Ed McCarthy and Greg Sullivan take on the Humana Festival of New American Plays It is probably the most scrutinized theatre event in the United States--not even big Broadway openings draw reporters from Hong Kong and Budapest. Directors and dramaturgs show up in droves, too, looking for plays to fill next season's agenda. Any playwright whose work is produced there may justifiably feel that he/she has arrived at last. There's nothing else like it in the American theatre. And you have to go to Louisville, KY, to experience it.
We are speaking, of course, about the Humana Festival of New American Plays, staged each spring at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL). Underwritten by the Humana Foundation, the charitable arm of one of the country's largest publicly-traded health care companies, the Humana Festival has given birth to plays such as "The Gin Game," "Agnes of God," "Getting Out," "Extremities," "Keely and Du," and "Slavs!" Last year's hit, Naomi Wallace's "One Flea Spare," was produced in New York this season, generating pre-opening features in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Village Voice, and elsewhere, an unusual occurrence for a rather unknown playwright. But the Humana Festival has given a crucial boost to the careers of Tony Kushner, Horton Foote, Lee Blessing, Marsha Norman, Beth Henley, Romulus Linney, and dozens of others.
The festival's offerings are staged in repertory over a five-week period, although most of the excitement is focused on Visitor's Weekend, when seemingly the entire theatrical world descends on Louisville to see as many as three productions a day. This year, the 21st Festival, offered six new plays plus an evening of "Ten-Minute Plays," three 10-minute one-acts. Given that all these productions are fully staged, one might imagine that a sizable team of designers is hired for the festival. In fact, all six featured scenery by ATL's resident designer Paul Owen; David Zinn and Marcia Dixcy Jory split the costume assignments (Kevin R. McLeod designed the Ten-Minute Plays); and lighting was handled by Ed McCarthy and Greg Sullivan (three productions apiece, with McCarthy also taking on the Ten-Minute Plays). As the saying goes, that which does not kill you makes you stronger.
Nevertheless, both McCarthy and Sullivan insist that the Humana Festival offers artistic rewards that far outweigh the frantic pace of production. Both designers faced many challenges, not least being the wide stylistic diversity of the plays. Benjie Aerenson's "Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old" is a crime drama about insurance fraud and the murder of a race horse. Steven Dietz's "Private Eyes" is a sleight-of-hand comedy about marriage and the theatre with a number of Pirandellian aspects. Richard Dresser's "Gunshy" is a romantic comedy, which also takes satirical potshots at a number of modern social trends. Naomi Iizuka's "Polaroid Stories" re-enacts the events of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" on an abandoned pier in an unnamed city, featuring a cast of homeless street kids. There is more mythology in Edwin Sanchez's "Icarus," a modern play whose action nevertheless relates to the famous tale about the price of reaching too high. And Carol Mack's "In Her Sight" takes the audience to 18th-century Vienna, where Franz Mesmer cures a blind pianist with unexpected results.
To accommodate all these productions, both designers had to create rep plots which could light more than one play, no matter how unalike they were. Of course, the relentless festival schedule dictated that everything had to go right the first time. Planning and preparation were the keys. "It's an incredible undertaking," says McCarthy. "The logistics of it--it's like a war."
McCarthy had one advantage--he was a designer-in-residence at ATL this season. Before the festival, he designed a production of "Having Our Say," and "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage," a revue of early 20th-century parlor entertainments devised by Jon Jory, the theatre's artistic director. After the festival, he designed "Hot and Cole," a revue of Cole Porter songs. For the festival, he designed "Gunshy," "Private Eyes," and "Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old," all in the Bingham Theatre, which is ATL's arena space. The LD, who had little experience working in the round, admits that he was originally daunted by the task of creating a rep plot for all three plays; what he came up with was a plan that give him the greatest number of options while designing each show.
"Basically, I divided the stage into 16 areas," McCarthy says, adding that he thought of the rectangular stage area as a clock face. "I varied the color temperatures for each side. I used open white from what would be the 3:00 side, and Lee 206, which is just very pale, warm color correction from the 9:00 side. Then I used Lee 203 and 202, the cooler versions, from 12:00 and 6:00, so I could play with intensities and color temperatures--to warm or cool the stage and be able to isolate any of 16 areas. Then I had color fills coming in from each of the diagonals. I like to use very pale colors as my reference light, then fill in shadows with deeper color underneath that. Then these color fills were changed between each show."
Nevertheless, each production had many special requirements. For example, "Gunshy" opens in a revolving restaurant; it was left to McCarthy to delineate the location. So, he says, "I designed my first custom template, which was very exciting. It's a series of windows like you would see in a skyline template, but coming out on a radial from a closed center. It was basically a downlight rotator, so the windows slowly spun around the actors as they sat still. I then did a very slow play of warm and cool contrasting fill light--I had double Lee 103 on one side and Lee 174 on the other. It was like you were outside the restaurant looking in, then inside looking out." At first, he says, the audience wasn't entirely sure of the scene's location. "Then, five minutes into the show, an actor says, 'Why do we have to come to a revolving restaurant, anyway?' And it gets a big laugh."
