With the season ready to begin and some of the heavy lifting behind him, Les Waters – Actors Theatre’s new artistic director – took a break from Louisville’s record-setting heat wave to talk with me about his vision for one of the city’s treasured institutions. Tall and rangy, his native English accent tempered slightly by sixteen years of living and working in California, Les is everyone’s image of a favorite English professor.

Interview by Scott Dowd.  Entire contents copyright ©Fearless Designs, Inc.  All rights reserved.
Les Waters. Photo by Hunter Wilson.
SD:  Had you lived outside California since moving to the states?

LW:  No. I first started working in the states in the early ’80s, but I was living in London and mainly going between London and New York to work at the Public Theatre. That’s how my American career really got going. We moved to the states sixteen years ago when I got a teaching job at University of California, San Diego. We were there for eight years until I took up the post of associate artistic director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Now, since January 9, I’m here. My kids were young when we moved to the United States, so they are all basically Californians. It’s home to them.

SD:  How are they making the transition to Kentucky?

LW:  They’re not here. My two oldest are off having lives. My sixteen-year-old is a high school junior, and my wife and I decided it would be a bad idea to move her during this crucial year. My wife, Annie, is a set/costume designer and also teaches in the theatre department at UC Berkley. So for at least another year there will be a lot of flying back and forth.

SD:  That’s a lot of traveling.

LW:  Yes, but it’s the world of iPads now, so you can sit anywhere and do your work. I can read my scripts and send off emails.

SD:  As artistic director, you do a fair amount of traveling for business anyway.

LW:  I’m going to New York tomorrow to do a reading of a Will Eno play called Gnit, which is part of this season.

SD:  What are you looking for in a reading?

LW:  I want to hear it read aloud to see if further work needs to be done to it. We’ll also be looking to see which actors can get a grip of it. I also have some freelance work to do there. In the fall I will be directing a new play by my colleague Sara Ruhl at Yale and I’ll take in some design meetings for it.

SD:  Let’s talk about the process of new play development and how you like to approach it. You have done quite a lot of that in your career with playwrights like Charles Mee.

LW:  It’s one of my passions. I love developing new work. As to the approach, it depends on who the writer is. I’ve worked with people who just really had the germ of an idea; and I’ve worked with others who had the script pretty much where it was going to be.

SD:  Is this your first time working with Will Eno?

LW:  This is actually the third time we’ve worked together. I did the American premiere of his play Tragedy: a tragedyat Berkeley, and I did a production of his play Middletown at Steppenwolf. This play, Gnit, isn’t a version of Peer Gynt. It’s something to do with Peer Gynt, but to my mind it could in no way be said to be an adaptation or translation of Ibsen’s play. It’s been through several readings at workshops in the past, with which I’ve had no involvement. I love the play dearly, and I think it would be great to have Will as one of the people involved with the Humana Festival. He is a major contemporary writer.   

SD:  Louisville is understandably proud of the Humana Festival, so there will be a lot of interest in your direction.

LW:  Well, I’ve worked here twice before as part of Humana:  In 2000 with Chuck Mee’s Big Love; and in 2004 with Naomi Iizuka’s At the Vanishing Point, which we did at the warehouse in Butchertown. Part of the excitement of applying for this job was that I had, what I thought, were two good working experiences here and two shows I was very proud of. But I also have these contacts in the world of new plays – not just the writers, but also the directors who are good at it. So we’ll see what happens.

SD:  How much input have you had on the upcoming season?

LW:  All of it.

SD:  Really? That’s amazing.

LW:  Last year I arrived as In the Next Room was in rehearsals. I had no input on last season or the last Humana Festival, but this season was all me – in six weeks.

SD:  That is extraordinarily fast considering all of the challenges that come with putting together a season. When did you actually begin conversations toward joining Actors Theatre?

LW:  It was early July last year. The interviews actually took place around September and October.

SD:  So you had a little time to contemplate it.

LW:  A little.

SD:  We’ve begun at the end of the season, so let’s make our way back to the start to the season opener – Romeo and Juliet.

LW:  I wanted to start with something everybody knows…or thinks they know. Although if you ask people to describe the plot, you are likely to get very different versions. There is a director in New York, Tony Speciale, who works for Classic Stage Company whose work I’ve been following. Tony was an apprentice here and was in the original cast of Big Love. I’ve talked with him because he has a passion for Shakespeare and he expressed an interest in this play. During my conversations leading up to taking this position, I got a very strong sense across the board that people here were interested in classical works. I’ve always thought that we who work primarily with new plays and are in the trenches with the new playwrights really stand on the shoulders of giants. There are writers from the past who really forged the language that we use. Five hundred years after the fact, Shakespeare has that smooth sheen on it that all classics do; however, I wish people would admit that Shakespeare’s plays are really very strange collages of things. When you’re taught it, you’re taught that it’s a whole, coherent vision. But as a director, I don’t think that’s right. I’m interested as well in giving the new work we do the weight and heft of classical work by saying that a classical piece is as awkward and raw as a new piece.

SD:  If you look at how Shakespeare’s plays were put together originally and how they were translated to us, it simply wasn’t a single, inexorable process.

LW:  No, and one of the things constantly going through my head in the early weeks of January was the question “Why am I here?” I was trying to get some understanding of the town. What I came to think is that I’m here, in a way, because I directed Chuck Mee’s Big Love. That play was about transcendent love; and once that idea became lodged in my brain, it became clear. I’d be loathe to say that this season is linked together by love, but there is a fair amount of it and Romeo and Julietis the classic embodiment of love. So after that was set in my mind,
I thought, “What do I want to direct?”

