Sightines - American Theater: Surfing the Tidal Wave of Change

Article by John Fenn

John Fenn is a playwright, actor, director, and all around theater artist who has been involved in theater since the 1940s which gives  him a unique perspective on our field.  His article reminds me of the continual evolution of this art form that we call theater and makes me wonder where the next generation of actors, writers, and designers will take us. - Mike Wangen

One of the great joys of starting my theater career in the 1940s, has been that I’ve been active during a period of momentous and all-pervasive change in the American theater.

When I first started acting, at the ripe old age of 15, I performed on a proscenium stage with the Tucson Little Theater. I postured in front of backdrops or canvas covered screens called “flats,” assembled to show a living room with a fourth wall cut away so the audience could spy on the characters’ lives.

Those surfaces were meticulously painted by talented scenic artists, who were able to make stretched canvas look like Victorian wood paneling with moldings and baseboards, or the marble surfaces of a Greek temple. After I laboriously learned to twist the paintbrushes just right, from a distance they looked like the real thing.

As an actor, I was expected to use what was called Middle English speech (really, a cheesy English accent) and move with the posture of a ballet dancer. The apex of acting achievement, for us, was to be the personification of Laurence Olivier.

Being a lad of some girth, and a distinctly non-aquiline face, this was not an easy task. I have a production shot of me as Horatio in Hamlet where I’m sucking in my cheeks and struggling to affect Sir Olivier’s hauteur and posture.

When I went to acting school, I was given lessons on how to sit, how to stand, and breathe.  I had extensive vocal exercises that sharpened my articulation, and increased my ability to project to fill a 1000 seat proscenium theater.

Little did I know, at that time, a gentleman named Lee Strasburg was bringing to the American theater a total revolution which would alter the art of American acting forever.  It was of course, Method Acting and its first and most influential proponents were Marlon Brando, and his former roommate James Dean, under the distinctly Method direction of Elia Kazan.  The entire focus was on the actor - manipulating their emotions and psyche then pouring everything into, and becoming the character.

In Tucson, Arizona, oblivious to this revolution, I continued to strut and fret my hours upon the stage.  I was illuminated by a bevy of 500 watt lights that were individually connected by hundreds of feet of thick copper cable to what were called “piano boards”. These unbelievably heavy devices were about 6 feet wide, five feet high, and 30 inches deep allowing a stage electrician to fade or increase the intensity of the lights for different scenes. It took six stagehands to beef a piano board up to a stage door.

Backstage on Broadway I saw ten of these monsters placed face to face in pairs in two long rows so that one IATSE electrician could control each pair of light boards. These five men could change the levels of hundreds of lights for each scene at a stage manager’s command. As a production stage manager in New York I shudder to think of how many times I said, “Lights 75 (the cue number)… GO.”

Now, of course, all the thousands of pounds of equipment and those five very highly paid stagehands have been totally replaced by a laptop computer which records all the changes in all the lights as “cues.” With one mouse click, the stage manager can change the lights from a night scene to a sunrise.  Actually, I think that the computers can be taught to listen to the score of a musical or the lines of a play and run the whole show by themselves.

In the meantime, as my career progressed, massive changes were made in theaters that affected both acting styles and scenic design. Prompted by the tremendous expense of Broadway production, actors and producers developed the off-Broadway theater.  Suddenly the traditional proscenium “fourth-wall-peek-through” theaters (with 1000 or more seats) yielded to a bevy of tiny off-Broadway theaters with 200 or less seats.

At the same time, Tanya Moiseiwitsch and Tyrone Guthrie were sweeping North America with the their thrust stage Shakespeare Festival theaters. They revived the configuration of Shakespeare's Old Globe Theater. Flats and backdrops had no place on these stages, but rather, everything had to be realistically three-dimensional. Props became more important than scenery.

Scenic design for proscenium theaters changed also, becoming three-dimensional constructs, rather than painted flats. I can remember I had an interview with Jo Mielziner at his Dakota Building studio in New York. I was wildly excited to see the actual set model of Death Of A Salesman in his lobby. This set, with scrim walls and frames enclosing an upper platform bedroom, was a far cry from the typical Noel Coward drawing room sets on which I performed as a 15-year-old.

The off-Broadway movement, which was largely originated because of the incredible costs of Broadway production, worked hand in glove with the development of method acting. If you were seated 4 feet away from a performer, you could not tolerate the big classical acting styles typical of the first half of the 20th century.  Also, it was a magnificent environment for short actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and many others, who were all method actors. Tall actors, required for big Broadway theaters, were like giraffes in those tiny rooms.

I remember working as a stage manager for Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival during innumerable actor auditions. Joe and his assistant Gladys Vaughn always favored a realistic, straightforward American acting style, and would have summarily dismissed Laurence Olivier himself, if he had come in with his typical classical readings.

Economics, off-Broadway and method acting profoundly changed playwriting. Anybody today, who writes for a cast of more than 8 people had best beware, and 1 person or 2 person shows have a much better chance of being produced. Also, the writing style changed profoundly from George Bernard Shaw or Noel Coward, where wit and verbal dexterity ruled.

Suddenly we were writing spare idiomatic text, more like the way people talk, and distinctly less literary. The meaning is all in the subtext instead of being conveyed in sentences. Case in point, Brando’s famous animalistic howl, “STELLA ….”  from Streetcar Named Desire.  