"Gunshy" is about a divorced couple; the wife has moved to the West Coast and taken up with a coffee salesman. The husband has stayed East and met a young woman who works for the gun lobby. The first act is set in many locations; the second act features all four characters snowbound in a house in Boston. "For the whole second act, the space is divided into four rooms," says McCarthy, who had to create a sense of distinct spaces with light. "We didn't want the stage to go dead when you were in one particular room. So I had a series of window templates that would come up and highlight the furniture that was in different locations." The combination of window templates and his corner color fills were also used to give each room a distinct quality.
McCarthy is slightly reluctant to talk in detail about "Private Eyes" for fear of giving away the plot's many surprises. ("It's a play within a play within a play," he says, adding, "It's probably within another play, but we're not quite sure.") Suffice it to say that it is, in part, about rehearsing a play; the lead character, a playwright, fears his wife, an actress, is having an affair with the director. "Steven has a lot of very pointed things to say about acting and directing and relationships," says the LD. "Some of them I haven't heard anybody say better."
At any rate, "Private Eyes" begins in a rehearsal hall, so McCarthy flew in a bank of dimmable fluorescents, "which defined that space," he says. Later, when the action moves to a restaurant, he created a warm, naturalistic look; when the scene changes to include a murder (which may or may not be real), the look turned lurid with red and green light, some of it coming up out of a trap door which opens, and with a mirror ball, fog, and "every trick in the book," according to the LD.
In contrast to the previous two plays, McCarthy's third production, "Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old," took place in two basic locations, one per act. Act I was set in a barn on a horse farm. "Paul Owen built an environmental interior, with racks where you hang saddles and crops and straps. The audience looks through these hanging crops to watch the action; there were two practicals hanging over worktables. [Director Laszlo Marton] wanted Act I to be very shadowy and mysterious, and Act II, which takes place six months after in a Miami condominium, to be basically shadowless. So for Act I, I went for a lot of color and darker shadows, with a very high window template. We researched horse farms in the area and they have these very high, long, horizontal windows broken up with panes. I found a template that was similar to that, and at times I used it as the only key light. For Act II, I had tons of equipment--lots and lots of PAR cans in Lee 203 and 202. Our conceit was that there were two sides of glass windows lining up this living room, so I had lots and lots of footcandles pouring as sunlight from those two sides and a warmer fill from other sides, for some area light."
Sullivan designed two shows in the Pamela Brown Auditorium, a modified thrust arrangement. He had some experience with the space, having designed a two-part adaptation of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" there last fall (you could call Sullivan the Novel King--between "East of Eden" and the Humana Festival, he designed a two-part adaptation of John Irving's "The Cider House Rules" for Seattle Rep this past winter). Sullivan's plays were even more diverse than McCarthy's. "Icarus" takes place on a modern-day beach. "In Her Sight" is set in the candlelit interiors of 18th-century Vienna. "Icarus" had an open, expansive, colorful look; "In Her Sight"'s setting was defined by black Austrian drapes and had many scenic pieces. In fact, the LD says, "The plot was difficult to produce because there is a limited amount of rigging space overhead. Everything is spot-rigged--there's no real dedicated fly system. When there's a fair amount of scenery in the air, like there was in this case, we had to lower pipes below the catwalk for lighting. The major challenge was how to break up the pipes and squeeze them in and around flown pieces of scenery."
To solve this problem, he continues, "I came up with as efficient a plot as I could. It's not the heaviest hang they've had in there, by far. I went specifically with a front area light, dividing the stage into roughly 40 areas with a single frontlight in each of those areas, and then a single high sidelight from each direction in each area. With a lot of scenery moving horizontally across the stage I was able to use those area high sides quite effectively; that I could come in from either direction at about a 60degree angle to anywhere on the stage, with a single unit, enabled me to cut down on the number of specials quite a bit."
The beach on which "Icarus" is set is not clearly defined, although Sullivan says he had North Carolina in mind; the time of the play is late winter or early March. For his design, the LD says, "we did a lot of work with the skies--sunrise, sunset, clouds. Being "Icarus," certainly the sun imagery was very strong, so we put different types of sun projections on the sky." He used a groundrow for sunset effects but ran into a problem: "Because of the extreme sight lines and transparency of the cyc, we found out that in balcony seats you could see right into the lamp. So we painted the floor the color of the beach, extending it upstage to the cyc and pointing the cyc units downstage and down, reflecting off the floor; that worked quite successfully, I think."
If the design of "Icarus" relied heavily on frontlight, Sullivan had to adopt a different strategy for "In Her Sight." For one thing, he says, "'In Her Sight,' as an interior period piece, was really motivated from candles. Also, with all those curtains and pieces of scenery flying in and out, they blocked the frontlight more." So he made more extensive use of his side positions, a move that had certain benefits: "The Austrian curtains really looked great with light on them in just about any direction. So sidelight worked quite well, and it helped to sculpt the shapes of the performers in their costumes." To accommodate the two shows' different color palettes, Sullivan says, "we replugged several of our washes" between shows, adding, "we tried to keep it simple. We changed the color of the frontlight and a couple of the washes and that was about it."
