Joseph Metcalf and  Derek Nelson confer with director, Amy Attaway during tech rehearsal for “Sleep Rock Thy Brain.”

It’s delightful– in a horror movie sort of way– to watch something terrible happen to a man over and over and over again.

A scream. Shrieks and curses from the onlookers. The man’s face contorted into a rictus of terror.

Then director Amy Attaway stands up and makes the universal “time out” signal with her hands.

Someone from the lighting booth says: “How was that, Derek?”

The broken man, Actors Theatre acting apprentice Derek Nelson, lifts his head off the floor and cracks a brilliant smile.

“That was GREAT!”

Tech rehearsal: two minutes of scene work followed by fifteen minutes of actors milling about and goofing around while the tech folk make changes and set cues.

Derek Nelson on a ZFX flying rig

That was Wednesday’s 2 p.m. tech rehearsal for “Sleep Rock Thy Brain,” a production whose tech is made even more laborious because it involves flying– yes, flying. This exploration of sleep and science and space takes place, in part, in the air on flying rigs.

In about an hour and a half, the Acting Apprentice Company at Actors Theatre had run maybe 10 minutes of the first one-act play of the three plays in the production. Ten minutes might even be a generous estimation.

Not that it wasn’t a riveting hour and a half.

It really was.

I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on rehearsals for various theater companies over the years. Often the people involved with the production will be apologetic.

Metcalf and Nelson

They say, “I’m so sorry you have to sit through this. It’s so boring.”

But it’s only boring to the people who have lived and breathed the production for months and are just antsy to get the thing up and going. For those of us seeing the bits and pieces for the first time, rehearsal is art. Sometimes more interesting art than the finished product.

Somehow I doubt that will be the case with this production.

“Sleep Rock Thy Brain” is the Acting Apprentice Company production for the 37th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, and is probably the show that has garnered the most media attention this season.

The production is three one-act plays by playwrights Rinne Groff, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn. The show has been three years in the making, from its conception by director Amy Attaway and dramaturg Sarah Lunnie to its performance starting Mar. 22 at the Owsley Brown II Theatre at the Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts Magnet in NuLu.

The most astonishing aspect of the performance is that theatre has partnered with ZFX Flying Effects. ZFX is a local company  that designs stage flight technology and choreographs aerial performances for everyone from “Peter Pan” on Broadway to Pink’s concert tour to festivals in Abu Dhabi featuring flying carpet spectacles.

So, yes, the actors will be flying. (Hence the terrible thing that befalls Derek Nelson over and over again.)

The three playwrights that created one-acts for “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” for this project have produced shows in previous Humana Festivals. Anne Washburn (“A Devil at Noon,” Humana Festival 2011), Lucas Hnath (“Death Tax,” 2012), and Rinne Groff (“Orange Lemon Egg Canary,” 2003; “The Ruby Sunrise,” 2004) were commissioned to write the scripts using sleep science research from the University Sleep Center at the U of L School of Medicine.

A scene from Washburn’s “Dreamerwake.” Some of the 22 apprentices working with Nelson on the flying rig during tech.

“Comfort Inn” by Groff is set in a sleep study lab and follows characters who work in the lab and a couple of troubled sleepers.

Washburn’s “Dreamerwake” is also about a troubled sleeper in a sleep lab, but the play takes place largely inside the mind of an Actors Theatre apprentice actor (very meta).

Hnath has written “nightnight,” a play that takes place in space. Three astronauts are on a mission to fix a space station and one has sleep problems. The setting of “nightnight” allows Hnath to pair the metaphorical flight in sleep with the actual zero-gravity flight in space.

“Sleep Rock Thy Brain” has garnered enough media buzz that tickets are hard to come by. As with all apprentice performances, most of the shows happen at 11 p.m. The few tickets remaining are available online or through the Actors Theatre box office.

Director Amy Attaway

The production has partnered with the University of Louisville’s Medical School and their theatre arts department. Expect to see a U of L production of “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” in the very near future. The show is also collecting people’s “sleep stories” on the show’s website. You can upload your own experiences about sleep and dreaming online.

This is director Amy Attaway’s last season with Actors Theatre. Pardon the pun, but it’s nice to see her go out on a high note.

Here’s a segment on the production from “Louisville Life” on KET:


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