A Look Back At Year One

Article by David "dstew" Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

So apply I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halfway Through

Article by Tony Stoeri

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

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

Indiana University  Department of  Theatre  & Drama

Indiana University Department of Theatre & Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sightlines: My Digital Epiphany

Article by Roberta Carlson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You a Technical or Are You a Director?

Article by Adriane Heflin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Karen Sherman and Kate Sutton-Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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



Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum

Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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