The Story of Me

We all like to know a bit about the people we’re going to work with, right? Because of that, I decided to share a condensed version of The Story of Me…

It all started on March 25, 1968, during the infamous Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis, TN… I was born to parents Roger and Phyllis. Unfortunately, my dad couldn’t even visit my mom and me at the hospital because of the dusk-to-dawn curfew that had been imposed because of the upheaval of the strike. Martin Luther King, Jr. had visited Memphis to support and speak out for the workers, and that is where he was assassinated 10 days after my birth, nine blocks from where we were at the moment.

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Shortly after that, we moved to my parents’ home state of Minnesota — to the outskirts of the Twin Cities for a few years and later to the outskirts of Elizabeth, MN (population 184).

Growing up in a small town meant that my brother and I created a lot of our own entertainment. Our property was 10 acres with a river flowing through it, and we also did a lot of hunting and fishing with our dad. At various times, we raised horses, pigs, banty chickens, pigeons, peacocks, goats, and Chesapeake Bay retrievers. When I was in 6th grade, I was really into saving the whales. At 10 or 11 years old, I got my first motorcycle. I still ride today.

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In 8th or 9th grade, my friends and I had a totally sweet cardboard band called Black Velvet. We even got featured in the Fergus Falls Daily Journal.

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High school consisted mostly of hanging out with friends. At one point I joined FFA (Future Farmers of America) because the students got out of school a lot. I was briefly the local chapter secretary, but I refused to cut my hair so I got demoted.

Later in high school, I ran the sound equipment for a local band, Apollo, and I got pretty into the punk rock scene. It was the mid ‘80s, after all.

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In my senior yearbook, I was voted “Most Unique Dresser.” After senior year, I still owed the school some detention hours, but I worked it off double-time by picking up garbage on the school grounds. Not quite Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club.

My first real job in high school had been as a dishwasher at Perkins. After I graduated I was working as a day cook at another restaurant when a friend who was home on leave from the Army dared me to join up. He said I couldn’t do it, so I had to prove him wrong. A few weeks after I signed up to join the Army, another friend dared me to go airborne, so I renegotiated my contract and became a 43E parachute rigger. The training was intense, culminating in the ultimate pass/fail test: to graduate as riggers, we were required to jump out of the plane using a parachute that we had each packed for ourselves.

Shortly after that, I found out that I was going to be stationed in Vicenza, Italy. I told my girlfriend at the time that we needed to either break up or get married, so we decided to get married. That way she could join me in Italy. Hindsight: that was a poor choice. She hated that life, and we divorced after about a year.

I was part of the 3/325 Airborne Battalion Combat Team, part of the Southern European Task Force. TIME Magazine labeled us as “one of the 7 elite forces of the U.S. military” at the time. I have almost no pictures of the nearly 3 years I was in Italy, but I have some wild memories. Amongst them, some friends and I were in Venice for the weekend that Pink Floyd did a massive free concert there that became legendary for the amount of garbage and destruction that was left behind. My unit also spent some time in West Berlin for urban combat training. While there, we were able to go through Checkpoint Charlie and experience East Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down.

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When my enlistment was over in 1990, I was officially done and being transported back to the U.S. on the very day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, which started the beginning of Operation Desert Shield/the Persian Gulf War. I was pretty surprised at the time that I was not called back into active duty, but in retrospect very glad.

After the Army, I spent some time working at a Frigidaire factory. One day I looked around at the long-timers there and realized I really didn’t want to spend my life there, so I enrolled at Fergus Falls Community College.

I was getting my AA degree and planning to pursue psychology or psychiatry. At one point, I had to choose between Public Speaking or a Technical Theater class. I chose theater, and the path of my life took a big turn! Here was a field that I had never considered, but I had a real knack for it and suddenly a strong interest. I earned the AA and then transferred to Moorhead State University to pursue the BA in Theatre Arts (technical concentration).

The beginning of my time at MSU marks the second half of my life so far…

Right after I started school there, I met Lindsay. We had a memorable Intro to Scene Design class together and spent a couple years as friends before I finally asked her out in January 1997. We will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary this August.

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I quickly worked my way up to an Assistant Technical Director position while a student, and after finishing my degree I had no problem continuing to work in theater. The first several years of my career were in educational theater, serving as scenic designer, lighting designer, and/or technical director for nearly 150 shows and events at a few different high schools and colleges.

During the last 3-4 years of that time period, we lived in Phoenix, AZ, which is also where our daughter was born. Being a parent is an entire life adventure of its own that can’t be done justice in this blog.

