A true champion of regional theatre, Paul Owen is now in his 32nd season designing for Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) and its annual Humana Festival in Louisville, KY, working first with producing director Jon Jory, and now Marc Masterson. As resident scenic designer, Owen is responsible for roughly 20 productions per year, and was instrumental in the company's building expansion projects in 1972 and 1994. In 1992 he was honored with the Governor's Award in the Arts for outstanding artistic achievement. Four years ago, ATL presented a retrospective of his work, “View from the Past: Recollections of Stage Designs,” with photographs, models, and drawings recalling many of the more than 1,000 sets Owen has to his credit. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux checked in with Owen as he was designing this year's Humana Festival, on the boards March 2 through April 13, 2003.

Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: How did you get involved in theatre in the first place?

Paul Owen: I date all the way back to the beginning of the regional theatre movement, when the Ford Foundation just had a gleam in its eye. I am from Texas, had graduated from the University of Houston, trained as an actor and director. I auditioned for Nina Vance at the Alley Theatre and got my draft notice at about the same time and spent two years in the military in Germany; I came home just as Vietnam was heating up. On leave, I went to Stratford-on-Avon and was struck by the fact that we didn't have a theatre like that in the United States. When I got back, I went to work as a member of the staff at the Alley Theatre, acting and directing children's theatre. I am not trained as a designer.

ELG: How did you segue into designing?

PO: Nina Vance was running a theatre company in an inadequate physical space and needed to have technicians and designers, but she was afraid to talk to them, so I became the liaison. After a while, I said this was ridiculous and I couldn't do that anymore. So she said, “Then you be the designer,” and that's the way it began. That first season I did lights for The Miracle Worker, costumes and lights for The Imaginary Invalid, and sets, lights, and costumes for a third production as well. I remained at the Alley from 1960 to 1969. During that time, I served as the owner's consultant on the construction of their new building. What a grand opportunity for a young kid like me! When I left, I was presumably leaving the business altogether.

ELG: Where did you go?

PO: I moved to North Carolina where two of my sisters were in real estate. I thought I would move there and make my fortune and recover from burnout. They were trying to develop a mountain and balance a development with nature. My task was to lay out a prospectus and architectural guideline.

ELG: How did you get back into theatre from there?

PO: I realized I really missed working in theatre, so I called some friends in New York at TCG [Theatre Communications Group]. They told me Jon Jory was looking for a costume designer in Louisville and before I could call him, he called me. That was in 1971. I joined the company and have been there ever since. I came as a costume designer and did sets for five shows as well. When Kurt Wilhelm came in as resident costume designer I moved primarily into sets and lights.

ELG: When did you become resident scenic designer?

PO: In 1972, and I have designed most of the Actors' productions and all of the Humana Festival plays, except three, for the past 27 years. The three exceptions were two Anne Bogart productions, and Mount Rushmore, a play John Conklin had written and directed, so I said he might as well design it as well.

ELG: When do you start working on the annual Humana Festival?

PO: I receive all the plays in early December and start working with the directors. There is a resident costume designer and a guest costume designer, a resident lighting designer and a guest lighting designer, and I design all the sets.

ELG: How do you stay fresh?

PO: The bottom line is that I always start with new material, even if it is a play I have designed before. I work differently than a trained designer. I think more about what the set needs to say and do, seeing it from an actor's perspective, rather than what it should look like. So I have no particular style, which allows me to be very flexible, and I have spent 40 years in just two theatre companies.

ELG: Do you ever freelance elsewhere?

PO: I rarely have time to job out, but it's wonderful when I do.

ELG: Are there a few productions that really stand out in your memory?

PO: There are so many, but there are a few moments I cherish. One is A Trip to Bountiful, where you go from that mundane world to where Bountiful reveals itself as a magical place. As it was revealed you saw a tree decked in Spanish moss that was actually shredded cheesecloth backlit as if the sun was coming up through it at daybreak. The hush that enveloped the audience is a moment to cherish forever. It was quite an emotional experience.

Perhaps the wildest or most interesting thing was in the Humana Festival when Jon Jory wanted to do a play called Food from Trash. We only had two performance spaces then, so there was no way we could put it onstage, as we were doing an inordinate number of plays that year. But Jon really wanted to do it, so I said we had to find a warehouse, as it needed a set like a film with real cars and a trash compactor in a dump. A board member had the warehouse where I hauled tons of dirt to cover the floor and there were little bulldozers running around with room for the cars to drive in and out. It was a metaphor for our times and the accumulation of trash and garbage.

ELG: Do you have a preference for new work over classical plays?

PO: We do a range of work for ATL and have a special fund to produce a major Shakespeare every other year. At the Humana Festival we do only new work. I like both, but I do enjoy the adventure of doing new work and creating something from scratch, working with both the playwright and the director. We also do A Christmas Carol every year, and I design a new production for it every five or six years.

ELG: Have you ever wanted to work on Broadway?

PO: No. I am completely committed to how theatre functions as part of a community rather than my personal career needs.

ELG: Do you admit your age?

PO: Yes, I'm 67 years old and have no plans to stop working as long as my health, which is terrific, and the energy are still here.

ELG: Does new technology impact the way you work?

PO: I've stopped designing lights but marvel at the new computer-controlled systems. When we were designing the Alley, George Izenour and I talked about finding a way for computers to control lights using punch cards. I do have a little nostalgia for the loss of finesse a board operator used to need. I have not changed the way I work. It's still pencil in hand until the concept is rock solid, then I can maximize the use of young people who have computer drafting skills. I try to take advantage of what's available within the framework of our means. We do not have million-dollar budgets like on Broadway. You still need to use your imagination to get there.

THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT PAUL OWEN:

  • He is an avid gardener, specializing in the tall bearded iris, of which he has 500 varieties, as well as over 600 varieties of day lilies.

  • He abhors the sound of lawn mowers and could never keep them running, which might explain his propensity for flower beds instead of grass.

  • He is also keenly interested in architecture and has designed a house for his sister next door to his own, and is working on one for a nephew.