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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Five years after he created it, John Kolvenbach is still learning things about the lamp.
This particular fixture is crucial to Love Song, his quirky comedy about a lonely man named Beane whose relationship with a thief named Molly literally changes his world. Once he's in love, Beane's mood picks up, his hearing gets better, and his apartment gets bigger. And the lamp in his living room, which barely works in the first scene, gets brighter and brighter and brighter.
Kolvenbach's had plenty of time to see the lamp in action: In 2006, his gently magical play had a successful run on London's West End, starring Cillian Murphy and Neve Campbell as Beane and Molly, and that same year, it bowed at Chicago's Steppenwolf.
But for Love Song's New York debut---it's running through May 7 as part of the Americas Off Broadway festival at 59E59---Kolvenbach is not just the playwright. For the first time, he's also directing the show, and that's forcing him to confront the nuts-and-bolts reality of staging a play that operates by metaphorical rules.
"The biggest thing to tackle is the whole issue of collapsing walls and moving lights," he says. "One of the themes in the play is that it looks at love as a kind of contagion, as a flu that gets passed from one character to another. And we wanted to look at, 'What if love gets passed to Beane's physical world, so that that kind of animation and change could happen to the set?' We wanted to look at the set as a living thing that could be reactive."
Originally, Kolvenbach imagined a floor lamp, and when the play was produced on the West End, the design team had the budget to make one that could crumple and move, depending on Beane's mood. But Kolvenbach didn't have the budget for that kind of gizmo, which presented a challenge.
His solution: Change to an overhead light fixture that can swing around the ceiling like a puppet. And in fact, Director Kolvenbach likes that approach so much that Playwright Kolvenbach may add it to the script.
He thinks of his two jobs that way, as different identities that don't necessarily overlap. "To me, directing is an application of practical principles," he explains. "You're like a mechanic more than you are an artist. You're just trying to make it work. And when you're writing, you're not thinking about [the practical principles] that much."
That's why Kolvenbach won't helm his own material until it's been produced a few times. "If it's a new play, if it's the first time out, I actually don't like to direct them because it's confusing to be the director and the writer," he says. "It can be difficult to be sure if it's not working because you're failing the script or if it's not working because the script is failing you. Once it's been done and has been successful, then you know it can work, and you just have to keep trying until you can get it."
By confining himself to the writer's chair, Kolvenbach also got to watch Austin Pendleton (this season's Three Sisters at CSC) helm the show at Steppenwolf and John Crowley (A Behanding in Spokane) steer it on the West End. "I had a huge advantage as a director because I had seen what those guys did," he says.
He also has a unique freedom to try new things with his production. When most directors tackle a new play that's already been established, the script is essentially frozen. If they run across something that isn't working, then they can't do much to change it. "Fortunately for me, I don't have to be too careful about heeding the writer's intentions" Kolvenbach quips. "I can do whatever I want."
Mark Blankenship is the editor of TDF Stages (http://stages.tdf.org), Theatre Development Fund's online performing arts magazine.