A Costume Designer's Prospective

Article by Trevor Bowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen, listen, listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respect the team of artisans helping to fulfill your design.  

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

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

In Focus: Women in Audio

Article by Montana Johnson

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

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo by Megan Engeseth Photography


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

II. How did you get into audio and why?

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

III. Mentorship

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

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

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

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

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

V. Gear Fear

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

VI. Why women don’t get into audio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sightlines: Managing Transitions

Article by Tree O'Halloran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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