Paul Owen passed away. I don’t know if you know his name, but for almost 40 years he was resident set designer at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Here’s what that meant: He designed over 200 world premieres of new American plays and probably another 200 productions, ranging from Sophocles to popular comedies. I’d like to say his work was invariably good but there were probably six or seven that weren’t. In our first season together we did 11 plays in a converted train station, and he designed them all and built them with two carpenters. We did seven plays which opened at 7 p.m. and another four that opened at 10 p.m on the same stage with different sets. We needed the income.
After a while we had three theatres and produced between 14 and 17 productions annually, plus a state tour and works for children. If there were 17 productions he would design 14. For the Humana Festival each season, we would produce between seven and nine new works (once we did 11), and Paul insisted on designing them all because only he understood the storage problems of doing that many plays in rep. Yes, rep.
He designed and built the Humana Festival in six weeks. Sorry about the statistics, but how did he do that? Paul designed an unimaginable number of works in a first-rate way for an unimaginably small salary and never, ever even thought of going elsewhere, because he loved Actors Theatre, he loved Louisville, loved designing, and loved the people he worked with.
He was also unfailingly kind, even tempered, self-effacing, and as unflappable as the Dalai Lama. In all those years I never remember him raising his voice. How is that possible? He loved bringing up young technicians, and they were all his friends for life. Paul excelled in plays set outdoors. His sets were very often beautiful, deeply personal, always workable for the actors and directors. He read the play and he actually saw it on a moment-to-moment basis in his mind. For Paul it was always about the play, period, end, not about himself. And miraculously, he surprised the audience—and this was always the same audience of subscribers! He surprised them! Unexplainable.
The theatre prospered, the community was proud of us, and people came from all over the world to see the plays. I remember one performance in our smallest theatre that sat 140 when every one of those seats were filled with critics. I remember Paul’s infectious chuckle about that, because when you have nothing but critics in the audience they don’t laugh.
Imagine loving the theatre and doing what this remarkable man did…every day for 40 years? And he never complained. He was always good and always got better, and because he got better we got better. Seriously. Sometimes he had to drag us kicking and screaming. I’m not even mentioning that ATL did over 1,000 performances in foreign countries and that Paul oversaw every one of those tours. Plus he designed the stages in all three of our theatres on Main Street. He made the impossible seem easy. This is what a man of the theatre is, right? He kind of defines the phrase.
He couldn’t think of a life in the theatre that would be better. He was, dare I say, a happy man. Hat’s off.
Jon Jory (he/him) was producing director at Actors Theatre of Louisville from 1969 to 2000.
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