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Setting the stage: UMass theater grads up for multiple Tony Awards

UMass theater grads up for multiple Tony Awards

  • Justin Townsend has been nominated for Tony Awards for his lighting work on “The Humans” and “American Psycho” (at left) .

  • A scene from the musical “Spring Awakening.” UMass theater grad Ben Stanton has been nominated for a Tony Award for his lighting design of the play. Image courtesy of Ben Stanton

  • A scene from the musical “Spring Awakening.” UMass theater grad Ben Stanton has been nominated for a Tony Award for his lighting design of the play. — Image courtesy of Ben Stanton

  • Townsend received a Tony Award nomination for his lighting design of the Broadway musical “American Psycho.” Image courtesy of Justin Townsend

  • A scene from the musical “American Psycho,” for which UMass theater grad Justin Townsend has been nominated for a Tony Award for lighting design; he’s also won a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for that same work. — Image courtesy of Justin Townsend

  • A scene from the play “The Humans,” for which UMass theater grad Justin Townsend designed the lighting. On Sunday, he won a Drama Desk Award for that work. Photo  by Joan Marcus

  • UMass grad David Korins has been nominated for a Tony Award for his set design for the mega-hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

  • David Korins developed his set for “Hamilton” using a series of scale models. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID KORINS DESIGN

  • UMass grad David Korins has been nominated for a Tony Award for his set design for “Hamilton” (at right), now on Broadway at the Richard Rogers Theatre in New York City. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID KORINS DESIGN


Wednesday, June 08, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Last year, Amherst was ground zero when it came to the Pulitzer Prize in drama, with playwright Annie Baker, Amherst Regional High School class of 1999, winning the award, and two other women with Amherst roots or connections — Madeleine George and Lisa Kron — ending up as finalists.

This year, three graduates of the the University of Massachusetts Amherst are in line for major theatrical honors.

When the 2016 Tony Award winners are announced Sunday evening, UMass alums David Korins, Ben Stanton and Justin Townsend are hoping their names will be called.

The three New York City stage designers, all of whom studied theater at UMass in the 1990s, have been nominated for four Tonys among them: Korins for set design and Stanton and Townsend for lighting design.

The Tonys, the most prestigious award for Broadway theater, represent just some of the attention the three graduates and others with UMass connections have received:Stanton was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award, as was Jane Cox, an exchange student originally from Ireland who studied lighting design while attending UMass.

And on Sunday, Townsend won two Drama Desk Awards for his lighting design for the musical “American Psycho” and “The Humans,” a drama. He’s also won an Outer Critics Circle Award for his lighting on “American Psycho,” which was inspired by the novel and film of the same name.

“I’ve been saying that I’ve been looking for my jaw on the floor,” Townsend, a 1997 UMass graduate, joked during a recent phone call from his home in Brooklyn. “It just feels crazy — kind of overwhelming — but it’s wonderful to be recognized for my work, and to see my friends and fellow designers, people I really admire, get recognized, too.”

Designing for ‘Hamilton’

Korins, a 1999 grad, received his Tony nomination for the set he designed for what’s undoubtedly the most talked-about musical of recent years: “Hamilton,” the hip-hop-flavored retelling of the early American republic, with a predominantly non-white cast. The musical has earned a record 16 Tony nominations.

“Just to be part of ‘Hamilton’ is really deeply moving,” Korins said during a recent phone call from the airport in Newark, New Jersey, where he was about to catch a flight to Las Vegas to give a presentation on design. “I mean, I wake up in the morning and I think, ‘I have my kids and I have ‘Hamilton,’ so to get a Tony nomination on top of that — it’s incredible.”

Meanwhile, Stanton has been nominated for his lighting design for “Spring Awakening,” a rock musical based on a German play from the early 20th century about the tumult of teenage sexuality. He was nominated last year for similar work on “Fun Home,” a musical that won several Tonys, including best lyrics — which were written by Lisa Kron, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize drama finalist with Amherst connections.

“Small world!” Townsend said with a laugh.

