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The unexpected Kevin Adams

Nov 1, 1998, David Barbour

It's the understatement of the year to say that virtually any show designed by Kevin Adams packs a big surprise. Consider some of his recent projects: The stage adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, starring drag queens Sherry Vine and Jackie Beat. Or Christmas at the Ivanovs', an absurdist Russian fable built around a hatchet murder. Or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the rock musical about an East German male-to-female transsexual--based on Plato's Symposium. Even when Adams designs a so-called "naturalistic" play, the results are not what you would expect: there's Getting and Spending, whose hero is a lawyer-turned-Trappist monk involved in an insider trading scandal. Well, you can't call it derivative.

If Adams is consistently drawn to the unusual, the unique, and even the bizarre, there's a good reason for that. His lighting designs are so consistently original that, in each ofthe above cases, it's hard to imagine a better man for the job. As a result, he's been in demand over the last two years, designing numerous high-profile Off Broadway shows. In October, he made his Broadway debut with two different productions. All this from a guy who never took a lighting design class in his life.

Well, OK, he did take one lighting class. The only child of schoolteachers, Adams spent most of his youth moving around Texas (his father, a football coach, changed jobs regularly). While in high school in Klein, just north of Houston, he got hooked into theatre. "I had one of those great, gay high school teachers who said maybe I should design. I had a handle on how to manipulate space, so I designed a lot of scenery and I did lights a little bit, too."

Next stop was the University of Texas, where Adams got a B.F.A. in scenery design, and where he took his one lighting design course--a mixed blessing, as it turned out. "I learned two things," Adams says. "One was really very valuable: Don't be afraid of fear. Embrace it. The other thing, which put me off for a long time, was that lighting shouldn't be noticed," an idea that the designer would totally reject in his later work.

After graduating from college, Adams headed for the California Institute for the Arts, where he got his master's degree in, yes, scenery design. While at Cal Arts, he was hired as a set design assistant at the Mark Taper Forum, where he worked with, among others, Douglas Stein, Jerome Sirlin, Ralph Funicello, Douglas Schmidt, and John Lee Beatty. "I kicked around LA for years," he says, "trying to work in theatre. I worked in film as a production designer, art director, and all those related jobs. The only feature I worked on was as art director for the film adaptation of Sandra Bernhard's Off Broadway show Without You I'm Nothing. I worked on a lot of music video shorts, boring TV stuff, and more beer commercials than I care to count."

Los Angeles in the 80s was a hotbed of both visual and performance art, two disciplines which helped transform Adams into an LD. Of the former, he says, "Los Angeles was the center of the space and light movement, with artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell exhibiting often. Then there was this show in 1987 by Christian Boltanski that changed the way I looked at light. Boltanski used lightbulbs as sculptural objects in a way that was at the same time urban, low-tech, and contained a beautiful sense of loss. It really made me sit up and rethink things."

He saw a parallel with his own work. "Basically, I was interested in designing no scenery, just an open workspace, where people could tell their stories. I started designing sets that were completely illuminated by practicals, mostly hanging clear lightbulbs and PARs, in an aesthetic that was similar to what I saw in the work of these artists. I was creating a visual vocabulary that several LA theatre artists identified with." In a short time, he was working regularly as an LD.

Around this time, Adams hooked up with Rachel Rosenthal, the bald grande dame of the performance art scene. "I toured with her for five years, remounting several of her texts," he says. "It's where I learned the nuts and bolts of lighting. She was always up for trying different strategies for relighting her work. She'd let me experiment with cueing and color, she'd let me scatter lightbulbs across the floor--anything to keep the work fresh. Most of my lighting now consists of a strategy that I developed with her work, that of a shifting vocabulary of light. Most of Rachel's texts have an A-B structure, going back and forth between two contrasting styles of representation. She alternates between chatting with the audience naturalistically and harsh spectacle containing dance, amplified voice, and music. Within all of her texts, I found contrasting vocabularies of light. I cut-and-pasted them, and also merged them."

In many ways, Adams' California period was very productive. He worked on dozens of theatre productions, at companies such as The Actors Gang, Strike Theatre,and Taper Too, the second stage of the Mark Taper Forum. He collaborated with noted directors like Brian Kulick and David Schweizer, and set designers like Mark Wendland. In fact, Adams, Wendland, and Kulick were a considerable team. Their productions, including Wozzeck, The Illusion, Carmen, The Return of Don Quixote, and Amphitryon, were staged at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI, and Classic Stage Company in New York, providing Adams with some of his earliest East Coast exposure. He also worked as a visual artist, doing video shorts and installations (one of the video pieces, Can't Take That Away From Me, about a gay-bashing murder, was shown at film festivals internationally and broadcast in France and on PBS). His work with enlarged Polaroid photos was also exhibited and is now part of the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Nevertheless, he says about film-obsessed Los Angeles, "You're a third-rate citizen, working in theatre. It's never going to matter there, because there's this oppressive billion-dollar global industry. You get calls: 'We're doing a show, and the producer of Diff'rent Strokes is going to direct it--we're very excited.' " He starts to laugh: "I wanted to do Jacobean tragedy. I'd go to these interviews to show my work, talk about abstracted space and light, and they'd just look at me."

