Hard to believe a year has passed since receiving the Rising Star Award at USITT in Kentucky. I've been very busy and hope I've lived up to the expectations that go with the award. After the exciting duet of The Humana Festival and USITT, I immediately went to work with the then soon-to-be-new artistic director of Playmakers Rep, Joseph Haj, on the sweeping epic Cyrano de Bergerac. Our production started with all the chaos and sword fighting required, full of light cues and theatricality, and then ended on a beautiful clear stage with our lone, big-nosed actor in a clean, sharp white light.
I joined Lear DeBessonet and my dear friend and collaborator, Peter Ksander, in making a new play, Bone Portraits, at Walkerspace in New York. Working on the set and lighting design allowed me to create a dynamic architecture that influenced how DeBessonet staged the play. We started with a small canvas stage only 4' deep that slowly revealed more as we tunneled deeper into the plays explorations of x-rays.
Eve Ensler wrote a new play, The Treatment. Along with Leigh Silverman, director, and Richard Hoover, set designer, I designed the lights as part of the Culture Project's Impact Festival. One challenge was staging a scene in complete darkness. Inspired by the night-vision goggles used in the military, I lit the scene by slowly creating an entire green world that allowed the audience to see the action.
I then joined Nancy Keystone in Los Angeles where we made an elegant America Play at the Boston Court, a theatre I admire for producing exciting, dangerous, and visual new plays. Working with visually inspired directors such as Keystone is extremely important to me. For the past four years, we've been making a series of new plays based on the Apollo Program and its intersection with ideas of justice.
Marcus Stern, Christine Jones, the Dresden Dolls, and I made a thrilling installation of The Onion Cellar at the American Repertory Theatre's Zero Arrow in Cambridge. Jones designed a giant “O” of light bulbs that transformed the black box into our nightclub. Neon, hanging bare light bulbs, and lots of footlights helped spark ideas of a punk cabaret.
The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, of which I'm a member, kept busy with a production of Major Barbara at LaMama and also as a part of the BAIT festival at PS122. Director Brooke O'Harra and composer Brendan Connelly make visual work with the scoring essential in the play. Our newest play, Drums of the Waves of Horikawa, mixes punk rock and kabuki physicalities and aesthetics.
The new Carnival Center in Miami is a beautiful space with a magnificent crew. For Cabaret Unkempt, I joined Jennylin Duany and made a new multimedia piece about body image. A highlight of my year was working with TENT (www.pbdgroup.com), the company I co-founded five years ago with other designers and notable because of its producing structure — there is none. We are directors, designers, technicians, and performers that make new, fun, total events — unique in our insistence that everyone in the company take on all production and creative roles when making a show. We have a few specific anchors for each show but never know what our show will be until opening night. Vanessa Gilbert, executive artistic director of Perishable Theatre in Rhode Island, took a big leap of faith and booked us into her space for the month of August.
TENT is an alternative producing model to address the difficulties of producing new work as young artists. It wrestles with several questions: How can we — as designers, directors, and playwrights — make new work that speaks our language completely? Where can we make work that allows us to play? How can we make something that is affordable and invites new audiences into the theatre?
The show, Your Shipwreck is No Disaster!, was written, performed, built, and made by the entire company. The work purposely stumbles and is clumsy and inefficient. Because we have many designers, the show frequently revolves around images and actions rather than a traditional play structure. There is, however, always a story, a question, and an idea to our events. We craft an essentially new story in the rehearsal room and then remix our material into a single event. Our script — full of note cards, doodles, and short-hand ideas — is written throughout rehearsals and refined after each performance. This summer, we started with the painting The Raft of the Medusa, the movie Jaws, and a really sharp ax. At the end of the month, there was an unessential game show, sentimental cannibalism, a grave seller, and a sad monkey, all centered around questions of survival and whether might makes right.
We try to barter for everything we need, including performance and rehearsal space. We believe if you give two people a task and put one in charge, the second will be able to be more creative and flexible, while the other is busy being the leader. We trust our instincts and make work on our feet. We necessarily install the set and costumes from the first rehearsal. Without them in place, we don't know what we'll make. Throughout rehearsal, we build, change, and cut parts of the set. Action grows out of image in our rehearsals. We recycle, throw out, and try new ideas without reverence in an attempt to figure out what is surprising, fun, and important to us.
As a designer, I'm thrilled to find myself acting as a maker and participating in meaningful ways with my work in the rehearsal hall and the performance space.
Justin Townsend (www.justintownsend.com) is a lighting and set designer and the 2006 recipient of the USITT Rising Star Award, sponsored by LDI and Live Design.