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The legendary Mike Wangen has been tremendously influential on the lives of many people in the local industry, mine included. If you haven’t had a chance to see his work, and talk to him about lighting design, you’re missing out on a treat. Incredibly well- and widely-read, his excitement and lucidity on the industry and on art, aesthetics and politics are easily (and, I think often, and criminally) overlooked. He’s not one for public speaking, so this piece here is a rare and wonderful bird. -Wu Chen


The end of 2017 marks my fortieth year of working as a theater artist, and it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on that life - specifically, on what my friend, actor Jim Craven, calls the “arc of creativity.” It is the ability to stay engaged in the art of theater and to constantly question and push the boundaries of that art.  This is something which is often easier said than done.

    My work history in theater can be broken into roughly three segments: an early period from 1977 through the mid 80s when I was developing my ideas and laying a foundation for what would come later, often without realizing it;  a middle period from 1987 through the early 2000s when I began working at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and Penumbra Theatre and was actually earning a living wage as a theater artist; and a late period beginning around 2003 and lasting through today when I became what could be considered a mature artist.

    I am a completely self-taught lighting designer.  I still don’t know what possessed me to walk in and apply to work as a lighting designer for a small experimental theater in Minneapolis in 1977. It was probably a mix of my father’s career being a professional photographer, my high school education which centered on a strong Humanities program, and the fact that I had dropped out of the U of M as a History major to run lights for a local rock band.  It was at the Olympia Arts Ensemble that I learned the nuts and bolts of the art of theater, most importantly, the WORDS.  Theater is storytelling and the fact that we were a poor group which could not afford large sets and lots of lights meant that we had to find creative solutions to staging problems and rely on the strength of the actors and the words in the script.  This has colored my views on design my entire life, and I still feel that this is a real strength in my work; the ability to pare away extraneous ideas and get to the heart of the matter.

    Experimentation is natural for us when we are in our twenties. To couple that enthusiasm with the rather free lifestyles of the 70s and the theatrical environment I was in was magic - and not limited to theater.  I experimented with photography (like my father), poetry and set design as well as reading voraciously (including every text on technical theater that I could find).  I never thought of myself as establishing a career as a lighting designer. I was just in the moment, absorbing thoughts and ideas.  My creativity grew out of the need to translate and express the thoughts floating around in my head from all of the ideas and information I was absorbing. The theater group I was worked with nurtured that.  I became unable to separate my life as an artist with other parts of my life.  It was all one and the same.  I see these trends in a number of young designers today and I am very encouraged.

    Then, it all came crashing down when Olympia collapsed in the early 80s, another hard lesson.  Disillusioned and feeling betrayed (the SYSTEM had crushed our noble experiment in artistic expression), I moved back to my home in Albert Lea to pout.  I had become an adult child.  

    The next period of growth in my life began in 1987.  Michael Brindisi, who I had known quite well in Albert Lea where he had started the Minnesota Festival Theater, was hired as director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and asked me to come and work there.  At the same time, I had been put in touch with Lewis Whitlock, who liked my work and invited me to design what was the original version of Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre.  For the first time in my life I was fully employed in the theater.  After several years, I left my job at Chanhassen to pursue my designing for Penumbra on a more full-time basis.  This brings up a couple of points about the creative process.  At Chan, for the first time in my life, I had secure full-time employment in my chosen field.  Yet, something was missing for me. I had become complacent in my job, which led to a reduction in my incentive to create.  It’s a trade off which many of us have had to consider; how do you balance the positives of a secure income with the resulting loss of creativity which comes from doing the same thing over and over again? Yin and yang.  For me there was no choice, I went to Penumbra to try and further my growth as an artist in what I perceived to be a more open artistic environment.  The idea of trusting your intuition to act as an agent of change emerged as a conscious part of my decision making.  I still believe it is one of the keys to remaining creative in life.

    In my time at Penumbra I was exposed to a group of immensely talented artists who were in the process of coalescing into a finely tuned artistic unit with a strong, unified aesthetic.  It was, in many ways, a continuation of the process that I was exposed to at Olympia but which had failed there at a critical moment.  I was able to build on the foundations laid down in my early years, this time with more tools (lights) at hand to implement ideas.  My 13 years at Penumbra were some of the most productive of my life, and I made lasting friendships which remain to this day.  However, the negative aspects of that work began to become apparent to me as well.  I had developed my bag of lighting tricks and favorite colors which I tended to use again and again, “good” had become “good enough.”  To battle this, I believe it’s necessary to constantly strive to broaden your boundaries and pull yourself out of your comfort zone.  The Twin Cities is blessed with an amazing variety of theater, dance, music, and spoken word, and we need to cross pollinate all of these fields to remain creative.  Search for diversity in your work, embrace change and do not run from it; it will nurture you if you let it.

    I left Penumbra in 2001 after accepting a job at the Fitzgerald Theater, and I have since increasingly embraced a life as a freelance designer, leaving the Fitzgerald in 2015.  I am now 63 years old and feel that I’m doing the best work of my life.  I have been very lucky in many ways to have worked with an amazing group of artists.  I attribute a good part of my longevity to the fact that I have always recognized that change is a constant and have constantly sought ways to expand my boundaries.  As far as creativity goes, I’ll make an analogy to being successful at poker.  You can only succeed if the money you’re playing with does not have any value outside of the fact that it’s a tool, a means to an end.  You need to remain open-minded and be willing to try new ideas, always - even if they fail.  When they do, let them go, and move on.  This can be very scary and disappointing, but the rewards can be beautiful.  

    I’ve now reached a point where I consider myself a mature artist, which has freed me in many ways to do better work.  I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I feel free to explore and experiment in any direction I choose.  In many ways, this completes the circle that began when I started in the 70s.  I was doing the same thing then, but was not even aware of it.  It was just something new and exciting in my life.  There have been many trade-offs, I have no retirement options, no family, no job security, but I feel that I have made a difference in people’s lives, helped them to see the world in different ways.  Most importantly, I see these same sparks of creativity in many young theater artists here who I have worked with or observed over the last few years.  Be curious, see everything, explore, don’t limit yourself.