available on this website: Data, fact sheets, papers, videos, etc. It's worth exploring.

3M Center for Respiratory Protection

A really nice step-by-step guide to creating a respirator program from start to finish (or start to maintenance, really). There are instructional videos, fact sheets, even a checklist to help you make sure you have all the required elements of the program. The site contains both general, science-based information on developing a compliant, effective program as well as brand-specific product information and free tools for using those products. We plan to devote an entire article to respiratory protection programs for theatre in the coming months.

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Speaking of OSHA, this is the website of our national health and safety agency. They are not, as some would have you believe, a group of malicious bureaucrats determined to shut down honest business owners on the basis of tiny, harmless oversights. (At least not collectively. I can’t speak for any individual person’s bad attitude.)

This website is pretty self-explanatory and it has a decent search engine. The part that documents the actual legal standards can get a little dense, but it has lots of extra explanatory information in much more user-friendly language: Fact sheets, training materials, template health and safety programs, data and statistics, videos, etc. Again, this is all paid for by your tax dollars—go get your money’s worth. My favorite bit is the on-site consultation program. It’s free and gets you expert advice on how to get safe. Little-known fact: You can request a consultation of just one particular health/safety element, or a comprehensive assessment of the entire workplace.

Since most of our readers are in Minnesota, here’s the Minnesota-specific version of the program: Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health. OSHA gives states the option of either using the federal safety and health standards, or else creating equal or more stringent state standards to use in place of the federal program. Minnesota is one of the states that has a state-specific program. There’s a lot of good information on it but it can be tricky to find.

Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety

And lastly (but certainly not least), Monona Rossol has spent nearly her entire career fighting for health and safety for employees in the visual and performing arts. Her not-for-profit company, Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (A.C.T.S.), provides health and safety expertise in a variety of formats. In addition to formal consulting (not free), she provides low-cost and free advice for artists looking for information and assistance with workplace safety concerns. She is also the health and safety director for Local 829 of United Scenic Artists / International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
That does it for this month’s installment of “Health and Safety Info for the Monetarily Challenged Artist.” Tune in next month for “Deciphering Safety Data Sheets for Arts & Entertainment Professionals.” I hope you find this information helpful; if you have additional resources you’d like us to showcase, send them along to Tech Tools. 

Stage Moms (and Dads): Making Art in a World that Doesn't Want You

Article by Stephanie Richards

Stephanie Richards is a skilled lighting designer and the Lead Programmer at the Guthrie Theater. Stephanie has always been extremely competent and able to step into a wide variety of roles with great facility and consideration. She reads extremely widely and while we don’t talk as much as we used to (theatre schedules means we rarely see each other), I always appreciate her sharp, intelligent opinion and insight, built on a strong foundation of experience and study. -Wu Chen

When I agreed to write this essay, I had it in mind that I would paint a picture of the special kind of chaos that rules a two-stagehand family. I would find some eloquent way to rhapsodize about the magic of a perfectly-synced shared iCal, the craziness that is meeting your spouse halfway between your work venues in rush-hour traffic to swap a hungry toddler from one car seat to another, or the joy of asking someone to babysit without being able to tell them either a start or an end time. 

Many other parents have written about the joy and the challenge of raising kids in the theatre. Those of us who have chosen this path have all figured out ways to make it work. I work a full-time show schedule at the Guthrie; this gives me a lot of flexibility during the day to spend time and energy parenting. My husband Ryan freelances, mainly off the IATSE call list. He can take calls with an eye to my schedule; he's less likely to say yes to that all-day Target Center load-in when I'm in the middle of tech. We have an amazing nanny who has been with us since our daughter was four months old; she is often the rock that our little family teeters on and without her we would be in serious trouble. And then we have our larger community - friends, coworkers, family members, sitters - all of whom help us get up each day and get the things done that we need to do. 

This business is, by its nature, hostile to families. The long hours put into a design and build, or during tech by stagehands, are punishing to the parents of small children - especially breastfeeding or pumping mothers. The schedules are completely opposite from the school days of older children, leaving parents to choose between missing recitals, sports games, birthday parties, and even family dinners, or finding a new line of work. And at our job sites, both managers and coworkers without children can be unwilling or unable to help mitigate the impact that the fluid nature of the work can have on our families. Before I was a mom, it was nothing to work through a dinner break if the designer needed more time. Now, I'm heading home for an hour so Ryan can get to his show call on time and our nanny can commute from her day job to our house. Yet when I say no, I can't stay when you've decided at the last minute that you need yet another hour of programming time, I'm the bad guy. And I am lucky, because my bosses have kids and they're willing to stick up for me, and I can say no to that kind of request without worrying if I'm going to lose my job.

And this is where I come back to the difference between what I thought I was going to talk about, and what's become clear to me that I NEED to talk about. What Ryan and I are doing? It's hard. Parenting is hard. Working in the arts is hard. Managing the logistics of schedules in a business where the expectation is that you are on-call 24/7 is hard. Navigating childcare with a non-traditional schedule is hard, and paying for it on an artist's salary is really hard, even when that salary is good. Compromising your art so you can be a good parent is hard - and compromising your parenting to make someone else's art is hardest of all. 

But as difficult as some days are, this is what I signed up for. We spend a lot of time taking turns raising our daughter, but at the end of a sixteen hour day, the other one is there to hold us up, lend a hand, or make the fourth run to the grocery store this week because we're out of milk again. We struggle to pay the bills, but we know that if something catastrophic happens, we have insurance, family, and friends who will jump in and lend a hand. We feel safe with the people we trust with our daughter when we're both working. And we are proud of the work we do, proud of what art can do in a community, and grateful to be a part of it. 

It's become clear to me that, with all these benefits and advantages we have, making this life work is STILL this hard. And so it follows that for someone without these privileges, raising a child has got to be exponentially harder. As tired as I am; as frazzled and disorganized as I feel most days, it is this thought that lights a fire under me. If we, as an arts community, seriously mean to include a plurality of voices in a meaningful way, we need to make an effort to include parents and families. Not just families who can manage within the traditional structure of play-making, but by making plays in a way that can accommodate the needs of the people in those families.

As artists, we face an unwelcoming world. With the current administration in Washington threatening to do away with the NEA and the NEH, with the fragmentation of our national identity, and with the despair that I have heard from friends and co-workers in the last few months, what we do is more important than ever. We have the right and the responsibility to say true things, to ask hard questions and explore messy answers. We can tell stories that can give hope, change hearts, and bolster spirits. But if we do not make space for the voices of everyone who wants to participate, we fail to rise above the charge of elitism that we are so often branded with.

I don't know what the answer is. Childcare is not only cost-prohibitive for families, but for many theatre organizations as well - companies like mine who pay a living wage, but don't necessarily have the margin to run a daycare operation too. Yet if we do not find creative ways to support artists caring for children or other family members, we limit the pool of participants to the same people we always hear from; people who don't have to surmount the barriers of income, availability, and outside responsibility. If we want to remain relevant in an increasingly unfair world, we have to do better. 

Advocating Health

Article by Rebecca Denny Burton

I first met Rebecca in 2008. She was the charge painter for an event for which I was the house electrician. When she moved to town a couple of years later, it was a terrific addition to the Twin Cities community. Rebecca is now an Industrial Hygienist for 3M, but she’s remained close to the Performing Arts community, and her powerful and informed interest in safety on the job ought to be an inspiration for us all. A brilliant person with that rare intellect that cuts right to the heart of any matter while still remaining very cognizant of pragmatic concerns, Rebecca is the kind of person we should all have been paying more attention to long ago. -Wu Chen

The last straw came when I found Emily in the paint closet.

Emily, a costume intern three-quarters finished with a questionably useful BFA in scenery and costume design, was kind of entitled, and kind of bratty, and I really didn't like the way she phoned in her paint practicum projects.  But when I found her in the tiny paint closet spaced halfway to Mars on the vapors from the spray paint she'd been using (for quite some time, if the pile of empty cans behind her was any indication), to stencil pseudo-Egyptian faux-embroidery on about thirty ensemble acting apprentice robes, I thought for a minute I would black out with rage.  Although she knew it probably wasn’t a great idea to spray paint in a closet for hours on end, she was afraid of angering the designer who had given her the task, and was worried that if he thought her difficult, he would not recommend her for future work.  Here was a twenty year-old person, a relatively-inexperienced hopeful just starting out in the world of theatre, dutifully destroying her lungs, her potential systemic integrity, and an untold number of brain cells in the name of a reference.  And her boss had told her to do it.

