Wu Chen Recommends...Safia Elhillo

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I used to read a lot of poetry. It had largely drifted off for me, but then two things happened: I read Omar Musa’s astounding Here Come the Dogs (which I have previously Recommended), and we had kids.

Now I was reading poetry all the time again and I couldn’t get enough. I tore through old favourites and I borrowed a lot of new stuff via the Hennepin County e-book system. I wandered onto poetry review and criticism sites and found more folks to read.

And then I stumbled on Safia Elhillo.

Her imagery is vivid and crisp; no lush rolling tones and sweeps like a Wordsworth here. The pacing is fast and almost pushes you along so fast that you swear time stands still then just warps like a whiplash to catch up. I love it.

Her imagination, storytelling and extremely thoughtful examinations span a massive range of subjects: war, parties, music, colonialism, lovers, history, discrimination, power... her intelligence is palpable and relatable.

Even if you’re not someone who thinks of themselves as a poetry fan (and I think that largely has to do with how “poetry” is usually defined, packaged and presented; Cat in the Hat, just about all of Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, just about every Epic out there from all over the world, heck, just about every set of lyrics in modern musical genres are all poetry), check out her work.



So I Guess I Got An MFA?


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Tony is back with his final installment on his journey through grad school.  To view his previous articles, click here and here. -Chava Curland


The text below is what I presented to the design and technology faculty members of the IU theater department for the oral defense of my thesis production, City of Angels. I figured that since you all have been so kind as to listen to me complain about grad school over the past three years, you all deserved to hear the bookend to my grad school career as much as the professors in the department did. So here you are. Enjoy.

For the past two years there has been a quote from Martha Graham pinned to the wall of my cubicle in A300. It reads:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

It is, I think, the closest thing I have found to a statement summing up what I believe art should be. But I don’t think I ever realized just how arduous a task Martha Graham was charging the artist with when she set forth the necessity of “keeping the channel open.”

Reading back over the notebook I kept during City of Angels, it is amazing how quickly it descends into the technical minutiae, as if the huge scale of the production demanded that we address all material concerns in detail before we could move on to answering the more trivial questions such as what the production was about. By the time the second design conference rolled around, my notes are full of information about cable runs for practicals, thoughts about how we were going to access positions for focus, and quick sketches of the agenda / breakdown of labor for our two days of load-in. All of this before we had a full line-set schedule, or for that matter a finalized scenic design. It felt a bit like building a house by starting with what faucets you want in the bathroom.  I distinctly remember feeling lost in these early days of the production, like I was flying blind. I couldn’t see the design in my mind’s eye, but the schedule and material demands of the show necessitated that I make decisions that would have a very real impact on what the final design would be.

In some ways, this challenge was exactly what I had been searching out, and I relished it. I knew that in the mythical “Real World” your plot was often due before the production went into rehearsals. I wanted to push myself to create on a similar, if not identical, timeline. I had strategies ready to go, things I had learned from mentors or thought of on my own, that would allow me to meet this challenge. I was going to create a plot that took as its backbone the architecture of the set, and then added on what was necessary based upon a careful reading of the stage space available to the director. What were the strong positions, blocking wise, and what were the weak ones? How would people move through this space- as individuals, in small groups, as a whole ensemble? Which lighting angles were easily achieved, and which ones were more difficult? Which angles would I need in my vocabulary in order to create the iconic noir look?

Despite how much I looked forward to the challenge of the accelerated timeline, I still felt, in  many ways, lost. Rich [the director] and I had met a lot, and talked through any number of ideas. But I still had trouble seeing where I was going. In part, this was because we were in a bit of a holding pattern early on: Rich needed to get into the room, to begin working with his cast, before he could start answering some questions. In part, my feeling of being lost was also the result of my struggle with a script that was, in many ways, exactly what it appeared to be on the surface. Sometimes I have trouble letting a thing just be what it is. I tend to overcomplicate and overanalyze, rather than just letting the text do it’s job. Part of it, too, was the music. I was struggling to find my way through the weird jazz structures in Coleman’s score, struggling to see and feel the music in light. So in many ways, I didn’t have the conceptual underpinnings I was used to having at this stage in the design. It was a bit disquieting. I wasn’t super worried about it - I had done shows like that before - but I felt a bit more pressure than normal to do everything right, being that it was my thesis and all.

I don’t remember which one of the innumerable meetings this began in, but it soon became apparent to me that I was being systematically placed in an untenable position as the scenic design developed. My scenic designer, a fellow student, was totally responsive and receptive to my attempts to make sure I got the positions I needed overhead to light the show. Our technical director, a departmental staff member, was not. He had a very specific idea of what he thought the show needed to be, and he didn’t really care whether or not that idea left room for my design. He had decided that lighting had enough positions overhead, so, in his mind, that meant that there were enough positions. I remember going into a meeting with my scenic designer and TD to discuss the possibility of footlights. Somewhere, that meeting took a hard left turn, and we ended up talking about available line-sets; that was when I was informed that as far as my TD was concerned, the over-stage positions I would have would be the lighting bridge downstage, and the two diagonal trusses the scenic designer had specced out upstage. It wasn’t enough to light the show by a long shot; there was a roughly 17’ gap in which I would have no overhead positions; a gap that was right smack dab over center stage. Furthermore, given the length of truss specced,  I don’t think I had enough room to hang all the lights we would need, even if all of them were pointed straight down and not focused. My attempts to address this issue were met with insistence that that was the way it had to be, and suggestions that I had to look into simplifying things. I played for time, kept repeating that I needed a chance to look at the drawings, and got out of there.

Two things were running through my head as I left that meeting.

  1. Honestly, I felt stupid, outmaneuvered, and naive. I had operated under the assumption that at the end of the day, everyone would approach this production the same way as me, looking for chances and opportunities to support the other elements. After all, that was the job. Create a whole design. Not just a set, or just a plot, or just a bunch of costumes.

  2. I could feel myself getting backed into a corner. We had designed a unit set to free ourselves of the constraints of having to make a new set of scenic elements for every one of the myriad locations the piece called for. That was great, but it meant that now the problem of manifesting that myriad of locations fell mostly into my lap; simultaneously, the number of places I had to actually hang lights from was being greatly limited. With the current arrangement, I would not be able to evenly wash the whole stage from a consistent angle. I would be struggling to illuminate the production effectively, not to mention actually design anything. I felt trapped. The demands on my design were increasing while the room I had to maneuver and meet those demands was decreasing.

I had a lot of self doubt at this moment in the process. The TD’s  suggestion that I was over-designing had hit a weak spot. I worried that I was psyching myself out because this was my thesis, trying to do too much, feeling like I had to use every light we had simply because it was my final show.  I immediately spiraled into anxiety- my plot was going to be a bloated monstrosity, a small voice in my head assured me, and as a result the entire enterprise would be a failure and I’d never work again, dying penniless and ragged on the streets of 19th century Paris, laid low by consumption. Or something like that.

I told my mind to shut up.

But my confidence had been shaken, and I needed a way to ensure that I was not over-designing. So I implemented a simple test. I took one of my noir research images, and picked the most important angle of light in that photo- a diagonal back angle. I then looked at the proposed set up, and tried to see if I could create a system of diagonal back light that would evenly wash the whole stage- a workhorse, basic system that would be extremely important in creating the signature noir look of the show.

I couldn’t even come close.

So I felt more grounded in my belief that I needed more positions. But I didn’t know how to proceed. Another meeting with my scenic designer and TD would get nowhere; I would get railroaded and ignored. Our TD had given no indication of wanting to listen to me, and the power differential of student vs staff member, as well as the personalities at play, meant neither my scenic designer nor I had any way to compel him to listen. I had no control over the situation as long as the problem remained within that setting.

This was the first time during my thesis that I thought about Napoleon.

Lets zoom out a bit.

And back in time a bit.

To Brussels.  Approximately 1 am, on June 15th, 1815. Earlier, in March, Napoleon had returned from exile on the island of Elba, landing in the south of France with a small force of  1,000 men. Now, about ten weeks later, he stood at the border of Belgium with an army of 120,000. The forces arrayed against him were the two armies of what was called the 7th Coalition- a Prussian army to the east, and the British army, centered in and around Brussels. The commander of the coalition was Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, and at this moment, he was attending a ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond.

