Designing a life in the theater, by accident

Production | Vision

I didn’t set out to make it a 33-year thing. New to the Minneapolis theater scene, I’d gone to the Guthrie looking for internship opportunities. They sent me over to this project they were starting on the West Bank: the Guthrie 2.

It was a crisp and colorful fall day in October 1975. Leaving the blue sky behind, I entered into the realm we know and love so well – the dim, quiet, and eerily thrilling zone of a theater in transition.

And boy, was this theater in transition. Originally built as The Southern in 1910, the building had been through a whole bunch in the years since. I didn’t see anyone else right away so I explored alone awhile, fascinated. The chaotic construction zone held the palpable promise of the theater to come, but what really grabbed me were the patchwork glimpses into the building’s colorful past.

The original proscenium arch in all its crumbling splendor still stood, a portal to the past and the future and the world of theatrical imagination. On the walls, the faded paint chipped off to reveal layers of history. Scattered elsewhere in the building—the bar, the still-regal vestiges of wallpaper, the kitchen table and grease-stained walls formed a silent diorama from the era when the building was the Gaslight Restaurant.

After awhile I met up with the rest of the work crew. I met Mark Heffelfinger, the theater’s Tech Director, the man in charge of us interns who, I soon discovered, were doing the bulk of the remodeling. He put me to work pounding nails out of the salvaged maple floorboards before they were installed in the main room, and I dove in with all I had in me. I’d been in the building maybe 20 minutes, and I was absolutely hooked. But I still hadn’t thought about making it a 33-year thing…

We nailed down the floor. We built new walls and painted old ones (but left the Gaslight wallpaper). The work proceeded. We put in the light grid, hung mirrors in the dressing rooms, put up scaffolding for seats. We began to sense the approach of a time we’d stop being a construction zone and become a performing space. The smell of an approaching opening night began to waft through the air.

One day, as I stood onstage, Mark asked what I thought I might like to do once the theater got up and running. I pointed at the light booth and said “I’d like to spend more time up there.”

Do lights I did

January ’76, the Guthrie 2 season opened with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, set and lighting design by Richard Hoover. When he asked me to assist him, I said sure. Richard was also slated to design set and lights for the next Guthrie 2 show, The Future Pit by Menzies McKillop. Richard was either getting a bit overwhelmed or just wanted to give me a break, because he asked me to do the lights myself. I said sure to that too.

At this time in my life, I’d only worked a couple years in the biz, mostly as a stage manager, and I had no formal theater training. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I just knew I was in love with this building and madly interested in being as involved as I could be with anything and everything going on there. Plus, I had this thing about wanting to do lights.

So, do lights I did. The Guthrie 2 had this deal called the “10:30 Series.” Eugene Lion, the G2 Artistic Director, felt strongly about opening the space up to independent, up-and-coming local artists in all performance disciplines. Poets, mimes, dancers, theater people; it was a very welcoming atmosphere, and I was named the 10:30 Series’ Tech Production Coordinator.

One of the first shows I handled was a thing called “’Jeux de Masques’ and ‘Paf!’” two short works by a couple of mime artists by the name of Dominique Serrand Dominique Serrand and Barbra Berlovitz. In they came, handed me this piece of fabric they wanted hung on the wall. I stuck it on an old nail. They loved it. Climbed up on the grid, messed around with a fresnel, and made an interesting slash on the fabric. Now let’s write some cues. I went to the booth, Dominique called for this or that, and I wrote it all down—on paper because it was two-scene preset board. Put on the sound track—goodness me, it’s the Mozart bassoon duet I played in high school. Minutes before the show opened, Dominique discovered me madly practicing running the cues on that two-scene board. He chuckled.

A few weeks later “The Illusion Mime Theater” came in. (Mime was big in the late ‘70’s.) That’s how I first met Michael Robins and Bonnie Morris—who soon dropped the word “mime” from their company’s name. Then, along came “Trio Flamenco” with Suzanne Hauser (now Susana di Palma) with her husband Michael and his brother Tony, sons of Nancy Hauser whose dance company still bears her name. In fact, “Nancy Hauser Dance” had their digs just down the street, so it wasn’t long before that company showed up on the Guthrie 2 stage too.

One day a guy rode up on a motorcycle, named Ken DeLap. He’s got this group called the “Ozone Dance Company.” Wants to do a concert of dances set to songs by Hank Williams. Sounds good to me. Because the seating was set up in a thrust configuration at the time, sidelights weren’t much of an option. Let’s try footlights, I thought, and their success on that show led to an ongoing craving for footlights whenever I could get them.

Ken later sold the company to Linda Andrews; now Zenon Dance, it’s still going strong.

And I can’t forget the infamous Palace Theater—the fearless, exuberant, totally off-the-wall, often-electrifying, sometimes-stultifying Palace Theater. Sort of a collective, largely held together by Jim Stowell who still makes theater work after nearly 40 years. The Palace was known for their highly physical theater. They’d run around the space at top speed, jumping hurdles over the mass of furniture detritus their plays sometimes incorporated, maybe saying dialogue, maybe singing, or screaming at the top of their lungs. They might hang upside down off the light grid, or jump off the grid, or maybe just hang out up in the grid for an entire play.

As their lighting designer, I once went to a Palace Theater rehearsal for a play about coyotes. The rehearsal was in the woods in the middle of the night.

The Palace Theater was wild and crazy, and it’s been gone for quite awhile, but many of its members still work in Minnesota: Todd Knaeble runs special events for Macy’s, Scott Vreeland is on the Park Board, Doug Grina is one of the owner/operators of Al’s Breakfast, Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke are down in Red Wing.

So this was me, 30+ years ago, meeting and working with all kinds of amazing artists. Running around the grid for hours, discovering that I am in fact a lighting designer. And loving all of it.

Whether I realized it at the time or not, my destiny for three decades had made itself known.

Servant-Leader

There’s this concept called Servant Leadership. The idea goes back to ancient times, but in 1970 a guy named Robert Greenleaf wrote:

    The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.

I’d been Artistic Director of the Southern Theater for many years before I first read this, but when I did, it struck a chord. That was the idea that had turned it into a 33-year thing.

My role as the leader of an organization evolved organically as I doggedly pursued my vision of what seemed important. I’d always been much more interested in being of service to something really valuable—the independent performing arts community of the Twin Cities—than in building an organization per se.

The Guthrie 2 closed its doors in 1979, but that didn’t close the doors on my internal vision. Forces rallied—the Palace and other performing groups, including Dudley Riggs who had one of his theaters right next door, neighborhood organizations, the Minneapolis Arts Commission and so many others—to enable the building to re-open as “The Southern.” (I wanted to christen the building with its original name as a way to honor the identity of the building itself.) And, I got the job of Theater Manager because I didn’t feel my work there was finished.

I didn’t set out to make it a 33-year-thing, but that’s how it happened. I didn’t have aspirations to run an organization as a goal unto itself. I simply had a vision and I wasn’t going to quit until it came to fruition. So many people helped, too many to list here, to make that vision become reality. In the process of enlisting their aid, lo and behold, an organization got built. It felt only natural for me to step up to the task of leading that organization in service of a mission and vision, within those walls that had so enraptured me when I first laid eyes on them.

My time with the Southern is done; it’s under new leadership now. I’m still designing lights for the same community of artists I’ve had the pleasure to serve for most of my working life. I’m looking for opportunities to facilitate the growth of this arts community in new and different ways—that passion just won’t fade. I have utmost certainty that whatever the next steps on my personal journey, this arts community will continue to grow and thrive, and that’s a really good feeling.

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