The situation I just described was one incident that happened on one day during one show’s build at one rotating repertory summer stock company.  But it is illustrative of a larger concern embedded in the culture of live performing arts in the United States today, which plays out in countless incidents at countless companies around the country.  Too many theatre artists, both as individuals and as organizational decision-makers, have an unfortunate tendency to set the value of the art they and their colleagues create at a higher level than that of the health and wellbeing of themselves, their colleagues, and, most troubling, the rising generation of artists.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2015 shows more than 4000 OSHA recordable injuries and illnesses for performing arts companies, and 49 fatalities—and these are just the ones that were eligible to be reported.  It does not include those involving students, volunteers, independent contractors, unpaid interns, and other non-employee workers.  Although data on a comprehensive number of theatre-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to procure, it can be assumed that it would be quite a bit higher.

This is a problem, and it is not okay.  It is not okay not because, as I have sometimes heard from disgruntled safety inspectors, because “it’s not brain surgery; this is not a matter of life and death!” although that is true.  It is a problem because theatre specifically, and performing arts generally, are part of the world of human artistic expression which, at its best, illuminates our inner lives, enriches our emotional world, and sheds light on the conditions of our existence.  Art may not be directly saving lives, allocating distribution of resources to humanity, or advancing trade or technology, but it shows us why those things and others matter to us as members of the human race.  Anyone who doubts the importance of art to the progression of humanity should run a search engine search for "arts suppression political censorship", and read through just the first page of hits while considering why dictators throughout history have spent so many resources on trying to control artistic expression. This is a high calling, and it is vital that theatre artists value themselves and each other enough to ensure their continued ability to contribute their considerable skills, talents, and dedication to this calling.  We must hold the artist as valuable as the art.

This is not to imply that advancing health and safety in the arts will or can be easy.  Theatre, on both the performing and technical ends, can be a challenging, bizarre, and constantly changing realm.  Hazards of these workplaces run the gamut from ergonomics to unguarded machinery, from chemical exposure to noise, from electrics to explosives to working eighteen hours a day for eight weeks without a day off.  A weird amalgam of construction, manufacturing, and performance, theatre’s scope of workplace hazards, and the rate at which those hazards can change, is unusual, if not unique, among industries. The opportunities for injury and illness through the demands of the work are impressive in both number and variety.

And yet the majority of theater companies fly beneath the radar of any sort of health and safety regulation or enforcement.  Most have never had an OSHA inspection since their founding, let alone an actively internally-enforced workplace health and safety plan.  Far too many illegally and incorrectly hire staff as “independent contractors,” and outside the protection of worker’s compensation and the employer/employee legal relationship.  And this can be dangerous, even deadly--because in such an environment, those who dedicate their lives to worker protection and could put a stop to the most egregious violations don't find out about the workplace in question until someone has been killed.

These are harsh words, and it is a harsh reality they are intended to illuminate.  Sporadically throughout history, and somewhat more consistently since the Industrial Revolution, various people and organizations have made protection of the lives and health of workers in their work environments a priority, and great strides have made in some industries.  But the many-headed beast that is live entertainment seems often to just fall through the cracks, mainly, I believe, because no one knows what the heck is going on here.

I should know--I am one of the few people who has worked extensively in both professional theatre and professional occupational health and safety, although as yet I have rarely had the opportunity to put the two together.  Most health and safety professionals have a hard science background, and their training is almost entirely limited to large-scale manufacturing.  They have no earthly idea what kind of hazards the typical scenic artist, costume craftsperson, assistant stage manager, etc. is exposed to.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and its state-based affiliates like MSHA (Minnesota Safety and Health Administration), are woefully understaffed and underfunded, and cannot possibly inspect all of the businesses that fall within their jurisdiction.  Large corporations, liable for lots of money if their employees can prove an unsafe environment, typically hire their own environmental, health, and safety (EHS) specialists as inoculation against the day the agency inspectors show up.  But by and large, for the world of theatre, safety is a thing that gets foisted off on technical directors, production managers, and stage managers, lumped in with their myriad other responsibilities.  Unions provide some protection to those lucky enough to be members.  But for the most part, health and safety specialists don’t know what theatre artists do, and theatre artists don’t have the specialized health and safety training or the resources to adequately manage their hazards, and this is a dichotomy that needs to change.

The good news is that this change has already begun, and is slowly being set in motion at various levels of the field. Specialists like Monona Rossol and Randy Davidson have worked through consulting and writing to spread the specialized health and safety knowledge that is needed.  Academic institutions like the Yale School of Drama, and performance companies like the Santa Fe Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival have actively appointed paid employees with theater safety as their main job priority.  In addition, many academic theatre programs are putting a much stronger emphasis on health and safety in their training programs, particularly for technical directors.  Momentum is building.  Good work is being done.

But there is still more to do.  The examples being set at larger institutions need to be followed at smaller ones.  The knowledge of these few specialists needs to be disseminated more widely, and expanded upon.  Tools must be developed that enable companies to do right by their workers even with limited resources.  Perhaps most importantly, the new generations of artists in training need to be taught from the very beginning that their lives and health are important enough to protect, that their work is important enough to protect its creators.  We need to put an end to the mindset that we are exempt from the restrictions of more mundane industries, or that we don’t deserve protections that workers in other fields take for granted, or that all health and safety is embodied in OSHA, and OSHA wants to shut us down (this is a real thing that a real theatre technician said to me, and it is absolutely untrue).  The importance of our work should make us more, not less, determined to be able to go on doing that work indefinitely.  Ours is an industry where one can be asked and expected to create almost any reality.  We must rise to the challenge of creating those realities without destroying our own.  Creativity, adaptability, innovation:  these are the currency the world of theatre has thrived on for centuries.  Let us take those qualities and apply them towards the goal of doing the work we need to do without harming our workforce.  We shouldn’t be worse at this than other industries, we should be better.

At the end of the day, people deserve work that does not harm them because they are human beings, and should not have to pay for honest employment with their lives or health.  But if this is too radical an idea to swallow yet (and the state of worker protection in the world suggests that it may be), consider the level of importance that the arts play in the shaping of humanity's course.  We owe it to ourselves, to each other, to the work, and to the world, to take ourselves seriously enough to do it right.

Old Things

Article by Mike Wangen

I recently received a photo taken by a friend of a very clever homemade animation device which attached to a PAR 64 light.  She was setting up a show for a touring dance company which had several of these.  It was a circular disc with many random sized holes cut in it, which rotated in front of the light and, apparently, created a very realistic fire effect in a very low tech way.  No fancy video, LEDs or expensive animation units.  Please don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite, I’ve recently designed two shows in town which made extensive use of LED units.  It’s just that it made me consider the idea that OLD is not necessarily bad and NEW is not always good.  It all depends on your perspective.

This also reminded me of a production of In The Red and Brown Water, produced by Pillsbury House Theatre at the Dowling Studio.  It featured a striking shimmering water effect on a painted backdrop and many patrons asked what type of special effect device we had used to achieve it.  I was done by setting 12 plastic bins of water in a line on the floor with small lights focused on them and bits of hard foam attached to coat hanger wire all strung together with fishline and running offstage where a stagehand gently tugged on it to create ripples in the water which were reflected onto the backdrop by the small lights.  What made it work was the randomness achieved by a human hand.

When thinking about the articles for Technical Tools of the Trade that I’ve read and curated over the last nine months, I’m struck by a theme which has appeared over and over again, that as we age as artists our creative spark often grows and strengthens rather than dissipates.  We acquire new perspective by recognizing the circular patterns that rotate around us.  What is OLD or NEW is not as important as recognizing the patterns that emerge and what can be gained by studying those patterns and building upon them.  

As a young lighting designer, I worked with an ensemble theater company that had embraced the ideas of Jerzy Grotowski and who treated his book Towards A Poor Theatre as their bible. He espoused the idea that theatre should, and could not compete with the spectacle of film and therefore should return to its roots of direct actor interaction with the audience.  As Peter Brooks said “Grotowski was showing us something which existed in the past but had been forgotten over the centuries;  that is that one of the vehicles which allows man to have access to another level of perception is to be found in the art of performance.”  An old idea which was revitalized through many experimental theatre groups in America in the 60s and 70s.  Over the last several years I have worked with two new theatre groups of young performers (in their 20s and 30s) who have again discovered Grotowski and embraced his ideas.  Thus, the world continues to turn.  The discoveries and explorations of the Olympia Arts Ensemble, the group I worked with in the 70s, led to my development as an artist and, through their exploration and expansion of Grotowski, the groups I am working with now are adding their voice to the development of our art.  

