Next Stop, Obscurity

The master of hats. The scrivener of sheet music. The literary litigator. Seven people whose contributions to the arts win them utter invisibility.

CALL IT PATHOLOGICAL NARCISSISM or call it human nature: Nearly every artist desires a chance to bask in the spotlight of public adoration. It is a well-documented fact that writers, actors, dancers, musicians, painters, and the like will go to great and often demeaning lengths to win such attention. And their tales of going from meatpacking in Iowa to cross-dressing on Broadway serve to titillate and caution us at once.

But what do we know about the motivation of the person who aspires to operate the spotlight, the individual who gets high on the sound of applause from behind a closed curtain? Or, for that matter, the person who designs the spotlight's bulb for optimal luminescence? For every creative type whose greatest fear is to toil in obscurity, someone else makes an art out of remaining utterly unknown.

Like the man who copies classical scores onto sheet music so that Yo-Yo Ma can solo with intrepidity. Or the woman who has seen every actor in the Twin Cities naked, while stuffing them into costumes at a pace that would befit a NASCAR pit crew. Or the man whose law practice involves making sure that a writer's flights of fancy don't land her in court.

In this second annual Fall Arts issue, City Pages offers portraits of seven skilled professionals whose contributions to the arts are not only generally unrecognized, but truly esoteric. Hold the applause.

 

Molly Fox, dresser

Somewhere in the cramped passages and cluttered galleries beneath the Guthrie Lab, there is a hat--an immense black tricorn worn by one of the villains in the Lab's bloody production of Sweeney Todd. Two hours before curtain, the hat has gone missing. And Molly Fox, whose job it is to ensure that every hat gets to the right head at the right time, is in a controlled panic. The actors have not yet arrived, but the dressers, called the "pit crew" in the parlance of the theater, are bustling through the labyrinthine tunnels to gather every Victorian corset, blood-stained doublet, and false mustache and get them to their proper spot backstage.

And where is the hat? Fox, a small woman with close-cropped black hair and an elfin smile, has had hats disappear before. She suspects backstage tour groups of conspiring to spirit them off. In her two years as a Guthrie dresser, she's also seen moustaches wilt onstage, dresses pop open, and wigs hurled in her direction by frenzied thespians. "Things that look funny onstage make me cry," she says as she hangs a ruffled dress in one of the "quick-change" areas where actors come between scenes for costume changes, brief grooming sessions, and occasional hissy fits.

"There's a whole life backstage. It's kind of a cool world. We like to try on the costumes and act out scenes and sing." She and her fellow dressers also like to "ride the chair"--an elaborate mechanical trap door and slide that drops Sweeney Todd's barbershop victims from the upper level of the set into the basement.

Fox considers dressing actors a job rather than a calling, but she also regards it as an attractive alternative to what she calls "the corporate life." She began at the Guthrie ten years ago as an usher and has risen through the ranks to a position of considerable responsibility, especially with regard to hats and placement thereof. One of the hardest parts of her job, she explains, is convincing actors to stop moving so that they can be properly defrocked and refrocked during quick scene changes. And where is that damn hat?

With a flourish, Fox produces the missing headgear from a pile of grimy clothing. "Here it is," she says. She tips the heavy hat on her head and rushes down another tunnel to get it placed before curtain. "The actors have to learn to trust that we're going to get them onstage on time," Fox says, her voice echoing down the dark hall. "I tell them, 'You're going to look neat and your hat's going to be on straight.'" (Peter Ritter)

 

Mark Sage, photo retoucher

Mark Sage dampens a dainty square of sponge, leans over his drafting table with an even daintier brush, and begins applying impossibly dainty dabs of ink to a large black-and-white photograph of what appears to be an aerial landscape. The imperfections in the photo--tiny dust spots and stains of uneven tone--are barely visible in the warm midafternoon glow filtering in through the studio windows. Yet Sage picks them out and dabs methodically, filling each of a thousand blemishes with layers of ink that can be as thin as ten micrometers. His eyebrows arch toward the floor and his scrubbed face tightens in concentration. "You really can't make mistakes," he says without looking up. The gelatin in the paper expands when wet, he explains, and ink that appears to match in tone will appear too dark when dry. Experience and patience are the currency of this work, he says, and lifts a hand wrapped in a white-cloth surgical glove to shake out a cramped wrist.

Sage has been dabbing ink on photos for two and a half years at Hank's Photographic Services, which doesn't seem to involve anyone named Hank, but which is one of the best fine-art photo retouching studios in the country. Steven Rifkin, the lean, ponytailed man who started Hank's after retreating from the hypercompetitive commercial photography scene in New York, has worked on prints by Robert Mapplethorpe, local photo luminary Lynn Davis, and a stable of high-fashion shutterbugs. After going through the exhaustive finishing process at Hank's, some of the pieces will land in private galleries and museums like the MOMA and the MIA. In his 22 years, Rifkin has grown somewhat philosophical about the work. "My job," he explains, leaning over a darkroom contraption that looks like a giant microscope, "is to be the artist in the studio. I try to fulfill their vision perfectly."

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