A Marxist Philistine Gets Woke to Theater


Peter Rachleff is a history professor who specializes in U.S. labour, Immigration and African-American history. Along with his wife Beth, he operates the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. He is a long-time activist and has a strongly developed interest In the world of theater, some of which he details in this article, about his awakening as a theater advocate. —Mike Wangen

For much of my youth, I swore by a line that a friend attributed to a character in a Godard film: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my checkbook.” I never did see the movie. But I swore by the line, from college to graduate school, as I dug ever more deeply into Marxism. And I kept my distance from live theater.

In 1982 I moved to Saint Paul and began teaching U.S. history—labor, African American, and immigration history—at Macalester College. I dove into the local labor movement with both feet, and I continued to research and write about the intersections of race and class. And I continued to ignore theater.

In the early 1990s, my resolve began to soften. Two labor movement comrades introduced me to the power of children’s puppet theater to tell stories of exploitation, resistance, and solidarity. The youthful participants were moved; the audiences were moved; and I was moved. I was beginning a new journey. With two more experiences, the veils fell from my eyes. On the heels of the nationwide UPS strike in the summer of 1997, Beth Cleary shaped and directed a production of Waiting for Lefty at Macalester College. She brought UPS strikers to meet with her cast, and she complicated the play by making its historic white maleness an issue raised by the discontented rank-and-file. She cast women and actors of color in key roles. She also prefaced the play with short plays by African-American writers Langston Hughes and H.V. Edwards and her own adaptation of Meridel LeSueur’s short story, “Women on the Breadlines.” And she ended the play with a Mother Jones character leading the audience in “Solidarity Forever.” Audience members, from labor activists to students, rose, joined hands, and sang. That same year I fell under the spell of Wendy Knox’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play. Wendy’s lead actor quit the night before opening, and she re-cast a woman, Bianca Pettis, in the male lead role, and she went on with script in hand. Even in these circumstances—or was it because of these circumstances—I was captivated. In reimagining Lincoln’s assassination, Parks, the cast, the production, asked us to reconsider “the great (w)hole of history.” And I/we did, night after night.

I was realizing how badly I had missed the boat. Theater was—is—a vehicle to tackle the complexities of race and class, of gender and power, of exploitation and resistance, and it is a collaborative enterprise, among the creative team and between the creative team and the audience. When it works right, I should add. And when it works right, everyone grows, new connections are made and imaginations are fired. We can imagine birthing a new world from the ashes of the old.

Once I became woke to the power of theater, I took advantage of every opportunity I could find to explore it. Oh, I had a lot of disappointments in my search for the grail, but I also found my share of inspiration. And I was able to bring students along, trying to open their eyes to this power so that they would not waste as many years as I had, sneering, boycotting, ignoring. We saw great works by Tony Kushner, Naomi Wallace, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ralph Lemon, and Kia Corthron, among others. But sitting in the audience was no longer enough. I became so inspired by August Wilson’s work that, with Harry Waters, Jr., I co-taught a course at Macalester we called “The 20th Century Through the Plays of August Wilson.” What a great learning experience that was for me! With another colleague, Bob Peterson, I co-taught a course we called “Telling Labor’s Story Through Music,” that concluded with a concertized staging of a jazz opera, Forgotten: Murder at the Ford Rouge, not only at Macalester but also at United Autoworkers Union Local 879’s hall. When, five years ago, Carlyle Brown invited me to act in his Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, I jumped at the chance. Under the direction of Noel Raymond and the mentorship of Gavin Lawrence, and in collaboration with a generous and brilliant cast, I learned the internal life of theater first hand. I will be eternally grateful to all of them.

I have learned so much. But, watch out! Being woke includes keeping my critical faculties at the ready. I know when a piece of theater works, and when it doesn’t. When my frustration with the Guthrie’s production of Clybourne Park provoked me to write a detailed screed for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I was delighted to learn how widely it was being circulated. While my Marxist scorn for “culture” has dissipated, my passion for social transformation is as strong as ever. I am especially pleased right now that our East Side Freedom Library is hosting Carlyle Brown & Company’s Down in Mississippi, which is creating a transformative experience for audiences members from youth to seniors. What an amazing—and appropriate—use of our space!