Adams started to think about moving to New York in 1992 after he lit John Fleck's All for You and Han Ong's Airport Music in repertory at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. A Theatre Communications Group design fellowship brought him in and out of the city throughout 1992-93. "I saw for the first time that I could work here, survive here," he says. Nevertheless, he didn't make the move to New York until 1996, when he joined USA 829 and acquired an agent.

Then he was hired in 1997 to design Karin Coonrod's two-part, six-hour adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, staged at the Public, a job Adams now calls "my big break." He also says, "I never spent so much time on a project. I was at the Public every day for two months--it was the most regular job I've ever had--and it was fabulous. I love lighting Shakespeare, especially the histories. It was a big canvas to work on and I had a really good time. Karin was very generous and let me do my thing. I hung a grid of 250W spot PARs over the stage and lined the playing areas with rows of clear 200W lightbulbs dangling from black lamp cord." The pleasure he took in the project was doubled when, a few months later, he earned a Drama Desk nomination for his work on the show. "It was so great to get that nomination," he says, "along with Chicago and all these other Broadway shows. It was the nicest welcome."

After Henry VI, Adams was on the New York map. Numerous productions followed. By now, the designer's thinking about visual arts and the lighting of space had coalesced into a wide array of techniques, all used in the service of one key idea: that light can be a visible, dynamic element in a production.

"Not that everything has to be a big light show," he says, "but you can drive a discourse of space that can tell a story. People often say my work is like another character in the show--and not in an overwhelming way. It's another narrative element. For me, it's all about looking at the different ways you can light a space within a text. I'll follow a logical path in creating a vocabulary, then I'll go back to square one and create another that subverts the first. Then I'll create a third, and possibly more. After establishing several different modes of lighting, the fun really begins by overlapping them and mixing them up."

The vivid and widely differing results of this theory have been seen in a number of productions over the last two years. Tell-Tale, produced first at PS 122 and later at Off Broadway's Cherry Lane Theatre, was a bizarre update of The Tell-Tale Heart. Hardly faithful to Poe (one of the characters was a pizza delivery boy), Tell-Tale was a campy urban nightmare, so Adams, working as scenery and lighting designer, created a claustrophobic box made out of white pegboard, with 20 gooseneck lamps peeking in on the action, framing what he calls a "paranoid proscenium."

Even more nightmarish was Christmas at the Ivanovs', produced at Classic Stage Company and directed by Coonrod. A lost piece of absurdism from the 1930s by the little-known Russian writer Alexander Vvedensky, the play was a disturbing parade of images evoking the random slaughter and festering suspicions of the Stalinist era. Adams responded by filling the CSC space, a black box, with dark and shadowy lighting that made the entire production resemble the eruption of a particularly disturbed subconscious mind. A recurring time motif was repeated in the lighting by a round, clock-like grid of clear 200W lightbulbs suspended over the actors and a grid of hard-edged circular specials on the deck.

As if to prove that he was perfectly capable of lighting a naturalistic play, Adams designed The Batting Cage, produced by the Off Broadway Vineyard Theatre. Joan Ackerman's bittersweet comedy (directed by Lisa Peterson) is a Beth Henley-ish piece about two wildly dissimilar sisters who visit St. Augustine, FL, to scatter the ashes of their third sibling. Adams provided ironic contrast to Robert Brill's eerily perfect hotel interior with vivid glimpses of blue skies and apocalyptic sunsets.

In Walks Ed, produced at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, was a poetic, comic thriller, about criminal doings in a basement bar in Harlem. "Keith Glover [who wrote and directed] said he wanted it to look like a tacky disco, which was right up my alley," Adams laughs. "No research necessary. Keith also did two things that changed my work for a while. First, he said no white light. Then he pushed me to light the audience, too. That made me look at the event in a different way. In Hedwig, which is a totally different show, I light the audience several different ways, too."

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, perhaps, Adams' biggest commercial success to date. Written by and starring John Cameron Mitchell, with songs by Stephen Trask (of the rock band Cheater), it presents the title character, a transsexual, recounting her unhappy childhood as a boy in East Germany, her marriage to a black American GI, her escape to Kansas, and her ill-fated romance with teen rock sensation Tommy Gnosis. Filled with images of shattered dualities and the search for perfect union, Hedwig is one of a kind--campy, hilarious, and bitter, a spoof of maudlin showbiz cliches that turns unexpectedly dramatic and ends in a strange theatrical epiphany.

"Hedwig has several vocabularies," says Adams about his design. He varied the looks for each number, layering with colors and templates. For the play's finale in which Hedwig (or the actor playing Hedwig) becomes Tommy Gnosis, Adams opted for "a brutal single-source white footlight that exposes every detail in the space. That look shifts into the Tommy Gnosis transformation, which turns the space into a stadium rock show. This is a big look achieved with very few instruments: a white backlight on John and four no-color template rotators slowly spinning on the audience. It's also the only time we use smoke in the show. From there, it's back to the brutal white look that begins the last big rock song, which has only one long cue that slowly turns all the light from white to orange."

