Ubiquitous is the word for Kenneth Posner. New York theatregoers will be forgiven for thinking that the LD has recently designed every show in town. Last season he did four productions at Manhattan Theatre Club, plus three Broadway shows, including the Tony winner for best play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. This year, he's already had an Off Broadway smash (Douglas Carter Beane's comedy As Bees in Honey Drown), a revival of Shaw's Misalliance, and the Lincoln Center production of Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing. Currently, he has three shows on Broadway: Besides Ballyhoo, there's the Tony Award-winning revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, and Side Man, Warren Leight's bruising family drama.
Look outside of New York, and you see the name Kenneth Posner with startling frequency elsewhere as well. He's popped up, often more than once, at resident theatres such as Seattle Repertory, Goodspeed Opera House (East Haddam, CT), the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), the Alley Theatre (Houston), and Arena Stage (Washington, DC). This year alone, he's designed two plays in repertory at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the new play for the Goodman Theatre, and a new musical at La Jolla Playhouse.
Not bad for a 32-year-old. At an age when many of his colleagues are still working to find their professional bearings, Posner works on top-level projects with some of the American theatre's best directors: Michael Mayer, Michael Greif, Jack O'Brien, Mark Brokaw, David Warren, Lisa Peterson, Robert Falls, and Joe Dowling. He also collaborates with some of the best young scenic designers--people like Derek McLane, Allen Moyer, Neil Patel, and David Gallo. He's been nominated five times for American Theatre Wing Design Awards, and twice for Joseph Jefferson Awards (in Chicago), winning for the 1996 Shakespeare Repertory Theatre production of Richard III. Last season, he won a Dramalogue Award (in Los Angeles) for the new musical Harmony, as well as a Lucille Lortel Award for Pride's Crossing and Side Man, and received a Drama Desk nomination for A View From the Bridge and Side Man. After a while, you begin to feel like there's nothing that Kenneth Posner doesn't do.
What is most remarkable about this young designer is the subtlety and artistry with which he heightens the theatricality of each production. Posner's lighting is rarely showy, and almost never calls attention to itself; instead, it works unobtrusively to make everything on stage seem sharper, more dimensional, more dramatic. You might call his approach holistic; talk about any play designed by him and he responds by quoting the text and the concept worked out with the director and other designers. For Posner, lighting exists to support a production, not to dominate it.
For proof of this, look no further than A View From the Bridge. For decades, critics have picked at Arthur Miller's waterfront play, accusing him of imposing an unwieldy structure of Greek tragedy on a smallish melodrama about Eddie Carbone, a dock worker sexually obsessed with his wife's niece. At the Roundabout Theatre, Michael Mayer's bold conception seized on the play's most theatrical elements, giving it a knockout emotional impact that made all criticisms irrelevant. Gallo's scenic design placed the action on a raised circular platform that evoked the classic Greek stage. A huge scenic wrap depicting the Brooklyn docks and the addition of nearly two dozen supernumeraries lifted the play to another level, vividly revealing the pulsing rhythms of street life that surround the characters, and making clear that Carbone's tragedy has implications for the entire community.
Posner's lighting design is an integral part of the production, using quick-change color treatments on the cyc to make instant, cinematic transitions, and effectively isolating locations throughout the theatre. The LD used extremely simple effects to create thrillingly dramatic moments. When Carbone betrays his niece's lover to the immigration authorities, actor Anthony LaPaglia stands at center stage, holding a phone, revealed in a single beam of white light that slashes horizontally across the stage. What is already a shocking dramatic moment is heightened to the point that it draws gasps from the audience. In scene after scene, Posner's choices are bold, strong, yet simple.