Life of a Wigmaker


I had heard the name of the legendary wigmaster Laura Adams shortly before I started working regularly at the Jungle, but I did not (to my knowledge) ever see her until many years later. I had heard many people—colleagues, mentors, friends—speak of her in the equivalent of hushed, reverent tones. But we only ever really crossed paths as I left the building and she entered. I’m very sad that happened. I’ve since had the honor of speaking with her a few times about wigs, theater, and education and economics, and I knew immediately that I wanted her to write for us. I’m so grateful that she has agreed, and I’m going to get out of the way now. —Wu Chen

I never intended to land here. I’ve never met anyone who thought, “I wanna be a wig maker when I grow up!” Yet here I am.

My fascination with wigs began as a child. My mother, being a fashionable woman in the ’60s, wore wigs, as many women did. It’s a very transformative fashion accessory and it transformed her so much that I wouldn’t let her near me when I was very little, because I didn’t believe she was my mom. I didn’t like the wigs at all, but later grew to be curious about them.

The first time I had to wear a wig in a professional theater, I was a teenager. The production was Alice in Wonderland at the Children’s Theatre and the wig was hand-tied, which means it wasn’t store-bought. I was intrigued by the amount of detail put into the construction of it. After being in a few shows and wearing wigs, I became more and more enthralled and wanted to learn how to make them. The wig master, Victor, was happy to teach me and thus my journey as a wig maker began at the ripe old age of 15.

Wig making is a beautiful craft… and painstaking… and tedious… and incredibly rewarding. It is truly satisfying to make, set and style a wig for an actor and, after putting it on, the actor gasps, “This is amazing! I found my character!” I believe the reason it is so transformative is because it is the thing that frames the face, which is one of the actor’s most important tools. When you watch actors perform, you look mostly at their faces, paying close attention to where the words are coming from. When a wig is good, it can make a character because it helps to suspend your disbelief and allows you to get lost in the story. When it’s bad, a wig can be very distracting and actually detract from the storytelling (which is why I think many directors don’t like them). Wigs are very hard to do well and require a skilled hand to do them right.

Most theaters don’t put resources towards wigs, in part because there are so few of us trained to do it well. When theaters do use wigs, they often don’t put enough resources towards them and the wigs end up looking bad. At the Guthrie, we have an incredible shop that does such good work and has an incredibly talented group of people doing them; most people are unaware that they are looking at a wig on an actor. In fact, when tours come through and see that we have a wig shop, they are truly shocked. “I’ve been coming to the Guthrie for 20 years and I never even considered that the actors were wearing wigs!” I hear comments like this, and it makes me smile. But it also makes me a little sad. Not because my work isn’t noticed—if done properly it shouldn’t be noticed and there is a strange satisfaction in that. It’s because I know that there are so few of us doing this work. If people don’t know we are here and how important hair is to the look of a character, the craft won’t have the support it needs to thrive in the theater world.

It takes a special kind of person to be a good wigmaker for theater. You need to be good with your hands. The work is very detailed and the scale is small. I use a magnifying glass when I’m building wigs. “You must have the patience of a saint” is often heard when tours come through and see us at work. Honestly, it does require patience, but once you know how to do the technique, it’s much like any other handcraft, like knitting or needlework. It can actually be sort of relaxing at times.

Once you have a wig built, you need to turn it into a style, which is basically sculpting with an organic material. We use human hair almost exclusively at the Guthrie because it allows for more control. You can use irons on it to manipulate the hair. Synthetic wigs melt if you do that. You also need an eye for being able to take a two-dimensional research image—such as a sketch, painting or photograph—and turn it into a three-dimensional object that can be worn on the head and stay looking the way you want whether or not the actor is dancing or lying down on a couch or, in some cases, getting drenched with water onstage. When mounting a show, I will either get research or sketches from a costume designer or I have to find my own, and I use that as a guide to create the styles that help facilitate the vision for the period of the play. I always laugh at those epic historical films of the 1960s, like Cleopatra, with all those beautiful period costumes and ’60s hairstyles. Again, hair is just as important—if not more so—than a costume because of the fact that it frames the actor’s faces, the thing we are looking at the most.