In addition, he worked on the house itself, a former nightclub in a seedy West Village hotel. "I took all the white light out of the building, the bathrooms, and the halls and put little orange-tinted lights in." Other touches included blacklights and orange flicker lights in the lobby, pink floodlights above the bar, and various yellow lights everywhere else.

A few months later came Stupid Kids, a production of the WPA Theatre, which later transferred to the Off Broadway Century Theatre. The late John C. Russell's melodramatic comedy focuses on two gay teens (one male, one female) and their unrequited love for a pair of heterosexuals who belong to the school'sin-crowd. Michael Mayer's production evoked the overheated, there's-no-tomorrow quality of the adolescent characters' drives and passion. David Gallo's set was a forced-perspective white box that Adams at times drenched in deeply saturated purples, oranges, and pinks. "The white box that Gallo gave me is a terrific light box," says the designer, "and allows me to pop through many different looks: painterly blended sunsets or skies on every surface, or a bright, brutal white box lit from within or from behind, or monochrome coloring of the box in saturated colors--all these and more accomplished with only 72 dimmers."

Also this past summer, Adams provided one of his distinctive combinations of pegboard scenery and practical lamps for Bad Sex with Bud Kemp (produced at Second Stage Theatre), Sandra Tsing Loh's monologue about the horrors of dating in the 90s. The lights--long, faintly sinister finger-like tubes--were found by the designer at a Greenwich Village store. He also did a cabaret series for Manhattan Theatre Club, featuring nightclub favorite Mary Cleere Haran, actor James Naughton (Chicago), and the a capella music/movement piece Hot Mouth, for which Adams has designed before (he credits his original Hot Mouth design with landing him Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Adams adds that he was delighted to collaborate on this popular series with Beatty, whom he had assisted so many years before at the Mark Taper Forum.

Getting and Spending, which opened at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, then moved to New York in October, is a meaningful production, as it constitutes Adams' first Broadway show (his other Broadway outing this fall was Bernhard's I'm Still Here... Damn It!). It is also his first collaboration with his companion, scenic designer James Noone (Jekyll & Hyde, Three Tall Women, Full Gallop). This involved drama about finance and religion features dozens of scenes and needed a design that would allow for maximum fluidity.

Working together, Noone and Adams came up with a distinctive scenic/lighting element: LED bars, "the same thing that you see in Times Square that shows the stock prices. There are two 24' (7m) vertical bars that move left and right and one 36' (11m) horizontal one that flies up and down. When the stock quotes are moving across the bars, during the preset, it's magic. At other times, segments light up, creating bars of light that frame the action. For some larger scenes, they frame the entire stage." Adams also used shifting color washes and templates on a rear-projection screen at the rear of the stage to add variety and movement to the production, directed by John Tillinger.

In some ways, Getting and Spending, with its conventional text, is a rather unconventional project for Adams. Much more typical is Dream Analysis, which was produced at New York's Dance Theatre Workshop this fall and which may move to an Off Broadway house later this season. Mark Dendy's play/performance piece/dance concert focuses on a gay choreographer working with his female therapist (here played by actor Bobby Pearce in drag) to unravel the meaning of a particularly disturbing dream. The effort unleashes a flood of fantasies and suppressed memories starring Vaslav Nijinsky, Martha Graham, Judy Garland, and the choreographer's deeply troubled fundamentalist family.

For Adams, who came to the project late, the challenges began with a short tech time (two and a half days) and the fait accompli of Dance Theatre Workshop's rep plot. Although he calls it "the most complex show I've ever done," with approximately 230 cues over two and a quarter hours, the result was not a showy design. Indeed, for the play's climax, in which twin Nijinskys perform a sequence from Afternoon of a Faun, Adams dispensed with heavy cueing altogether, lighting the gorgeously danced, homoerotic ballet with one cue consisting of an R18 shin wash and an R83 cyc. The ballet ends with a 30-second fade to black, as the two fauns continue their dance in silence. "It's such a beautiful sequence, I wanted to keep it as simple as possible," he says.

In fact, for all his talk about making light a presence in a show, Adams' designs are neither high-tech nor instrument-heavy. "I'm cheap, I don't like to spend money," he says, laughing, then adds, "I'm getting over that." Indeed, he clearly believes one idea executed strongly is far more effective than several ideas done timidly. Still, the designer achieves many looks and effects with amazingly spare plots.

Interestingly, he feels that one of his strengths is that "I wasn't taught by anyone. Not that other people who were taught are necessarily sucked into a rigid system of thinking, but my work has always been intuitive. My basic strategy," he concludes, "is to do something unexpected. I try to keep the audience on their toes. I hate shows that look like what you expect to see." Given the evidence, there is no possibility of that happening in the work of Kevin Adams.