The duke had just sat down to his very late dinner when a messenger strode in and handed him a folded note. Wellington scanned the note, dismissed the messenger, and continued to dine and chat for twenty minutes, before politely retiring alongside several of his aides, where he remarked, with uncharacteristic verve, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours' march on me.”

Napoleon had unexpectedly moved his men north from the border, seizing an important cross roads at Quatre Bras. He had placed himself directly between the British and Prussian armies,  employing what military theorists call “the strategy of central position.”

It was a strategy that had served Napoleon well over his career. Time and again, at Montenotte, at Arcole, at Vauchamps and at Jena, Napoleon had triumphed over numerically superior forces by employing the strategy of central position. By moving aggressively to seize a central position in the midst of the enemy forces, splitting them, as it were, Napoleon captured the initiative. His opponents now needed to address the presence of his forces, to react to him.  If they did not, he was in a position to outmaneuver them and wreck havoc in their rear echelons.

From a central position, Napoleon also commanded interior lines of operation - he could communicate and redeploy his troops more quickly than his opponents could coordinate, because his forces occupied a smaller, more compact area. Furthermore, the central position allowed Napoleon to take up a branching strategy. The Emperor was fond of telling his Marshals “Il est necessaire de faire son thème en deux façons”- “It is necessary to advance with two options.” As the famous military historian Liddell Hart explained, “A plan, like a tree, must have branches – if it is to bear fruit. A plan with a single aim is apt to prove a barren pole.” From a central position that afforded him superior mobility and lines of operation, Napoleon was able to wait until the exact right moment to apply his forces; any attempt to deny him an opening inevitably opened up a different one upon which he could capitalize.

But the most basic power of the strategy of central position lay in the fact that it was not a strategy at all. It was a geographic reality. It was a position that brought with it the advantages of superior mobility and flexibility, allowing Napoleon to implement any number of strategies or tactics. It was, in that sense, a structural advantage. What cracked the Duke’s normally controlled veneer that night in Brussels wasn’t the loss of the crossroads at Quatre Bras, it was the fact that in seizing them, Napoleon had fundamentally altered the strategic landscape. The rules had changed.

Meanwhile, back in the ostensibly more relevant part of this narrative, I was beginning to feel like the landscape of the production needed to be altered.  In the lead up to spring break, a number of factors combined to wear me down- a deteriorating and increasingly hostile relationship with my technical director, the necessity of overseeing and educating my crew (a dedicated bunch who were being thrown into the most complex show they had ever worked on in their time here), and the necessity of balancing all of this alongside working to develop resources for my post-grad school career. On top of all this, I was still struggling to really find my voice in the show, in large part because the majority of my resources were being relegated to non-design activities. I didn’t have the time or energy to be creative; in the lead up to spring break, I was sleeping four to five hours a night, going to bed at one am and waking up at 5 or 6 to go work in a Starbucks.

Spring break was a welcome interruption, though perhaps not an escape since I spent it at USITT and SETC. On the return flight from USITT I had a four hour layover in the Atlanta airport, during which I had a lot of time to think. The two conferences had been the last major barrier between me and my thesis; now that they were over, there was nothing behind which I could hide to avoid the growing pile of problems that was City of Angels. As I sat in the airport lounge with a drafting file open on my computer staring blankly at it and wondering how I was going to light this thing, a friend texted me asking me for that Martha Graham quote I was obsessed with. I pulled it up on the internet and sent her the link, then reread it myself for the umpteenth time. For whatever reason, this time, something clicked. I had always thought of Graham’s exhortation to the artist to “keep the channel open” as a reference to self-doubt, in part because I often used this quotation as a talisman against exactly that. But in reading it, I suddenly realized that the biggest thing getting in the way of me designing my thesis was all the stuff that actually made up the design- every tiny bit of drafting and every anxiety about color choice and ability to access this or that light for focus and maintenance. What I needed was space, the ability to think with agility and freedom, unencumbered by anxieties and practical concerns. At the same time, I knew that I couldn’t simply ignore the concrete realities of the production. We were too far along in the process for me to be all pie-in-the-sky and divorced from the very real limitations I was operating under. Furthermore, I knew that given the amount I was relied upon within the lighting department as an electrician and technician, I couldn’t completely stop thinking in that way. I had too many issues cluttering the channel, and I needed away to clear it.

So I thought about seizing the central position. About resolving your problems not by solving them, but by re-contextualizing them. About changing the landscape. And I set up what I thought of in my head simply as the System.

When I got back, I decided, the goal would no longer be to find the most correct, perfect solution to each problem. The goal would be to solve each problem as quickly and efficiently as possible, to buy time and space, to create a bubble in the midst of the chaos and the stress within which I could design. If that light couldn’t make the shot we wanted, we spared it out and kept moving. When we didn’t have enough of one color, I picked a new one from the stock we did have, trusting in my instincts rather than agonizing over the decision. Time and again I reoriented my focus towards solving the problem as efficiently as possible, focusing not necessarily on making the perfect choice, but instead on creating an environment that would give me the tools and the atmosphere I needed when I finally got behind the board to start building. I thought of it as building the central position, and it brought with it a sense of wild glee mixed with trepidation, a bit like the first time you ride your bike without holding on to the handlebars.

The show eventually opened. It wasn’t perfect. Not even close. I saw it two times, and both times were frustrating experiences- to see something up onstage that I felt was rough and unfinished. I think, going into this process, I had an idea in my head of how I would demonstrate some level of mastery in my craft. I would create a meticulously planned, elegantly executed, well thought out design. That’s not what I got. I got a process that was by turns a death march and a skydiving trip. I got a product that was rough and kinetic, hectic and haphazard, with surprising, asynchronous moments of gentleness, subtlety, and depth. But above all, I think I gained a new appreciation for what Graham was saying when she demanded that we “keep the channel open.” Mastery of the craft isn’t found in those moment where all the things go right. It's found when we’re faced with situations that aren’t ideal; when we find ourselves working on those productions that are less of an effortless, synchronized ballet of perfect execution, and more akin to a cabinet full of dishes getting shoved down the stairs. Mastery is staying connected to the most basic questions of why and what in the midst of the cacophonous whirlpool our jobs can often descend into. It lies in keeping the channel open, even as everything falls down around you.

The Politics of Space! (or Ruptures in De-centering Whiteness)


From Pangea's production of  5 Weeks

From Pangea's production of 5 Weeks

Dipankar and his wife, Meena, are the co-founders of Pangea World Theatre, and very strong advocates of equality and rights for all in this world.  In this article, he addresses the need to recognize the inequalities which often exist in our world of theater and how they may be rectified as well as bringing in a sense of some of the philosophical differences between Western and Eastern Theater. Very thought provoking. - Mike Wangen


“But I feel bound by my love for high art…we cannot consciously make extinct Opera and Shakespeare,” expressed someone last week, when I was part of a diverse group wrestling with the conversation of inequity of funding in the arts.

The meeting was done by the time this statement landed on me and made me realize:

... the chasm that exists between the intention of the discussion and the selective hearing of someone who was threatened by the content.

… the chasm between participation with community to build a movement to correct a past that has been historically skewed and unjust and the system that houses the tools, blueprints, infrastructure, and strategic processes that has been consciously and unconsciously constructed to maintain the primacy of a dominant narrative.

…the space that gets morphined into silence between artists of color engaged with advocating for equity and the powers that be that keep the large homes of  “high art” nurtured to sustain themselves, regardless of the economic situation.

I realized that when progressive minds articulate the injustice of inequity and make clear the need and timing for equity of the field, it poses a threat to the stewards of “high art”.  In a conversation where we presented the statistics of inequity of philanthropy, critiqued the status quo, pointed out how the sustenance and growth of “preeminent organizations” has happened deliberately, and how there has been a conscious diminishment of artistic spaces led by people of color, it provoked the proverbial, “We don’t want classical art to become extinct”!

“I never said that,” I wanted to say.

The politics of centrality surfaces here. In simple terms, inside the minds of those who fear change, a sense of threat seems to engulf even the most rational person. The dialogue gets stemmed because the minds that created the chess board, the sculptors that crafted the look and color of the chess pieces and masterminded the process of the chess game, are shocked to see that in the boards of justice there are moves far beyond and nuanced past the declamation of “checkmate”.

