[Full article published in UrbanExcavations May 26, 2020, by Martha Wade Steketee.]
Isabella Byrd has chased the light in her stage designs around the country in recent years, several of which received nominations and awards before, between, and since our two interviews in 2019. Byrd’s work on The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and “Daddy” that we discussed in our first 2019 conversation was recognized by Henry Hewes Design Awards (for 2018 and 2019), and a 2019 Obie Award for Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.
Writing from the perspective of May 2020, mid virus shutdown, and after the 65th Drama Desk Award nominations, we now know that Byrd’s excitement about Heroes of the Fourth Turning has been shared by audiences, critics, and awards nominators alike. She has been recognized with a 2020 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lighting Design (announced May 3) and has been nominated for a 2020 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design for a Play. (the winners will be announced May 31).
In this August 2019 conversation we discuss her relationship with playwright Will Arbery, how research as an essential part of her creative process, the compelling creations of James Turrell, circadian rhythms, and other topics. At the point of this conversation, her lighting design was still fluid for a show in rehearsals, when all things were possible.
We’ve covered in our prior conversation inspirations, designs you loved, and people who inspire you. Is there anything that you want to add about background or favorite past projects before we go on to talking about Heroes of the Fourth Turning?
It feels wild to have discussed the beginning of my career pivot in early May 2019, just before the Obies happened. Since that conversation, I have won the Obie for Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. What a surprise. That season seemed so long ago; there’s no way that that work is getting any attention. Since we chatted last, I’ve had to relive that in a really lovely but also surprising way.
It was lovely to be recognized. That shelf of awards, the season and the nominations, the Henry Hewes — all of that is the first time that has ever happened to me. There’s a reckoning that comes with that, how I’m existing in certain people’s spheres and not in other people’s. I’m still learning what that feels like and how to move along.
Part of the joy for me in writing about your work is capturing you at the cusp, at this point of breaking into a new phase of your career. And this next step involves someone you’ve worked with before. Plano had a dramatic ripple effect in the spring of 2019.
I love that play. I was thrilled that it made a ripple.
What is it that sparks you in Will Arbery’s work? What is it that draws you to it and what are you excited about doing in this piece that’s about to be fully realized?
Will Arbery is a genius in his weird corner of the world. I so admire the way that he can sculpt person and place in his work. Something I became attached to in Plano that is driving my interest in our current piece is how he manifests a space that where these women exist and time sort of travel through them. The way that we encounter most plays is time as a linear and expected element, and we see people coming in out of that. He is able to invert time in a way that helps me ask different questions of my work.
I’d like to think that he writes and thinks in a way that I see, which is often emphasizing some of the quirkier corners of our human edges. I love the way that he can present those to an audience in a way that feels natural and succinct.
Plano is a beast of a play and quite hard to read on the page, because it requires you to move at a clip. If that play were to be read at a slow pace, oh gosh, we’d still be there. I don’t think we would learn what we learned, or become attached to these women and their pains and toils and the disease that is their survival, in a way.
A lot of Will’s work is laced with deep intellectual rigor. We walk the Plato’s Cave line in a way that I really enjoy. Heroes of the Fourth Turning is another examination of the culture in which he grew up. Plano in it’s own way was a portrait of his sisters condensed — he has seven sisters and in Plano there are only three sisters characters.
This next world focuses on his Catholic conservative upbringing. And all takes place in a durational piece, where the beginning of the real action is late night after a party that’s being thrown to celebrate the new president of a Catholic college. Four young conservatives are lingering at the end of this party in order to get some face time with her and with each other. They discuss and tangle and unravel the harder questions that are floating through our political and emotional political space right now.
It is, once it begins, almost midnight, 11:30-ish, and it drives straight forward. It takes place in this backyard in Wyoming, and so we’re in the design confronting darkness in a way that I haven’t done before, that I’m excited about and really terrified of simultaneously.
So you’re confronting darkness, and immersing an audience in this conservative world.
Much of our research is looking at what the actual hillsides and mountainsides of Wyoming look and feel like, and how that sort of abyss can bend and come forward in darkness and dusk. I was excited to look at some dome research in Catholic architecture that I thought really mimicked that vastness. Laura Jellinek is the scenic designer, who I just think is the bee’s knees. She dives in with great rigor in a way that I think is super cool. Together, we’re pulling in a vast stream of research.
We’ve created this space that in many ways is very Turrellian. If I could go like sacrifice myself to the Roden Crater, I probably would. I would maybe shave off a year of my life to go have a good visit there or maybe live there for a year. Whatever it is.
