His is a high-wattage career. Howell Binkley has two plays on Broadway featuring his illuminations -- the Tony Award-winning "Avenue Q" and "Golda's Balcony." He is in the process of lighting the three main-stage productions of the Kennedy Center's "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival. And he put finishing touches last week on "Cyrano de Bergerac" at the Shakespeare Theatre, where he's a frequent collaborator. It begins previews tonight.
"What we really have to do is dissect each show and put together a light plot," says the 47-year-old lighting designer. For most shows, set, costume and lighting plans are hatched six months to a year ahead. The director, scenic designer and perhaps the costume designer collaborate first, Binkley says. "And once they establish their vocabulary and their vision," he joins in to en-lighten them.
Biweekly meetings go on for months. Closer to opening, after the set is installed, he supervises the rigging of lights he's chosen (with filters, gels and other enhancements) above and around the stage in the "light plot." He then focuses them onto the sets. During a laborious week of technical rehearsals just before previews, Binkley sets up all the light cues for each scene and for changes within each scene. Much of this is entered into a computer program.
It's a cliche -- and not such a true one -- that good stage lighting should go unnoticed. Stage lighting can shine, but it's supposed to serve the play. In "Cyrano" -- and in any Tennessee Williams play -- "there's a lot of text in the show and you've got to see the text in the actors," Binkley says. With lighting he's "modeling the scenes so none of the text is lost. . . . It's all about sculpting and modeling and direction . . . enhancing the actor."
And new technology has helped the lighting designer's sculpture technique: In "Golda's Balcony," for example, star Tovah Feldshuh can improvise her blocking and wander all over the stage without a light operator tracking her. There's "a little transformer" in her wig that remotely cues a robotic light to stay with her. Says Binkley, "You don't even notice it."
Double Debuts for Caleen Jennings
Premiering two works simultaneously in the same market is a landmark moment for any playwright. The higher profile may feed the ego, but you're also competing against yourself for theatergoers and providing a double-wide target for critics.
Caleen Sinnette Jennings has two plays in world premiere runs here right now: "A Monday Night With Bess and Tess" and "Pumping Josey: Life and Death in Suburbia," a one-act, multi-character solo piece she wrote with and for a friend, performer Pam Sherman.
"It's kind of like you're giving two parties at once and you can spend a little while at each one," says Jennings. "It's kind of hair-raising. . . . All the pressure and intensity that a playwright feels with one show opening, multiply that by two."
African Continuum Theatre Company's staging of "Bess and Tess" runs at the H Street Playhouse through June 27. "Pumping Josey" headlines Horizons Theatre's "Going Solo: A Showcase of Fabulous Females," featuring one-act performance pieces by women through June 27 at Arlington's Theatre-on-the-Run.
"Josey" grew out of a shattering personal experience, Sherman's loss of a good friend to a sudden, early death. What began as a tribute and memoir, Jennings says, grew through her collaboration with Sherman into a fictional work.
In the play, "Josey has a sort of suburban meltdown after the death of her friend," Jennings says. The friend represented Josey's "lifeline," a buffer against "suburban sameness." Her favorite female heroes turn up to help her fight off malaise: Mary Todd Lincoln, Anna Freud and Hungarian Jewish freedom fighter Hannah Senesh.
"Bess and Tess" germinated in the late 1990s, with Jennings's dramatic comedy about race relations, "Inns and Outs," at Source Theatre. Washington actors Jewell Robinson and Beverly Cosham played a nice scene in it, and it was suggested Jennings build a whole play around them.
"The following spring, I taught Theater History 3," which focused on Chekhov, Wilde and Shakespeare, says Jennings, an American University professor. "I got the idea: What if these two black actors . . . were able to do scenes . . . they wouldn't ordinarily be cast in?"
Cosham and Robinson play Bess and Tess, classically trained actors whose careers have been limited due to their race. When one retires, they celebrate by performing scenes for their theater friends.
Jennings deliberately chose to emulate rather than excerpt classic plays. "I got a chance to write what I call faux Shakespeare, faux Oscar Wilde," says Jennings. And yes, she adds, "It takes a lot of chutzpah."
Rorschach Theatre, that intense troupe producing ambitious work on a shoestring, will kick off next season with Dario Fo's "A Tale of a Tiger" (Sept. 11-Oct. 3), about a soldier in Mao's army left for dead and nursed back to health by a tiger.
Ami Dayan will direct and act in the solo piece, using the Italian Nobel laureate's dark ending about the soldier's return to human society, plus a more conciliatory finale Dayan created for a 1997 run in Israel.
Fo's farce about an accused terrorist, "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" (Oct. 13-Nov. 13), will be produced with an "updated spirit" to fit the times, says co-artistic director Randy Baker. Grady Weatherford will direct.
An adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" (Feb. 2-March 5) by Phyllis Nagy will be staged by co-artistic director Jenny McConnell.
Baker will guide the world premiere of "Behold!" (June 4-June 25, 2005) by Arizona writer James Hesla.
The "epic comedy . . . about myth and the way that myths shape our lives" follows a group of people who become obsessed with a Pandora-esque box, Baker says.
Rorshach performs at Casa Del Pueblo, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW.
* A three-part reading of "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's humongous play about 19th-century Russian radicals, to be given tomorrow, June 16 and June 23 at 7:30 p.m., will benefit the Washington Shakespeare Company in Arlington. Tickets are $150 for the series. Call Lee Mikeska Gardner at 703-418-4808, Ext. 4, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
* The graduating class of the Shakespeare Theatre-George Washington University graduate program for professional actors will perform "Women Beware Women" by Thomas Middleton and "Love's Labour's Lost" by you-know-who June 14-26 at 507 Eighth St. SE. Call 202-547-1122, Ext. 9. Suggested donations are $10, $5 for students and seniors.