This lack of equity perpetuates the dominance of hierarchical languaging which demarcates: a “mainstage” and a less resourced “black –box”; center and margin; majority and minority art (hence under-resourced or stipended); ‘high art’ and indigenous cultural practices; pre-eminent organizational caverns and organizations led by and for people of color. The list is endless.

Eastern dramaturgy comes to theaid, and nullifies this idea of end of game and cessation. As time is seen as circular and an end never arrives, a birth occurs and organizations led by people of color are coming together with a new nomenclature of SHARING SPACE and OWNING SPACE.

When conversation of shifting centrality and dominance is practiced, the elasticity of the space provides ample opportunities of co-existence. The presence of literature from ancient cultures and writers of color who are crafting scripts like Sabra Falling by Arab-American writer Ismail Khalidi, 5 Weeks by Asian American writer Meena Natarajan, Isla Tuliro, by Marlina Gonzalez, The Water Story by Ojibwe writer Sharon Day only adds to the dynamism of the theater field. Something tells me that the patriarchs of the dominant culture ( least of all, the all engulfing SHAKESPEARE) is not threatened in the least. There is no voice that is ever stating that any cannon of literature, any OPERA that has existed be “made obsolete”.

The advocacy and the imperative need that is being articulated is that, like the movement of our planetary cosmology, we shift spaces and keep on sharing space in the cosmic path with our individual signatures. We erase borders and obliterate margins, break down walls in established patriarchal processes experienced by organizations and artists of color.

As the call arises with deafening clarity for equity, a time has come now with the shifting demographics of North America, to obliterate binaries - when race conversations may not be limited to ONLY black and white articulation - but in recognition of collaborative politics and movements like Black-Lives matter, #metoo movement, Pipeline resistance, Global social forums addressing eco-systems etc.

The call is for a new nomenclature that not only makes obsolete the benign articulation of “diversity, inclusion, multicultural” as a way for dominant culture to maintain status quo in relation to organizations of color, but to move toward kinesthetic action, to build a collaborative politics of SHARING SPACE in the making of dynamic cultural skein of the TWIN CITIES!



Wu Chen Recommends...Gone Home

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We’ve been pushing the boundaries of what video games are and can do for quite a while now. More than explosive power fantasies, games utilize the unique positioning of their audience to tell their stories, fan the flames of their minds and hearts, and ask potent questions. Video games let us explore and experience worlds like few other mediums can.

When I first picked up Gone Home, all I knew was that it was by a company made up of four game designers that had done work I really enjoyed. Unfolding with a voice message, this quiet and potent game of exploration, set in 1995, puts you in the shoes of a young woman just returning from a trip abroad after graduating from college. She arrives in an empty house and a haunting note from a beloved sister pleading you not to look into what has happened.

I love exploration games. I love exploring, and I love good characters - and Gone Home has both. While there have been a fair number of video games that have brought me to tears, few games have made me put down my controller (mouse, in this case) and just put my head on my desk and think. This did that, on more than one occasion.

It’s a quiet, potent experience. Just about everything is experienced alone: old notes, voice messages, journals and the like, and the devastating power of it all is enhanced for that crowded loneliness.

This is a story that was relevant in 1995 (when the game is set), 2013 (when the game was released) and now. If you can handle WASD and mouse first-person UI, and you’re at all interested in game about people, get this one and play it.

Gone Home on Steam

P.s. Fullbright Games, who made Gone Home, famously turned down a booth at PAX (a major gaming convention) in 2013 to showcase Gone Home. Their statement about it, here, is a powerful and important one, and one that is worth reposting.

Wu Chen Recommends...Paper Girls.

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I had casting about, looking for something light to read in bed, when I stumbled on Paper Girls by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. An adventure story revolving around some paper delivery girls set in the 80s? Sounds fun!
And it is, only it is anything but light. I tore through the whole first volume, and then, instead of going to sleep at my already-late-hour, I read it again - interrupted only by my turn to rock the baby back to sleep.

I’ve never been one to rush out and buy the next comic book issue; but this time I was at The Source as soon as my schedule allowed to buy my own copy of Volume 1, and any additional Volumes that might exist (currently, as far as I know, three). I wanted them because when my kids were old enough, I wanted them to have easy access to them.

The writing is incredibly powerful and the characters robust and real. The aliens and the time travel are never laughable or out-of-place, and for all the fantastic nature of the core story, it never detracts from the humanity and the stark reality that is laid bare here. The art absolutely, superbly supports all of this. I’m taking this book into my design class for that reason alone.

Do yourself a favour, even if you tend not to like comics or graphic novels, check this one out.

Paper Girls at the Hennepin County Library:

Interview with Brian K Vaughan:

The Importance of Creating Space



There are a lot of roles one can play in the theater industry, and Chris Garza has at one time or another done many of them. His smarts and vast network have made him an respected figure in the intrapersonal relationships that make up Twin Cities theater, importantly bridging the artificial divisions between production, artistic, administration and more. For precisely these reasons, his reflections on the industry are always worth checking out. -Wu Chen Khoo


I was asked to write an article due to my experience working in multiple levels of theatre (small, medium, large) and because I often work at the intersection of administration and production. So…I’m going to do that. I’m going to start by talking about myself.

My name is Chris Garza. I’m a director, carpenter, production manager, socialite, logistics coordinator, volunteer supervisor, tour manager, arts administrator, and pretty much anything else you want me to be. I left Macalester College with a degree in theatre and wanting to be a director. Early on I took tiny stipends with tiny companies and did a lot of festival work. I’m not a performer but I try to perform in something about every other year to remind myself what it is to trust an outside eye. But, landing directing gigs is hard and it’s tricky asking a company to take a risk on you with a full production without seeing your previous work on a full production. This led me to accept any job in the field that I could get and to hope that through doing good work in any job, I would build my credibility.

One of my first gigs in theatre was Assistant to the Artistic Director of Frank Theatre, from August 2012 to August 2014. Frank is small theatre run by 1.5 people and I was the .5 person for two years. The job had me do a little bit of everything for $10 an hour, averaging 10 hours a week most weeks, and up to 30 hours a week when in a production. Since this was a part-time job, I had to juggle it with other contract work. Sometimes I would carpenter at the Jungle and sometimes I’d stage manage. My broad range of work experience borne out of economic necessity coincidently made me an ideal production manager. I had a good enough understanding of all of the technical elements of theatre, administrative elements, and artistic elements, and I think more importantly, I came from a deep belief that all of these seemingly separate elements are inherently supporting each other.

I became the Production Manager for the Workhaus Collective for their last season shortly after accepting a job at Upstream Arts as their Administrative/Program Assistant. Upstream Arts is an organization that teaches social skills using the arts to kids and adults with disabilities. Workhaus was a company of playwrights that took turns producing each other’s work and shifted company responsibilities based on availability/need with the producing playwright acting as a temporary Artistic Director. I was brought on as Workhaus’ Production Manager in an effort to systematize their company and alleviate their workload. They decided to end the company while rehearsing their second show of a three-show season. As the season progressed, the demands of the job became greater, and I had my first and only panic attack a few days before striking the last show.

In hindsight, the panic attack seems so anomalous and explicable. I had organized numerous strikes beforehand and I have always enjoyed working under pressure (I’m writing this very article the same day as the overdue, absolute last deadline). I’m not advocating that the theatrical creative process is contingent upon a “last-minute under pressure Hail Mary” situation, but that circumstance is not uncommon. I even suspect that some people make theatre for the adrenaline thrill of pulling off the impossible at the very last moment. I’ve been a part of processes that thrived on this mindset, especially with smaller companies, and I’ve been a part of processes that actively fought against this mentality. My Workhaus experience coupled with a raise at Upstream led me to consider taking a break from theatre. Then, for reasons not-entirely known to me, the Guthrie asked me if I would be interested in assistant directing in their 16-17 Season.

I took the meeting because I figured that’s what one does when the Guthrie asks to meet with you. Initially, I thought they wanted me to work on Native Gardens which is a show written by a Latina playwright and was being directed by a white out-of-town director. I thought I was going to balance out the artistic team by not only being a Latino but also a local artist. This was not the case. When they asked me what shows in their season interested me, without hesitation I inquired about The Bluest Eye not only because Toni Morrison is a genius but as I researched the director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, and I thought her aesthetic was stunning. I had a phone meeting with Lileana and I ended up assistant directing The Bluest Eye. The experience of working on this show is in many ways a high point of my career thus far and not because of the prestige or budget size.  

