Actors Theatre Partners with ZFX to make dreams come to life on stage.
“Sprezzatura” is a medieval Italian word that describes the enormous effort that goes into the act of seeming effortless. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats applied the term to art and to people as diverse as fishermen (It seems so easy to cast out a line and catch fish, but it’s not.) and dancers (That Eagles’ lyric, “Someone show me how to tell the dancer from the dance,” is derived from a Yeats line.).
One of Yeats’ most famous lines of poetry is from “Adam’s Curse”: “Women must labor to be beautiful.” That’s an expression of sprezzatura. Women must work hard (and maybe even work hard to bear children – labor), wrote Yeats, to seem effortlessly lovely.
And that’s art. When you’re an audience member, you can take pleasure in knowing that the art you’re consuming took a lot of time and effort and talent to pull off. But you don’t necessarily want to see all that. When you go see “Wicked,” you don’t want to see the ropes and pulleys and strong people that heft Elphaba into the air. You know all that work is being done, but you just want to see her soar.
Sleep should be easy. Sleep looks easy. It’s a basic human need. Most of the time, when we crawl into bed at the end of a long day, sleep happens without any effort, without any planning or trouble. But log on to a social network at 3 a.m. on any given day and you’ll get a sense for just how complicated a relationship some people have with sleep.
The seemingly effortless effort of sleep, of flying, and of art come together during this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
This year’s anthology play for the Humana Festival is an incredibly technical, time-consuming, and wide-reaching effort. “Sleep Rock Thy Brain,” co-conceived by Amy Attaway, associate director of Actors Theatre’s Apprentice/Intern Company and Sarah Lunnie, the literary manager at Actors Theatre, will explore the science of sleep through drama and flight. The three-play suite will be a unique collaboration between three playwrights, Actors Theatre, ZFX Flying Effects, the University of Louisville School of Medicine, the Department of Theatre Arts at U of L, and Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School.
As the preparations for the anthology developed, satellite projects have spun off of the actual Humana Festival production. An oral history project focusing on sleep will soon be posted on scienceofsleep.com. A visual arts contest is in the works. After the Acting Apprentice Company presents the play, U of L’s Department of Theatre Arts will produce a second production, directed by department chair Rinda Frye. The U of L School of Medicine has begun a schoolwide discussion, featuring guest speakers and lectures, on the science of sleep. Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School is also enthused by and taking advantage of the fact that it will be hosting a professional theater production in its new theater.
“It was just so exciting to watch the apprentices engage with the equipment and start telling stories with the flying,”
Every year, Actors Theatre commissions a new multi-writer anthology play to showcase its Acting Apprentice Company during the Humana Festival. Normally, this process begins after the Acting Apprentice Company has been selected and the playwrights have met the apprentices whom they are writing for. This time, the process began earlier – a lot earlier. For the first time, the apprentices must find their way within already-written scripts.
Attaway and Lunnie first conceived of this project in the spring of 2010 after that year’s Humana Festival. Attaway had already floated the idea of working with ZFX to Marc Masterson, Actors Theatre’s artistic director at the time. The 2009 Acting Apprentice Company had just participated in a workshop at ZFX.
“It was just so exciting to watch the apprentices engage with the equipment and start telling stories with the flying,” said Attaway.
“[It became Attaway’s goal to] commission a work that has flight as a more organic part of the DNA of the play,” said Lunnie.
Once ZFX’s participation was approved, it was only a matter of choosing a theme.
At the time, Lunnie had just undergone a sleep study. She’d had night terrors, a cluster of them.
“When something scares me, I like to learn a lot about it,” said Lunnie.
So when the question of finding a project that would support a lot of spectacle arose, Lunnie was struck by the “visual rhymes” of flying and sleep. She described her sleep lab experience as intimate, vulnerable, and ritualistic.
A sleep study typically involves an overnight stay, during which the subject is monitored by machines and technicians.
“Getting hooked up for the study reminds me of the imagery created by the flying harnesses,” said Lunnie.
Sleep science is cutting-edge science.
“It’s only been 15 to 20 years since sleep science has made it into the field of neuroscience,” said Attaway.
What once seemed to be all about the sleeper’s psychology is now a complicated, and largely still unexplored, equation of psychology, chemistry, and electrical impulses.
Sleeping and dreaming seem so simple, but, in reality, it’s a methodological process that the brain is going through. Cataloguing. Reinforcing. Memorizing. Resting. Repairing. And sometimes flying.
“Everybody has the flying dream,” said Brian Owens, senior flying director at ZFX.
For “Sleep Rock Thy Brain,” Owens serves as the aerial choreographer and flying director. He and other artists at ZFX are in the process of training the apprentices to fly.
