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Next Stop, Obscurity

Wing Young Huie

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."

Perfection is a mantra around Hank's, and Sage now considers himself well suited to the intricate manipulation of shade and texture. When he started, however, he thought the work menial and impossibly painstaking. "It's one of those skills that takes a long time to master," he explains. "At first I didn't think I could do the same thing over and over." Now, he says, he clears his mind. It's not one of those jobs you have to (or can) take home with you, so he has plenty of energy to spend on his own photography, a mélange of urban landscapes and images of the local rave scene, which he wryly calls "kids on drugs."

Although Sage spends most of his time fixing nearly invisible flaws--micromanaging the artist's composition--he is also occasionally struck by the enormity of the image itself. He will spend a week, for instance, curled over a photo of a picture of AIDS-ravaged Bosnian orphans or dampening the excess light shining like a halo around the hacked skull of a Rwandan genocide victim. Nonetheless, Sage says, the work is pretty relaxing. "You just do it and think about something else. Or you don't think about anything at all." (Ritter)

 

David Koehser, arts attorney

David Koehser is a lawyer, and the identifying characteristics of that trade are all around him. His office in the Lumber Exchange Building is lined with dark wood and hard-bound books, and the lanky, soft-spoken 44-year-old wears the kind of muted, conservative suits that one would expect. A tidy display of children's books with related stuffed animals might be the only suggestion that Koehser has spent more than 12 years devoting his practice to the literary and performing arts. While some lawyers make millions drafting memos for corporations, and others troll for the wounded in their time of need (or greed), Koehser prefers to make his money through the creative twists and turns of entertainment law.

Publishing, as many would-be authors know, is no easy field to crack. Although some writers keep a candle burning for a contract, dreaming of national distribution or Pulitzer prizes, other impatient yet entrepreneurial souls aspire to self-publishing, the business equivalent of bungee-jumping. Koehser represents writers who have achieved varying levels of success, and although confidentiality rules protect the identities of his client base, it's safe to say he has a solid solo practice working with local wordsmiths and designers. Publishers also turn to Koehser for his expertise in the complex legal areas of copyright, trademark, defamation, right of privacy, and right of publicity.

Koehser also represents many companies and writers who are looking for new ways to expand their reach, including licensing rights to foreign companies, television or film options, and product merchandising deals. Much of this work is based on a gamble, the hope of finding a market winner. "A lot of deals you work on are not successful, unlike in a regular business setting where you're simply working out a lease or a purchase and both sides are likely to make a profit," says Koehser. He adds that while a lot of entertainment properties do eventually fall by the wayside, it is easy to get caught up in the initial optimism that has fueled an artist's ambitions.

Of course, there is a much broader array of legal issues facing authors and publishers, which helps keep Koehser's caseload steady. Publishers try to check for possible infringements, says Koehser, but most vetting does not occur until after the damage is done: an unchecked fact, a photograph used without permission, a false claim aimed toward harming another's reputation. "Then a cease and desist is issued," he continues. "It's costly because the books are already in the warehouses. An attorney determines whether to go for a settlement or whether it's a bogus claim."

 

Koehser's role as an attorney is to ensure that the author ties up these loose ends before going to print. It's detail-oriented work, and if done well, somewhat thankless: The skill here is in ensuring that something does not happen. But when a lawsuit threatens, authors and artists thank attorneys like Koehser for covering all the bases. "My job represents the best of both worlds," says Koehser, leaning back in his chair to better enjoy the view from the window. "I get to practice the lawyer's art of dealing with contracts and statutes, and I get to do it for creative people." (Caroline Palmer)

 

Paul Gerike, music copyist

Before Yo-Yo Ma could perform in St. Paul in May of this year, he needed Chaska resident Paul Gerike to burn some midnight rosin. In a matter of weeks, Gerike learned, Ma would be performing Luigi Boccherini's Concerto in G, a work composed in 1785. It was one the cellist knows well--in fact, he had recorded it with an orchestra in Amsterdam, working from photocopies of the deteriorated original. But Ma's imminent date with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and conductor Bobby McFerrin posed a problem: Copies of the old score were difficult to read, and for this gig there would be minimal time for rehearsal. The musicians would need clear, legible sheet music--and fast.

By now Gerike is used to fielding this sort of call. Since 1985 he's been a "copyist," someone who transcribes music from its original full score into individual parts for each instrument. For years, until he switched to computer in 1993, he worked by hand. "The job has a lot of connection to that old scribe concept," he says, sitting with his embankment of score stacks and high-tech gizmos in his suburban, at-home office. "Bach was well known to sit down and copy a lot of Vivaldi's music note by note. By doing that he learned more about how the music was put together. It's a great teacher for me. But it's not done a lot today because people can just go to a photocopier."

With his neat, bespectacled appearance and Mr. Holland's enthusiasm, the 43-year-old would almost seem more at home conducting a high school orchestra. But he says his behind-the-scenes role suits him, though he wasn't a theory geek when he first graduated from the Hartford College of Music. Gerike didn't start copying for the Minnesota Orchestra until he found there was a demand, this after ten rewarding but low-paying seasons singing with the renowned Dale Warland singers. He has since freelanced with Garrison Keillor and the Guthrie and has clients around the world.