More so than most projects, The Bluest Eye stands apart for me because the director carried out the extremely difficult task of both having a strong vision and genuinely collaborating with everyone in the room. When actors would investigate their characters or question the optics of the future soon to be majority white audience, she would listen and guide. She respected her design team and all of the artists building and making the show. The process in making the show was filled with kindness even though the subject matter was at times brutal. This is a lesson that can be applied to any size production team.

The biggest relief in working at the Guthrie was the lack of responsibility. In many rooms preceding this one I was responsible for all of things. If in a production meeting at a smaller company we decided we would need a fridge, I would often have to find the fridge, find a way to transport the fridge, find volunteers willing to help me move it to the theatre, ensure we had enough volunteers to remove it from the theatre, and then find a way to get rid of it after the show. At the Guthrie, I didn’t have to worry about any of it. My only job was to attend rehearsals and give my opinion if asked. It was both incredibly relaxing and also bit anxiety making as someone that used to do it all. This isn’t to say money and resources fix all problems. Theatre is still an artistic discipline focused on collaboration. Communication is often complex and more people just add to the potential of misunderstanding. There were moments when doing something yourself would have exponentially faster/easier. For example, finding the exact prop needed for the show. Instead of going to a thrift store yourself, the director gives a note in rehearsal, the stage manager puts it in a report, the props manager gets the note and assigns it to a props artisan. You repeat that process until it works out.

On this large of a scale, it is hard to find an intimate sense of comradery. On the very first day of rehearsal all of the departments are invited to a meet and greet with the production team. Joe Haj introduces the show and the director and then the director speaks about the project. Before the speeches are given, there is a casual mingle with everyone that shows up… except the interdepartmental mingling can be scarce. All of the carpenters chat together and all of the box office are together and all of the marketing folks are together, etc. I found myself knowing multiple folks spread throughout the departments due to my eclectic work history and I wasn’t sure where to situate myself. This sort of separation is of course expected; you’re going to chat with the people you know and the people you know are the ones you spend everyday with in the shop/office etc. I looked around the room and was very much aware of professional spaces cobbled together in the larger room.

Being both an artist and an arts administrator has amplified for me the importance of creating space. In both roles, I spend a lot time anticipating needs. As a director, so much of my artistic work is front-loaded, conceptualizing a production with designers and doing my own research. Then, during the rehearsal process, my attention is often split between creating a positive day-to-day space for the actors and imagining how the future audience will receive the play. As an arts administrator that does a lot of event planning, sometimes those anticipated needs are regarding access. Are there switches at the venue for patrons that use a wheelchair? Is anyone attending in need of ASL interpretation or large print programs etc. What can I do now to make tomorrow more manageable? I view all of my work history as a practice in empathy building.  Theatre is an opportunity for empathy building not only in when we share stories with our audiences that might offer a different narrative than they are accustomed to but also in the method of production. If during the process of making theatre, we are kind to each other as artists, I think that empathy building ripples into our communities.

Navigating a Career Around Age Bias


Angelina  running a followspot at the Scott Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011.

Angelina running a followspot at the Scott Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011.

I was out of the country when Angelina became known to the circles I move in. When I came back to town, I was told that I “had to meet her”. It would actually take quite a while for us to do more than pass in the hallway, and I’ve been kicking myself for the lost time. Thorough, methodical, observant, and smart, Angelina is a veritable font of knowledge and skill. When she told me she’d like to write something for the newsletter, I skipped all the usual discussion about what and how and simply asked, “when?”. Because I’ve learned this: if Angelina has something to say, then it’s worth listening to. -Wu Chen


One of the good things that happened in 2017 besides Fiona the Hippo (Look her up, she’s adorable) and Australian marriage equality is that a whole bunch of women spoke up and stood up about harassment. The conversations that have started about respect at the workplace have been wonderful. The following story has been on my mind for years, yet I haven’t been able to put it into words until now. It provides almost no answers, but I’m hoping its questions could carry the discussions into 2018.

I got very lucky (Is “lucky” the right word here? I’m not quite sure, lets get back to this sentiment later) early on in my career to work on some large shows at prominent venues in several cities. I plunged into theatrical design and backstage tech at the age of 15, taking on extra gigs whenever I could. By 21 I have worked with almost every major local company, lead union crews and designed at a few major theaters. At 25 I received an MFA in lighting design and technology. As my experience level increased over the years, I have found that one thing stayed constant and followed me from city to city – the undermining assumptions older colleagues make about me the moment I walk through the doors. Is that really such big of a deal? Is another guacamole-loving-millennial complaining about something? Let me give you some highlights so that we are all on the same page here.

How often do people ask you “How old are you?” and it has nothing to do with online dating or a getting a drink at the bar? For me it’s usually followed by a snide look and “I’ve done this for longer than you’ve been alive” regardless of what answer I do or do not give. Neat. Good for you. When I was in college I worked as a lighting assistant for a multi-million dollar company that ran huge shows in rep. One of my jobs was to create paperwork and lead the changeovers between three different shows, tracking focus and color swaps for over 700 light fixtures. Since it was a union house I had to follow this protocol of communications – to fly in an electric I had to get the Technical Director to ask the head flyman who would then ask the actual flyman to get the pipe in. My stumbling block right away was the TD. Lets call him Dan. Dan was well over 6 feet tall and “been doing this his whole life”. Working with Dan was hell on wheels as he had no desire to communicate or collaborate and he didn’t like to talk to little people like me (literally 5’4”). One day while I was attempting to ask him what his next load in steps were he looked down straight at me, grabbed me by both shoulders, shoved me aside out of his way and walked away. What do you even do after that? Did I offend him in some way? I was doing my job trying to figure out if I need to keep my crew on deck or send them up the box booms. That job taught me really quick that responsibility does not equal authority, and without authority nothing will get done and my reputation and career will be over. Too bad I wasn’t old enough to legally drown my sorrows at the bar.

Another time a good friend of mine and I were assistants to a man who insisted to refer to us as “children”. True, my friend and I were somewhere between 20 and 23, but what did we ever do that would make us seem childish? Was our work ethic bad? We would look forward to breaks so that we could re-group and plan ahead. We would skip lunch breaks and get more work done while it was quiet. Did we fail at our job? We spent hours double checking and perfecting paperwork. We met every deadline or finished tasks early. I taught myself how to call followspot cues because I was afraid to ask and look like a failure. There were a few mistakes here and there but the work notes got done and the show was on track to open. Somehow, nothing mattered as we heard across the stage loud and clear: “Children, come over here!” How does one confront their superior about this? Worse than the personal humiliation was that as the entire crew observed this happening our carefully built up trust and respect crumbling.

One day I got a job offer to be a lead electrician for a large show. It would be a good challenge for me, a great test of my skills and knowledge, and a fantastic line on my resume. I felt I was ready. The person offering the job was confident I could do it well. I wanted that job so badly but I was hesitant to accept because I knew the crew would never take me seriously. I accepted only when I learned that Steve would be the Master Electrician. Steve was a big guy who knew everyone, took crap from no one and I knew he’d have my back. I remember he came up next to me and gave the problematic stagehand a good glare and that magically fixed his attitude towards me. Thank you Steve! Bystander intervention, in my experience, is what works best.

I cut my hair short and dyed it several shades darker because I knew a particular electrician who liked to pretend he can’t see or hear me was on my next show. Blonde = stupid is still very much a thing. There isn’t much opportunity to build up respect during marathon days of dance concerts. I was just desperately trying to get the man to do his job. I’d change the gel on the booms myself if I was allowed to touch them! Was I asking too much? Was I asking too politely? Not politely enough? My mere presence was unwelcome and felt offensive. It seemed strangely wrong to be more worried about dealing with my crew than about the show looking great. Maybe I’m not really cut out for this job?

