He painted plays with lights.
Michael Wangen, 65, a self-taught lighting designer who worked on productions in the Twin Cities and at playhouses across the country, died Sunday of esophageal cancer at J.A. Wedum Residential Hospice in Brooklyn Park.
“Personality-wise, he was a little bit of an Eeyore [from Winnie the Pooh] — thanks for noticing me over here in my corner,” said Elizabeth MacNally, production manager at Pillsbury House Theatre, where Wangen worked for decades. “But Mike brought color, emotion, texture and dimension to everything he did. He was a true artist.”
The only child of Harriet and Kenneth Wangen, a photographer, Wangen was born March 10, 1954, in Albert Lea, Minn., where he also grew up. Shy and self-effacing, he found community in theater, falling into lighting design in the ’70s. The first show he lit was Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma,” which he did in a warehouse loft on a bare raked platform covered with gray carpet.
From there, he became a much-admired collaborator, designing for nearly all the theaters in the Twin Cities. He served as resident lighting designer for Penumbra Theatre from 1987-2000 and then as resident designer at Pillsbury House until his death. He also designed lights for “A Prairie Home Companion” as well as for shows at Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., and Baltimore Center Stage.
Wangen, who won a McKnight fellowship, had a decadeslong partnership with director Marion McClinton, whose production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at Penumbra the playwright often pointed to as a favorite. Wangen lit that show.
“During one of Doaker’s monologues we were able to pull down into an almost Shakespearean spot on him — without the audience being consciously aware of it — through the set design, which included a small window at the top of a stairway looking onto the lower landing, which served as Doaker’s podium,” Wangen said on Facebook. “With moonlight streaming through the window, we were able to, over the course of several minutes, bring the lights down everywhere else, culminating, through the power of August’s words, the stark moonlight, the strong lines of the set, and the actor’s dramatic reading into a moment of sublime theatrical art.”
On social media, theater artists shared memories. Actor Taous Claire Khazem, who was lit by Wangen in numerous shows, recalled sharing a moment with him in July after a performance. They were admiring the sunset — “all these pinks reds, oranges, and Mike said, ‘Look at that. It’s impossible to recreate,’ ” Khazem wrote. “ ‘Many have tried. Nature will always do it better.’ ”
The esophageal cancer that first appeared in 2013 was treated before it reappeared last year, making Wangen — a philosophical chess aficionado and Civil War buff — even more introspective. Last year, he took a cross-country railroad trip, armed with a copy of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.”
“My life is a bit trippy these days,” Wangen wrote. “Take the chemo pills to fight the cancer, take the pills to fight the nausea from the chemo pills, take the pills to fight the constipation from the nausea pills, take the pills to fight the stomach pain from the constipation pills — and then focus the mind, relax, visualize, see, heal, roll on.”
Wangen never married and has no known survivors. Services are pending.
“My enduring image of Mike is of him standing in front of a light board, rewriting cues for a show that’s pretty much finished,” said playwright Carlyle Brown, who collaborated with Wangen from 1995 until recently. “He was lucent and creative and always thought he could do better. I once told him: Step away from that light board with your hands in a place where I can see them. For him, the work was never done.”