Having a good understanding of theater is important to wig making and design. If someone is interested in making wigs but doesn’t have theater experience, I tell them to start seeing plays. Lots of plays. Cosmetology school is really helpful, but not necessary. I didn’t go to cosmetology school; I learned while doing. I know of only three places in the country where you can get a degree in wig and makeup design. Because of this, I feel that intern programs in the field are especially important. It's imperative to the longevity of the field for those of us doing the craft to pass these skills on. It takes years to become proficient at it and even longer to truly master because of the nature of the medium we are working with. Hair reacts differently on any given day, and working with it is tricky business to begin with. I can teach basic skills relatively fast, but the development of the skill set takes years.

One thing that is difficult to teach is how to deal with actors—and it's a huge part of what we do. If you're not good with people or admire the craft of acting, I'd hesitate to go into the field of theatrical wig making. What we do is all about making actors look right for the parts they are playing, and sometimes that means making them look horrible. Actors by nature tend to have strong personalities. The actor’s job is to delve into the emotions of a character and bring it to life, and the people who do that craft tend to have passionate personalities. Most people care deeply about what their hair looks like. They identify deeply with their hair, which is one of the reasons it is so traumatic for some people when they lose it. Actors are no different. It is because of this that the job of the wigmaker/designer is so complicated. Actors’ opinions about their hair are stronger than most and they need to feel good about their look and own it completely or it can affect performances. It is our job to help them own the look.

So not only do you need to be good with your hands, have a sense of fashion through history, the ability to make a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional object and sometimes defy gravity, you need to work with a medium that has a mind of its own as well as have a small enough ego to not mind that people don't even know your work exists, let alone recognize the amount of time it took you to make it look that way. You also need to be a bit of a psychologist, understanding the characters you are helping bring to life while handling the complicated personalities of the people who will be wearing your work. If you are up for the challenge of all of that, a career in wig making might just be the right fit for you.

Plus, it's pretty fun to wear the wigs around the shop for no reason at all.

Sightlines: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Conrad Burgess


Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo:  Meet Minneapolis . Used under Creative Commons license.

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Photo: Meet Minneapolis. Used under Creative Commons license.

I first met Conrad in 1987 after being hired at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre as a lighting technician and immediately discovered what a unique and talented individual he was. Largely unknown, as he resided backstage at Chanhassen for almost 30 years, he is one of the best stage managers I have ever known. He has always been a creative problem solver and is equally at home working with tech crews or lending a sympathetic ear to actors in need. —Michael Wangen

MIKE: This is Mike Wangen and I’m interviewing Conrad Burgess about Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Conrad was a long-time stage manager and technician at Chanhassen and I just want to start by saying that I think everyone in the arts community probably has an idea of what they think Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is, but the reality of what it was might be quite different than what people think. Chanhassen is actually one of the oldest running theaters in the Twin Cities. It was begun in 1968 by Herb Bloomberg. So I’m going to start with Conrad. I think you started in 1979.

CONRAD: Yes. One of the most amazing things about the place, about Herb, is that he was a builder. He wasn’t a theater guy. He was a builder. He got hired by Don Stoltz to build the Old Log Theatre in, I think, the middle ’60s and decided he wanted one of his own. And the amazing thing about him is he found this incredible director to help him do it, Gary Gisselman—just a brilliant director. I don’t know how it happened, how he lucked onto Gary Gisselman, but he did, and that’s what made the place go. Herb was very visionary about that and he made it happen.

MIKE: How did you get started doing theater in the first place and, also, what were you first impressions of Chanhassen when you started in 1979? What was the place like?

CONRAD: I had been going to college and I was taking philosophy courses and sociology courses, you know, the ’60s had ended, and I was wandering around the country. I went to Canada, I went to the Montreal Olympics and saw two events there. After the Olympics, I went to New York, walked into Times Square and was just in awe and just obviously a young tourist and decided to see a Broadway show. I went and saw Pippin and I was overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed. The lighting, the costumes, everything. It was just like that! It wasn’t like I grew up wanting to be in theater. I found something that day in New York. Went back to Minneapolis and back to college, took every theater course they had in one year and got a job. At that time, I was really into lighting. I got a job designing lights for Bloomington Civic Theater. I did, like, four shows and then somebody there knew Brian Sanderson who worked at Chanhassen.