I hit the absolute rock bottom at 24. Some good soul warned me that one of the stagehands, lets name him Bob, likes to “make the interns cry”. Bob was extremely tall and he liked to talk down (literally and figuratively) to me and my co-intern. One day during focus call he grabbed me, flipped me over his shoulder, walked backstage and dumped me into a big trash can. What did I do wrong to deserve this disrespect? Does the crew think of me as trash? Would I be sitting on a pile of garbage if I was a 40 year old woman? How does one gracefully recover after such an incident observed and laughed at by everyone backstage? I climbed out, dusted myself off and continued to do my job like nothing happened. Cover girls don’t cry after the face is made, as they say. The people in charge already knew intern harassment was happening, so I didn’t bother to complain. My co-suffering intern got his share of abuse too, so I knew this wasn’t just a gender related issue. We were only called “interns” to justify the laughable stipend for a job of an assistant, but the title seemed to matter more to the crew than the responsibility load.

I have found myself at the crossroads of ageism and sexism time and time again, with not much help from others. From the first time when a crew chief shoved me into a wall for no apparent reason, I knew that to survive in this business I had to adapt. Dependability, experience, self-motivation, attention to detail, and can-do attitude were all great qualities to get hired. They don’t mean a thing when people make an assumption about you strictly based on how old you look. I felt like running a marathon, but first I had to jog a few miles just to find the starting line. I developed tricks to make it through the days. I used to wear a college sweatshirt with the name of my university big and bold on the front. “You go to college? What’s your major?” Many were shocked to hear that I am actually studying theater and intend to pursue it as a career. I would put on makeup even though I’d much rather sleep an extra 15 minutes. I used to wear a fake wedding ring, an instant respect boost and a deterrent of handsy stagehands. (It works!) I was learning how to not be a pushover by mimicking the speech patterns of crew chiefs – direct, precise, muted emotions. I was called bitchy, bossy, “slave driver” after repeating the same words I heard others say. They were called “leaders”. I decided that “being a bitch” was not ideal, but it got the job done when nice just wasn’t cutting it. I needed to be confident to command respect, but not too confident because people don’t like cocky young people, especially women. I learned that asking questions was a sign of weakness, something I could not afford, so I learned by observation, taking notes, doing my own research after work. I’d take chances to show that I had experience in some areas the older guys didn’t by taking apart and fixing moving lights or suggesting tricks for programming difficult cue sequences. Occasionally that backfired and I was forced to spend 30 minutes patching LEDs one by one even though the console can do the math and patch all 100 of them in one command line because “that’s how we always done it”. I spent so much of my energy and focus every day on my appearance, the way I walked, talked, observing and adapting to the mood changes of other people just to keep up the illusion of solid confidence and effortless perfection. It was completely exhausting.  The actual jobs of drafting, making purchases or keeping track of thousands of dollars of the budget were comparatively not hard. I would go home and think to myself, I’m getting paid roughly $1.20/h, why am I doing this? How many ambitious young people get pushed out of this business? Am I actually good at any of this, or am I so good at pretending I know what I’m doing that I convinced even myself that I do? I took the struggle as personal failure and character flaws, never really considering that the issue may be the workplace culture.

“Millenials” is such a vague term. It seems to cover anyone born between 1980 and today. It’s hard to find articles online not talking about millenials ruining something. “Millenials are killing the fabric softener business” claims the Business Insider. They are typically described as snotty, lazy, entitled, greedy and spoiled. I do see some young people being disillusioned with reality after being told their whole life that they are special and deserving of the best. I am also seeing strength and resilience when other millenials find life unfair. “How was working with so-and-so designer?” “Oh, you know, he’s young.” Young seems to be a synonym to bad. Actual issues one might have with a designer include: not being able to meet a deadline or not communicating well with the stage manager. There are 40-50 year old designers like that regardless of number of years of experience. When a young person makes a mistake they are penalized with assumptions about the rest of their knowledge and abilities. Alexander Bell invented the telephone at 18 years of age. Sabrina Pasterski built her own single engine plane at 13. To me age isn’t an issue, but things like ability to lead, communicate, work independently, organization, inventiveness and visualization just to name a few are. Those qualities also happen to be things one can actively try to improve on at any age. Workplace bias and sexism can have a negative effect on someone just starting out in the field. Normalizing bias makes one the “good team player” and at the same time destroys self-confidence. A previously ambitious person may be lowering their career goals after hitting the brick wall of bias too many times. I can’t even imagine what being a young person of color feels like.

It’s not all doom and gloom out there. For a number of years I did shows as an electrician and followspot operator for a company called Kids Who Care. The idea of the company is to not only let young people ranging from elementary school to college create theater on stage but to also learn to be leaders. The atmosphere was such that I never felt like a teenager among adults. I was a colleague in the truest form I’ve ever experienced. I could for once safely admit that I didn’t know how to do something, spending the rest of the day making sure I figured it out for next time of course. I remember feeling encouraged to pursue what I wanted to do. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received while assisting was being told that I never needed much explanation and I just did the work exactly the way someone wanted. Honestly, I never thought asking for explanation was an option. I met a woman named Peggy who is incredible and a great inspiration. I remember telling myself “See, its possible to be successful and still sane in this business”. Few designers who I worked with as assistant designer insisted that I carry their coffee cup wherever they go; most were embarrassed to ask me to refill their water bottle when they couldn’t get away from the tech table.

The industry is built to value seniority over skill and knowledge, assuming that knowledge comes with the years. Ageism is accepted as normal. We hear a lot about how prestigious it is to reach the A list after a decade of service. It is also not required to hold any trade certifications or keep up to date with new technology to get there. In my 10+ years I have seen lighting gear evolve from incandescent and arc sources to LED. The projection and video has taken off and the newest gear now is producing colors by splitting a laser beam with prisms. (It’s super cool!) It’s a reasonable generalization that young people are better with technology, but that is still a generalization. There are no age limits to take a class or a professional workshop in any entertainment area.

    The pushback young people may feel could be translating into the low numbers of them joining labor unions. I’ve worked with or around IATSE members of several Locals for 8 years before officially joining and not once did anyone encourage me to do it. I felt like I didn’t deserve to join. There’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon called impostor syndrome, or inability to acknowledge one’s accomplishments, with the constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. People are convinced that their success is only due to luck and good timing, rather than their own competence. Signs and symptoms include fear of failure, perfectionism, and dismissiveness of any praise. Another exciting cognitive bias is called a Dunning- Kruger effect. In essence it is the inability of low-ability people to recognize their own incompetence based on ignorance of accepted standards. To know that one is incompetent they need that exact expertise to recognize it, which they wouldn’t have. Feedback from colleagues seems to be the surest way to gauge one’s ability level. The conclusions aren’t very clear when your head carpenter creepily greets you with “Hey baby girl” every day.

There’s a federal law against age discrimination over 40. I don’t doubt that the law is necessary. I’ll happily report back when I get there. Right now I’m still at the “You aren’t even 30, you wouldn’t know” stage, eagerly waiting for a magical fairy to show up and give me adult super powers. Is trial by fire necessary to push young people to step up their game? Does bullying and intimidation teach resilience? People like Oprah Winfrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sonia Sotomayor emerged out of the flames as a beautiful phoenix ready to take on anything life throws at them. Others feel more like a scorched disheveled cockatoo with anxiety, emotional baggage, and irrational fear of tall people.




40th Anniversary.jpg

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.


Coming to Terms with the A-Word


Photo by Amy Anderson

Photo by Amy Anderson

Leading Twin Cities set designer, installation designer, fabricator, and globe-trotter, Kate Sutton-Johnson shares her reflections on her last year in light of the #MeToo movement, her experiences as a woman leading design teams of mostly men, and the subtle, systemic conditioning women (and men) face in society.  In this piece, I found myself recognizing the same secret fear of ‘the A-word,’ and the shame and uncertainty that comes with a secret hunger for base-line acceptance in a field where - consciously done or not - women feel pressured to prove their worth. Regardless as to whether you identify as a woman, man, or neither, Kate offers a compelling, personal perspective to the complicated interplay of identity, power, and leadership in the tech world. -Chava Curland


I began writing this essay back in March while on a work trip to Cambodia. I was in the midst of a busy spring of freelance work and felt like my career had turned an interesting corner. I had just finished work on SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION at the Ritz and wrapped filming on a MN Original that would feature SIX DEGREES and some of my other work. I was ending a six year stint as an exhibit designer at the Science Museum of MN. I was also working on a gorgeous production of DIAL M at the Indiana Repertory Theater with a kickass all-female design team, and I was designing the build-out for a commercial business in NE Minneapolis. There I sat, mid-flight on a thirty-plus-hour journey, en route to design a concept for a four-story restaurant in the heart of Siem Reap. Wow, I thought. This is pretty damn cool. I can’t wait to write a charming, feel-good story about all the unexpected twists and turns my career has allowed with only a bachelor’s degree in theater. I smiled a little mischievous smile and felt cozy and self-satisfied. 


