How do you introduce an article about one of the highest-profile play festivals in the country? Let's start with a little history.
Actors Theatre of Louisville, founded in 1964, has become known for producing the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The New Play Festival was first sponsored in the 1979-1980 season by The Humana Foundation. The Foundation's support represents one of the longest continuing corporate contributions to an American performing arts organization. Over 300 plays representing 206 playwrights have been produced. Three of those plays have won the Pulitzer Prize. The uniqueness of this festival draws passionate theatre-goers from around the world who come to get a sneak peek at the future of American theatre.
We have three theatres in one building and a production studio, housing the scene shop and prop shop, about two miles away. The Pamela Brown Auditorium is a modified thrust seating 637 people; the Bingham Theatre is an arena theatre with about 318 seats; and the Victory Jory Theatre is a 159-seat thrust black box. This season, we also produced a site-specific work in a warehouse about two miles from the theatre. To discuss this year's experience, we decided to let the staff of our lighting department write entries for this article to offer each person's perspective, starting with my own.
What does Humana mean? Some say stress; some say long days; some say planning. All of these are valid. However, the most important aspect is teamwork. Hopefully, by the time the plays are selected in November, I have a group of people that will pull together as a team and work well as individuals.
In early December, we begin a series of production meetings. My role becomes the coordinator for the lighting department. I must keep the big picture in mind to aid the overall sharing of equipment and resources. I start talking with designers in early February about rental needs. I start out by going to all initial meetings. Then, I step back and let my other ME's take care of their specific shows.
In addition to being the ME in the Pamela Brown and coordinating the lighting department, I designed Fast and Loose in the Victory Jory and four ten-minute plays in the Pamela Brown. We also had a co-production with Trinity Repertory and an off-site project to work on.
That is why teamwork is so important to this process. My goal every day was to get the work done and get people time off when possible. Every hour becomes valuable when there is so much work to accomplish.
But the Festival is a great deal of fun. Each year, we get some different toys to play with such as a VARI*LITE® VL1000™ ERS or a Color Kinetic ColorBurst. We also get to work with around 200 artists who are working on multiple productions for the first time. We get to bring to life the ideas of the Humana Festival playwrights. There is a lot of excitement and personal satisfaction in premiering all these plays in a month. Each year the festival allows me to learn something about myself, challenge what I know, and grow as a theatre artist.
TONY PENNA, RESIDENT LIGHTING DESIGNER
For 2004, I designed the rep plot for the Bingham Arena Theatre, including Kid-Simple, Sans Culottes in the Promised Land, and After Ashley. I've developed my system of designing multiple shows in rep over the last four years as resident lighting designer. There are always exceptions to the rule, but here's how it's done.
After meeting with the directors, I start planning my area light, which ideally works for all three plays. In the past, there have been shows with such different sets that two light plots had to be hung at the same time, limiting the number of fixtures left for specials and increasing time spent re-plugging lights between performances. Fortunately, I used one set of area lights for all three plays this year. I just added a couple of lights to certain areas to allow for certain scenic elements. In order to accommodate the different color palettes for the plays, the electricians switch the gel colors when they change over from one show to the next.
Lightwright's customizable text and number columns are ideal for color and channeling information. I rename the text columns with the initials of each play — “KS color,” “SC color,” and “AA color” — and the rep units get a gel number in each of these columns indicating their color for each show. Then I do the same with the number columns; all of the lights that are show-specific get their channel numbers entered into one of these columns. This way, the master electrician can see which units can share a dimmer and get re-plugged between shows.
The schedule for the Humana Festival is very tight. I spend a lot of time bouncing from one rehearsal room to another, and I'm always sure to check in with everyone periodically. During the first week of tech rehearsals, we open two shows in the Bingham Theatre. Usually, we start tech for the second show before the first has even opened, and our days off are literally our only chance to focus lights. It's a crazy schedule, but it's one of the most energizing, productive, and creative projects I've ever worked on.
DEB SULLIVAN, GUEST LIGHTING DESIGNER
My first Humana Festival was in 1998 when I was a member of the electrics crew. The memories of long hours, quick changeovers, and tight tech schedules came rushing back but so did the feeling that we were doing something really important in American theatre.