According to Owens, for classic shows like “Peter Pan,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Willy Wonka,” the flying comes along as a pre-packaged motion.
“There are some things you can play around with, but you’re limited by the script,” said Owens.
With “Sleep Rock Thy Brain,” the flight has been designed into the play from the beginning. This project, said Owens, is more idea-based than the classic plays. It involves a combination of technicality and artistry that Owens really enjoys.
“[There’s now] another script out there that calls for flying techniques,” said Owens, explaining how that’s one of the reasons he is excited about the development of “Sleep Rock Thy Brain.”
Even though the flying is scripted, Owens said he left a lot of room for interpretation, largely because he prefers scripts that leave that room for him.
In the development of the three plays, the creators have even explored choreography that uses the flight operators – the technical people who are usually hidden to allow the illusion – as actors as well.
A challenge in producing “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” during the Humana Festival was the search for a physical space to house the project. Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School is one of fewer than a dozen magnet elementary schools in the United States that focus on the performing arts. The new building has an entire new arts wing, including the Owsley Brown II black box theater, which is perfect for this show for one solid reason: its absurdly high ceilings. The complicated installation of the flying equipment made it impossible to perform “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” in repertory with the other Humana Festival plays. One whole stage would have had to be dedicated to showing only this play. During the Humana Festival, shuttles will take audience members from Actors Theatre to Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School.
Since the anthology piece was written before the apprentices were chosen this year, this gave Actors Theatre the opportunity to choose their apprentices with “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” in mind. This class needed to be strong; the act of flying requires different muscles than those involved in the typical movement training of apprentices.
After the first workshops, Lunnie said she saw a lot of bruises. But both Owens and Lunnie expressed their delight that the young actors were so willing to take part in this new idea.
“They trust the system,” said Owens. “They trust the operator. And they trust me.”
According to Owens, all three of the playwrights used the language of flying differently. In some cases it is more realistic, in other cases it is gigantic, and in still others it is compared to Cirque du Soleil.
The three playwrights chosen for this project have produced shows in previous Humana Festivals. Anne Washburn (“A Devil at Noon,” Humana Festival 2011), Lucas Hnath (“Death Tax,” 2012), and Rinne Groff (“Orange Lemon Egg Canary,” 2003; “The Ruby Sunrise,” 2004) were commissioned to write the scripts using research from the University Sleep Center at the U of L School of Medicine.
This class needed to be strong; the act of flying requires different muscles than those involved in the typical movement training of apprentices.
As it turns out, all three playwrights approached by Actors Theatre for this year’s anthology project attended graduate school at New York University. According to Attaway, this common alma mater didn’t have a huge impact on their styles, but it did allow them to communicate more easily. All three writers are interested in science, but they’re at very different points in their careers. After they were chosen, they came to Louisville, where they observed a workshop at ZFX and a sleep study at the University Sleep Center. But Attaway and Lunnie gave the writers no guidelines or restrictions about how they were to use the research in their plays.
Groff was perhaps the most inspired by her time at the University Sleep Center. She wrote “Comfort Inn” set in a sleep study lab, which follows characters who work in the lab and a couple of troubled sleepers.
“[The play is] a madcap and magic story of people finding inspiration in their work,” said Lunnie about “Comfort Inn.”
Washburn’s “Dreamerwake” is also about a troubled sleeper in a sleep lab, but the play takes place largely inside the sleeper’s mind. The play explores the process of falling asleep, the different stages of sleep, and the various types of dreams, as well as how the mind is affected by memory and actual physical surroundings. Pieces of Groff and Hnath’s plays bleed into Washburn’s.
Hnath has written “nightnight,” a play that takes place in space. Three astronauts are on a mission to fix the space station and one has sleep problems. This is what happens when strong, ambitious people contend with human vulnerability. The setting of “nightnight” allows Hnath to pair the metaphorical flight in sleep with the actual zero-gravity flight in space.
Lunnie, who serves as dramaturg for this production, has created a Pinterest board for “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” (pinterest.com/sarahlunnie/sleep-rock-thy-brain). On it there are pictures of rocket ships, surrealist art, and sleeping children, among other things. In a sense, she’s creating her own “visual rhyme.” During the acts of sleeping and dreaming, the brain is also curating and storing content for further and later investigation.
Was that her intention in creating the board? Of course not. It’s work; it’s part of her job. And it’s another example of sprezzatura, the seemingly effortless effort. Like sleep, like flying, like creating art, she’s putting in the (wo)man hours to make something seemingly simple beautiful.
For tickets and more information about the Humana Festival, visit ActorsTheatre.org.
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