I am a student of history and am a firm believer in the theory that to know where we are going, we must examine where we have been.  America is often seen as a country which worships youth.  I believe that as mature artists we (myself and those who have written articles for this journal) must continue to work, grow, and recount our past experiences so that others can understand and build on the foundations we have laid down, as we built on the foundations of those before us.  

Confessions of a Failed Self-Advocate

Article by Tony Stoeri

Tony Stoeri returns for another excellent installment just in time, appropriately enough, for Fringe. He’s been back in town this summer, and I think you’ll be just as excited as I am by his continued thoughts on school through the eyes of a working professional. - Wu Chen

A few friends and I once went to a Tex-Mex fast food restaurant. In addition to our meals, I ordered a bag of tortilla chips for the table. When we got to the table and I took a bite of the first chip, what I experienced was not the satisfying and cathartic crunch of a fresh tortilla chip, but instead the gentle pliancy of a stale tortilla chip.

Heres the thing; I was totally ready to suck it up and eat that bag of stale tortilla chips, doing my damnedest to enjoy them. Sometimes, life just gives you stale tortilla chips and it’s your job to make the best of it. I didn't want to be the guy that went up to the person behind the counter and pointed out that my chips were stale and demanded new ones. I didn't want to cause a scene, to make that person behind the counter feel bad. Somewhere along the line I had decided in my head that in this scenario, asking for new tortilla chips would make me the selfish bad guy. Instead of losing the high regard in which I was undoubtedly held by the bored staff of this particular franchise, I was going to suffer in regal, martyred silence, and leave with the satisfying knowledge that I was indeed a morally good person for not having disrupted the silent vigil being held by the kid behind the counter over the various burrito ingredients.

It took one of my friends threatening to cause a huge scene to convince me to go up and politely ask for a different bag of chips. My request was promptly filled, and I returned to my seat with adrenaline coursing through my veins. You know you have a high tolerance for excitement when interactions with fast food employees get your blood pumping.

The point of this story is two-fold; first, for those of you who are still living in fear, most people won't start hating you because you asked for fresh tortilla chips. But the other, almost equally important reason I told this story was to illustrate one thing - I'm REALLY bad at advocating for my own self-interest.

This is something I've known for quite a while. When I was working as a freelancer, I struggled with it on a daily basis, and usually lost. I can't count the number of times I have walked out of a meeting about a new gig thinking, “Maybe I should've asked how much they were paying me before I agreed to this...,” or agreed to take on responsibilities outside of my contract in hopes of avoiding a confrontation. Did you know it’s the lighting designer's job to change the light bulbs in the bathrooms of the theater? As it was explained to me, it only makes sense because, after all, they do light up. On a recent visit home a friend of mine remarked that he had noticed a rise in design fees being offered by a number of small companies, which he attributed to my no longer being around to take gigs that paid $100. Sorry about that, designer friends. I promise I'm trying.

But I don't think I'm unique in this struggle (though perhaps I am in how much I struggle with this). Part of the difficulty in standing up for one’s interests is that exploitation itself can be incredibly difficult to pin down. We find it easy to recognize it in its most extreme forms - nobody walked out of Newsies thinking, “Jeez, those 11-year old paper boys sure were mean to those newspaper tycoons”- but

it is rare that such a clear cut case presents itself. In my experience, most exploitation isn't perpetrated by Snidely Whiplash knockoffs, twirling their waxed mustaches as they tie damsels to the train tracks. Instead, the road to exploitation is often paved with personal checks from incredibly earnest people with big expectations and small labor budgets who are just so excited to work with you. Exploitation, where I have encountered it, is often unintentional, and the result of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and absentmindedness. This makes it incredibly easy for me, personally, to avoid confronting any patterns that may emerge. I can justify sacrificing my own interests by telling myself, “This is just a one time thing, it will get cleared up next time.”

Advocating for one's own interests is made even more difficult because we are emotionally tied to this work. To paraphrase something Wu Chen once told me, we are, most of us, working in this business because we want to; we want the show to work, we want it to be good. I know this is certainly true for me; show me a small theatre company with a shoe string budget that has big dreams - or small dreams, or even just an idle interest in maybe putting a show together sometime if they remember to - and my heart melts. My first thought is that I want to help, I want to contribute to making this thing. But that desire can often work against one's own self-interest- no one wants to be the person that lets everyone else on the team down, and it becomes incredibly easy for that pressure to be leveraged into exploitation, intentionally or not. When you are put in a situation where it seems like part of the show depends on you, it becomes very hard to say no, even if it involves going against your own immediate self-interest.     

This effect is compounded for freelancers, who also must keep in mind how standing up for their own interests could come across as them being obstinate or difficult. Since each job you take is in effect an audition for a possible future gig, it is always in your interest to be cooperative and accommodating.  The incredibly difficult task, then, is to balance  the desire to be accommodating and cooperative - so you will be hired again- with the necessity of sticking up for yourself.

We find ourselves on a nearly daily basis navigating the nebulous gray area between seemingly contradictory forces- the desire to contribute and the desire to profit. You would think that in two years of freelancing I would have learned how to walk that tightrope a bit better, that I would be a few steps closer to the grizzled, cigar-smoking tough negotiator (played by Kurt Russell in the movie version of my life) that I always imagine when I think of what successful self-advocacy looks like. That doesn't seem to have happened though. I found instead that the nature of my work as a freelancer often allowed me to avoid directly confronting the issue of how to advocate for myself. The advantage of having a new job every couple of weeks was that if I ever found myself in an exploitative situation, I knew I had to only stick it out for a few months at most and then I would be free, and would have the option to not take jobs with that group again. The unstable nature of freelancing - the very thing that often makes free-lancers so vulnerable to exploitation - allowed me to avoid dealing with the question of where I drew the line between self-interest and being accommodating.

Grad school changed that. For the first time I was in a setting where I didn't have the option to move on to something else every few weeks; I could no longer run from situations where I felt exploited. Faced with a three-year commitment, and encouraged by the knowledge that even if I royally screwed this up I could go find work in the Twin Cities, it became increasingly easy for me to advocate for my own interests. I found myself more willing to be vocal about the aspects of my experience that I felt were unfair, to be more transparent about when I thought I was getting the short end of the deal; I began to move slightly closer to the Kurt Russell character in my head.

And I also began to realize that self-advocacy meant something different to me when I was at school. There, I was part of an institutionalized hierarchy. By necessity, the way the school is designed to work is that the students are replaceable- when they graduate, the program doesn't shut down, it just gets new students. Experiencing this caused an increasingly mercenary shift in my outlook. I began to understand that grad school would be what I made of it- I needed to actively seek out the things I wanted to learn and the ways I wanted to grow, to put my own interests ahead of those of the department, which had a bunch of money and a ton of faculty to look after it. The opportunity that has given me to begin to change my habits of self-advocacy is extremely valuable. I am freed to learn how to argue for my own interests because I am not a steward of that community.

But the same cannot be said when I come home to work. I am by no means irreplaceable in the Twin Cities theater community (as evidenced by the fact that I have been, you know, replaced). But when I work here, I feel in some small sense that I am a steward of this community. When I work at home as a freelancer, I feel a responsibility to support the wide array of work that exists here, and the plurality of design opportunities it creates. So sometimes I will still take those $100 gigs, because I want to do the work, and because I want to work in a place where the barrier for entry into the arts is as low as possible. I still need to work on ensuring that I look out for my own interests, but I've also come to peace with the fact that I'm never going to fully become that Kurt Russell character I have in my head, that I will always feel a sense of responsibility to enable and support the creative work the people in this community do.

But, all of that aside, the real moral of this story is that you shouldn't be afraid to ask for fresh chips.

Soapbox: Please Don't Call Me a Professional

Article by Tony Stoeri, Lighting Designer

I remember meeting Tony when he was an intern for the Fringe. Once Techs were underway, Tony shadowed Sean Tonko (then Tech Director of the Southern Theater, now Technical Media Specialist at St. Olaf College) in the Rarig Xperimental. His talent, intelligence and verve made a tremendous impression on all of us, and we were excited when entered the workforce and greatly saddened when he decided to leave for graduate school. For regular readers of my Recommends column, it will be no surprise that I’m thrilled to learn that he studied History. I’m very happy to be able to stay in touch with Tony and his sharp mind through this series - and I think you will be too. - Wu Chen Khoo

Photo Credit:  Amy Osajima.     Maferefún   performed by Indiana University contemporary dance dept. students.