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In 2007, we moved back to MN when I was hired as Production Manager for the Duluth Playhouse in Duluth. For 7 years I led their design teams and coordinated all production aspects for another 100+ productions while also creating some freelance designs for other local and regional theater companies.

In 2014, I left the Playhouse and broadened my design & management experience beyond theater by spending a year consulting on, designing, and fabricating the learning environment and exhibits of the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota (Mankato, MN; grand opening was May 2015). This opportunity greatly strengthened my knowledge of exhibit design and construction and rejuvenated my creativity and passion for discovery and research – and the thrill of being involved in projects that leave a true legacy!

With this renewed energy, I formed BrownKnows Design in 2015, and much of the rest of that journey is already chronicled here on this site. Being an independent business owner has its ups and downs, but I have really learned a lot and look forward to the continued journey.

Now that you’ve got the timeline, what are some other interesting things I can share about my life?

When I was a teen, my friends and I messed around with giving each other indian ink tattoos, but mine are covered up by professional tattoos now. I got my first “legit” one in 1988 and am up to 21 (and counting).

When we lived in AZ, my parents and wife and I took a hot air balloon ride. It ended in a champagne brunch in the middle of the desert.

I was briefly a Guinness World Record holder when I participated in the world’s longest ATV parade with a friend, my dad, an uncle, and my nephew. The record was broken a couple of months later.

For five years in a row, I was a Super Plunger for the Minnesota Special Olympics, raising $3000+ for the organization each year and then jumping into an icy lake 24 times in 24 hours.

I have completed an Iron Butt challenge by riding my motorcycle more than 1000 miles in 24 hours and more than 1500 miles in 36 hours. Both were accomplished on a ride from Duluth to Pensacola, FL.

I was scuba qualified while in the Army.

I have competed in one marathon and several half marathons, as well as a few Warrior Dash races and the Tough Mudder.

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I have a strong affinity for bacon, grills, and grilled meats. I also like a good Beam and Diet Coke, but I don’t like hot sauce nearly as much as people assume I do.

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I have an 18-year-old cat named Splotch and a 10ish-year-old cat named Conversational Carol.

I think traveling is fantastic and critical for expanding one’s perspective. The countries I have visited so far: Canada, Mexico, Norway, Greece, Italy, Germany, France. I will be able to add England to the list this summer when we do a whirlwind tour of London/Paris/Venice with my parents. My favorite travel spot in the U.S. so far is Moab, UT and Arches National Park.

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I own (and have watched) the entire Columbo series (69 episodes)!

I also really like collecting the mail from our mailbox, mowing the lawn, putting together jigsaw puzzles, and watching feel-good (like Ellen!) video clips on YouTube.

Have I forgotten anything about the “essence of Jeff”? Remind me in the comments below.

ADDENDUM: I love the value of a strong high-five and a solid rock kick! (Thanks for the reminder, Robyn!)












Communication: It makes good sense!

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation: I like to communicate. Some people might even think I communicate too much… but it’s my natural tendency, and I think it helps make me an effective project manager, so at least I’m using my strengths wisely.

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Nearly every job posting lists it as one of their “preferred qualifications”: Good communication skills. What exactly does that mean? That answer is probably a bit different in every industry, and communication style varies from person to person, but there are a few basic tenets that life (and many years of experience) have taught me and which will make your working relationships so much more smooth.

Some of my examples are specific to my industry of theater & production, but I think the points are easily transferable to almost any field.

  • I don’t consider myself a writer, but I write A LOT of emails… I like email because it provides a written record that is so easy to refer back to, and if people don’t all remember things quite the same way, everyone can refer to the email and put an end to speculation and hearsay.

  • When writing emails, I believe the approach is important. Without the face-to-face contact, it can be difficult to not sound like you’re dictating orders, but it sometimes helps maintain a team dynamic if you form thoughts into questions instead of statements. Often, all the parties already know the answer, but try letting someone respond with what action they think they should take, instead of telling them.

  • Be concise in the wording of your emails. Share enough information that everyone can have a clear understanding of what you’re talking about, but don’t muck up the message with lots of hypotheticals or “maybe”s. Explain what you need to explain, or clearly discuss what needs to happen, then move on.

  • Respond to emails in a timely manner. I really try to respond within 48 hours, maximum. A lot of stuff is time-sensitive, and you don’t need to be the one holding up the process for no good reason. Even if you can’t fully answer someone’s questions, at least give them the courtesy of letting them know you’re working on the answers and will get back to them soon (AND THEN ACTUALLY GET BACK TO THEM SOON).

  • Include all affected people/departments when writing an email. I know that no one likes to get extra email that doesn’t pertain to them, but I’ve found it’s better to be safe than sorry when making sure everyone stays in the loop. SO many misunderstandings and delays can be avoided if everyone impacted by a decision gets looped in from the very beginning of an issue.