MIKE: He was the sound guy at Chan.

CONRAD: Yes. And you know, I need a job, as everybody else does. And I just called him up and met him. And he hired me and I was running lights in I Do! I Do! half the week and, the other half of the week, I relieved him running sound for Camelot with Richard K. Elison and it was just a brilliant, brilliant show. Wonderful. That’s how I started. And what was it like back then? It was electric. It was just so exciting. I don’t know, it was kind of the happening place at that time.

MIKE: Chanhassen did many more things other than musical theater, right?

CONRAD: That’s right.

MIKE: They had a history of doing dramatic work over the years.

CONRAD: In fact, they did Equus. Can you imagine?

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: It was exciting. It was very fun to do.

MIKE: At one time there were four theaters in the building, how many were there in 1979 when you started?

CONRAD: There was four.

MIKE: They had already established that.

CONRAD: They had established that by the time I started. They had a show running in each theater. I can’t think of the show that was in the courtyard, I Do! I Do!, and The Robber Bridegroom was playing in the Fireside, which used to be a bar.

MIKE: So you were saying in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was already a professional theater and people like Myron Johnson were choreographing out there

CONRAD: Choreographing—and he actually danced in several shows. Solo dances, you know. And he was the lead dancer, let’s put it that way, of course, with his wonderful talent. There were several others, wonderfully talented people working out there. Gary Gisselman had a way of drawing people to him. He brought a lot of Guthrie actors to the place and I think his biggest acquisition was was Ron Bruncati, the long-time stage manager there. He stole him from the Guthrie! And brought him over saying, “I’m going to create this wonderful artist place.” And I can remember Ron telling me that story.

MIKE: So what was Gary’s vision in terms of what he wanted to achieve?

CONRAD: He wanted to create a viable living theater with musicals in the main theater, which would provide the funding to do everything else.

MIKE: What was Herb’s philosophy about running shows? For a long time the theater did open-ended runs. Basically, they ran a show as long as they thought it would sell. Was that from the very beginning or did it change?

CONRAD: No. No, in the very beginning, Gary’s vision was to do six week runs.

MIKE: Okay.

CONRAD: They did that for quite a while. There was only one theater at first and then they added the playhouse after a year or two. I think How to Succeed in Business was actually the first show. And then ’71: Herb was going to close the theater because it wasn’t making any money and he decided to mount Fiddler on the Roof and, from all accounts, it was a brilliant production.

MIKE: Oh really?

CONRAD: It was a big hit. And it went past the six weeks—and they didn’t close it. Eventually, it ended up running almost a year or maybe it did hit a year; I think it was close to that. It basically saved the theater. That started a trend for longer shows. Most shows when I started were five months, six months long. They were doing quite well. In fact, Herb once told me that the dinner theater was the tail that wagged the dog. It made more money than his other businesses did.

MIKE: So, I should mention you started working as a lighting technician there but at some point, you made the jump to becoming a stage manager.


MIKE: And working as the assistant stage manager on the main stage. How did it happen that you decided to move? Was it just a very natural thing for you?

CONRAD: It was. And Ron came up to me one day and said, “There’s only a limited future in working as a technician unless you're planning on becoming a lighting designer.” And we had a long talk. He was a wonderful mentor and I learned everything from him.

MIKE: So [Ron] saw your potential, in other words?

CONRAD: I don’t know. I guess you can say that.

MIKE: I’m sure he has. I can see that.

CONRAD: Yeah, he asked me. The assistant stage manager was quitting to go to Montreal, and [Ron] asked me and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Baptism by fire.

MIKE: Do you remember when it was? Was it the early ’80s?

CONRAD: It was the early ’80s. What show was it? I think it was… I can’t remember what show it was.

MIKE: It’s okay. They all blend together.

CONRAD: They sort of do. It was before A Chorus Line because I was backstage for A Chorus Line. Yeah, I can’t remember.

MIKE: Do you remember any other dramatic highlights of the other smaller spaces outside of Equus—whatever type of shows were produced? Because that’s what interests me, more so than the other musicals.

CONRAD: Let me think. We did lot of the traditional comedies like Earnest.

MIKE: The Importance of Being Earnest?