The 2004 Humana Festival was my second. Returning to Louisville as LD was not unlike a reunion. I had worked with Marc Masterson at City Theatre Company in the mid ‘90s and with Oskar Eustis at Trinity Rep since ‘98. Paul Werner and I had been on the same crew back in ‘97-‘98.
Tall Grass Gothic was up first. Early discussions revolved around the sense of isolation in wide open spaces. The set was dominated by a cyc with isolated areas floating amongst tall grass. We spoke about keeping the playing areas very isolated, but as we started cueing, it became apparent that the isolation only worked if we knew the vastness first. We made the cyc more painterly than realistic, and it acted as an anchor to the whole piece. Time of day and place had to be apparent, but it also acted as a window into the emotionality, creepiness, and abundant storm metaphors in the play. We kept working the cyc and cues in notes. The pace was exhilarating.
The second show was The Ruby Sunrise in three parts. Part One is placed in a farmhouse kitchen and barn in 1927; Part Two takes place in a 1950s TV studio; and Part Three culminates in a live TV shoot. I lit Part One very “old school.” Part Two started with an explosion that revealed the entirety of the stage as the walls flew apart and the black scrim pulled out. Two TV light pipes flew in, hung with period Mole Richardson 5K fresnels and open-face cone lights painted terrific pink and some old 8" fresnels. Part Two looked very modern in contrast to Part One. We went with open white systems and with large sources. Part Three was filmed for a live video feed projected on a large RP screen at center. It had to be lit for the audience as well as the camera. We cued the show to get very isolated scenes within the expanse of the room at times and at other times light up the whole of it. Long shadows and silhouettes were a large part of the design.
NICK DENT, ASSISTANT LIGHTING SUPERVISOR
Ah, Humana…that time of year when you pack your supplies, kiss your loved ones goodbye, and disappear into the depths of the theatre to emerge, pale and blinking, into the sunlight two months later.
For me, Humana began in February with meetings for the three shows in the Bingham Theatre. Each show had to be treated equally, with four production meetings, a day to focus lights, and tech rehearsals. That's 12 meetings, three focus days, three sets of tech rehearsals at about the same time. Let's not forget the performances going on in the evenings.
During the tech process, I kept track of the many ways the plot changed — a moved actor or set piece meant moved light; changed costumes meant changed gel. Keeping track of the inventory was also an ongoing task, updating the ever changing list of Altman 360s, ETC Source Fours, High End Studio Spot 575s, VL100™ spotlights, GAM TwinSpins, slide projectors, hazers, foggers, PAR64s, Wybron CXI color scrollers, ropelight, fresnels, GAM Star Strobes, High End Systems Dataflashes, mirrorball, and LiveWire. Sometimes, we moved a light, changed its color, moved it back, and then cut the light. The next day, we would come in and hang a different light to do the same thing; two days later it would be cut because the scene had been changed again.
To simplify changeovers, I spent time finding free dimmers and using them to eliminate re-patches between shows. We discovered that half of the color changes were from lights used in only one show, shortening changeovers by about 15 minutes. Our longest changeover then took one person about 20 minutes.
By the end of the festival, we had created something that really made an impact…something bigger than we could see from inside the process. I think I'll do it again next year.
JONAS S. WILSON, FIRST ELECTRICIAN
The 2004 Humana Festival began like so many rep seasons at so many theatres: all of the electricians bouncing from hang to hang, focus to focus, and into and out of techs. All of the electricians eventually splintered into specific spaces. Initially, I felt slightly more than the usual disconnection, as my responsibility was a play (At the Vanishing Point) to be produced off-site, in the Butchertown area of Louisville.