Photo Credit: Amy Osajima. Maferefún performed by Indiana University contemporary dance dept. students.

I've never been the snappiest dresser. Not that I have anything against people who do dress nice, but that’s never been me. I own exactly two button-down shirts, and my general concession to “getting dressed up” is to wear the pair of jeans that I own that doesn't have rips in the knees. So it's pretty understandable that the first piece of feedback I received on the first class presentation I ever gave in grad school was that I needed to “dress more professionally” (in my defense, I had been wearing my unripped jeans). Yet the feedback gave me pause. It’s not that I didn't understand what my professor meant when he said “dress professionally.” It was fairly clear he meant “dear God put on a collared shirt.” But on the other hand, what does it mean for a lighting designer to “dress professionally”? In several years of actually working as a professional, no one had ever commented upon the suitability of my wardrobe before. Why was this suddenly an important aspect of my identity as a designer? Are people who wear ties inherently better at drafting or something?    

Before we talk more about my wardrobe it’s probably useful to have some background information on who I am first. My first step on the path that would lead me to being a designer came in eighth grade, when the sophomore in charge of lighting at my high school abandoned me in front of an Express 48/96 with the sage advice “You'll figure it out” and went to go do important high schooler things. Though slightly traumatic, that first experience was enough to get me hooked, and I began working on lighting in our high school theater department whenever possible. Soon, I found a friend of a friend who ran a theatre company for teens and I signed on as their “lighting designer”- which I put in quotes because I had very little idea of what I was actually doing.  

The summer after graduating from high school, I wrote a letter to then technical director of the Minnesota Fringe Jeff Larson, begging him to let me work for free. I was given the title of “technical intern” and dropped into a group of experienced technicians and designers, all of whom were at least a decade older than me, and not really sure what to do with me. They magnanimously tolerated my presence and shared their knowledge with me, playing an instrumental role in developing my understanding of what being a designer and a technician meant. I kept working the Fringe during summers over the course of my undergraduate career (though no longer as an unpaid intern) and designed everything I could get my hands on at school and at home. After graduating in 2013, I took up freelancing, and happily lived that life for a few years before I up and went off to grad school.

Until I began attending grad school, I had never taken a formal class in lighting. My undergraduate degree is in history, focusing on early 19th century nationalism. So not really a lot of overlap with lighting design. I learned instead through experimenting on my own, watching other people work, making mistakes, and building relationships with several mentors to whom I owe more than I can express. Nothing in my experience ever came close to formal training or an educational atmosphere. Everything was on the job, practical, and focused on achieving the end goal- executing the design.  

When I became an MFA candidate at Indiana University, these qualities made me stick out like a sore thumb. There are twenty-four students that are masters candidates in the Design and Technology program at Indiana University, spread across five areas of study (lighting design, scenic design, costume design, technical direction, and costume technology.)  Of these students, over twenty came directly from undergraduate institutions, almost exclusively from theatre departments. There are only three of us (myself and two others) who have spent a significant amount of time (over a year) working in the field. Upon coming to the program, I found myself surrounded by people who understood the world we work in very differently than I do.    

Above all what struck me was the fact that my graduate school seems to cultivate the myth of Professionalism with a capital P: It is the holy grail; what everyone is striving to achieve. Yet no one really articulates what exactly constitutes Professionalism. For example, during my first semester all of the first year design and technology grad students were having a class discussion about artistic collaboration. One of the professors asked the class how they would handle another member of the production team who simply refused to collaborate. I raised my hand and said what I had done when I found myself in similar situations: “You work hard, keep your head down, get through it, and then never work with that person again.” This answer was tacitly frowned on, because it was not what Professionals do; Professionals Collaborate (with a capital C), regardless of the reality of the situation.

The identity of a “professional” is a difficult one to define in our industry. It seems that it must in some way be tied to skill, but beyond that I have trouble parsing the boundaries of who constitutes a professional. Both technicians and designers have unions, but their membership is far from all-encompassing and does not include many excellent practitioners. Nor can we look to earning power to define it for us - for many it is difficult or undesirable to make a living as a full time technician or designer, even if they are highly skilled.  I've been to small theaters in the middle of nowhere where the in-house “tech guy” is an incredibly astute technician - in addition to serving as the sound designer, plumber, cleaning staff, the IT department, and whatever else is needed. To refuse to recognize this person as a technician seems unfair, yet they may be unfamiliar with the equipment and protocols outside of their venue. The director that takes on the role of designer, the stage manager who picks up electrics calls to make money, the designer that works only for one company and has a day job, the union hand that only takes a call once a year and spends the rest of their time at another job - all of these people challenge our conception of what defines a professional technician or designer.

If we struggle to define who exactly is a “professional,” one would think it might be a bit easier to define what “professionalism” is - the step back to a more abstract concept allows us to ignore many of the practicalities that make defining the “professional” difficult. And to some extent, it is simpler to talk about “professionalism” as an abstract. After all, there are some pretty universal basics - don't be a jerk and respond to your email being the two biggest, in my opinion. Beyond that, there are even some things specific to our industry that I see as being fairly fundamental. I feel fairly safe saying that “professionalism” in a LD involves providing a plot, as opposed to scrawling your ideas on a bar napkin. For an electrician, “professionalism” might involve, at the very least, showing up to an electrics call with your own wrench. Yet beyond these fairly obvious examples the term once again becomes murky.

For example, one of the most alienating experiences of my graduate school career thus far occurred during a class that was all about drafting standards. The professor told me and the two other lighting students in the class to bring in examples of our drafting to look over. When my turn came and I pulled out my plot, there was a small moment of stunned silence, before they all proceeded to (metaphorically) rip my plot apart and tell me everything that was wrong with it. To be clear, they weren't talking about my actual design; what we were discussing was line weights, specific shades of black and gray, the size of the circle surrounding the channel number, fonts, etc. And its not that my plot was ridiculously sloppy; it was very clean, easily readable, and communicated the necessary information clearly. The difference lay in how we conceived of a light plot. For my professor and my two classmates, my light plot was a vehicle through which I signaled my professionalism to the world by meeting certain standards, however arbitrary they may seem. It had value on its own, separate from the design it represented - I would put it in my portfolio, show it to potential employers, and they would say “he seems professional, lets hire him.”

Coming from my background, I had not really thought of light plots that way before. I have never had a potential employer ask to see a plot. Only a handful of times have I been asked for a resume or photos of my work. Almost all of my employment as a freelancer came through references, word of mouth, and interviews. The people that interviewed me for jobs rarely knew much about lighting - they were looking at how easy I was to work with, trying to gauge whether I was secretly a crazy person that would foam at the mouth and throw yelling fits during tech. To me, my light plot was a means of streamlining the execution of the design. The only way it affected my identity as a designer lay in whether or not it served that purpose. I don't think my professor or classmates would call me unprofessional, and I certainly do not think they are. Yet our understanding of what that term entails could scarcely be more different.

In an industry as varied and unique as ours, I think the concept of professionalism as a single set of standards is useless. In order to make it truly representative, its definition must be broadened to the point that it becomes self-referential by necessity - we end up with the idea that a “Professional” is one who displays professionalism, while “Professionalism” is the behavior of a professional. And there is a danger in this that goes beyond semantic ambiguity (as terrifying as that is).    

I strongly believe that the best way to grow - as a designer, a technician, or anything - is to expose yourself to as many different thought processes as possible; to see something from as many angles as you can. To me, that is the function grad school serves. I am learning new ways of viewing things, and learning new skills that can only make me more versatile as a designer. I take what makes sense to me, adapt and expand on what resonates, and leave the rest by the side of the road.    

Every time we use the term “professional” in our industry, even if we use it with a very specific meaning in mind, we give strength to a social force that inhibits learning and closes us off to growth. Many of us are discouraged from experimenting and expanding, adapting and adopting, because of a fear, conscious or subconscious, that we will fall short of the vague standards of “professionalism.” This is not to say that we cannot recognize competence, good presentation, and respectful and useful behavior. It’s simply about using different language. It’s a matter of semantics.

Soapbox: Thoughts On Design

Article by Mike Wangen, Lighting Designer

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the nature of my work as a lighting designer and just how art and design intersect with the art and craft of theater.  Several things prompted this, I recently had the privilege of designing a new production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean which used light, setting, and sound design in a highly abstract manner to emphasize the poetic nature of the work.  Since his plays are usually presented in a realistic setting, we expected some resistance to this and were pleasantly surprised by the generally positive reactions of the audience.  Some critics were not as kind, however, and one in particular felt that the lighting design spent too much time “brightening and dimming with the moods and emotions of the words and not telling us what time of day or night it was.”  