So, here we are, and I never finished that essay. The summer flew by and then the fall. And as I circle back now to put the finishing touches on that little piece of literary whatever-that-was, I am not inspired to talk about that stuff anymore. Instead I’d like to talk about the conversation at hand. You know, the one you’re surely having if you know at least one female-identifying human. I’m talking about male dominance. About #metoo. About this week’s slew of outed celebrities and politicians. About rape culture and workplace gender disparities that seem to be forever stuck in a time warp. About women and silence. About men and silence. It’s the work at hand in this country, and thereby it’s the urgent work of our industry as well. I am not an op-ed writer and I can’t imagine that I have anything to say about this topic in any broad sense that hasn’t already been more powerfully articulated by some accredited New York Times writer or, you know, an actual psychologist or sociologist. Their gifts are to sort out for the rest of us what the hell is fundamentally going on. I won’t be doing that. I simply want to talk about what it’s like to be a mid-career female designer in an incredibly male-dominated industry. Because you know what? I’m fucking qualified to share my thoughts on this.

Do you sense some anger right out of the gate? That’s fantastic, because that’s one of the main things I’d like to talk about. If you have detected some rage-like feelings from women  lately, I would guess that this anger is not about the November news. It’s not even about the news of all of 2017 although, of course, raise your hand if you’re female and you haven’t fantasized about a padded room in the last six months. Anyway, I would guess that this anger you’ve sensed from the women in your life is not new, but in fact about the same age as whichever woman you are speaking with. In my case thirty-seven years old. Now, of course, I haven’t been mad for thirty-seven years. No way! I’ve been enjoying a fun, meaningful, joyful existence filled with a whole bunch of amazing people and experiences. But, I’ve also had a secret. And this secret lodged itself in the tender nucleus of my girl-identity at a very young age. It has been there so long I can’t remember a time that I was without it. And that secret is shame. From my lovely parents, from teachers, from other kids, from television shows, cartoons, movies, magazines, from strangers, religious figures, Santa Claus at the mall—from almost everyone that touched my life, I learned to feel shame around a bunch of stuff having to do with my feminine identity. 

An adult might remark with surprise (the tone in their voices signaling veiled criticism) when I would show an interest in something stereotypically male like “tomboy” behaviors, certain school subjects, physical play/sports, leadership roles in groups. I might hear another girl being discussed as troublesome: she’s too young for pierced ears, or lip gloss, or that type of dress. A relative might react with alarm to my unladylike behavior and I would see how this was designed not only to shame me, but to shame my mother. And this echo chamber became a chorus of voices everywhere, in tiny bits, tucked into everything. Policing women through shame. 

Did you see what she was wearing?     
Cross your legs and sit like a pretty girl.
Is she trying to look like a tramp? 

You get the idea. In short, there is just a tremendous pressure on girls from a very early age, through every stage of their development into adulthood, about how they look. So many people comment first on your physical appearance that you learn how much this is valued over other aspects of self if you’re female. A major source of my personal story of shame is about secrecy and the things “we don’t talk about” in our culture. This is an even more insidious part of policing women and embedding feelings shame. This unspoken cultural pressure is primarily about sexuality. American culture is positively riddled with anxieties about sex and it is a stew of contradictions and deeply unhealthy, confusing messages for women. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia and the policy of sex education there was, at the time, abstinence only. I still have my little booklet from my sixth grade sex ed class which has a purple and pink cover. It’s called Changing and it’s all about getting your period. When I think back about what I really took away from sex education, it wasn’t learning about my period. It wasn’t a bunch of healthy messages about my changing body. This is what I heard: Girls, puberty is an extremely dangerous time in your life as you take on the characteristics of a woman’s body. Boys will be aroused by your titillating new curves and they won’t be able to control themselves. This is understandable because they are hitting puberty too, but it’s up to girls to be on defense against the boys. Girls, be on the lookout at all times for horny boys trying to touch your tempting bodies. Police them. You are now the police.

Just like other things I’d been policed on as off-limits for girls, I learned then that sex wasn’t for me. I learned that it was for men. I learned that women are responsible for managing not only their behaviors but the behaviors of men and boys. This is rape culture at its foundation. 
So, yeah, shame. That’s where it started for me in a nutshell. The thing about shame is that it doesn’t really modify the behaviors it’s trying to quell. It simply causes the person being shamed deep psychological distress, leaving them to feel immense amounts of guilt about their buried desires and instincts. I had no idea that I’d been carrying this kind of shame around with me until I hit my thirties, and looking back on what this past decade has been like for me, I really can’t believe what it’s meant to wrestle with this new information. As Gloria Steinem has said many times: the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. Um, yeah…
About five or six years ago I was having a phone conversation with a close friend of mine. This friend is a white, gay male who is, and was at the time, a successful costume designer. He was based in New York, and he was going through a painful experience, thinking of leaving the industry entirely and moving out of the city. He had graduated from a top program some years earlier, clearly a rising star, and he had aspirations to break into the elite echelon of Broadway costume designers. Of course this is what so many designers dream of, but it wasn’t like this was that far-fetched for where he was in his career. He had risen quickly through the ranks; he was getting major regional gigs, designing high-profile world-premiere operas, working in film, and on and on. But he felt like he couldn’t bust through a certain ceiling and attain the kind of success he wanted. I listened closely and kept thinking, yes, of course. God, I know, I know. It’s so hard. You can never break through. He said he felt ashamed that he and his boyfriend were living like paupers, barely able to afford rent. He felt like he had been hiding their financial situation from their friends and family because he needed to portray an outward appearance of success. He described how he had finally had the courage to talk with some of his friends about his feelings of shame around this. I told him I understood how difficult this must have been. And then I asked, “Did you also talk with your friends about the other shame you must be feeling? The shame you feel about being so ambitious?” And he paused, confused, and said, “What? What do you mean? Why would I feel ashamed about being ambitious?” 

Long, silent beat. 

So, that was, shall we say, eye opening. I realized then that this shame stuff was not just a little compartmentalized corner of my identity, but a tangled mess woven into my whole life, even my career. I felt so much shame about being ambitious that I had never been able to even say the A-word. I’m ambitious. Even the thought of it now threatens to make my skin warm in an uncomfortable blush. It’s a descriptor that clangs a big ole negative gong somewhere deep inside me, and I find myself frantically looking around, worried that other people may have heard it. Did they catch a glimpse of my ambition? I might as well grab a megaphone and announce, Hello, everyone! (thump, thump) Is this thing on? Great! Just wanted to announce that I’m incredibly greedy and will stop at nothing to gain status! Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I learned somewhere that ambitious girls are bad girls. 

So, let’s fast forward. This good girl grew up, graduated college and moved to Minneapolis. For fifteen years now I’ve spent my time working with directors, other designers, and shops. I have been the only female on many of these teams, although sometimes there has been another woman or two, often a costume designer or a stage manager. With the fabrication shops, particularly, it’s always been an overwhelmingly male world. It’s construction after all, and there certainly exists a full-on boys club in many of these shops and on house crews in theaters throughout the country. In the role of young-ish female designer, I’ve not only been wildly outnumbered, I’ve also been in a leadership position. My work has required that I provide direction and building specifications to large groups of men and then that I check in often, monitoring the outcomes and critiquing their work along the way. Yeah, really, it’s been as fun as it sounds. They love it too.

And the fun doesn’t stop there, because I am outnumbered by men on artistic teams too. My fellow designers are sometimes the most challenging. Maybe it’s a lighting designer on a project. Or a sound designer. I brace myself for another man making sure I understand how infuriating it is to them when I get too close to their turf. Those moments are particularly humiliating, being chastised by an angry man in front of your collaborators. I’ve shed many tears over those excruciating experiences, and for years I placed the blame squarely on my own shoulders for these encounters. And, I was partly to blame, of course. However, it is always a man exploding, while I stand there shaking, trying to act calm. And the exploding man is always a hetero male. Always.