The Festival began early for the off-site project. The space, an abandoned warehouse owned by the Metro Sewer District, was empty when we first began planning. The risers, platforms for the booth, and the expanded steel set went in quickly and were mostly in place by the time we brought in the ETC 96-dimmer Sensor Rolling Rack. Ten booms went into the space, three of which were outside, aiming in through large windows. These particular booms had wooden enclosures built to protect the instruments and limit sunlight from leaking onto the stage. Two thousand feet of multi-cable, from Vincent Lighting, split from the dimmers to run along the upstage wall towards the one corner of the warehouse that served as up center and towards the booth. Thirty-nine PAR38 lamps were hung by aircraft cable. Eleven birdies, seven 12V transformers, an HES Dataflash, two 3" fresnels, a 6" fresnel, two ETC Source Fours, and a bar sign rounded out the set mounts. Stickups were stuck up outside the three windows with booms. Various and sundry Source Fours, 8" fresnels, 6" fresnels, and another Dataflash were hung on the booms.
All in all, the project was not a technically complex event — no intelligent fixtures, no pyro, no film loops, not even a single TwinSpin. It was, however, a pleasure to work on. It is always enjoyable to work on and in new spaces, doubly so when the space is not necessarily intended to be theatrical. The play itself was also a delight. While insightful enough on its own, it also contains references to a history that my family took part in. The lightning, ghostly glimpses of children outside windows, even the bar sign evoked the faded photograph and wisps of memory.
JEN ROCK, DECK ELECTRICIAN
I wrote this after the Humana Festival actually ended. I just didn't have time to deal with this during the Festival. I walked in to the theatre in March, and the next time I had a chance to go outside again was April. Because it was my third Humana experience, I knew ahead of time what to expect. I phoned my family to remind them not to worry if they didn't hear from me for a while, then clipped on my crescent wrench and got to work.
This Festival was all about switching hats. I played the role of electrician for two of the spaces, assistant ME for the main stage productions, and ME for the ten-minute plays and Fast and Loose. The challenge this year was not the work itself (after 60 productions in three seasons, I can tighten a c-clamp in my sleep) but the sheer volume. It is a struggle to muster up enough stamina to get out of bed every morning to face another 12-hour day. Add to this the fact that today I supervise the guy that was supervising me yesterday, and it throws a whole new aspect into what makes the Humana Festival such a unique challenge.
This type of setting, in my opinion, can only result in a positive and productive workplace if your crew is a well-oiled team, passionate enough to be awed by the very art that they have been laboring to create. That's my Humana experience. I won't bore you with the details of how I had to circuit the blackbox plot with half of our dimmers missing or try to amuse you with a well-crafted story about a 5K fresnel spitting sparks at me during a film shoot for The Ruby Sunrise. Every theatre professional or student already has a version of this story anyway. The truth is my knowledge of theatre electrics is merely my excuse to be a part of a very talented collaboration. The Humana Festival is all about sitting in the house on opening night and knowing that you played a role in the creation onstage. I couldn't afford to pay for my tickets to see the Humana plays, but working my ass off in the grid was a pretty fair price to pay just to be a part of it all.
MATT GARD, BOARD OPERATOR
The Humana Festival is an amazing event. It's a month long roller coaster ride. When we start gearing up for the festival, there's an excited tension around the theatre that hangs in the air. Everyone knows something big is coming. The old timers have an idea of what to expect, and the newcomers are excited about what they have heard.
When the first tech rehearsals hit, there's no chance to stretch out and relax before the next show opens. You're running that show at night, but during the day, you come in to tech another show, and, even if you aren't working on either of those shows, there are three other theatres that are doing the same thing. Once everything is open, we have to deal with changeovers. We do two or three changeovers per theatre on some days. It gets crazy, but the key is teamwork.
This continues and builds until the last weekend. It's a circus. There's always something at the theatre from early morning until late at night. We have the most demanding schedule that weekend, as well as the most people and the biggest party. There are people everywhere. What is really amazing is the level of excitement. The audience is excited to see the new plays, and we're excited to show what we can do. Then, the next thing you know, it's over. There's still a lot of work to do, but we all get some well-deserved sleep.
KATHERINE MCCREARY, LIGHTING JOURNEYPERSON
If I had written a daily journal of my Humana experience during the first few weeks it would read something like:
“Ran multi-cable today — ugh. Got to ride the scissor-lift, though (we really need to get one of those). Came home covered in dust and the smell of Butchertown.”