I can only revel in the fact that I have, in the span of my simple career, joyously surfed such tidal waves of change in acting, playwriting, and lighting, as well as theater and scenic design.

Sightlines: Recollections of the Southern Theater Renovation

Article by Mike Kittel

Mike Kittel is a well known and prominent lighting designer here and has worked at many theaters in town, primarily with Frank Theater and Park Square, where he is the resident designer.  Many people probably do not know that he was also the technical director of the Southern Theater when it was renovated and is responsible for a great many of the improvements made there.  In this article he discusses some of the trials and tribulations that went into creating the Southern as it stands today. - Mike Wangen

In the year 2000, I was the Technical Director at the Southern Theater.  For a couple of years we had been planning a big renovation, new seating, new dimmers, HVAC, and a total reconfiguration of the upstairs space. The Upstairs had been a “storage” space and was FULL of platforms and legs and a million curtains. I think we could have opened up a hardware store that specialized in stripped bolts and screws from the 1970s, torn dusty curtains, and old platforms.

We filled, I think, at least 5 ten yard dumpsters, and recycled a couple of tons of HVAC and steel. I sold 72 dimmers to Mixed Blood and gifted raceways to Red Eye Theater. The project timeline was tight at six weeks. Two weeks in we were done with demolition. From the stage right entry all the way to the arch was empty, and the stairway was gone.  Access to the second floor was by ladder.

The Architect and general contractor had a regular crew that would do all of the framing and to save money, southern crew would do the demolition and help out where needed. The GC’s crew was set to join the project on Monday, but the project they were on was hit by a MAJOR thunderstorm over the weekend and there was an incident involving a tarp so they had to stay on the other job to repair the damage. Now we all know how to use a hammer, a chop saw, tape and screw guns, but construction workers we are NOT!

The lumber order came on Monday morning and we had to cart it all in from the hotel cul-de-sac and through the stage door down stage left.  It took six of us almost a full day to get the lumber in the building and when it was stacked and sorted most of the stage was covered 3-4 feet high in plywood and 2x stock.

The seating risers were trussed in 2x6 with 2 layers of ¾ in ply glued and screwed; the bays under were also trussed out with 2 40ft 2x12 LVL headers bolted thru, glued, and nailed on 12in centers. The construction of the platform had to be “hurricane” code for the force of 300 people jumping to their feet at the end of a show. Most of the walls were 2 layers of 5/8 in drywall for fire code.

One Saturday Steve Kath, myself and Jonno (the GC) put up the main staircase.  Jonno assembled it on the ground with 3 LVL stringers and 2x12 steps and the three of us hoisted it into place with a rope and a pulley attached to the hi steel beam. It had to weigh 300lbs. (Jonno was a beast….and a bit crazy!) He bought Steve and I each a 20 0z Estwig hammer, one of the coolest gifts ever!

Two weeks go by and still no crew, just a few theater techs that were learning a lot about construction…fast. I was getting very nervous about getting done as I had to prep and label and run 144 circuits of multi cables, build the booth table and figure out a way to get into the grid (for months after we opened we still had to use my extension ladder to get up there).  

I had planned a week trip in the middle of the project because the GC assured me that I would not be needed for the construction, but it had been almost a month of 10 hr days for me, and we were all getting a bit punchy. A few days before I left the framing was close and finally…the construction crew joined us.

Drywall shipment came in. It seemed like 1000 sheets of 4X12 mostly 5/8in….HEAVY.  Of course we had to cart it 75 feet to get it into the building. At 8pm after a long day Jeff Bartlett, Dave Riisager, Ronnie Albert and I were rolling a full cart thru the stage door when a wheel came off the cart and trapped Ronnie’s foot under the cart. We all freaked out a bit and Jeff started throwing sheets off of the cart. Ronnie yelled “Jeff stop! Don’t break the drywall!” It took a few minutes to get him out of there and luckily all he had was a small cut on his ankle.

I got back from my trip and was amazed at the progress, the drywall was going up so fast, electric was done and inspections were rolling thru. I jumped on getting the dimmers set and the multi-runs going. We were going to open a Ragamala show in a week and there would be no seats.  The carpet had to be installed and the rep plot put in place.  Painters were everywhere and Jonno was installing the beautiful custom curved box office.  

It was very possible that the audience would sit on the carpet for the first few weeks of shows. We were in tech rehearsals and someone pointed out that Jeune Lune would be dark for a month so Ronnie and his “Sanford and Son” truck came to the rescue.  We were throwing 200 seats up the platform fireman style the afternoon of opening. We were off…

In a couple of weeks the seats were shipped and installed; the cushions and backs were new, and the sides and armrests were antiques that had been in the basement for years. The armrests were refinished and aisle handrails were built by Steve Kath. Ronnie welded cable storage racks.

I can’t begin to list all who contributed, but it really was a Herculean effort. It would take months to trick out the space and find out what fixes we needed to make, but when the seat tags were in, pilot hole drilled, centered with a hand cut template and a plumb bob of string and washer, nailed with hand cut brads, (½ inch would poke thru the back), we were finished.

In Focus: The Stage Manager

By Elizabeth MacNally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Focus: The Stagehand

Article by Cindy Lindau

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

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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