Paul Owen (right) with Charles Nasby at the 2019 Arts-Louisville Theatre Awards. Photo: Zachary Burrell Photography
Thoughts In Honor Of A Theatre Artist
By Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I hold to the theory that sometimes the most extraordinary things are accomplished by people who didn’t know any better. Going where angels fear to tread. By his own account, Paul Owens began designing theatre not because he knew what he was doing but because someone had to do it.
It didn’t take him long to know what he was doing, but it was always with the sense of risk and discovery that is the hallmark of a true artist. Several years ago at The Mex Theatre, in an extended conversation with another theatre designer, Steve Woodring, Owen spun tale after tale of ceaseless trial and error founded on the necessity of getting the job done. My favorite was the choice to use newly invented sprayed insulation to efficiently achieve the desired texture on a set, only to discover it was somewhat toxic. It was exactly the effect he was looking for, but to keep the audiences from being adversely affected, huge fans had to be run from the moment the Pamela Brown Theatre emptied from one performance right up until the house opened for the next.
The story typifies how, with no formal training as a designer but no small amount of foolhardy courage, he chose to forge ahead and hope it all worked out. Risk. Discovery.
It not only worked out, but it elevated Owen to the status of legend, and we all know legends blaze their own trails and don’t always play by the rules. For more than 50 years, Paul Owen worked it out, first at Nina Vance’s Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, and then for many, many years and thousands of productions, at Actors Theatre. Even after sort of “retiring” in 2009, he worked for Kentucky Shakespeare, most recently designing four seasons (2014-18) and in 2017-18 redesigning the Central Park stage that he had originally designed in 1991. Along the way, he influenced and inspired hundreds of theatre artists in Louisville and beyond.
Owen was honored in 1993 with The Kentucky Governor’s Award for Artistic Achievement. In 2005 he received the Eddy Award from Entertainment Design Magazine on behalf of Actors Theatre, and in 2010 he was awarded the Hanover College Medal for Excellence in the Arts. In 2019 he received The Arts-Louisville/Broadway World Lifetime Achievement Award.
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.