I’ve been spending a lot of time for this design thinking about how we can cradle these people in this darkness, in this abyss, in a way that doesn’t distract from some of their complicated conversations. The words and the arguments they float through are scary enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if people walk out of this play just because of the friction. The way that there’s a brutal confrontation about abortion and about Trump.
What’s also important to note is that the play is actually taking place in August of 2017. It’s two days before the total solar eclipse. It’s also a week after the Charlottesville riots. And I don’t think we knew this when Will was placing it, but Steve Bannon was fired the night before the actual date that the play takes place. It’s a very particular political hinge in our world. We now feel differently about it, but there’s this remarkable hope sitting inside these characters about how the country might be changing.
It’s a fascinating and scary deep dive into this world. I think that the design and the way that darkness and light operate in this play is a big task, to make sure that we’re listening and not feeling separate when the play is displaying a lot of that laundry for us. We’re thinking a lot about design restraint in the piece. It will be quite tempting to add more and more. I’m really trying to sponge it out and to keep it simple.
You’re collaborating with director Danya Taymor again in this project.
I really find her inspiring and really in tune with this piece and what Will is trying to do. If there’s a natural cone of light from this porch light, for example, we’re going to really embrace how certain characters are going to choose to stand on the dark side of that cone versus the bright side of that cone of light. And I think that is going to influence blocking in a way that I think often does in our world. It’s just so singular a gesture, it’s going to ask different questions of bodies in space.
The themes of the play are concrete and mystical and a bit scary all at the same time.
Will is doing something scary, baring a certain part of his past. So much of his soul is born of this conservative Catholic space. We’re all entering this from the same page with him, and we’ll do a lot of calibrating together, knowing that this whole experience is about duration, and exposure to ideas, and a certain slowness that audiences often mistrust.
There are some great lines in the play about slowness being particularly important in conservative and Catholic mentalities. It’s quite true about trusting how the space between us and them, and exposing the space between us them and exposure to that difference.
Gina Presson, the college president played by Michelle Pawk in the world premiere production, had some words about that.
“Honey, of course we allow for different conclusions. But to focus on the conclusions is to miss the point. What we’re after is the slow pursuit. The thrill of reason and rhetoric, prayer and poetry — a slow working out — taking apart the clock and putting it back together — hearing the music of its ticking with fresh ears and precise new understanding. And God, let the understanding be slow.”
“Deliberative processes. Progressivism moves too fast and forces change and constricts liberty. Gridlock is beautiful. In the delay is deliberation and true consensus. If you just railroad something through because you want it done, that’s the passion of the mob. Delaying is the structure of the republic, which is structured differently in order to offset the dangers of democracy. The separation of powers. I believe in slowness, gridlock.”
So much in design across the board is how we’re creating a space that offers an invitation to the audience instead of a manipulation.
Playwright Samuel D. Hunter also comes from a conservative upbringing that touches almost everything that he writes in a fascinating way. I’ve seen less of Will’s work but his upbringing, his family, where he came from, and the religious community he was birthed out of, seems to be endlessly inspiring or provocative to him.
Definitely. Will has suddenly had quite a lot of inquiries into film experiments as well. i’m curious to see if he gets picked up in that realm. So much about his work I find exciting because it’s theater and we’re in the room with it. I don’t know how his film work would live — I imagine with the same sorts of edges but with a different toolbox.
So in Fourth Turning, the dark world that you just described seems to be a design challenge.
It’s going to be tricky. The darkness invites sleepiness for people, but the tenor of the piece I’m hoping will keep people on the edge of their seats.
A driving metaphor for Will is something that’s defined within the first pages of the play, just the idea of fugue. I was sitting in rehearsal yesterday and we just keep reminding ourselves that the truth of a fugue, two simultaneous definitions. The rhythm of certain ideas piling up in the blocking and the rhythms of the arguments on stage. I’m still excited to think how that’s going to manifest in the design. So much of the piece from our lighting design standpoint is going to be sitting in that “felt and not seen” type of design.
We did some really exciting work yesterday in rehearsal naming different movements within the acts that we’ve designated within the play. The play reads as one long scene. But particularly toward the end of the play, it’s almost as though it’s a single note that you fall deeper and deeper inside of, that pitches us into a more centralized space.
What’s exciting here is that you’re not just illuminating corners of someone else’s creation. The lighting design is as essential as anything else in building this world.
We did a visit to the theater yesterday, since Playwrights is lucky enough to have rehearsal space on top of the tower where the theaters reside. We were basking in the current state of the set and then I walked in and said, okay we can’t look at it with the lights on. We turned all the lights off, and we reminded ourselves that this is closer to the space. I always joke that blackouts are my best work. We’ll see how that ripples into this piece.
© Martha Wade Steketee (May 26, 2020)