Backstage: Chatting with Brian MacDevitt, Tony-winning lighting designer

August 30, 2011

Four Tony Awards sit high on a shelf in lighting designer Brian MacDevitt’s pleasantly cluttered office at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.

MacDevitt won them for lighting the Broadway productions of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (2009), “The Coast of Utopia [Part 1 — Voyage]” (2007), “The Pillowman” (2005) and “Into the Woods” (2002).

His fifth Tony, received this year for lighting “The Book of Mormon,” remains at his Bethesda home, waiting to be engraved. He has lighted nearly 60 shows on Broadway since 1994.

MacDevitt and his wife, actress and dancer Nancy Bannon, moved here from New York two years ago so MacDevitt could become an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. Now he does about four Broadway shows a year — down from the seven or eight he used to juggle — while he guides Maryland grad students to their MFAs and helps Bannon at home with their two young boys.

Despite the computerized bells and whistles that lighting designers have at their disposal, MacDevitt tries to impart a love of simplicity to his students.

“What I believe and what I was taught and what I try to pass on is that every project has the potential for you to have a personal point of view about it, and that you should come up with an idea based on your feelings about it, as a way to support the piece,” MacDevitt says.

In “The Book of Mormon,” the designer explains, the action takes place in two distinct worlds. At home in Utah, the missionary protagonists live in an atmosphere that’s “shadowless and bright and perfect,” MacDevitt says, but with pink gels on the lights, “which make it a little fake.”

When the young men get to Africa, they find the opposite. “It’s a gritty place where initially there’s no real sunlight. . . . All the comedy in the show comes from those two worlds colliding,” he adds.

In February, MacDevitt will jump into the Washington theater scene, designing the lighting for “Sucker Punch” at Studio Theatre.

New musical, new company

Joe Calarco lives and works in New York, but the director-playwright has been Amtraking down to Washington for more than a decade to direct here. He’s currently staging the new musical “The Boy Detective Fails,” now in previews at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

His direction there of the musicals “Side Show” (2000), “Urinetown” (2005) and “Assassins” (2006) garnered 16 Helen Hayes Awards among them and three outstanding-director nods for Calarco.

Calarco mounted his own piece, “Shakespeare’s R&J,” at the Folger Theatre in 2000 after its success off-Broadway, and Signature has presented his “. . . In the Absence of Spring . . .” and “Walter Cronkite Is Dead.”

Now he and colleagues from New York, Ithaca and Philadelphia have founded Breaking Bread Theatre, which will be based in New York. They intend to do workshops and full productions of new works that appeal to them, no matter how odd their concepts or impossibly large their casts.

Breaking Bread’s first production, in fall 2012, will be a musical adaptation by writer-composer-lyricist Daniel Zaitchik of the Joan Lindsay novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

The idea, says Calarco, 43, is to reignite the anything’s-possible mood he had as a young artist. “When I first moved to New York,” he says, “I wanted to do a play and I did a play. I wasn’t waiting around for someone to hire me. . . . It’s to just be able to say, ‘I want to do this piece, so I’m going to do it.’ And not feeling like I have to go off and sell it to someone else.”

Theater J’s 2011-12 season

Washington actress Jennifer Mendenhall will be Theater J’s associate artist in residence for the 2011-12 season. The plays are:

●“Imagining Madoff” (Wednesday-Sept. 25) by Deb Margolin, which invents a dialogue between Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and a righteous Jewish man as his fictional foil. Alexandra Aron directs Rick Foucheux as Madoff, with Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum and Mendenhall.

●“Parade” (Sept. 22-Oct. 30 at Ford’s Theatre), a co-production with Ford’s, is a musical about the 1913 trial in Georgia of a Jewish man, Leo Frank, for the murder of a 13-year-old girl. The music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, and the script by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”). Stephen Rayne will direct a cast headed by Euan Morton.

●“After the Fall” (Oct. 26-Nov. 27), Arthur Miller’s autobiographical work, will star Mendenhall, Gabriela Fernández-Coffey, Tim Getman, Mitchell Hébert and Kimberly Schraf, directed by Jose Carrasquillo.

●“The Religion Thing” (Jan. 4-29), a new comedy by Renee Calarco about religious differences in a marriage, will be staged by her brother Joe Calarco.

●“The Kinsey Sicks Take (A)Back America!” (Feb. 4-19). The “Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet” from San Francisco nabs the GOP presidential nomination in a new piece commissioned by Theater J.

●“New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza” (Feb. 29-April 1) by David Ives, a hit for the company last summer, will have the same cast, headed by Alexander Strain as Spinoza, and again directed by Jeremy Skidmore.

●“The Whipping Man” (April 18-May 20) by Matthew Lopez explores the post-Civil War relationship between two freed slaves and the Jewish Confederate soldier whose father owned them. Jennifer Nelson will direct.

●“The History of Invulnerability” (June 6-July 8) by David Bar Katz delves into comic book writer Jerry Siegel and his Superman character. Shirley Serotsky will direct.

Page-to-Stage this weekend

The Kennedy Center’s annual Page-to-Stage Festival of new plays — a marathon of free readings and open rehearsals — will take place Saturday through Monday, with about 40 area theater companies participating. Seats are on a first-come, first-served basis, so pack your lunch and prepare to stand in line. Visit www.kennedy-center.org and click on “10th Annual Page to Stage” for the full schedule.

A changing of the guard

After 14 years, this is my last “Backstage” column. Beginning next week, the column will continue with a different writer.

It has been a delight and a privilege to spend hundreds — more likely thousands — of hours talking to and writing about Washington area theater artists and occasionally visitors from afar. My greatest thrill, though, has been the chance to observe the growth, creative energy and sheer cussed determination of the theater world right here. Early on, I sometimes struggled to find enough stories to fill a column. Long ago that struggle became all about what I could squeeze in.

From the largest to the smallest companies, in good economic times and bad, theater here has burgeoned into one heckuva lively beast.

Stay frisky, you beast.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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