Mark Rothko was an American painter who came to prominence in New York in the mid 1940s. | Courtesy of MarkRothko.org

We’ve all seen plays about doing plays, and movies about making movies — whether it’s a 400-year-old classic like the rude mechanicals’ scenes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or a new and critically acclaimed film like “Hail, Caesar!”

But sometimes a far more interesting piece of theater comes from a playwright examining the world of fine art.

Opening this weekend is Bunbury Theatre’s latest production, “Red,” a John Logan play about the lauded but deeply conflicted painter Mark Rothko.

For this production, Bunbury reached out to Louisville Visual Art to help J. Barrett Cooper, the actor playing Rothko, get a chance to learn some of the actual physical skills of an artist.

Steve Woodring, director of “Red”

Steve Woodring, a frequent director for Bunbury, spoke with Insider about that partnership and about how “Red” came to the stage.

“The play was handed to me by a friend who I was designing a play for in Connecticut,” Woodring explains. “And I read it on the way home. I have an acquaintance with Rothko’s work, so it really piqued my interest.”

Theater practitioners passing around scripts isn’t anything too surprising, but what happened next was — while waiting for the second leg of his flight, serendipity struck. 

“I was sitting on the plane, and onto the plane walked Barrett Cooper, and (he) sat down next to me. Barrett had just done ‘Buried Child’ with me, and I looked at him and said, ‘Ah, Rothko!’ So I handed the play to him, he read it and said, ‘OK, yeah. I’m in.’ ”

Before the plane landed, they committed to do the play, but life intervened. First, it was hard to get the rights to “Red,” and then Cooper was living in California for a few years. But this year, the stars finally aligned, and “Red” was ready to get underway at Bunbury.

J. Barrett Cooper

Woodring says it worked out for the best: “Barrett now is exactly the age that Rothko was when this play takes place, so it’s just ideal.”

For many actors, the physicality of a role can be very important. How does a character walk, sit or stand? Is there some way these physical traits reflect the inner life of the part they are playing?

It’s a series of questions that can be asked about any character, but in playing and presenting Rothko, the physicality and verisimilitude was an even bigger part of the process.

“It’s essential in this play … This play is loaded with the act of painting, they’re painting things every second,” says Woodring. “So it has to be in the bodily sense memory of the actors for it to be true. I can’t imagine trying to do this without that aspect, because it’s physical from the very get-go. It’s a very intense play.”

Sense memory is a term used to describe an actor trying to remember how something feels so they can recreate that feeling while they are on stage, in hopes of giving a more realistic and engaging  performance.

Bunbury producing director Juergen Tossmann had the idea to partner with LVA, and he reached out to the organization by way of LVA facility manager Keith Waits.

Insiders in the community will recognize Waits as the passionate supporter of theater who uses his spare time to run Arts-Louisville, a website dedicated to reviewing every play that gets produced in Louisville, as well as chronicling other aspects of the Louisville arts scene. LVA was into the idea and helped connect Bunbury with Louisville painter Petersen Thomas. 

Actors J. Barrett Cooper and Brandon Meeks rehearse. | Courtesy of Bunbury Theatre

Woodring described the work Thomas did with the actors. “He’s coached the actors and taught them how to stretch canvas, how to make stretchers, how to make paint, and how to paint. So they’ve spent time in his studio with him, learning how to paint.”

Thomas’ role on the production included painting imitation Rothkos. His process of painting also was used to help prepare the actors.

“He’s painted these Rothko imitation paintings in the scene shop at the theater, and the actors have watched him do that and even helped apply some of the paint,” says Woodring. “So they’re immersed in the physical act of painting.”

Much of the rehearsal process involved the actors and director starting with “table work,” essentially sitting down for several rehearsals and talking about the play, its characters and what their worlds are like.

“Red” runs Feb. 16-March 4.

Not this one.

“We didn’t spend much time at the table analysing it at all,” he says. “And then we were immediately up on our feet, and the props people brought all the stuff — the brushes, the buckets, the pigments that we use in the play — all that came to the rehearsal hall very early, and (the actors) got their hands on it right away.”

Audiences will get to see the results this weekend. Hopefully, all this work has helped Woodring and Cooper paint a realistic and moving picture of the troubled artist.

“Red” starts Friday, Feb. 16, and continues through March 4 at The Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $22 for adults, $19 for seniors and $10 for students. Times vary.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.