By Kathi E. B. Ellis

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

You’re sitting at your breakfast table and you share, out loud, an idea. Once it’s been said, it becomes “A Thing.” Then you have to figure out how to bring it into being. That’s what happened with Amy Attaway at the end of her first season as Associate Director of ATL’s Apprentice/Intern Company back in 2009. This week, Sleep Rock Thy Brainbecomes a reality: a Humana Festival anthology play for the A/I Company, performed at Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School, in a partnership that also includes the University of Louisville and ZFX Flying Effects.

ZFX is the original impetus for this sprawling project, the kernel having been sown during an end-of-season flying workshop for the A/I Company at the internationally renowned company located in the Greater Louisville area. The 2008-09 apprentices loved the experience, the ZFX flying directors got the opportunity to create sequences for the apprentices, and Amy was left wondering, what next?

“What if” is always a powerful question in theatre, and Amy’s what if questions included: “What if playwrights would be interested in creating scripts that integrated flying for the A/I Company?” and “What if it was possible to use flight choreography in a new way, not just as spectacle, but also as a fundamental way to advance the storytelling?” With these ideas fomenting, her next step was to get a buy-in from Actors Theatre of Louisville. Then-Artistic Director Mark Masterson was interested, and at that point the project began to expand. In addition to the preliminary work of ATL’s Literary Department in determining what might be the theme of the play and who might be approached to write this anthology, Masterson was interested in reaching out to the University of Louisville.

Obviously, part of the determination of the theme was the role of flying in the story. Literary Manager Sarah Lunnie had a personal interest in the science of sleep. She and Amy began to explore this idea, including at a retreat at the Kentucky Foundation for Women’s Hopscotch House. And the juxtaposition of how we talk about sleeping and dreaming, and the chemical reality of what happens within the brain while sleeping, began to parallel the visual experience of experiencing flight choreography – which looks effortless to an audience, while there is actually a lot of hard work being expended by the unseen operator. With that theme floating to the top of the brainstorming, UofL became a logical partner with the Medical School’s Sleep Center. Masterson approached Provost Shirley Willinghanz and a comprehensive partnership came into being.

The UofL partnership grew to include not only opportunities for the A/I Company and playwrights to observe an overnight lab, but an immediate second production of the eventual play with the UofL Theatre Department and a campus-wide commitment to an interdisciplinary focus on sleep. This last component includes spring 2013 semester activities:  an exhibit of sleep-related artwork by students; a theatre department-sponsored ten-minute play festival; two classes, one focusing on sleep references in Shakespeare and the other on the science of sleep; and two campus-wide forums on the topic. 

But all of this postdates the logistics of determining the needs of the production. At the Hopscotch House retreat in the summer of 2010, Amy and Sarah made the decision to approach three playwrights – a significant change from previous anthology plays that have typically used a larger number of scribes, each writing short scenes. This time there were only three playwrights writing one piece each, allowing each to fully introduce the world of flying within a longer script. Rinne Groff, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn all said “yes” to writing this unique anthology play. Another layer of this complex project was in place.

What would become the most complicated aspect of the project was location. An initial assumption that one of the ATL theatres could be used proved untenable in terms of all the rigging that would be required for the flying, which could not share space with all the lighting instruments required in a space in which multiple plays are produced. And so began Amy’s quest. As she states, all she needed was “an empty room with a tall ceiling.” Amy visited traditional theatres, empty warehouses, buildings in process, spaces that were not quite right, and more throughout the summer and fall of 2011. ATL colleague Steven Rahe mentioned the soon-to-be-opening Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School. Her initial reaction was skepticism. But she went to look at the skeleton black box, found her empty room with a tall ceiling, and this critical piece of the puzzle was in place.

Over the four years of bringing this production to the beginning of the rehearsal process, there were personnel changes at ATL, UofL, and LPAS, but there were enough people invested in the idea that the project stayed in the plans, even as it was pushed back from year to year. Budgeting was also an issue as funding was sought from various sources. A key moment in the development of the production was when ATL Managing Director Jennifer Bielstein stated, “We’re doing this.”

Jeff White and Samantha Beach as Astronauts
 in Lucas Hnath’s nightnight. Photo by Bill Brymer.
Unlike previous anthologies, two of the three plays were written before the playwrights had met the interns. And the multi-year development process also meant that several A/I companies were part of the process. So for this year’s apprentices, the rehearsal process was more like a traditional new play process rather than having short plays set on them. The playwrights began working in December 2011, observing at  ofL’s Sleep Center. They returned at the end of the season to be present during the now-annual A/I Company workshop at ZFX. First drafts arrived over the summer. By early this season, flying and the text came together in a weeklong workshop. By January the rigging was installed in the Lincoln space, and rehearsals moved there.

Sleep Rock Thy Brain opens during this weekend’s College Days. The unique aspects of flying integrated into the scripts, the late-night curtain time, and the energy of several hundred college students promises to make this dream fly high.

If you want to learn more about the process and production, check out  When you see the production, be sure to check out the student artwork by LPAS students, exploring dreams of flying, that is hanging in the school lobby.