"It was just a wonderful set to light," says Posner, adding that he was fascinated by the "idea that it took place in this Greek amphitheatre in a contemporary theatrical world. The goal was to let it be about the play and the actors--give them an environment, and what is the minimum you need to do it? It was extremely challenging, but Michael Mayer was wonderful. We storyboarded the entire play." For the transfer to the Neil Simon, a proscenium theatre (as opposed to the Roundabout's thrust stage), the designer says, "The ideas didn't change at all. However, the rear drop was twice as high on Broadway--the height at the Roundabout was 16' (5m) and, at the Neil Simon, 34' (10m). So, one aspect of the light plot was changed: the cyc lighting went from MR-16s to far cycs and PAR strips." Also at the Neil Simon, one of the play's most dramatic moments now comes when Marco, another immigrant, denounces Eddie to his neighbors. Marco enters through a door at the rear of the auditorium, and is lit by 5kW fresnels placed just outside the door of the theatre.
Where A View From the Bridge has the feel of epic theatre, Side Man, also directed by Mayer, is a much more intimate, though no less powerful piece. Side Man is a memory play narrated by the thirty-something Clifford, who recalls his parents' disastrous marriage. His father Gene is a jazz musician who barely functions outside of his job; Terry, his mother, is a naive, impressionable young woman who descends into alcoholism. Scene after scene recalls, in a fond yet devastatingly unsentimental manner, the jazz subculture of the 50s--a life defined by late hours, drugs, alcohol, and the constant search for the next gig. Neil Patel's expressionistic unit setting seems to locate the action of the play--much of which actually takes place in New York apartments--in an overarching jazz club setting.
Posner's lighting expands on this design metaphor with moody, club-style lighting, using deeply saturated blues, yellows, and reds to give the play a melancholy, three-o'clock-in-the-morning feel. "I used the saturated colors for scenes set in the past, because they have a romantic quality," says Posner, "then we cut through that with the hard-edged followspot for Clifford's monologues." Side Man had a brief and well-reviewed engagement Off Broadway in the spring, followed by a longer engagement at the Roundabout, in the same space where A View From the Bridge had played earlier in the season.
Memory, its uses and its failings, were also at the heart of another Posner-designed show last fall: Tina Howe's drama Pride's Crossing, produced at New York's Lincoln Center Theatre Company. The play centers on Mabel Tidings Bigelow, an elderly WASP matriarch, who recalls the key moments of her life while preparing a garden party for her few remaining family and friends. The play was a marathon challenge for its leading lady; Cherry Jones, who played Mabel at nearly every stage of her life, from 10 to 90, often made transitions from one age to another onstage in full view of the audience. Posner's lighting flowed effortlessly with the play's shifting moods and time frame--at times it was dreamily romantic, at other times, dark and shadowy. "The play is written present to past, present to past," he says. "The past has an extremely heightened sense of color and theatricality, and also angle and definition of space--hard-cut geometric shapes as opposed to a softer, crisper, more naturalistic quality of light for the scenes set in the present. That contrast, I think, helps to tell the story."
Posner didn't work on the original production at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre (both versions were directed by Jack O'Brien.) He admits that it was a bit awkward to come into a production that had already been done once, adding, "The saving grace is that it had been done in a proscenium space before, so the design had to be different [Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse theatre uses a modified thrust]. Ralph really transformed the space and Jan, who is extremely gifted, did a wonderful job with the projections." One challenge involved the play's source--the life of Howe's grandmother. "Tina had specific images of the places where this play happened. She would come in with photographs and say, 'I want the light to be like this.' We'd look at the color and direction of the light and then try to recreate it on the stage. The chapel scene in the second act [where Mabel attends a funeral] has a very specific blue-white quality. I started that scene with a golden look, which she rejected. She knew exactly what these locations looked like, and she wanted that."
A.R. Gurney's comedy Labor Day, which opened in San Diego in February and in New York, at Manhattan Theatre Club, in May, is another collaboration with O'Brien and Funicello for Posner. The show is about a playwright in late middle age who writes about his family, only to find that everyone wants to change his script. Ralph Funicello's setting was a writer's studio converted from an old chicken coop. "It's an extremely naturalistic play," says Posner. "It calls for two times of day, beginning in the late morning, then travels into the afternoon." The designer filled the stage with sunlight, pouring in through the fixed skylights of the setting, subtly adjusting the look as the time of day wears on.