I also recently read a piece on Chagall’s work as a set designer for The Jewish Theatre of Moscow in the 1920s which mentioned that at one point he was highly criticized for creating designs that were too provocative for the stage.

In both cases, the critics were obviously writing from a preconceived point of view and felt that the designs should do nothing more than reinforce their rather rigid views of what the world should be.  They were not to be considered on the merits of the direct emotional impact they might have had in amplifying the words of the writer and actors.

Light has been a part of the theater since the beginning, when storytellers weaved in and out of the glow of the campfire while telling their tales.  The ancient Greek theaters were built into the sides of hills facing west to catch the last rays of the sun at its most dramatic moments.  Italian Renaissance theaters developed intricate pulley systems to drop glass filters over candelabras over the stage as well as elaborate mirror systems to direct candlelight as best they could.  We are all affected by light every day, it makes us feel good, or frightened, or humbled by the simple beauty of a golden sunset, a rainbow, a lightning storm.  It is visual poetry.  I’ve always felt that my job in the theater is to enhance the narrative and poetry within the playwright’s words with a visual narrative in support of those words.  It’s not just to “tell the audience the time of day.”  It is a collaborative process in which the audience members are also active participants.  This is what sets it apart from film.  It’s interesting to me that we often perceive movies as being real while we go to theater, which is real, and call it “playacting.”  So, how can we transcend that feeling  of “acting.”  The human mind is very flexible and adept at filling in the blanks.  We create the world in our minds, as a friend told me.  In the production of Gem of the Ocean which I worked on, there was a moment during a monologue about growing up in slavery and looking out over the sky at night to pick out individual stars and name them as lost friends and relatives.  Often, an actor would be placed in a spotlight during a moment like that, but we chose to fade the lights on her into silhouette while glowing many small lights over the audience.  The audience became participants in the moment.  We’ve all seen the stars at night and I’m sure everyone in that audience could imagine the beauty (and sadness) of that moment in their heads more fully than any literal projection of stars could have done.  This is the beauty and art of what we do.   

The danger in all of this, of course, is that the designs will overpower the words and actors and devolve into pure spectacle.  With today’s technology this is rather easily done.  Video projection has added another dimension to theater design today.  I have seen some highly effective use of video and also some egregious examples of projection which have only served to distract from the words.  It is, nonetheless, an exciting development.  

We must always try to serve the play and not let our egos control our decisions.  Perhaps I’m guilty of that myself and the man who criticized my work on Gem for not telling him the time of day had a valid point.  I think not, and I will always believe that freedom of expression will lead us in the right direction.  At least, I hope so.

Soapbox: Cutting Up the Pie

Article by Wendy Knox
Freelance Director & Artistic Director, Frank Theatre

“Fed up with complacency”. The words swoop onto your screen: Frank Theater’s website gets right to the point. I still remember my first Frank show: The Adventures of Herculina, in the winter of 2000. Looking at the credits now, I realize just how many of those people either were already very highly regarded or would become so - a testament to Frank’s tremendous place in the local arts scene. Wendy Knox is Frank Theater’s Artistic Director, founder, a national director and member of SDC, the directors’ & choreographers’ union. A brilliant and challenging thinker, Wendy pushes those around her ever forward, and we’re grateful for it. Here, Wendy muses on how we pay - and think about paying - people in the performing arts.

Pie and Photo by Diane Mountford

Pie and Photo by Diane Mountford

I’ve been thinking about the various ways in which we cut up the pie.

I recently took a job from a large arts organization that offered me a fairly paltry directing fee—not even what I would make working for my own theatre, and less that I might make directing in many academic situations. I negotiated a slightly higher fee and, for whatever my reasons were, accepted the job. Shortly after that, I learned that an actor I had cast in the production had negotiated a weekly salary on par with Guthrie’s scale, far beyond my personal scale of what Frank Theatre or an academic institution would pay. Then, I learned that the set designer’s fee was even lower than the scale of Frank Theatre. The discrepancies in the scale that we were all being paid on, for the same project, puzzled me and led me to contemplate the idea of ethical budgeting. The situation also echoed an earlier “Class and the Arts” discussion on money in the arts, the secrecy of salaries and our collective discomfort at talking about the dollar signs.

Working in the theatre, or the arts, in this country, we confront such varying correlations between the work we do and the remuneration we receive from various organizations and projects, and a huge variance in the personal satisfaction that we gain from both. Oftentimes the gigs that are volunteer, or community theatre based, where no one is paid, are seemingly the most free of the friction and dissatisfaction of many paying gigs. How many times have I worked a volunteer gig where no one is bitching about what they are not being paid or what they are being asked to do, or the shortcomings of the working situation? Simultaneously, how often do you hear artists who are working at the most lucrative joint in town complain about anything and everything about their job, including the size of the paycheck? This is not to advocate that it’s far better if we all work for free, nor to dismiss the complaints of those well-compensated artists as baseless. Our own ethics drive our choices as to whether or not we accept various jobs, and I suspect that our personal satisfaction can often be linked to our perception of the ethics of the budgeting of the organization that is employing us.

For those who cobble together their working lives on a freelance basis, the formula in evaluating whether a gig is worth it or not necessarily factors in all kinds of dynamics: Is the project itself interesting? Is the venue a place you have wanted to work? Is your bank account exceptionally low that month? Are the artists involved people who inspire you? Does the project offer you a chance to learn, to grown, to expand your own skillset? Making the decision to take on a gig usually involves a highly personal algebraic formula of many of those factors, where solving for “x” incorporates the amount of dollars exchanged multiplied by the non-monetary currency you hope to gain from the experience. Like many people, I’ve found that sometimes the gigs that pay the least can be the most rewarding while those that offer the biggest paycheck can often cost you the most in terms of non-monetary resources, i.e., be the biggest pain in the ass.

As someone who budgets for an organization, these are the ideas that bounce around in my head as I am slicing up the pie for an annual budget. I’m well aware that many artists in town simply can’t work for the money that Frank Theatre pays, and I have been told that many times. I am more mystified than anyone why we have not been able to raise enough money to pay artists a more significant amount of money, and I also know that Frank couldn’t do the work that it does without the significant contributions that the artists make simply in choosing to work for Frank. And given the pie that we have to serve up to those who work for Frank, I also know we try to make ethical and equitable choices as we slice it up. Our very first project 27 years ago was funded by a $3,000 contribution from a benefactor. That was the entire budget for the show, and anything that we took in at the box office was split evenly between all involved. As we began working on an Equity contract, the Equity and non-Equity actors were paid the same amounts. As health insurance and rate increases came into play, I begrudgingly have had to sacrifice some of that parity in the budget. When we tackle a large-cast show, I know I will have “x” number of Equity actors, and then a pot of money that needs to be divided among the non-Equity actors. Occasionally an Equity actor will ask to negotiate a higher salary, and I simply can’t do it. It forces me to confront the ethical question of how can I pay someone (who is likely working for Frank for the first time and already being paid more than the non-Equity cast members) an even higher amount when there are non-Equity folks who have worked for Frank for nearly 20 years while being paid much less? I WISH that everyone were being paid more, but I can’t help but feel that if there were extra crumbs to be spread around, they couldn’t go to the highest paid folks—they would HAVE to go to those who are making less and have a demonstrated commitment to the theatre. While I recognize that nearly everyone who is working for Frank is doing the theatre a favor by working for our paltry sums, my conscience says that those who have the longest affiliation and the smaller paychecks are the ones whose salaries need to be rectified first. The ethics that drive my budget decisions won’t allow me to simply reward those who have the most experience negotiating, or who have an agent, or who just have the most audacity to ask (and good for them!). I’m compelled to try and make equitable decisions that recognize who is involved, what their experience is, what their relationship is with Frank, what the role is, and at what point a piece of the pie becomes simply crumbs. Above all, given Frank’s circumstances, I try to be as fair as I can with our resources and as honest as I can when presenting an offer.