Sullivan's third show, "Polaroid Stories," was staged in the Victor Jory Theatre, a studio space with the audience on three sides, a move that required some adjustments. Both Sullivan and McCarthy controlled their shows with ETC Obsession 600s, but in the Jory, Sullivan had to use a rather elderly Prestige 1000 board from Colortran. Also, he says, "We had some trouble with the older dimmers in there. We had to bring in an ETC Sensor rack to control the fluorescent lights in that space. That then gave us a few more dimmers than you normally have there, which cut down considerably on repatches." At any rate, the LD adds, "the intimacy is wonderful" in the Jory.
"Polaroid Stories" is set at night on a pier at the edge of a city. For the set, says Sullivan, "a cage arrangement of chain link was set up, which filled most of the space. The audience was separated from the central core of the stage by a chain link fence wall which also had a chain link ceiling to it. Anything within the bulk of the set was seen through a chain link fence."
Speaking specifically of his design, Sullivan says, "A lot of the scenes had a nighttime feeling." Some scenes had the reflection of neon signs, others "just streetlight and abandoned, torn-down building shadows. A couple of scenes had an inner city sunlight quality--not direct sunlight, but reflected off stone or concrete or steel. Mostly, it had a sense of streetlights and sign lighting or fluorescent lighting--some kind of artificial source that was filtered through something that had been destroyed or had fallen apart." One bonus to the chain link cage set was that "we were able to hang quite a bit of the plot by standing on top of the set."
Overall, Sullivan says, "Polaroid Stories" "is probably the most difficult plot I've had to come up with in years." He cites "the really undefinable nature of the piece in terms of time of day or direction of light," which "kept [director] Jon Jory and me talking till midnight. Jon and Naomi [Iizuka, the playwright] collaborated on every aspect of it, really. We'd talk and have ideas and see what worked. We still weren't sure what we wanted to do until we got into tech. The crew joked that the plot didn't change--it just continued to evolve. During the tech for 'In Her Sight,' I would have a break and add a few more units to the 'Polaroid' plot. The crew would run upstairs and hang more lights over the next day or two. By the time we got into tech, the plot was hung and focused--but it came in pieces."
In some ways, the trickiest design job was the Ten-Minute Plays. All three of them had different design needs and, since they were staged in the Pamela Brown Auditorium, McCarthy had to work within the parameters of Sullivan's plot. "They want them to be as fully produced as possible, which basically means it's a lighting event," says the LD. "So we had to get all the spare equipment and whatever spare circuiting was there."
With this in mind, McCarthy made a few alterations to the existing plot to achieve his designs. He adapted Sullivan's sidelight, removing some of the gels to get a combination of no color from one side and Lee 202 from the other. He added 6x16 irises to create pools of light for "Misreadings" and added more specials to create the look of endless corridors in "Water Babies." For "Stars," which is set on a New York terrace, he used amber gel on Sullivan's window templates, to suggest light coming onto the terrace from a party inside the apartment. Then he hung little lightbulbs to create a star effect. The result was three distinct lighting looks.
Of course, one of the main facts of life at the Humana Festival is the wild pace of productions. Speaking of his schedule, McCarthy says, "We were teching 'Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old' the day after we opened 'Private Eyes'--and they were running 'Private Eyes' at night. We would tech from 12 to 5, then change over for 'Private Eyes,' come back the next day, change over again, tech again the next day, preview, and tech again the next day, then open. It was two 10 out of 12s, spread out over four days, so it came to nine days in a row of tech for two different shows. It was nice to have a day off."
When asked about his tech schedule for the festival, Sullivan says, "You can just print that I laughed. Melia Bensussen, who directed 'Icarus,' called it 'our 10 minutes of tech.' It's a bit more than that, but not much." On the other hand, he says about the ATL staff, "It's a fabulous crew, starting with [lighting supervisor] Brian Scott and people like [light board operator] Laura Jean Wickman, [electrician] Steve O'Shea, and [assistant lighting supervisor] Tony Penna. I would come into the lighting office all hysterical, because we had to hang six more specials before tomorrow's tech, and Brian was always completely unruffled." McCarthy also mentions electrician Chadd Shaffer and adds that he had a strong staff of apprentices providing support.
In fact, both LDs indicate that they'd happily return tomorrow for another Humana Festival (well, maybe after a few days' rest). "It's been a great experience for me, because I've been able to work with all these people and in a number of styles," says McCarthy. "You begin with a sense of awe that you're at this amazing place," adds Sullivan, "where the whole world will come to see the work. What makes it so exciting is that it's about the playwright's work." Yes, but any designer who successfully completes the marathon that is the Humana Festival can feel a sense of accomplishment, too.