Posner is no stranger to the Manhattan Theatre Club. Last season, he designed Leslie Ayvazian's family drama Nine Armenians, then stayed on to do three more productions. Michael Cristofer's The Blues Are Running, done in the theatre's studio space, required two different nighttime looks for a Central Park setting. Next came Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice, about a poker game with very high stakes; here Posner gave a naturalistic nighttime look to David Gallo's scenery, which depicted the main dining room of a London restaurant and its basement. Back on the theatre's mainstage, Posner's lighting enhanced Thomas Lynch's lushly colored setting, a Greenwich Village apartment, for Donald Margulies' literary drama Collected Stories.
Just to keep busy, that same season, Posner designed two high-profile Broadway projects: The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and the Lincoln Center Theatre Company revival of The Little Foxes. Both projects were done with scenic designer John Lee Beatty and costume designer Jane Greenwood. In both cases, Beatty designed complex, highly detailed settings that allowed Posner to do what he does best: heighten the dramatic experience in a seemingly effortless, unobtrusive manner.
Ballyhoo is a social comedy about a family of assimilated Atlanta Jews in the late 1930s. The setting takes in much of the first floor of their house, including the living and dining rooms, sun porch, and staircase to the second floor. "John Lee leaves you places to put lights," Posner says. "The sunroom, for instance, was a great source of light for the daytime scenes." Day or night, Posner's lighting shaped the setting and lent strongly different looks and emotional tones to each scene. The Little Foxes, on the other hand, was done on a giant Beatty setting which depicted the living room of the grasping Giddens family, with a clear view into the dining room in the rear. A staircase led to a second-floor gallery, with a view into an upstairs bedroom. "It was incredibly challenging," says Posner. "When I finished the plot, it had 550 units in it. But it was three acts and I had to cover such an enormous space--and there was a giant skylight. Also, Jack [O'Brien, the director] used every bit of space--the back dining room, the staircases, the front corridor, along the hall." To get the correct angle of morning light through the skylight, the designer focused units on a mirror and bounced the light through the window. "It was actually John Lee's suggestion," he adds.
This season, Posner also spent time in the regional theatre, designing David Hare's ecclesiastical drama Racing Demon and Noel Coward's ghostly farce Blithe Spirit in repertory at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. For Racing Demon, he took his cue from "Mark Brokaw's seamless directing, changing locations with light, featuring the architecture of the unit set, using the doors and the voms to create different locales." His Blithe Spirit plot contained "glamour lighting" for Coward's brittle characters (both living and dead).
The challenge of working at the Guthrie, he says, is that "the geographies of the two plays were so different, it was like doing two light plots. They had just bought about 250 Source Fours to supplement their old inventory, and I used everything. But at the Guthrie, you're not allowed to refocus between shows--there's not enough time. You can re-color, but you can't re-template. If one show has a system of templates, you lose it to the other production, unless you can use the templates in both."
Such a busy itinerary would be enough to wear out anyone, but it only seems to challenge Posner, who says he's been fascinated with theatre since the age of five. The Westchester, NY, native got involved in community theatre through his mother, who designed costumes for local groups. By the time he was a teenager, he was coming into Manhattan regularly to see the latest shows ("I saw Moose Murders," he says, proudly). As an undergraduate at Boston University, he decided that lighting was his chief interest; he then transferred to State University of New York at Purchase. "I had great mentors there," he says, "especially Bill Mintzer, who passed away this year. He was a great lighting designer anda great professor, a genius at inspiring people." Another important experience was the now-disbanded United Scenic Artists internship program. "I worked with many designers--David Segal, Jeff Davis, Peter Kaczorowski. I assisted Jeff Davis for four or five years."