Later, my days were spent jumping between the other theatre spaces helping out in tech rehearsals, doing tech rehearsals of my own, and numerous runs off-site to run shows. In a way, though, I felt fortunate. There were no changeovers in the spaces where I ran shows. I was also one of the few company members to see the sun on a daily basis (the 15-minute drive between the theatre building and off-site space).
The warehouse space itself was dusty with loud heaters that could not be on during performances. On warm days, the metal roof heated the space quickly, while on cold days, the heat dissipated just as fast. The “create a theatre out of nothing” idea is so appealing to someone in her first year out of college! It wasn't until I began dealing with hundreds of feet of multi-cable (not exactly my favorite thing) and going home each night covered in years of dust that I began to feel differently. I had never hooked up a dimmer rack in a space before or turned on a gas-powered generator to run a show. These were new experiences. If I've learned anything from this experience, it's that working on scissor-lifts make work just a little more fun.
Despite long hours and keeping the four spaces in running order, I thought I'd be able to handle Humana without many difficulties. What I didn't realize was the schedule demanded, essentially, a month of tech. When I wasn't in tech rehearsals of my own, I was running between other spaces prepping for future techs or running shows.
I think what exhausted me the most was the need to give my all to everything. This is the air of Humana. No matter how exhausted or frustrated you get, there's a belief in what we're producing. It makes you want to dig down deep and give pieces of yourself that you didn't know you had. In the end, weeks of multi-cable and dust should have left me grumpy, but as we cleaned out the off-site space at the end of the festival, I got a lump in my throat. It's as if a part of me was left behind mixed into the dust (and scissor-lift).
AMY MCCLURE, LIGHTING JOURNEYPERSON
Friday night of “Theatre Professional's Weekend” seemed like just another night in the Bingham. The show was Kid-Simple.
I glanced out at the audience as my stage manager, Pablo, entered the booth. The house was completely packed — standing room only. “Now that's a full house,” I said.
Pablo smiled, “I know. I'm a little nervous.”
I was, too. I glanced out at the audience again. Almost every person in the space worked in professional theatre, and they were sitting there watching my work. That's when I began to realize what Humana is.
My Humana experience began in February. I was to be the Bingham board operator. Once tech for our first show started, anything needed in the Bingham was up to master electrician Nick Dent and me.
The space contained a thorough rep-plot of standard axials and Source Fours as well as four Studio Spot 575s, ten Wybron CXI units, two hazers, two fog machines, and a VL1000 ERS, which hung in the dead center of a free-floating truss. My job was to maintain the space, run the shows, help with changeovers, and supply Nick with enough sugar during techs to keep him from getting grumpy. Through some trial-and-error and great planning on Nick's part, we came up with a plan that allowed me to do changeovers in a half hour.
That night in the booth with Pablo, I realized what Humana really is. Humana is the excitement of meeting and working with new people, but it's also the sense of pride and amazement you feel when you realize you're part of a company that can tech, open, and run eight full-scale productions in four spaces in a matter of weeks.
Humana Festival of New American Plays:
Kid-Simple by Jordan Harrison
After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo
Tallgrass Gothic by Melanie Marnich
The Ruby Sunrise by Rinne Groff
At the Vanishing Point by Naomi Iizuka
Sans-Culottes in the Promised Land by Kirsten Greenidge
Fast and Loose: an ethical collaboration by José Cruz González, John Walch
Kirsten Greenidge, Julie Marie Myatt
Kuwait by Vincent Delaney
The Spot by Steven Dietz
A Bone Close to My Brain by Dan Dietz
Foul Territory by Craig Wright
It should be recognized that there are many companies who have helped make the 2004 Humana Festival a success. As always, our friends at Vincent Lighting Systems Erlanger helped with rentals and even some help moving dimmer racks to a warehouse for us. AVI Staging in Cincinnati, High Output out of Providence, and Fourth Phase New Jersey helped with other rental items. I would also like to thank Rod Dampier at BMI Supply South and Nicole Stewart at Eclipse Lighting for providing quick and efficient delivery of many expendables.
For more information, please visit the Actors Theatre of Louisville website at www.actorstheatre.org.
— Paul Werner