Old Things

Article by Mike Wangen

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

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

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

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

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

Sightlines: A New Perspective

Article by Marie G. Cooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Working in NYC

Article by Kristina Haupt

I’ve known Kristy since very early in her career. It’s been an honour and pleasure to have our relationship shift from being her boss to being her colleague. Kristy is an excellent stagehand: curious, adventurous, and smart. I was really excited for her when she told me about wanting to move to New York City (I had no idea that I was “the final linchpin”) and immediately knew that I wanted to hear all her great insights on the adventure so far. -Wu Chen

One night while hanging lights at the Jungle with Wu Chen I brought up that I was thinking of moving to NYC. He told me to go. He told me that Minnesota would always be here and I would always wonder if I didn’t go. In hindsight, that was the final lynchpin in the scariest decision of my life, to move to New York City. I first moved to NYC in February of 2014. I had just finished working on the Superbowl and decided to spend two months working in NYC. As my aunt was driving me to my subleased apartment in Brooklyn, an ad came on the radio. They were looking for people to shovel out fire hydrants for $12/hour. I laughed and said, well, if this whole theater thing doesn’t work out, I am from Minnesota, gosh darn it, and I know how to shovel. I had no work lined up, I was terrified and on that first night Richard Girtain, the former TD at the Guthrie and the current TD at Juilliard emailed me. One of his carpenters had called in sick and did I want to come into work? At Juilliard I met a guy who needed help for Fashion Week. During Fashion Week I met countless electricians that continue to hire me two years later and so on. Freelancing is much the same in NYC as in Minnesota. It is all about meeting people on the first gig that can hire you for the next gig. While there are a lot of similarities to working in NYC versus Minnesota, there are a lot of differences as well. The work expectations of what tools to bring, the terms they use and the hours you work are vastly different on the east coast. The venues you get to work in are incredible and often have historical significance. Then there is Broadway. Broadway is it’s own world and runs differently than any other job I have had, including regional Theater.

As a freelance electrician in NYC there are three types of work I do. I primarily work industrials. An industrial is any event that is not theater or tv/film. This includes fashion shows, bar mitzvahs, annual company meetings, etc. I also work for IATSE local 52 as an electrician for tv/film and thirdly for Broadway or off Broadway in theater. Each job requires a separate set of tools. Besides the basics of a C-wrench, gloves and a multi tool (which is what I bring to all calls in MN) on Broadway you have to bring dykes because they zip tie all their cables. On Industrials you have to bring your hard hat and your hi vis vest. On TV/Film shoots you have to bring a secret service type ear piece so that your radio doesn’t make sound while they are rolling. You also need clothespins to attach gel to the barndoors. I bring my C-wrench, but the fact that it is attached to a lanyard immediately marks me as a theater electrician and I rarely use it on set. Most of the lights are on stands and hand tightened down.

The terms for a lot of basic things are different, especially on tv/film sets. A female edison to male stage pin is called a FED, the opposite, a MED. Tie line is called trick line. Cable ramps are called cable crossers or yellow jackets. A standard stage pin cable is called a single. A martini is not only a drink, but the final shot of the day. In the beginning I sometimes felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language, despite having worked in the industry for ten years.

The biggest difference for me, though, in work expectations, is the Hours. In NYC, especially on industrials,we often have to work overnights. It is because of one of two things: Either there is a really tight turn around in a space for example during Fashion Week when we do both Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs in the same space, each 7 minute fashion show take four days of around the clock crews to get them loaded in and set up. More often though, it’s because we are setting up an event in a space that people use during the day. All of the work on the stages for the ball drop in Times Square, for example, gets done overnight because Times Square has a strict, hard stop at 6am. The hours are also very last minute. I frequently get calls the day before asking if I can come in tomorrow. Most of the time it’s a 12 hour minimum day, frequently longer. If you take the call they expect you to be available all day. This makes it hard to schedule things outside of work and often, if I have something that I can’t miss at 7pm, I have to turn down work for the whole day.

The spaces you get to work in are amazing. I have spent a night (well several nights) in the American Museum of Natural History. We were setting up an event for CNN in the whale room and I wandered as much as possible over my breaks. It was pretty amazing to see the exhibits without crowds...and also without all of the natural lighting (the dioramas are creepy!). When we work at the ballroom in the Waldorf Astoria the only elevator strong enough to hold all of our gear is the elevator that was built to hold FDR’s armored car. It originally went to his secret, private train station below the hotel, but that level has been shut down. When you work at the UN you are reminded as you go in that you are leaving US soil and entering a different jurisdiction. I have worked at 1 World Trade Center on the 64th floor and I got to look down on NYC for three days with a constant reminder in the back of your mind of the horrible tragedy of September 11th. We shot an episode of Shades of Blue in a genuine pay by the hour hotel. We kept assuming things were set dressing and they kept assuring us that is really just want the hotel looked like. It smelled worse than anything I have ever smelled and the producers were getting yelled at by prostitutes on the street who were mad we had shut the place down because they needed to make their living….I can’t make this stuff up.

Now let’s talk Broadway. Unlike in MN where the in house theater produces the theater, on Broadway the house just houses it and it is produced by a different company. Because of this every show rents their lighting gear. Each show is prepped at generally either PRG or Christie Lights for three weeks or so before load in. While prepping you label conventional units, address moving lights/accessories, create cable looms for each position and create a paper tape for each position that states where each light is supposed to be hung. Broadway theaters are old buildings. They have shockingly smaller backstage areas than most theaters in other parts of the country. They frequently don’t have an in house fly system, but can rent them, if needed, for a particular production. To get to the fly rail or the jump from the stage you have to go outside along fire escape like stairs that connect to a few other theaters. There are no loading docks at most of the Broadway houses. We load and unload trucks in the street in front of the theater and push cases through the house.

Each theater has a head of each department. They are the only people contracted to the house itself. They hire the over-hire technicians for both the load in/outs and the run of the show. The best way to get work on Broadway is to stop by the stage door and ask for the head of the department you want to work for and then you hand them your card. Next in the hierarchy, there are positions hired by the productions. The production electrician, for example, will lead (and hire) the shop prep, assist with the load in and then runs the show as the assistant to the head electrician. The best way to get a running position on a show is to start out as a swing. Most swings work for a couple different shows at the same time. Light board programming is a separate job than running the show itself. Good programmers bounce from tech to tech while the board operator comes in during previews.

Working as a stagehand in NYC has been an education in all aspects of the entertainment industry. While I eventually want to be back in Minnesota full time, I am so grateful to have the opportunity of working and living in New York. NYC and IATSE local 1 have a reputation of being mean and arrogant. I have been blown away by the kindness and willingness to help me find work and am always looking for ways to pay it forward. If you have ever wanted to work in NYC, for a week, two months or permanently I am happy to answer questions and help you get work. Remember, Minnesota will always be there.