SD:  And, apparently, you settled on Eugene O’Neill.

LW:  I’ve always wanted to direct Long Day’s Journey into Night.

SD:  Why?

LW:  It’s a classic, but I don’t know a lot of people who have actually seen it.

SD:  Why do you think that is?

LW:  Because it’s hard and it’s a beast. It’s an hours-long monster. Last year’s Humana Festival included a play called Eat Your Heart Out by Courtney Baron, which was a classic dysfunctional family play. I began to wonder if that play would have been written if O’Neill hadn’t, in the ’50s, been writing this kind of love song to his parents and his brother. This is a story about intense family love and intense family hatred that only exists in that milieu. It’s a play that looks at why families are at once very beautiful and very terrifying.

SD:  O’Neill is a massive writer, and you have chosen to stage a true theatrical epic.

LW:  He is a huge writer for taking things on difficult subjects.

SD:  This November, as Actors gets ready for its final year of A Christmas Story and prepares for the annual production of A Christmas Carol,you will also present True West, a play by the author of Buried Child.

LW:  Sam Shepard is an actor I’ve always loved. He’s one of the reasons I, and a lot of the people of my generation, are in the theatre. He’s local – he lives outside Lexington – and he’s one of the great, iconic American writers. He’s a movie star. He’s the whole thing. I would like for us to develop a relationship with Sam.

SD:  Tell me about the director.

LW:  Somebody here proposed Adam Rapp, and I thought it was a great idea because Adam is known from the Humana Festival as a playwright and a writer. I would like to establish stronger connections between the season and the festival.

SD:  Where is the love in this play?

LW:  It’s a great play about brotherly love.

SD:  It’s that dynamic you were talking about earlier – deep love mixed with homicidal possibilities?

LW:  Yes. After that comes The Whipping Man, a play I saw at the Manhattan Theatre Club about two seasons ago. It’s by Matthew Lopez, a writer I didn’t know at the time. It is an extraordinary play that deals with the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. It’s about African American Jews, whom I knew nothing about. I should also say that my knowledge of the Civil War is British and very skimpy. The play is set during Passover, and the line “What makes this night different from all other nights?” – a traditional question from the Haggadah – keeps running through my head when I think about this season. There is going to be something about 2012-13 at Actors Theatre that will be different than all the many seasons that have come before. The Whipping Man seemed to me a play about how people move on – a play that asks, “What do you do to move forward and forgive people? Is it possible to forgive?” I found it very moving.

SD:  The theme has the potential to address a lot of issues. It puts me in mind of Alfred Uhry’s plays about southern Jewish culture in the 1950s.

LW:  I thought it was a play that was just full of questions and not full of answers. I think that makes the play very, very active when you watch it. You think you’re on firm ground, and then it throws another series of questions at you. Our new Associate Artistic Director, Meredith McDonough, is directing this production and she has known Matthew for some time, so I expect she will have an interesting take on it.

SD:  The Whipping Man is scheduled for January 8 to February 2, 2013. Toward the end of that month, you are directing a play called Girlfriend, based on the music and lyrics of Matthew Sweet – of whom, I have to admit, I have never heard.

LW:  Matthew Sweet had an album in the early ’90s called Girlfriend. I was working in New York at the time, and on one of my trips from London I was watching MTV in a hotel room and saw a cool Japanese anime video set to the title track. I didn’t know who Matthew Sweet was, but the video did its job because I went out and bought the CD to play on my Walkman. I liked it. Today Matthew lives in L.A. and puts out albums with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. Several years ago when I was living in the Bay Area, I was asked to direct a workshop at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. They asked if I wanted to do a musical and I told them I don’t do musicals. So they said, “It isn’t really a musical. It has music by Matthew Sweet.” 

SD:  So you’ve directed this before?

LW:  Yes, but not then because I was busy. But it stuck in my head. The book for this show is by Todd Almond, who is a composer himself. I think Girlfriend is the album that got Todd through high school.

SD:  How do you mean?

LW:  Todd is 6 feet 5 inches tall and unbelievably beautiful; being gay at a high school in Nebraska was very noticeable. He wrote this play-with-songs about two young men in that strange period after you have graduated high school but before you have committed to the next phase. These two young guys realize that they are falling in love with each other and they communicate via the music of Matthew Sweet.

SD:  When did you finally stage it?

LW:  I directed it at Berkeley. I think it’s completely charming, and I wish Matthew Sweet had a different last name because the play is genuinely sweet. It’s perfect for anybody who grew up in a small town feeling like an outsider. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is about the intense pleasure and the terror of falling in love with somebody for the first time.

SD:  And that brings us all the way back to Gnit, which runs March 15 to April 7. I know you have been here only a short time. But what are some of your goals at this stage?

LW:  I want to make work about the
community. That was one of the great pleasures of working in the alternative space in Butchertown. The lives of a lot of people are hidden from history. They’re not part of the usual narrative because
they’re not the CEO of a company or political leaders or celebrities, and I think it’s important to reflect that in our work here. That’s something I will encourage our apprentices to catch hold of. This season is the beginning of many new things at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and I hope everyone who appreciates the history of this organization and the incredible things that have come before will join us as we begin this new phase. As I said, the plays all deal in some way with the idea of love. The people of Louisville obviously love this theatre and I so look forward to sharing this season with them.

For more information on Actors Theatre of Louisville, go to www.ActorsTheatre.org. Season tickets are still available at the web site or by calling the box office at 502.584.1205.