I recently had a non-union actor attempt to negotiate his fee from Frank. It was his first time being hired at Frank and I was unfamiliar with his work. Personally, I was happy that we had been able to budget all of the non-Equity folks at the same rate (which doesn’t always happen) that, I thought, was a fairly respectable small-theatre rate. He sent me an email, asking for a 20% increase in his fee. While it’s true that it never hurts to ask, I was a little taken aback, and my little bit of pride at making what I thought was a respectable offer took a hit. I responded that I had no room to negotiate. He quickly replied that he had been advised by a fellow actor to “always negotiate up,” but he was happy to accept the fee that was offered. I followed up with a suggestion that it also helps to know the terrain in which you are negotiating, and doing it in person or via phone would be a better idea than email. We all want to believe that the producers are offering us their best possible deal; sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not (as I learned in my recent experience). We want to believe that the producers are being straight with us. I told this actor what the deal was with Frank, explained that I thought I was doing good with the offer I made him, and I was disappointed that it was not perceived as good enough, and also offered that I understood that some folks simply can’t work for what we can pay. Giving him an idea of the greater context of Frank’s resources, he understood the process more clearly.  And hopefully, that exchange will help him in his next negotiation.

Unfortunately, not every producer is straight with us when we are negotiating. And we’re also not privy to the details of the budget of every organization that we negotiate with. There are different revenue streams, and different programs that require and receive different levels of budgeting. Frank runs a couple of educational programs that are funded by grants specific to their educational purpose and allow us to pay a much healthier rate then our productions do. But, in looking at an organization, I think it’s fair to want to be able to get a sense of their priorities and ethics by looking at how their budget works. If the top executive is getting paid upwards of half a million dollars to run the organization, and you are being offered a wage that is comparable to a small, local theatre, it’s fair to want to ask questions. If an actor friend is being paid a significantly higher rate for a similar role in the same show, it’s fair to want to know why. You can’t always get the answers, and asking the questions themselves can cause friction (again, an echo of the conversation of Class and the Arts discussion of how we talk about money in the arts). You may or may not get the answer you want, or, more frequently, if you are able to negotiate a higher rate, it will often come with the admonition to “not tell anyone,” thereby maintaining a secrecy about the rates at which artists are paid and keeping us in a subservient position to the producer.

I recognize that budgeting within an organization is going to vary from one theatre to the next. I also recognize that the priorities of one organization will vary wildly from one another. I maintain that there should be an ethical basis to budgeting, even as an organization maintains its own priorities and values. When you serve as an MRAC grant panelist, they offer some good advice that could come into play here. They advise that you can evaluate the proposals however you want as long as you are consistent. I would suggest that same advise can hold to budgeting: being consistent as to how you value and remunerate the artists you hire, and determine the rates at which you pay your artists and your staff from a consistent basis.

In other words, don’t serve the actor half a pie, while the director is getting a decent sized piece and the set designer gets a sliver. I mean, we’re all sitting at the same table.


Soapbox - The High Wire Act: Working Mother

Article by Andrea Gross
Costume Designer:

By now, Costume Designer Andrea Gross should need no introduction. For this issue, she shifts from the technical to the reflective and gives us an important essay on the importance of the performing arts, her life in the field and the changes that have come with parenthood and time. This is an essay for all of us.

The days grow shorter, and we snuggle into the end of the year. It’s wise to look back at the year with both gratitude and a critical eye to how our artistic practice can continue to evolve.

This past calendar year I designed costumes for five productions, and served as shop manager on a sixth. In August, I marked a decade of living and designing in Minnesota, and in October I opened my 75th professional costume design. It wasn’t a particularly record-breaking year of design by the numbers, even with those milestones.

In January 2016, our child will turn two. As I constructed that last sentence about design by the numbers, I first had to delete some versions of “it wasn’t the busiest year” or “it wasn’t the most work in a year” because it definitely was some version of both those things. I did work I am deeply proud of. I also did work I was not fully engaged or invested in. (In some moments, either of those things could be true of the same project). Above all, I tried very hard to remain connected to how the process on each of those productions was going so that I could learn from it.

I have always considered my process as a designer (meetings, conversations, note-taking techniques, research, organizing information for a show, communicating design choices, executing the costumes, working with actors and the director and other designers through tech to create a whole image) to be something that requires both flexibility and the potential to change, and a certain rigidity of principle to keep me from overloading myself or losing sight of what I’m doing. But in the past two years I’ve felt that almost nothing I used to rely on to do my job is available to me in the same ways.

That’s not an entirely “full picture” view, obviously. First of all, I am profoundly privileged to have full time daycare for our son. My partner is able to confidently parent our kid while I’m in tech. I have a remarkable support system. But frankly, there are ways in which that just makes me feel like I’m being ungrateful when I acknowledge that it’s still hard. Many things seem unchanged: I can use the library and the Internet to collect images, I can communicate what I like about those things verbally and with shared Pinterest boards and sketches, and I can shop and conduct fittings.

But here are a few examples of things have changed for me:

I am aware of my capacities, both in the ways in which becoming a mother made them limitless, and in the ways in which there are very hard edges to what I can accomplish in the face of other responsibilities.

In some ways, feeling like I have more limited personal resources means I am better about hiring people to help me, and better about explaining to producers that labor budgets are as important as materials budgets. In other ways, I feel so much less free to really submerge myself in a script and the research for unconstrained amounts of time.

I don’t seem to have access to the mental dexterity of letting one problem marinate while solving another. On the other hand, some decisions just get made a lot faster because of those limited personal resources.

There’s been an exponential increase in the number of things requiring my focus and attention, but no corollary increase in the resources I have to devote. Even when I’m not actively parenting, some part of my brain is aware of what I need to be doing, what I “should” be doing, or what I’m not going to have enough energy for at the end of the day.

As I’ve reflected on this, I recognize that one thing I mean by “almost nothing I used to rely on to do my job is available to me in the same ways” is that I can’t do it the same way I used to. When I was single, I could design three or four shows at a time, and tech them concurrently or sequentially, as long as I had enough coffee and toilet paper in the house. The option to just let go and free-fall from one item on the to-do list to the other was available to me. Now I’m learning how to compartmentalize tasks to figure out where things are going to fit in the calendar in order to get it all done.  I require more time on the calendar to think about things as well as to execute things. I frequently remind myself that I can’t make those decisions in a vacuum, and while I need to think about design elements early, I also have to keep options open for things other designers, the director and the actors are learning from the process. That balancing act has not always been successful this year.

There’s an added piece... I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a 40hr/week job that you are interested and engaged with, but which ends at 5pm. I can only say that the added pressures of feeling like you don’t have enough energy to prioritize work you do “for love” or because it’s “your passion” is brutal.  This work has always taken more out of us than we have to give, but for years I’ve given it gladly because the return is so high. Now I’m tired (profoundly tired: because I haven’t slept through the night in two years; because I can’t be available for the work I miss doing; because the friendships that came with it have shifted and can’t always be recognized from where I am now; because I can’t think a thought through from inception to completion without an interruption about excavator trucks or buying broccoli for dinner). I’m tired pretty much all the time, but I’m also struggling to come to terms with the ways my priorities have shifted. And I struggle to accept the fact that my priorities couldn’t help but shift.

I’ve never been more certain of the importance of artistic storytelling to the health of our culture. I want my child to grow in a place where the kind of perspective and wonder afforded an audience by live theater is an integral part of his development. In the past year, I’ve become more aware than ever of how exclusive the stories we tell are, and how desperate the need is to crack our narratives open to make them broader and more inclusive. I’m eager to hear points of view that have been overlooked or ignored for centuries, and for my family to learn how to build a better world through that experience. I have no doubts of the importance of theater in my life and in the life of my family. And yet, it remains true that I don’t have the same focus and endless reserves to give to the medium that’s been the most important form of expression in my adult life. This circumstance is uncomfortable at best.

I wouldn’t change my life for anything. I miss my old life every day. Those two notions in tension are one definition of “parent.” The ways it impacts my life as a freelance costume designer have continued to be surprising this year. In the end, everything is a moving target, and all this will be different again in another year. Which is the closest thing to comfort I’ve found on the topic.

(Special thanks to Ursula Bowden, Anissa Gooch, George Miller, and Lacey Zeiler for their insight and help writing this essay.)

Soapbox - Moving Forward Together: Reflections on the Design Process

Article by Andrea Gross, costume designer

Local Costume Designer Andrea Gross is back this month (and look for her in December as well) with more thoughts on this thing we call theatre. This month, she builds on her previous essay, and talks about collaboration, communication, creativity and planning. In other words,, how to make a good design and a good show.

One of the unfortunate unwritten rules (probably of all design disciplines) is that the element requiring the most resources –physical, financial, intellectual— is the one mostly likely to be cut from the production.

Everyone who has been around for a while has a tale to tell; for instance, custom fit hands for the Wolf in Into the Woods, built from scratch with matching fur, latex palms and claws growing out of the nail bed cut before tech because the actor would not be able to manage the blocking and choreography while wearing them.  But how can it be avoided?

