Design as a Labor of Love
The legendary Jack Barkla has designed sets for nearly every theater in the Twin Cities.
Walking into Jack Barkla's 1960s-era rambler in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis is like stepping into a shadow box filled with trinkets from nearly every theater stage in the Twin Cities over the last five decades. Framed scale models of sets from the 1982 production of Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas at the Children’s Theatre Company and the balcony scene from the Guthrie’s 1971 Cyrano de Bergerac hang in the dining room. A finely detailed replica of one of Christopher Columbus’s ships, built for an exhibit at the University of Minnesota, is suspended from the ceiling in the living room. The studio is filled with posters and drawings from Dayton’s department store’s eighth-floor Christmas and spring flower shows, as well as sketches from productions at the Minnesota Opera, Minnesota Dance Theatre, the Cricket Theatre, and Mixed Blood Theatre.
A set and production designer since the 1960s, Barkla (B.E. ’65) is a Twin Cities legend. He already had hundreds of designs to his credit when then-Governor Rudy Perpich declared December 7, 1989, Jack Barkla Day in Minnesota. Today, that number is closer to 1,400 and growing. Though at 77 Barkla is well into retirement age, he still consults on private architectural projects. In fact, he had recently completed the drawings for Macy’s annual spring flower show when the company announced the closing of its downtown Minneapolis location, effectively ending Barkla’s 40-year run with the event.
As a child, Barkla was fascinated with magic and illusion. He was a bright kid, but struggled in school because he has dyslexia, a learning disability he learned about later at the U while earning a degree in art education. He repeated fourth grade twice and spent a lot of time alone painting, drawing, and “making up things,” he says. In high school he was drawn to theater, but preferred making scenery to performing. At the U, he took a singing class from the late Paul Knowles, founder of the U’s Opera Workshop. Soon, he was down in the basement of Wulling Hall building a theater for the workshop.
But it was a summer spent at the Bayreuth Festival Master Classes in Germany that ultimately convinced him to leave behind his plan to teach art and go into set design. In Bayreuth, he studied the stage lighting work of Wieland Wagner, grandson of composer Richard Wagner. “It redefined the stage,” Barkla says. “It changed my life.”
In 1968 he left graduate school to work for the Children’s Theatre, and by 1975 Barkla was resident designer at the Guthrie. Over the next three decades, it was not uncommon for him to juggle multiple productions simultaneously. At the height of his career, he was the go-to set designer in the Twin Cities, the man who painted scenery and built props on top of designing the set. Among his many accolades is a framed note from Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), who said Barkla’s work on the 1980 Children’s Theatre production of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins made him cry. “Theater is a group art form,” Barkla says. “It’s an act of love to care so much about doing work that is done for other people.”