Still Waters: An Interview with Actors Theatre of Lousville Artistic Director Les Waters

Les Waters in his office at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Les Waters in his office at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Les Waters was named Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2011. But the first full season that he has programmed for the theater — and that  means not just the Humana Festival but a seven-show September-to-February slate — ends April 7 with the close of the 2013 Humana Festival. His lineup for ATL’s 2013-14 main season has just been announced.

I sat down with Waters in his office Friday morning for a wide-ranging discussion about his new role as artistic director of a major regional theater. Waters has never run a theater before this. What obviously attracted ATL was his working relationships with some of the most progressive voices in 20th and 21st century theater, and his skills in the nuts-and-bolts of getting new plays produced. The British-born director, who cut his teeth at London’s Royal Court Theater, was Associate Artistic Director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre for eight years and directed regularly at such major regionals as the Yale Rep, Long Wharf and Actors Theatre of Louisville. He’d maintained important collaborative relationships with writers such as Caryl Churchill, Charles Mee, Sarah Ruhl, Will Eno and Anne Washburn.

“I’m enjoying it,” he says. “The job is a bear—a regular year-round theater that also has this month-long new play festival at the end of the season. It’s a lot of work. But I enjoy the people.” He also applauds the ATL audiences. “At some places, the audience seems jaded. Here, there’s a keenness. There’s a real quality of listening.”

The first two main seasons Waters has programmed appear fundamentally different from each other. The just-concluding 2012-13 season featured Adam Rapp directing Sam Shepard’s True West, the Matthew Sweet-based pop musical Girlfriend, Matthew Lopez’s regional theater blockbuster The Whipping Man, as well as Romeo & Juliet, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and the seasonal staples Dracula, A Christmas Story and A Christmas Carol.

The 2013-14 slate seems to lean more heavily on the classic and non-confrontational side, until you notice some intriguing production details. The season opens with Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, followed by a new regional-theater circuit hit, the Martin Luther King Jr. biodrama The Mountaintop. Then there’s a new adaptation of Henry Fielding’s comic novel Tom Jones, notable for being scripted and directed by former Actors Theatre’s Producing Director Jon Jory. The Pirates of Penzance is next, but it’s an irreverent and stripped-down version created by the Chicago theatrical troupe The Hypocrites. The main-season closer, next January, is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by Waters himself. (The vampire and Scrooge shows are also still in there somewhere.)

“Next season is our 50th anniversary,” Waters explains, “and I wanted a celebratory feel to it. Noises Off is one of the funniest plays ever written. I’ve seen The Hypocrites perform Gilbert & Sullivan pieces, and I’ve always been interested in doing that kind of show. Jon Jory coming back is of course a big deal.” As for Our Town, “I wanted to be a presence directorially.

“I’m stil finding my feet here. This season went well, on my end at least. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done. It’s interesting, what’s familiar to one city is completely new to another. And Humana, in some cities, would be like an entire season in four weeks.”

Waters trimmed the fest by one full production (six, not seven) this year. “It’s not an economic cutback; the funding is exactly the same. We’re responding to people asking for extra time for rehearsals and tech. We’re moving resources around.”

Waters did not program the 2012 Humana Festival, having joined the theater too late in the year-long script-culling process.  Two of the offerings for the 2013 festival feature him as director: Will Eno’s new full-length, Gnit, which plays in ATL’s largest space, the Pamela Brown proscenium stage, and Sarah Ruhl’s four-character Two Conversations Overheard on Airplanes, which Waters commissioned for the fest’s hallmark Ten-Minute Plays series (staged in the Pamela Brown space on the final weekend of Humana, April 6 & 7). It’s Waters’ third time working with the mercurial playwright Eno (with whom he previously did Tragedy: A Tragedy and Middletown). His work with Ruhl has ranged from the West Coast world premieres of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play and Eurydice to recent Yale Rep premieres of the playwright’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and the epistolary drama Dear Elizabeth. He’s not directing it, but Waters also found a place in the festival for another playwright he works with regularly: Anne Washburn, who’s contributed to Sleep Rock Thy Brain, this year’s production written to be performed by ATL’s apprentice company.

Waters finds it “heartbreaking” that he hasn’t worked with Caryl Churchill for years, due to them living on different continents. They remain in touch, and Churchill reportedly visited  last year’s Humana. “I was an assistant on the original [British] production of Cloud Nine,” Waters says. He went on to work with Churchill on Three More Sleepless Nights, A Mouthful of Birds, Fen (“my entry into the American theater”), The Skriker and Ice Cream & Hot Fudge. Likewise, he says, “I would love to continue my relationship with Chuck (Mee), whom he hasn’t directed since Wintertime at Long Wharf Theatre in 2002. “I think Big Love relaunched my career in the states. I learn a lot from him. He certainly requires you to be brave. You really can’t do a vanilla version of a Chuck Mee play.”

Waters doesn’t write plays himself. “I noodled around on a play for several years, but it was just terrible. What was it about? I’m not telling you. It was awful.”

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