CONRAD: The Importance of Being Earnest. We did Somersaults, which was a wonderful show, with two wonderful Guthrie actors. We did The Dining Room

MIKE: By Pinter?

CONRAD: By Pinter, yes. What the Butler Saw, Same Time Next Year, Death Trap.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: The Promise, Crimes of the Heart, Mass Appeal.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: Sleuth.

MIKE: So the theater was quite diverse?

CONRAD: It was quite diverse.

MIKE: And Gary directed all of these?

CONRAD: I believe he directed everything at that time. And even when he left, somewhere in the early ’80s, he came back and directed every main stage show for many years there.

MIKE: Another aspect of this through the ’70s and ’80s is that the theater provided employment for a large number of both technicians and actors at the time.


MIKE: Which I think is very important in terms of the culture, which is sometimes overlooked. I mean, the Guthrie obviously, and the Children’s Theatre also did, but Chanhassen was also a big part of that.

CONRAD: Yeah, it was.

MIKE: Probably more important than people recognize.

CONRAD: It went all year round. You could make a living there quite easily, you know.

MIKE: Which also gave people opportunities for other outside work as well.


MIKE: So talk a little more about Ron Bruncati, who was the long-time stage manager out there and was quite brilliant in his work. He was basically your mentor in how you developed as a stage manager. What do you think you learned from him and how has it helped you? And you’re still doing work, stage management work today, with Ben Krywosz and Nautilus Theatre. And just what you learned about stage management—what people skills there are. Because I think a lot of the people tend to think of stage management as a very technical thing, and it’s really much more than that.

CONRAD: Yes. Yes. Well, [Ron] was magical. Grace was the right word for it: grace. He had a grace about him and a charisma where he could deal one-on-one with any actor, any person, and get to the heart of whatever was going on at that moment. And that’s what I learned from him. Stay calm. He always was calm. I only saw him mad once and that’s another story.

MIKE: Yes.

CONRAD: He would stay calm in any crisis and I learned that from him. He would have a grace, no matter who was mad or who was upset—the director or an actor or a designer who couldn’t get something accomplished. He had a way of smoothing it out, talking to people, and that was his greatest thing. And he could keep track of everything in rehearsals. It was amazing to watch him work. I admire him greatly. I miss him terribly.

MIKE: And in the environment—given the nature of the complexity of the stage there and moving things around—he had to keep and you had to keep all of that in mind. Because you’re putting a show together in a rehearsal room, which is actually much different than the actual stage.

CONRAD: Much different than the actual stage.

MIKE: In terms of really, you know, figuring out the logistics of putting that together.

CONRAD: We would talk sometimes for an hour after every rehearsal about, Is that going to work? Is that going to work? Yeah. And he was methodical in it—so well organized. And a lot of people didn’t see that side of him. I saw it and I’m sure Gary saw it. He was brilliant at it.

MIKE: Do you have any particular thoughts about the legacy of your years at Chanhassen?

CONRAD: My legacy?

MIKE: Yeah. And, you know, just what it means to the community—which, I think, is often forgotten these days.

CONRAD: It is. Gary came back one day and he and I were talking. We were standing outside of the main entrance, looking at all of the cars in there, and he was going, “It’s amazing. They just keep coming, just keep coming.” The legacy, I guess—you know, employment was a huge one. But there was a bond between all of us which was—you can’t put it in words. It was special. Everybody who worked there at that time.

MIKE: It was literally a family.

CONRAD: It literally was. It may be that now, I don’t know. But it literally was back then. And it was fun. Ron. I think Ron was the main reason.

MIKE: Ron Bruncati?

CONRAD: Ron Bruncati. It was the main reason that it worked so well. Him and his relationship with Gary. They would look at each other and know what the other was thinking. It was just amazing in rehearsals to watch them both. I don’t know. I guess that’s the legacy.

MIKE: Okay. Well, thank you.

CONRAD: You’re welcome.

(STEM + A) x Arts Integration = Opera


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving towards the artists of the future

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

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


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

Health and Safety Info for the Monetarily Challenged Artist


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

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

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

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

Safety Data Sheets

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

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

GESTIS Substance Database

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

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

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

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

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

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

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

3M Center for Respiratory Protection

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

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration

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

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

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

Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety

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