Recently I have found myself on some all-female design teams, even working with some female carpenters and welders here and there, and the contrast with these experiences to what I’ve come to think of as “normal” is startling. For example, women don’t interrupt me incessantly mid-sentence. They don’t act aggressive and threatened. They don’t pick fights with me. They don’t criticize me in front of large groups of my peers in a humiliating fashion. They don’t blatantly exert power over me by speaking condescendingly. They don’t explain things to me that I already know, or if they do, they do so by first asking me if I know about the subject. From women, I never sense that they are holding back an avalanche of impatience and disgust. They aren’t tolerating me. Women aren’t looking for me to make mistakes so that they can point them out. Women are not gruff or short with me; rather, they often show an interest in my design work and ask about my experience on the project. They often identify something unique about my job that differs from their role and they remark on how they find that interesting. Women are professional. They don’t make odd, uncomfortable jokes. Women don’t say inappropriate sexual things to me or about other people we are working with. Women are highly productive almost all of the time. Women are incredibly resourceful and unafraid to ask for information when they don’t know something.

In short, women in our industry usually come with a heaping helping of emotional intelligence, an incredible work ethic, and a lovely sense of curiosity that is wildly refreshing when you’ve been dealing with only men for so long.

I realize that there’s a lot I’m putting out here that’s broadly negative about men, depicted in contrast to a rosy, glowing view of women. There are nuances to all of this of course. There certainly isn’t always friction with men. I have found lots of these partnerships to be really healthy and genuinely fun. It’s extremely important to point out that developed, confident men who respect women in leadership positions are out there. But I don’t think we can overestimate the baked-in misogyny that leads to very biased behaviors in our industry. When it comes to unpleasant encounters with men, what have all of these micro or macro misogyny-aggressions triggered in me? Well, for years, it certainly wasn’t anger. For years, it was simply humiliation and guilt. And there are other ways that my feelings of feminine shame have intersected with my career. It’s pervaded everything, actually. I used to feel shame when I negotiated for more money. I used to be secretive about how much I was working. I knew that I didn’t have the work/life balance I was supposed to, but I wasn’t often focused on chores, grocery shopping, and making meals. I was intensely focused on my work. But it was hard to shake the feeling that I was failing as a woman in my disinterest with domestic affairs. While I actively sought success in my career, I also felt ashamed of it and for my insatiable desire for more. And until very recently, I never would have made any of this stuff about gender, because I was afraid that framing interactions in the workplace in this way would anger men.

This is my personal experience, but for all of us in this industry, where do we sit with this right now? We wonder about all of the news lately. How can so many men have done these things? Where are the good guys? And I would say that men are misogynistic and committing violence against women because they learned these behaviors. It’s the same soup of crap that bestowed on me the skills for behaving like a “good girl.” Our culture taught them that they are entitled to women’s bodies and so they are taking what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Maybe they themselves aren’t physically grabbing women’s bodies as they walk by in bars. Perhaps they’re the guys on the sidelines chuckling good-humoredly about the escapades of their male friends. My point is that these men are “normal men.” It’s men that we all know. I would posit that it’s men who are deeply insecure with extremely limited emotional skills. And I really hate to be negative, but that is an absolutely staggering number of men. Just as women are being taught a bunch of negative bullshit they don’t need, men are not being taught emotional skills beyond a very narrow sliver of the full spectrum. Our culture is equally failing men and women. I really believe that.

 These cultural issues facing all genders are, of course, manifesting themselves inside our industry. The tentacles of rape culture are vast and, even if there isn’t actual violence, there is certainly male dominance and aggression in many work settings. These abuses of power relating to sex that we see on the news are connected to far more subtle workplace power dynamics. The stuff is woven into the patterns of so many other, more benign interactions. It’s sometimes hard to see, because it doesn’t look like sexual attraction. It actually looks like repulsion. But it’s two sides of the same thing. It’s misogyny. When it comes to the fabrication end of our business, I have been treated as an intruder in my work world since the day I stepped into the room. If you think I might be harboring some anger about this after fifteen years, you would be right. However, I have really learned to listen to rageful Kate because she knows some shit.

 Interestingly, I started working with a new shop recently. Another thirty or so men to win over. (Excuse me real quick while I crack my knuckles and count to ten.) But, you know, this time it’s been a piece of cake. I mean it, really. Easy peasy. I felt like I resolved all the issues in the first design presentation. They talked over me. I internally rolled my eyes. They mansplained. I waited patiently. We did the whole ritual. But in the end, they acquiesced to my I’ve-been-dealing-with-this-BS-for-long-enough precision tactics. The fact is, I’m damn good at my job and I’m no longer waiting for a jury of men to come to some other conclusion. And this time, it doesn’t feel like these guys are just tolerating me. I think they actually respect me, perhaps even look up to me. 

So, have I simply done this so long that I’ve mastered being “male enough” to earn the respect of men? No, I don’t think that’s it, although over the years I’ve learned so much about construction, management, finances, leadership etc. that I think men can’t help but notice my expertise at this point. There’s more to it than that, though. Working with lots of women lately really has had a huge impact on me. It has revealed a work dynamic that I didn’t even know I was missing. I think the greatest takeaway from these experiences is probably the simple knowledge that there is a better way than the all-male way. There’s a way that centers women in the process that’s better. Period. I used to come to a project with a posture of, oh boy, here we go. What is this group all about? What’s the male culture and how can I be accepted? I saw myself as the outsider and I anxiously tested the waters to find out how to be palatable to the group. I thought that was what good leaders do: they read their group and then lead accordingly. That’s not really what I do anymore. I lead differently. I come into the room and in how I talk about the project, the subtext is this: Hello colleagues. I’ve come into this room today with an offering of community. It is a gift easily given and easily accepted. I will show you by example what this community is like because it’s mine. I am not an outsider, but rather, I’m resting comfortably with no effort in a position of strength. In this community, we listen to one another, we aren’t defensive, we make amazing things together as a team, we celebrate each other’s different skills, and we have lots of fun even when there are challenges. It appears that men sense my change in attitude. Maybe I just seem less needy. Or maybe it’s more like a form of reverse psychology. Of playing hard to get. I suppose I don’t know precisely what’s happening on their end because I’m not a man. I just know I’m more authentic than ever and the results are positive. 

So, is that a wrap? Have I beaten all of my shame demons? Good god, no. I am only at the beginning of this journey, I think. But I have figured out ways to bring my real feminine humanity and its power into my work-world with men, and I am very proud of this. 
Feeling like an insider rather than an outsider is allowing me to focus on new things. Having that bit of brain space back is glorious. I’ve spent so much energy on this stuff for so many years that I’m grateful to have the experience under my belt that allows me to finally command—if not admiration—at least some across-the-board courtesy from my male peers. I’m looking forward to channeling some of that extra energy I’ve spent trying to earn respect into simply doing my job well. I can also use the headspace for whatever is on the horizon in 2018. Unfortunately I think I’ll still be resorting to my knuckle-cracking-and-counting-to-ten ritual here and there. I do feel optimistic, however. Some men are really working to understand what women like me are talking about. Meanwhile, women are amplifying each other’s voices like never before. And I think--I hope--that men will begin to do more of this too. 

So as we move to amplify women, let me just say... 

Ahem. Hey, guys. (thump, thump) Is this thing on? Awesome. My name is Kate, and I’m unapologetically ambitious. I’m a dream-chasing, wild thing. 


To learn more about Kate Sutton-Johnson, visit her website by clicking here.

The Influence of Design



Esteemed playwright Carlyle Brown muses this month on how design elements in production have shaped and influenced his thought process in writing a play.  The idea that the words on the page can take on a sometimes surprising life through the efforts of the design team is just another example of what makes theater a magical and unique artform and one which we should all value.  A true collaboration. - Mike Wangen


In the very early beginnings of my career as a playwright, I had the good fortune of working with three extraordinary theater designers; set designer Doug Stein, lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, and costume designer Paul Tazwell. The theater was Arena Stage and the production was my now much produced The African Company Presents Richard III, the story of a group of free Africans putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in New York City in 1821. The play was yet unfinished and needed fixing in places that I was yet to discern. What I learned from these three talented gentlemen was that in the experience of a piece of theater what we “see” is as important as the text in the telling of a theatrical story. 

