Seeing ‘Red’: A backstage peek at a Henegar production

We could not have put this show together without them.

The artists, that is, who when I signed on to direct the play, happily told me that they would help. And that’s truly fitting because “Red,” which opens April 19 in the Studio Theatre at the Henegar Center in Melbourne, is about the making of art and the passions infused in this divine discipline.

Written by John Logan, “Red” is an award-winning play centering on artist Mark Rothko’s famous Seagram Murals. Rothko had received $35,000 for the commission, a truly hefty price in 1958. When the 30 works he created never made it to their target – the swanky Four Season’s Restaurant – he gave the money back. Eventually the paintings found homes at the Tate Modern in London, the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Sakura, Japan, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In the play, Rothko hires a young assistant, Ken. The play explores the complexities in the characters of these two artists – the established abstract expressionist that was Rothko and the young firebrand and lover of Pop Art who was Ken. The two argue, laugh, learn, explore and have thrilling discussions about art’s power and purpose.

Typically, when I direct shows in Henegar’s black box, I like to arrange the venue in a “traverse style” which has audiences on two sides of the acting area. I did that with “Venus in Fur” and “I and You.” With “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” we arranged the stage to be more of a “thrust” stage with audiences along three sides of the acting area.

However, “Red” has a robust painting scene which could create a “splash zone” so to speak, requiring the play to be done in proscenium style, with the action at one end of the theater. And, with the setting being Rothko’s huge Bowery studio, we’re playing with entrances and exits to make the area feel larger.

Additionally, while a high-concept production can be done without any art on stage, we wanted the visuals but didn’t have the financial resources to pay royalties to replicate Rothko’s works.

So we turned to award-winning artists Nancy Dillen and Nellie Brannan and asked them to lead a project to create art after the style of Rothko.

Dillen, who was an art professor at what is now Eastern Florida State College and was head of its art department for years, took the lead.

“I knew the play was important and had a strong message, especially for those who are artists,” Dillen said. “Anything that can be of help to inform and educate the public about the value of art, I’m all for it.”

Nellie Brannan, a beloved fixture in Brevard’s theater scene, was crucial in planning the project and, meeting over cups of latte, we geeked out discussing Rothko, ideas for the paintings, schedules and invitations for other team members.

Clifford Bragdon, then Henegar board president, was so excited at the idea that he purchased a painting for $500, which gave us the seed money to buy wood, muslin and paints.

In addition to generous supporters and stores pitching in, other local theatres helped out as well, including Peg Girard at Melbourne Civic Theatre, and Cocoa Village Playhouse scenic designer Joseph Lark Riley and techie Bean Smith.

Talents from Titusville Playhouse, which had just weeks before entered into an alliance with the Henegar, jumped on board to help. Despite being stretched ultra-thin, working simultaneously on mainstage shows 40 miles apart, TPI’s associate director Niko Stamos became our production manager; Luke Atkison took on lighting design challenges; and Spencer Crosswell exuded patience while working with me on the show’s glorious sound design.

Also joining in the fun were Joan Crutcher, an award-winning visionary artist, and Steve Costner, who just recently “stole the show” at the Strawbridge Art League’s Vision 2019 exhibit at the Foosaner Art Museum.

We started out in the Studio Theatre where canvas was stretched and primed with red paint and, when there wasn’t enough light, found an old par-can lighting instrument and plugged it in. It worked! Actor Steven Wolf, who plays Rothko and was helping paint that first day, hung the par-can over a doorway, giving sort of a spooky but effective light to the whole proceedings.

It was still too dark, so at the next session we hauled everything down to a bright and airy rehearsal room where we could lean paintings against ballet barres and walls and on tables.

We also started our blocking there while the artists worked. Wolf found inspiration as he watched and listened to the artists’ serious, studied discussions over color and application.

“I keep hearing them say to me ‘Broader strokes! Steven, stop with the little brush strokes,’” Wolf said.

Dillen and Crutcher also loved hearing the dialogue.

“I especially felt in the flow when a rehearsal was going on around us while we painted,” Crutcher said. “The words of Rothko fueled my every brush stroke, putting the heart and soul of this amazing artist in play on the canvas before me.”

“It haunted me,” said Dillen.

Two more wonderful award-winning artists, also members of The Ten, joined us in the rehearsal studio – Susan Martin, a superb painter with a most glorious body of work, and Grace Leal, an amazing multimedia artist whose bold work borders on the dramatic.

Once Steven Wolf’s wife Jennifer came on board as my assistant director, we had “table reads” with Wolf and Zack Roundy, who plays “Ken” in the show.

Table reads are crucial times for both actors and director to discover more of the play’s nuances and deeper truths. It also is a good time to discover speech patterns, the play’s movement, its pacing and arc. Roundy, who lives in Orlando, was in a play at the Mad Cow Theatre at the beginning of our rehearsal process, so we used Skype for one read-through.

Once back at the black box, it was time for the actors to learn the practical aspects of mixing paint, making stretcher frames, priming, application and stretching canvas on a huge frame.

Leading that project was another artist, Steve Costner.

“Mark Rothko comes from the era that I admire the most, abstract expressionism,” said Costner. “This show opens later this week, so I will get to see the results of a lot of hard work from very talented theater people and art people.”

“Red” opens Friday and runs through April 28 in the Studio Theatre at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $26 and $29. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Seating is limited. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.

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