Here are some reflections on my process, with that in mind:

Careful analysis of and consideration for resources is an important starting point to my work as a costume designer. Please note:, I make no claims about being consistently successful at this…yet. But it remains the way I approach a job or a season in an attempt to hold fast to my integrity and produce work I’m proud of.

I try to be really clear with myself: if you produce that technically challenging element entirely from scratch, what other element will be sacrificed? If we rent an element (and adjust our expectations as to what we can get) what other resources does that free up?

As good as I may be at having this conversation with myself, I find what matters more is how I talk to others –particularly the director—about it. I try to avoid an ultimatum (ie.: you can have this, but only at the expense of these other things) because in my experience this quashes creativity and collaboration. Instead I try to come up with more than one solution and enumerate any problems with (or consequences of) these solutions. In essence, I’m trying to create multiple-choice answers, always remaining open to the fact that there are more potential solutions than I can come up with.

Throughout the research phase of a design process, regularly checking in with the whole production team about developing ideas and priorities keeps everyone informed. More importantly opens the conversation to other potential solutions. While the experience of too many cooks in the kitchen can be frustrating, as a professional I have based my career on collaboration and I thrive on the surprise solution. Besides, I prefer the story where another designer comes up with the idea and it works perfectly over the story where another designer offers what should have been the solution after the fact when my own solution is less successful.

I try to accomplish this with internal deadlines on a calendar: I need a certain amount of time to marinate  in a challenge, to share it with others, and to attempt a couple of solutions. Having time to send prototypes or ideas into rehearsal for feedback is key. Space to look at the whole picture (an argument for the archaic and usually academic dress parade) is also important.

But a date to pull the plug on an idea so that you can move forward with the rest of the project is maybe most important and most elusive.

An example of this was my work with Walking Shadow Theatre Company on after the quake, in which the character Frog appears mysteriously in the life of storyteller. He is described in the text as not a man in a frog suit, but rather a frog the size of a man. During several conversations with the director and production manager, we talked and thought about ways that this could be accomplished. The idea of an inflatable cravat rose to the top of the pile, and I began a research and development phase where I tried to figure out how a small, palmed hand pump could run up the sleeve of a suit jacket to inflate a whoopee cushion rigged behind a piece of neckwear on demand when Frog finished his sentences with a “ribbit.” Because the actor transformed into Frog on stage, it became clear that adding webbed-finger-gloves, neckwear, and possibly retrieving a pump out of the suit sleeve would be cumbersome, time-consuming, and ultimately detrimental to the storytelling. Eventually, we determined that the best solution was to get out of the actor’s way and let him accomplish the transformation with a change of glasses, the addition of green gloves, and a green wool hat. It was ultimately far more magical than any mechanical device would have been.

Walking Shadow Theatre Company,   after the quake.   Pictured: Brant Miller as Frog. Photo credit: Dan Norman.   Director: Amy Rummenie,   Costume design: Andrea Gross,   Lighting design: Peter Mitchell,   Scenic design: Steve Kath

Walking Shadow Theatre Company, after the quake. Pictured: Brant Miller as Frog. Photo credit: Dan Norman. Director: Amy Rummenie, Costume design: Andrea Gross, Lighting design: Peter Mitchell, Scenic design: Steve Kath

Soapbox: GOOD. CHEAP. FAST. Pick Two.

Article by Andrea M. Gross, Costume Designer

A prolific costume designer with a massive repertoire, Andrea M. Gross is also a company member with Nimbus Theater. She has worked for virtually all manner and size of theatre company and is an inspirational and well-known figure around town. A sharp and committed thinker, Andrea’s experience and knowledge are something we’re excited and proud to be able to share with you.

Check out more at her website:

Ragtime  , Produced by Park Square Theatre. Directed by Gary Gisselman. Choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell. Costume Design by Andrea M Gross. Set Design by Rick Polenek. Lighting Design by Mike Kittel. Photo Credit: Petronella Ytsma

Ragtime, Produced by Park Square Theatre. Directed by Gary Gisselman. Choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell. Costume Design by Andrea M Gross. Set Design by Rick Polenek. Lighting Design by Mike Kittel. Photo Credit: Petronella Ytsma

I’m a freelance costume designer based in the Twin Cities. August 2015 marks my tenth anniversary here, and I’ve had opportunities to work in a wide (but by no means exhaustive) range of theater in that time.

My introduction to Minnesota was as costume shop manager at Theatre L’Homme Dieu, run at the time as a summer program of St Cloud State University. In the costume shop at SCSU hung a cross-stitched sampler with the words, “Good. Cheap. Fast. Pick Two” ….I’ve been living some version of it ever since.


We all want to do good work, right? What does that mean to you? What makes a project (or your finished product) “good”? How is that different from “good enough”?

On a technical level, good work is high quality. The best available materials for the job, expertly crafted with complete finishing techniques. More abstractly, good work might be a choice that’s a complete thought, the result of edited and revised ideas. In either case, these things take skilled people, and at least a reasonable amount of time OR a reasonable amount of money (better still if it’s both).

Good can be about more than just how it turns out. It might be personally satisfying. I might surpass my own expectations, or the expectations of the person who hired me. A project is really good, for me, when we’re telling the story in a nuanced, cohesive way. I love it when a production concept “feels right,” as if it’s the only way to tell the story (even though it’s not). Good work should be collaborative: fair, trusted and trustworthy, an equitable and even exchange of ideas resulting in the best possible solution.

If we consider this an equation about how to achieve “good” product, I would argue that the support around the work is tantamount. Resources come in a number of forms: separate (appropriate) labor and materials budgets recognize the needs of a design process and a build process; a decent (organized, clean) stock to pull from allows a wider net of ideas to be cast while staying in budget; and a well-stocked workspace supports the skilled labor that’s needed to produce quality pieces.


We work fast in theater. A long rehearsal/build process might be six weeks: six weeks to create a customized (and flexible/adaptable) product is rare in other fields; we frequently do it in half that time.

Time spent on a project can come in several forms: the design/imagining phase might take a while, or might need to be hammered out immediately. The build phase might spread out over several months as other projects are worked on simultaneously, or may be compressed into days. We regularly get scheduled into a corner by not having enough time to develop and implement our ideas, and we must be nimble with our focus. When that realized idea (a costume, in my case) gets integrated in rehearsal, the needed time for reaction and response is woefully short.

Fast isn’t always a bad thing, though. There are projects that come together in very short order because a particular physical space is available and inspires great work, or a particular cultural flashpoint requires a response. Think of the late night conversations that tumble and crash into each other and yield brilliant ideas. Quick work inspired by necessity can be wildly creative and deeply rewarding.

Framing my work in terms of what time is given to various aspects of the process can be a really rich way to experience my work as a designer or as a technician, and a good way to quantitatively assess when or how a project becomes difficult. Where did I need more time? When did I spend too much time on something at the exclusion of something else?


This one’s a little trickier (because, really, money always complicates things). Compensation and budget seem to be the greatest challenges facing most companies or producing agencies. They are certainly the greatest challenge facing the artists who work with them.

One of the designer’s jobs is to realize a story within the budget allowed for it. There can be no question that there are factors at odds here: the amount of money allocated; the scale of the project; and the expected outcome rarely line up perfectly.  The smaller a budget is, and the more a designer is expected to do with it, the more likely the final product will be compromised.

However, limited resources don’t have to be a debilitating problem: with enough time and attention, they can lead to unexpected answers through generative collaborative conversations and creative thinking. Limited budget may force us to explore beyond our first two (or six) ideas, and lead us to resourceful and delightful solutions. It’s my conclusion that with enough time and support resources, this kind of work can be extremely satisfying.


Here’s an example: if we believe we can only afford a $25 thrift store suit, then the time & effort spent driving to every thrift store in town to find the one that will fit (in a color we can live with, and hopefully it’s still there when you’re done checking all the other shops) has to be considered. If instead I spend 10% of that time buying a $250 suit at a discount store, with options for color, fit, size, and styling (& returns) available, then my personal resources are more available for the rest of the design. The thrift store suit is cheap, and good (or good enough), but it’s not fast. The discount store suit is better, and fast, but more expensive.

I find the expression “Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Two” to be a useful way to frame my decisions about projects. Regularly as designers, we consider the value of a project by trying to broaden the experience to be more than a monetary exchange of fee for work –will it bring us into contact with artists we admire; will it offer us the chance to have our work seen by a new constituency; will we get some personal satisfaction out of the project; is it a script or an idea we’ve always wanted to tackle. Usually, on some level, we’re doing this to justify or rationalize the surrounding circumstances. Deciding which two of these three a project lets me delve into is an interesting angle to add to the decision making process. Sometimes I find it interesting to apply it to myself as a designer: Is the producer thinking of me as good? As fast? As cheap? How do I want to be perceived? But most interestingly, the adage proves to be a useful tool in making choices with a director, as it allows us to frame our priorities in a new light and consider the things we want to spend our limited resources on differently.