  • Along that same line of thought, I frequently send an email to multiple people and then one of them replies only to me. There was a reason that I included a group of people in the original email. I recommend if you get an email you reply to all parties. When you don’t I then need to send another email to share what that person shared only to me, so that all the affected parties stay informed.

  • In the world of theater, the stage manager usually sends out nightly rehearsal reports via email. The idea is to keep every department (scenic design, lighting design, costumes, shop/construction, props, director, artistic director, etc.) informed about challenges, problems, blips that are occurring throughout the process. Questions or issues that affect one department inevitably affect other departments more than we might realize, so when we all “reply all,” then everybody can stay in touch and move forward much more effectively. I find this highly effective in communicating the needs of a production. I often am working on multiple productions and this is a great system that keeps me on track.

  • If you have a phone or face-to-face conversation with one team member, make it a habit to follow up with an email restating what was agreed upon, and copy it to the entire team so everyone knows. Try to avoid pocket conversations that leave someone out. Trust me, it’ll save on frustrations or misunderstandings in the long run.

  • Whatever the situation, we are all on the same team… and oftentimes there are compromises that can be reached with open honest dialogue. Voice the challenges. Work together on solutions, and we’ll all come out smarter and happier in the end.

Let me share two cool tools that I use for making my email communication even more productive: Mailtrack and Boomerang. They are both add-ons for Gmail that you can download and use free (with some limitations). Mailtrack lets me know when (or if) a recipient has opened my email. No claiming that you didn’t see it, ok? I can tell. Boomerang does lots of nifty stuff: it lets me schedule when my emails get sent (Am I really working at 7:00 a.m. on a Monday? You’ll never know!), it can remind me to follow up on an email if no one responds to it within a certain timeframe of my choosing, and if I am really busy and start to receive emails that are distracting me from my current tasks, I can “snooze” those emails to come back into my Inbox a little later on. I use the scheduling feature the most.

I hope these communication tips are helpful for someone — or at the very least, some of you might understand why you receive so many emails from me. :) Send one back to me at brownknowsthat@gmail.com.

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Need a break from your email overload? Take a few minutes to browse my Portfolio.





2D, or not 2D?

“Previously, on Jeff’s blog…”

When last we spoke, I gushed on about some advancements in design technology — specifically, the use of computer-aided drafting software like Vectorworks and image manipulation software like Photoshop — and how I have enjoyed starting to learn these programs that take my design work to a new level of professionalism and that allow for such easy editing. [Click in the sidebar to read the last blog post, “Old dog, new tricks.”]

But guess what? I still like to build physical models. Despite all of the ways I can now create and share detailed and precise design ideas on a computer, there’s no substitute for walking into a production team meeting with a three-dimensional scale model of a stage and scenery — or of a museum space filled with a newly-envisioned exhibit.

In college theater design classes, we learned to build full-color 1/2”-scale scenic models that showed every proposed paint color and texture, and although I typically stick to white models now (sometimes 1/2”-scale and sometimes 1/4”-scale), I still include lots of details like trim & moldings, representational furniture pieces, and even some textured materials. Yes, this can all be done as a manipulable digital rendering, but that’s just not the same as having a physical model that can be brought to a meeting and discussed around the table.

Often, whether I’m working with a museum staff or a theatrical production team, there are people involved who just don’t have much experience looking at a ground plan and being able to translate those two-dimensional representations into a three-dimensional concept. A model allows me to show and discuss, with less chance of misinterpretation, how each element of the design fits into the given space as a whole, and how each element relates to one another. It gives a clear indication of whether the space feels cozy and intimate, or expansive and grand. When I add teeny little scaled people standing around (or little paper kids running or crawling in my children’s museum exhibits), the designs truly seem to come to life. Then I can also understand (and show others) how many visitors can comfortably enjoy that exhibit space, or how many pit musicians can fit on one platform, or how much space the actors might have for crawling around behind that couch.

And there’s also something magic for me about the actual process of creating the model. It’s a tangible, touchable object that literally takes shape in front of my eyes. Sometimes I just can’t decide how large certain components should be, or what shapes of walls and platforms might work well together, until I cut and re-cut pieces of mat board and strips of balsa wood — and stick it all together with my trusty hot glue gun. The smell of hot glue permeates my basement studio area at times, but that smell means that CREATIVITY is happening!

Yes, I like the tradition, the utility, and the visualization opportunities that this hands-on method gives me over digital renderings. A model can also be put on display for the team or the public to reference throughout the rest of the design and construction period. Digital renderings are a fantastic supplement and have advantages of their own, but for me (for now), the model is still my primary building block and inspiration.