One of Posner's most significant early jobs came in 1988 when he became designer for the Unicorn, the second stage of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, in Stockbridge, MA. He was assisting Davis on mainstage productions; Davis introduced him to Gordon Edelstein, who was taking over as artistic director of the Unicorn. "It was really the foundation of my career," Posner says. He designed the Australian play Emerald City, which was then done again a year later at New York Theatre Workshop, giving Posner his first New York design credit. The next season, he did the 1928 drama Machinal, with director Michael Greif. The production was so successful that it was then staged in New York at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre.
Machinal is Sophie Treadwell's drama, based on a famous murder case, about a young woman trapped in a dead-end marriage to a well-off businessman, who plots, with her lover, to murder her husband. The play is also about the deadening effect of contemporary machine-driven society and Greif's production recreated for modern audiences something of the 1920s Expressionist style. Central to this was Posner's lighting design, which made any number of bold choices, including what may be the longest, slowest lights-up in the modern American theatre, during a scene in which the heroine and her lover discuss their plans in bed. Speaking of that design, he says, laughing, "It came from being totally naive and being completely unaware of what commercial theatre was and what people expected light to be. It was raw, gut instinct--and it was what Joseph Papp and Michael Greif wanted."
Naive or not, after Machinal, people began to pay attention, and Posner started working seemingly everywhere. Nowadays, he says he prefers to work in New York, partly for family considerations (he lives in New Jersey with his wife, Michelle, and two children, Ethan and Lillian). But, he says, "So many of the more exciting projects start out of New York, so I have to go where the start-up is."
One potentially significant start-up took place last fall at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, where Posner designed Harmony, his first large-scale book musical. The designer has done a number of Off Broadway musicals, including the campy theatre spoof Ruthless and the all-gal country-western comedy Cowgirls. Harmony, however, is a different animal, a sophisticated book musical with libretto and lyrics by Bruce Sussman and music by Barry Manilow (yes, that Barry Manilow). The show is based on the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a six-man German music-comedy group which was popular in Europe between the wars. However, some of them were Jewish and at least one was involved with a Jewish woman; their popularity was not enough to save them when the Nazis took over.
Harmony is filtered through the memory of "Rabbi," the group's unofficial leader, who escaped from Germany and lived to an old age in America. "Rabbi" is an unreliable narrator; he has slips of memory and tries, unsuccessfully, to skirt the more unpleasant aspects of the group's history. Furthermore, in "Rabbi's" mind, the story seems to take place only in concert halls. Thus scenic designer Derek McLane created a set dominated by a series of proscenium arches, with set pieces which deliberately played with size and perspective. Posner's lighting had a "performance" quality, using lots of sidelight and footlights to quietly but firmly underline the piece's stylized nature. "I wanted it to have a heightened theatricality, which you always find in concert halls," he says. "Once we solidified the idea of the concert hall being the environment in which 'Rabbi' remembers everything--this is the romantic part of his life--then the rest of the design just evolved from there."
There are dozens of scenes in Harmony, a show that is conceived to move like a film. Posner supplemented the La Jolla Playhouse lighting inventory with a package supplied by Production Arts that included ETC Source Fours and Altman 360Q ellipsoidals. With his expanded equipment package, he was able to create several striking effects, including an interesting shadow-play sequence for a number featuring the young Marlene Dietrich, and for a fantasy vision of VE Day in Times Square. The designer's extensive use of sidelight also gave each scene a beautifully burnished look, and contributed to its quietly heightened sensibility.
Harmony was generally well-received, but it was just one highlight in a season that provided many for the designer. Reviewing his record, one wonders if he can keep up the red-hot pace of the last two seasons. Time will tell, but, whatever happens, you can be sure that Posner will be working on many interesting projects with interesting collaborators. The one thing Kenneth Posner doesn't do is stand still.