Soapbox: Backstage Mom

No, not that kind….no Honey Boo Boo here.

Article by Laura Wilhelm

Wilhelm is Properties Master at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, Artistic Director of Mad Munchkin Productions, Project Manager for Tech Tools, and a freelance designer. She knew a thing or two about balancing a busy schedule as a theater-maker even before the birth of her daughter only a short year ago. It's a challenge many women in the arts come face-to-face with, so we asked her to shed some light on her first year as a different kind of stage mom.

I’m a theater mom.  To be more clear- I am a mother working in the theater.  If you come to my prop shop there is a sign on the door that reads:

 Breastfeeding/Pumping Mama’s Lactation Station

 Please knock and/or Announce Yourself  

This is mostly to prevent others from embarrassment.  I’ve heard the gamut of timid “h-h-hello?” to “HEY, LAURA! CAN I COME IN?”  Everyone has been understanding.  Everyone has given me space. No one has seen more of the propsmaster than they bargained for. Considering that the technical theater world is still predominately male, I feel lucky that the arts world is so open and flexible compared to my perception of other fields.  That is not to say it is all easy.

When I found out I was pregnant, I hesitated telling the theater world at large.  I didn’t want to get passed up for any opportunities.  My own mother actually had to delete a Facebook post where she was accidentally letting the cat out of the bag before I was fully prepared to do so beyond family and close friends.  Becoming a parent is a completely different physical navigation as a woman working in the technical theater realm.  While it is true that I had to limit my climbing and carrying and be aware of toxins and fumes in the shop, on the whole I was able to do my job and worked all the way up to my daughter’s birth.  All of that was the easy part.  The hard part comes afterwards - now you have to go back to real life in the theater world with a baby.

I came back from maternity leave after six weeks straight into tech rehearsals for a show. The break had been as long as we could afford and I had no paid leave.  I was sleep deprived, had mommy brain fog (it’s a real thing), and was trying to figure out how to pump.  Details got dicey…that I can’t deny.  I had much less patience for the quirks of the cast and the needs of the production that I normally would have handled with a smile.  Nothing seems as important as the infant life you are supporting.  But the show opened and nobody died.

My husband is a technical director, so after that first show there have been many many more.  Both for our full time gigs and the extra gigs that we both pick up to make ends meet.  In addition, we run our own theater company (what the heck are you supposed to do when you are both supposed to be in at the same tech?). There are techs back to back, there is solo parenting for weeks on end, we do trade outs and hand offs, and baby juggling, and sheepish pleas for babysitters who do not charge. Oh, and sometimes we like to take a night off…and go out together…without our bundle of joy.  It is hard to ask for help. You want to think you can do it all, but the old saying “it takes a village” is no joke. 

Our kiddo turns one in mid July; I can’t believe how fast it has gone. Last week she got a tour of the Rarig Center as Tech Tools prepped for classes.  She came with me for stint at the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival in Omaha, where I negotiated housing with a full kitchen and time off of rehearsal to take her to the zoo.  Mad Munchkin Productions, our other baby, produced a show this spring with great success with us at the helm as parents for the first time.  It’s true, mommy brain still rears its ugly head every once in awhile. I completely blanked on our moderator’s name while making introductions for a Tech Tools panel discussion, but remembered just in time to save myself (Leah Cooper!). And the baby seems to have survived my dropping a roll of gaff tape on her head at 7 weeks old.  A full roll.  Oops.  But the bottom line is this - she has a village of brilliant theater people surrounding her (and her parents), and this backstage mom wouldn’t have it any other way.

Soapbox: Making It Together

Article by Carl Atiya Swanson

Carl is a Twin Cities' creator, performer, writer, and artist. He is Director of Movement Building with Springboard for the Arts where he where he manages Creative Exchange, a hub of toolkits and stories for artists and communities to work together on fun, relationship-building and inspirational projects. He is a theatermaker with Savage Umbrella, a company dedicated to creating new, relevant works of theater, as well as serves on the Board of Directors for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network - Twin Cities. Swanson holds a BA in Studio Art from the University of Southern California and an MBA at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

Photo of and by Carl Atiya Swanson

Photo of and by Carl Atiya Swanson

By now you will have heard that Equity in Los Angeles has decided to change their much-debated 99-seat plan, the structure that allowed small theaters to pay union actors wages at below scale. This was after the Equity members, by a two-thirds majority, voted to keep the plan in place in an advisory vote. As Derek Lee Miller noted on Minnesota Playlist, it was a weird place for a union to be, writing, "We ostensibly have a situation where a union has a choice between representing its members' financial interests or respecting the opinion of its members, which seems to run counter to their financial interests."

The situation in Los Angeles highlights the paradox of living as an artist: we love what we do so much that we want to make a living from it, and yet we love what we do so much so that we'd do it for free.

Now this piece won’t be about Equity or the 99-seat plan, there has been plenty of bandwidth taken up by that conversation on all sides. But I would like to propose some things here that can be done – whether we are Equity members, self-producing artists, contractors or company players – by us and for us as we work to make our creative lives supported and sustainable. These things do not necessarily need to come with a membership structure, but I believe that they come from a fundamental place of union, an in-it-togetherness that is needed to recognize the breadth, depth and strength of our creative community. Here are a few notions:

Be in the budget – Budgets aren’t just a dry, crazy-making list of numbers that have to add up to the same thing on both sides. They are a story, in numbers, about the priorities of an organization and the work being done. As such, whether we are making the budget or being offered a role in it, our own creative work needs to be represented. When people want you to work with them but tell you that there is no money to pay you in their project, ask where they are spending money. Can they re-align some spending to pay you as an artist? What is the value they are offering to you? On the flip side, when we are creating our own work and writing our own budgets, we can’t consider our own creative work as separate or write it off just as an in-kind donation. I have written more about this here, and Huge Theater also has a post about their process for arriving at their ability to pay artists. To build in the practice of asking to pay ourselves as a whole part of our work enables us to turn around and communicate that value to others.

Don’t die of exposure – An extended, specific point on being in the budget and about the value exchange that is being proposed when you are being asked to work for someone for free, or on a speculative venture that “may lead to other opportunities.” If that speculative venture is with your best friend who you love and make things with all the time, great, go for it. But more often than not, that proposed exchange of your work for “exposure” comes from other, larger organizations, and you should challenge that proposal. As an artist, you create specialized, unique experiences that draw people in, create emotional connections, and offer new avenues of meaning and understanding. That should not be devalued because the organization asking has a lot of people walking through it. I’ve written more about it here, but those organizations don’t hold the negotiating cards, you do. You bring the value, audience and experience with you, and don’t forget it.

Say “No” more – This is hard. It is hard for me as someone who wants to do all the things, all the time, and who wants to have no opportunity pass me by. It is hard to do to an outside ask, and harder still to do to ourselves when we are formulating a new project. But a well-placed “No” is an affirmation of your own value and can lead to being a better artist, a more focused collaborator, and a better representative of your own agency. As Psychology Today put it, “No says, "This is who I am; this is what I value; this is what I will and will not do; this is how I will choose to act." We love others, give to others, cooperate with others, and please others, but we are, always and at the core, distinct and separate selves. We need No to carve and support that space.”

And if you feel as though saying “No” or pushing back on budgets and advocating for your own value is causing you to miss out on opportunities, let it go. There are an abundance of ideas and moments in life to create new work, both under your own steam and coming from others. There really are, if you live and frame your work in abundance. As Andrew Simonet writes in his excellent book Making Your Life As An Artist, “The success of other artists is good for me. I chant this because, first of all, it’s true. If another contemporary dance artist gets attention in the world, it creates opportunities for me. I also chant this because I don’t want to live in a community of artists defined by competition and backstabbing. Once in a while, another artist will get a specific opportunity or gig or grant that I want, and I may have to grit my teeth and say it. But I still do. Art isn’t a race where the winner erases the efforts of others. Other art magnifies and enriches the art I make.”

Say it to yourself a couple of times – “The success of other artists is good for me.” Say it and then we get to the heart of the union – that as we are all makers, we are making the conditions of our work together. By standing up for our own value, we stand up for the value of our fellow artists.