White models are spilling off the shelves of my studio. Bits of foam core, mat board, and string get tangled in the shag carpet. The cat gets startled every time I burn my fingers on hot glue and curse loudly, but I just can’t yet see myself giving up my modeling career.

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Old dog, new tricks

The art of theater is 2+ millennia old, and storytelling is always storytelling … but the theater industry, like any other, is subject to trends and advances in technology.

In the 21 years since I finished my theater degree, it’s no surprise that tools and techniques have evolved. LED lighting instruments, stronger and lighter construction materials, countless new recipes for realistic-looking stage blood, and on and on.

One of the quickly-changing aspects is the process of design itself. When I was learning how to create ground plans and how to develop construction drawings (and it doesn’t seem like that long ago!), everything we did was on vellum paper, drawn in pencil. Computerized drafting software existed, but it was far from what it is now. It made sense to learn the “tried and true” methods at the time.

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Needless to say, drafting/design software and image manipulation software have evolved in leaps and bounds over the past couple decades, but once I had left school and hit the ground running with theater jobs that had me working around the clock and around the calendar, it became really hard to find the time or resources to learn these new-fangled skills and put them into practice.

Luckily, in the past couple of months (thanks in part to a fellowship grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council), I’ve been able to finally start learning Vectorworks, a software package that is used in a variety of design professions and can do amazing things with 2D and 3D scenic/construction drawings, as well as stage lighting design and visualization.

Boom. Mind blown. I still have a lot to learn, but I can already draw a ground plan or construction drawing on the computer nearly as quickly as I can do with pencil and paper — and of course with the digital end-products, it’s much easier for me to be precise, to automatically calculate angles and add dimensions and textures, to quickly add/subtract/move a wall or platform when the production requires a major change, and to share ideas and changes with the rest of the design team (who are very often in another city or state)! When I get really good at this, it will be a great time-saver and paper-saver.

An early ground plan for  Wiley and the Hairy Man

An early ground plan for Wiley and the Hairy Man

It’s even easy to turn two-dimensional ground plans or construction drawings into three-dimensional representations of the stage and scenery. So cool. It allows me to experiment in ways I certainly couldn’t do before. I definitely feel more professional and more on-par with industry advancements.

Model piece and digital construction drawing of wall for  Portrait of a Madonna .

Model piece and digital construction drawing of wall for Portrait of a Madonna.

Yes, technology sometimes gets a high-five and a rock kick … But is it ALWAYS the best approach for getting the job done? Not exclusively, in my opinion… Tune in next week when I explain why I sometimes think a low-tech solution is still very effective, in “2D, or not 2D?” …or “The case of the missing fingerprints.”




25 in the present; 25 in the past

This week on Friday I opened my final two productions of the year (lighting design for A Christmas Story at Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre and scenic design for Dear Elizabeth with Renegade Theater in Duluth), so it feels like a good time to look back on 2018. I know I’m a busy guy, but I’m always surprised when I count up the projects I’ve done in a year.

In 2018, my team and I opened a whopping 25 theater productions (either designing, building, or both), 1 escape room, and 2 major exhibits. Phew! A lot of the design work is done on my own, but there’s no way I could do some of fabrication projects without my team of hardworking BrownKnows Design freelancers. Thank goodness for talented friends without full-time jobs, right?

Besides the 25 theater productions that I did this year, there’s another reason that the number 25 is pertinent… I realized that I’m going into my 25th year of doing theater! Who knew, back at the community college when I was forced to choose between a public speaking class and a stagecraft class, where that choice would lead? I had never been involved in theater AT ALL (aside from Sunday School plays that my mom wrote), but that stagecraft class opened my eyes to a new field.

My own spreadsheet lists at least 300 productions from then to now (and I’m sure I’m missing a few), so that means that I have averaged slightly more than 1 PLAY PER MONTH for each of the past 25 YEARS! And you’d be surprised how few of them have been repeats. Jeez, can I retire yet??

So anyway, best wishes to the two shows that opened this weekend (and continue for the next couple weeks, so check them out)! The opportunity to work with fun and creative people who are passionate about their art is what keeps me going when it all gets too crazy.

I’m already in the discussion and planning stages for at least 10 shows in the first few months of 2019 (as well as an exhibit or two), so you haven’t heard the last of me yet. Right now I’m particularly looking forward to a lighting design residency in Phoenix in late February/early March… Hmm, maybe I need an agent to book me somewhere warm and sunny in the middle of every winter! Best wishes to you all in 2019!

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