The key to his craft, he says, is in manipulating the length of each measure for ease of reading and page-turning and for pure aesthetics as well. "It's a whole process," he says. "First you put in all the notes, then you go back and put in all the little markings, all the articulations, the staccatos, the slurs. Then you go back to make sure everything lines up properly and that notes don't crash into each other."

Getting close to the notes and clefs of other people's music has inevitably been a creative spur, and Gerike now writes his own arrangements for Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion and other groups. His clients also trust him to edit mistakes, though he says he must resist the temptation to make creative alterations.

The only downside of the copyist's vocation is solitude: It's impossible to watch his 8- and 5-year-old while sorting out symphonies. So Gerike has taken another niche job. "I sing at funerals," he says. "That's a way I can get out and see people during the week." (Peter S. Scholtes)

 

Joan Gorman, art conservator

Tucked within the warren of hallways beneath the Minneapolis Institute of Art are a series of clinical-looking rooms that make up the Upper Midwest Conservation Association (UMCA). Like actors loafing out of costume backstage, artworks in various stages of repair sit on tables, shelves, and niches throughout the room. Senior paintings conservator Joan Gorman commands one small corner where she spends many hours planning and then applying the exact mixture of chemicals, technique, and experience that will transform a damaged painting back into a masterpiece.

Suffice to say, art conservation, like bomb defusing or brain surgery, is no place for rank amateurs. The profession demands knowledge of both physics and chemistry, years of intensive study, stringent regulation, and the intangible blessing of a steady hand. Add another prerequisite to this list--an exhaustive education in art history--and you have all the makings of a fine arts conservator, one of the more intellectually rigorous jobs around.

 

Gorman, who has worked with UMCA for more than ten years on paintings by medieval and postmodern artists alike, says her chosen vocation provides all the challenges of forensic science, complicated by the unique lawlessness of creativity. "Paintings don't come to us with any instructions," she explains. "There are really no stereotypes. Good pictures are usually taken care of over the ages. Another class suffers from neglect. And then there are the pictures damaged by well-meaning but poor attempts at restoration."

Since 1977 UMCA has responded to these unique challenges, making it the first regional destination for all manner of paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and other objects (including archaeological artifacts) in need of major or minor rehabilitation. The philosophy applied to each new project, be it a 14th-century painting or a modern-art mural, is uniform and deceptively simple. "Less is more," says Gorman during a recent tour of the facility. "Make the least amount of intervention to achieve the maximum result. Anything added should be detectable and easily removed. A conservator learns over the years when to stop."

When a painting arrives in Gorman's care she must evaluate how it was made and the harm it has suffered, and uncover evidence of previous restoration. The process then shifts to structural and cosmetic treatment. Gorman points by way of example to a 19th-century landscape painting by French artist James Tissot displayed on a nearby easel. "I removed the surface dirt, and the remaining varnish was reformed chemically, which gave the picture a beautiful sheen. Any losses were inpainted with a material that is detectable by another conservator; it won't discolor, and is very durable and reversible." The blue skies and desert sands depicted on the canvas do seem to have a newfound texture and glow. Gorman anticipates the day when the painting will return to display, and takes pride in visiting works after they've found their way back to public walls.

Another piece Gorman has worked on recently is a painting by Henri Matisse owned by the Des Moines Art Center. Producing a file bulging with slides and reports documenting all aspects of her efforts, she laughingly remarks that she might know this painting better than Matisse himself. But Gorman is also careful to maintain that while high confidence in her abilities allows her to lay hands on such famous art, she also has tremendous respect for the artists whose paintings she has helped conserve.

On occasion, the opportunity to restore pieces by living artists presents itself. Gorman finds this experience thrilling, but notes that it presents its own issues. "They sometimes have a tendency to fix their own pieces," she notes. "Funnily enough, artists don't know about their paintings, how they've aged, the patina. The conservator does know." (Palmer)

 

Linda Kuusisto, script supervisor

The thin haze pumped into the gymnasium of St. Paul's Arlington High School for the filming of New Line Cinema's Sugar & Spice lends the arena a dreamlike aura, but the measured activity of the crew is proof that movie dreams aren't given form easily or quickly. On this Friday-evening shoot, a rotating cast of personnel works behind and to either side of the camera to set up a reaction shot and stunt sequence by one of the film's actors, Jimmy Marsden.

Among those working camera-side is script supervisor Linda Kuusisto, whose job it is to ensure that the film's discrete elements during filming make sense in their entirety on the screen. Kuusisto is a record keeper of sorts, the overseer of a movie shoot's minutiae. In this capacity, she notes the serial numbers from the camera and sound rolls; the lenses used in shots; the parts of the script, and the order in which they're filmed; the length of takes; descriptions of the shots; information on what the director did and did not like; and many other details that provide the raw data from which production tracks daily progress and the film editor assembles the finished picture. She is the person who jots down an actor's ad lib so that another actor's dialogue, filmed days later, will make sense. She is the person who makes sure a half-full glass stays that way until the next filmed sip. As Kuusisto keeps tabs on all these details, she must also be attentive to the flow of action. For instance, the camera must not stray across the invisible line that would discordantly shuffle an actor abruptly from the right side of the screen to the left.