And Jane Cox garnered a Drama Desk Award nomination for her lighting design for the musical “The Color Purple,” based on the Alice Walker novel of the same name. Cox was also nominated for Tony and Drama Desk awards for her lighting work on the 2014 drama “Machinal.”

UMass prof an inspiration

If there’s one person particularly excited about the success of these former UMass students, it’s Penny Remsen, chair of the university’s theater department and a professor of lighting design. Remsen says she’s kept in close touch with many of her former students and is thrilled to see them become go-to designers in New York City, the heart of the country’s theatrical world.

“This speaks so well to their work and their talent,” she said. “They’ve worked really, really hard to get where they are … they also have good hearts, good souls.”

And enough UMass grads have succeeded in lighting design that the catch-all term for them at the university is “The “Lighting Mafia” — a play on the term some students have used for graduates of the Yale School of Drama, the “Yale Mafia,” a reference to Yale’s general ranking as the country’s top theater school (think Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver, among many high-profile graduates).

“Our students have really done pretty well for themselves,” Remsen said.

Stanton, for one, credits Remsen for much of his success. A 1998 graduate, he came to UMass on a music scholarship, with a focus on jazz drumming. But he had some theater experience from high school as well, and after a few years at UMass, feeling unsatisfied with his music studies, he met Remsen.

In an email, Stanton said he felt an immediate connection to her and the theater program; he switched his major to theater. He recalls Remsen as “tough but encouraging,” a true mentor who helped him understand what a future in lighting design might look like.

“I was hooked,” he said. “Probably more on Penny than on lighting design. I’ve occasionally joked that if Penny taught plumbing, that’s the profession I would have pursued.”

Townsend, who initially studied French and biology at UMass before switching to theater, sounds a similar note.

“Penny would always say, ‘This isn’t good enough. You’ve got to work harder.’ She really pushed all of us, which I’m grateful for.”

Korins cites Remsen, professor emeritus of design Miguel Romero, and others at UMass for helping him find his way. From internships at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, to an opportunity to take graduate-level design courses, to Remsen arranging a special one-credit class for him on drafting, several people helped him get a broad level of experience that might not otherwise have been possible, he said.

“It was an incredibly fruitful time for me,” Korins said.

From scale model to B’Way

That experience has paid off for him today. Korins’ set for “Hamilton” — brick walls, rough wooden scaffolding and moving staircases, concentric circular turntables — has won praise from many quarters, including Architectural Digest. Developed from a series of scale models, the set looks to evoke the development of the early American republic and to match the swirling pace of the show, he said.

“The set had to do a lot of things and cover a lot of ground … but I felt like it was also about solidifying this idea [of the early Republic] as an aspirational space, where dreams could take flight.”

Though he and his design team pretty much had free rein from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, to develop their ideas, Korins stresses that theater is very much a collaborative effort. The input he got from others in “Hamilton” for his design, and the way he was able to bring new concepts to the director and writer, made for a great experience, he said.

Townsend sees it the same way, whether designing lighting for a drama like “The Humans” or an edgy musical like “American Psycho,” which, after all, is about a soulless Wall Street banker and serial killer.

“Stylistically [the plays] feel like bookends,” he said. But his lighting work for both, Townsend added, came from consultation with the director and others in the production, a close reading of the script, and his own ideas.

“The blank page can be tough for me,” he said. “I’m definitely a collaborative artist.”

Stanton says he had a unique job last year lighting “Fun Home,” since the musical was presented in the round, with seating surrounding the stage, and because its storyline moved between present and past.

“It was my task to make sure every audience member stayed connected to this beautiful story regardless of what seats they were sitting in,” he said.

And “Spring Awakening” was presented both in spoken word and sign language, with deaf and hearing actors sharing space onstage and either signing or speaking/singing. That presented a different kind of challenge, Stanton noted: “If the signing performers weren’t lit properly, a deaf audience member wasn’t able to follow what was happening.”

Like Korins and Townsend, Stanton says he’s thrilled to get a Tony nomination. But he’s also keeping it in perspective. Now married, with a young son, he says he’s happy he can work on Broadway and “if getting these nominations helps me support my family, then that’s frankly what’s most important.”

The Tony Awards will be broadcast Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.