There is a scene in the play where the character Sarah has fashioned an old, worn “pigeon-tail coat” with colorful patches for Papa Shakespeare to make amends for her former ill-treatment of him and to celebrate the opening of their production in the ballroom of a hotel, next-door to the powerful white theater that previously had them shut down. Excited and joyful for the gift of reconciliation and the redemption of their production, Papa Shakespeare exclaims to her, “Oh Sarah, it be just like the Bible say you reap what you sow”. Instead of hearing “sow,” because of Paul Tazwell’s colorful patchwork costume, the audience heard “sew.” Suddenly, unintended and unforeseen laughter and a surprising pun was born out of text. We kept it, of course, because the colorful costume had transformed a piece of exposition into a theatrical moment.

Likewise, in another scene a character is reminiscing/reliving a hurtful moment in the past in a monologue when another character enters with unpleasant news of the present. The transaction of moving from the character’s internal moment to an external one eluded me. But Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes resolved the problem with a light cue, a shift and bump of light that simply said, now you’re in your head and now you’re not. Place also became an issue in that production. Of all the locations where scenes and action take place - a rehearsal loft, a hotel ballroom, two theaters, a street - which should be central? In the end, we settled upon the rehearsal loft because that was the place where the most interesting scenes took place and its design in relationship to all the other locations was the most serviceable to staging and direction. But, in a subsequent production to be toured with the Acting Company, Doug Stein designed the play around an idea rather than a location; a simple, raked platform from stage left to stage right framed by the wooden ribs of a slave ship symbolizing the journey of these new African-Americans in a cultural affirmation through Shakespeare to a new world. In its surreal way, it was a design that was more real than realism, speaking fundamentally to the ideals of the play.

Since that production, I have come to respect and appreciate designers as story tellers in their own right, painting around the edges of words to collectively create a theatrical world. The associated artists of Carlyle Brown & Company are mostly designers; lighting designer Mike Wangen, sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, set designer Joe Stanley, costume designer Clare Branch, and properties designer and instillation artist Kellie Larson. They support me, challenge me, and keep me honest. Their analysis is as good as the best of dramaturgs. Under their influence, my stage directions have become sparse to nonexistent. Their aural and visual imaginings are far more insightful. In some strange, ethereal and indescribable way, they are with me when I sit down to write. Not looking over my shoulder, but opening doors to imaginative possibilities. They are more than colleagues or even friends; they are this playwright’s family.


For more on Carlyle Brown & Company, click here.



Professional lighting designer, current graduate student, Tech Tools Newsletter regular, and all-round smart and great person, Tony Stoeri is back! Hopefully, by now the electrician, designer and Fringe regular who splits his time between here and Bloomington, Indiana, should need no introduction. If he does, click here!
Tony continues his column as he muses on the tensions, politics and realities of our industry as reflected in his experiences in the professional and academic sectors of that industry. Always insightful and challenging, we’re so glad Tony is back with us again this year! 
-Wu Chen


When I was a kid, I loved Where's Waldo. I was entranced by the vast, labyrinthine splendor that comprised each page- hundreds of tiny stories overlapping and intersecting, each one frozen in time at a crucial moment. I loved extrapolating outwards from these crystallized points of time, imagining the adjacent moments that the drawings conjured so vividly. And above all, I think I loved the contrast between the sweeping vista of a Where's Waldo spread, and the cramped intimacy of those tiny visual stories. I loved that I could unfocus my eyes, take in the visual cacophony that soared across two large pages, and then dive-in, leaving behind the overwhelming tangle of tiny people to find myself caught up in the story of that one guy who just poked that other guy in the butt with a spear. In that moment, for those two guys, life was simple. Neither of them seemed to care at all that they were about to be run over by that rogue chariot, or that in the background there were clearly at least TWO different volcanoes in the midst of catastrophic eruptions. They experienced only what was occurring right in front of them, living totally in the moment, their tiny faces showing only untempered joy and overwhelming, immediate discomfort. As a seven-year old child, carrying all the pressures of second grade on my stooped back, I envied them.

But what I hated about Where's Waldo is that some people seemed to think it was a game. I would be standing at a table in the middle of the Scholastic book fair, enraptured by my own personal viewing of what I believed to be art on the level of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when some snot-nosed punk classmate would come up behind me and say something to the effect of: “I have this book at home, it's easy, he's right there.” They would stab their chubby, grimy finger at the page, and then scamper off to go buy an I Spy, or do whatever it is that second-grade philistines do. “I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT STUPID TOURIST IN HIS DORKY SHIRT” I wanted to yell after them, but they would already be gone, and with them my own blissful myopia. Turning back to the book before me, I would experience a sense of vertigo, suddenly realizing that what I had just seen moments earlier as a rich tapestry of stories was, in fact, a simple, chore-like puzzle, centered on finding a very confused man with a pathological fondness for stripes.

Coming up on the halfway point of my final year of grad school and reflecting back on my experiences thus far, I found myself thinking a lot about those two guys with spears from that half-remembered Where's Waldo book. During my first two years at this place, I found myself operating under a set of rules and assumptions that appeared, from the outside looking in, inscrutable and illogical. You spend so much of your time in school, at school, working on school related projects, hanging out with friends you know from school, that any minor shift in the environment has a major ripple effect. That passive-aggressive email exchange about whether the money for the practicals the scenic designer specced is coming from props or electrics isn't a thing you can leave at work. It's not something you can get any meaningful separation from because everything in your day-to-day experience connects back to that place. The result is a feedback loop; no one can step back and gain separation and perspective, so everyone becomes more and more stressed and anxious about whatever is the crisis du jour. Events that are relatively minor and insignificant loom large and prominent, while other concerns recede into the background, regardless of how important they might be. We all become that guy from the Where's Waldo page, so utterly and totally intent on poking the other guy in front of us with our spear that we are completely oblivious to the onrushing chariot or the multiple erupting volcanoes.

But then, in your third year, the rug is yanked out from under you, the camera does a big old dolly zoom, and suddenly your professor calls you into his office and asks what you're doing after you graduate. And just as in that moment where that jerk points out where Waldo is without even being asked, everything shifts. The immediate concerns of your day-to-day stresses fall off, and those big, vague thoughts that have spent the past two years looming in the back of your mind come rushing to the fore with an urgency that takes your breath away. What comes after?

And you're not sure. Which is logical. I mean, changes this big always come with uncertainties and anxieties. But you're caught in the feedback loop, and there's no room for something to be an unknown. So you listen to your professor talk about your social media presence as a designer, and you listen to him talk about your portfolio, and you soak it all in. Deep down you're pretty sure that the fetishistic way that professors here treat portfolios is just an attempt to make up for the lack of practical career development material. No one is gonna tell you how to negotiate a contract, but they will be able to tell you that the gray background for this page is perhaps a bit too charcoal, and in the absence of any more meaningful input, it becomes easy to settle for the illusion of an answer in place of a real one. And so as you listen to a one-sided discussion about how maybe you should change where on your resume you list your references, you suddenly realize that this place has taught you to look at your career as a problem to be solved. Something with a definitive answer, and - by extension - a definitive right and wrong path.

A few weeks ago, some friends from the Twin Cities were visiting Dayton, Ohio. It's about a three hour drive from Bloomington, so I drove up to meet them. Dayton feels empty as a city; a downtown filled with old industrial buildings that stand derelict and boarded up, surrounded by a tangled fringe of old houses from the sixties and seventies. Beautiful, but not particularly well kept. There not being much in the way of sights to see in Dayton, we spent the day hanging out just like we would if we were back home. We got pizza, watched T.V., talked shop. It was one of the precious islands of normalcy that comes along every so often to interrupt the sustained insanity of grad school.

I left to drive home at about nine pm. Driving back, with little to distract me, my mind turned to worrying. Just a day or two before, Intermedia had announced it was laying off its staff, and my friends had expressed anxieties over the state of the Twin Cities theater scene. This brought to mind my own anxieties about leaving grad school, about all the things that could go wrong or poorly, all the things I needed to solve. But somehow, in that small car on a darkening highway, basking in the aftermath of a day spent with friends, I was able to shrug off that voice in my head. I felt in that moment thankful that I was able to follow this career path, that I had a chance of getting to do what I wanted. And I found myself looking forward to the ride. I'm trying to hold on to that feeling.

Half a year left.