Despite the broad scope of her duties, Kuusisto, a 12-year veteran of the script-supervisor position, is quick to note that a film's technical success hinges on collaboration between crew members. In film nobody works in a vacuum, and smooth running relies on joint efforts. Kuusisto's work tracking continuity--keeping motion, setting, wardrobe, prop use, dialogue, and other elements consistent from scene to scene--is made easier by the vigilance of specialists in departments such as wardrobe and props, who also keep an eye out for deviant details. "We all work together." Kuusisto notes, "I will frequently see the same thing they see. If there is a mismatch, then we will talk to the director or make the necessary change ourselves."

 

An appreciation of the interaction that occurs on the set was one of the reasons Kuusisto made the unusual move from film editing to script supervision. The St. Paul native began her career taking 16mm film classes in high school with young men intent on learning the ins and outs of the camera. She cut their films and eventually worked as an assistant film editor on documentaries and features. After five years of editing, the conviviality of the set and the variety inherent in production work (a shoot generally takes three to four months, whereas post-production work can take up to a year), prompted her to make the jump. Since joining the film crew, Kuusisto has worked on such local shoots as Untamed Heart, A Simple Plan, Iron Will, and Drop Dead Gorgeous.

For the most part, the shift has been a good one with plenty of daily challenges. According to the modest, easygoing script supervisor, "The danger is in the details." What seems a minor detail to a layperson can trigger an expensive reshoot if it slips past the crew. While Sugar & Spice's Marsden is performing his stunt, Kuusisto is at the monitor making sure his reaction fits the scene, his eye line is focused on the girl doing a backflip next to him, and the camera is moving toward him at a speed consistent with the stuntperson's acceleration. When the pieces align and the shots are spliced into a seamless scene, Kuusisto will have fulfilled her role: Her work will be invisible. (James MacTavish)

 

Mari Griffin, audio describer

When Mari Griffin goes to the theater, she typically seeks out a position in the back of the house, then fastens on a curious little mask that covers only her mouth. This high-tech muzzle sends her voice, via two-way radio, to handheld receivers that look like transistor radios. At a spring performance of the touring show Footloose at the Orpheum Theatre, patrons unwrapped cough-drop-shaped earphones, plugged them into their personal receivers and--voilà--Griffin was in their ears. Griffin specializes in "audio description," a service provided by local venues for low- and no-vision patrons--the people formerly known as the blind.

As the show starts, Griffin begins a play-by-play call of what is happening both onstage and in the theater. One of Griffin's chief roles for today's description of Footloose will be to use the seconds between scenes to quickly describe set changes, such as this one: "The little town goes up and away. Three motorcycles. Rollerskaters with serving trays. A bar of yellow light, a bar of orange. A sign that says Burger Blast." Griffin rarely uses the same adjective twice. No one walks; they saunter or meander. But the description is, most of all, straightforward. When one teenage character in Footloose asks a friend what people do in small-town Bomont, Griffin doesn't miss a beat: "Willard looks around, then makes a fist and pumps it in front of his fly." The audience laughs.

Griffin says that she makes sure her audio portraits address "three questions: 1) What's going on? 2) What's making that noise? 3) What's making people gasp, laugh, react?" Griffin also collects information from a production's director and gives some pre-show notes about the sets and about the show itself. For a Guthrie show, Griffin reports that she might study the sets and costumes, "so that I can say 'Tonight's show contains X number of wigs, and one piece of artificial chest hair.' I've learned that people like that sort of background, that sort of silliness."

The tenets of audio description are "not to critique, not to interpret," says Griffin, who began doing such work in 1993, when the Guthrie Theater received a request for the service from a patron who had encountered it in another city. The Guthrie auditioned audio describers. Griffin, a former music teacher and marketer for IBM, and a Guthrie volunteer at the time, was one of the first chosen and trained. Of the roughly half a dozen audio describers in the Cities, Griffin works the most.

Not every play is well suited to her task, and the challenges presented by abstract sets and lighting can be profound. "I remember the show K, at the Guthrie Lab," Griffin says. "The whole show was about light--there were shafts of light, bars of light, a pinpoint light where all you could see was a cup and saucer. I described it. And, after the show, a woman--she'd never had vision--stomped up and said, 'That was a waste of time. I don't know what light is.'" In response, Griffin collected sheets of tissue paper and typing paper and some foam core and tried to show the woman tactually how the light could have different intensities, how it could conform to the shape of steps on the stage. The effort was moderately successful.

 

"The same woman said, 'Don't bother me with colors,'" recounts Griffin. "But I don't make much of an adjustment there, because colors come up every day. After a performance of The Seagull, a woman came up to me with a smile and said, 'I now have a whole different concept of what red is,' and walked away. I don't know what that concept was. I never will know." (Katy Reckdahl)


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