KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 6, 2022 – Rachel Walshe has a special connection to “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s Tony Award-winning epic play about gay men in New York during the AIDS epidemic.
For one, the play’s large ensemble cast featured University of Rhode Island alumnus Andrew Burnap, who would win one of the play’s three Tony Awards. And Walshe and fellow URI colleagues were in the audience for the play’s last performance on Broadway before it closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were watching the play when we all got the notice the world was shutting down,” says Walshe. “At the time, I didn’t realize I was sitting in the last production.”
Now she has another connection.
Walshe and fellow URI Theatre Professor James Horban have spent much of the summer helping Trinity Repertory Company prepare to bring the mammoth, two-part drama to life. “The Inheritance” opened Sept. 1 at the Providence theatre, one the most respected regional theatres in the country. Under Trinity director Joe Wilson Jr., Walshe has served as the production dramaturge and Horban as lighting designer.
“I obviously care deeply about the play and I was excited to collaborate with Joe again,” says Walshe, who served the same role for Wilson last season at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick as he directed “An Octeroon.” “It was a perfect fit.”
Horban joined the Trinity creative team thanks to Walshe, who recommended him to Wilson. Horban and Wilson’s first talk – one of weekly Zoom check-ins this summer – was a two-hour conversation of how the play resonated with them, more than a discussion about lighting.
“I think that’s what is interesting with this script. We have so many people coming together where their individual histories are connecting with these characters,” Horban says. “The characters are written in such a deep way. They have such beautiful arcs that you connect with multiple people on multiple levels.”
Horban, who was working on lighting rigs for 80,000-person arena concerts by the time he was 18, has done larger shows. But he’s found “The Inheritance” a challenge in its own way. “It’s very daunting,” he says, “and it’s a lot of paperwork.”
The play, which runs a total of seven and half hours over two parts, has more than 100 scenes. As part of the design process, Horban broke down each scene – understanding what it’s saying to the audience and considering the setting and time of day – to figure out what lights were needed. To keep track of this, he drew up a spreadsheet of where each light is placed and a cue list for when each is used. The plan must also be flexible enough to serve each part of the play.
The design also must help convey the charisma of the story, and its ebb and flow. “We knew that with the power of the text we wanted to have these moments of grounded reality,” says Horban, “but be able to go into these hyper-theatrical, emotional moments with lights to support the rises and the falls of that story.”
Meanwhile, Walshe has been turning on lights in a different way.
The job of a dramaturge is to help the director and creative team put on the best play possible. To do that, Walshe sheds light on the play itself – researching the playwright and his or her motivations for writing it and, among other things, the play’s production history, the world it creates, even understanding the director’s interpretation of the work. In rehearsals, she thinks of herself as the “ever-present audience member,” making sure the play will not be confusing to the audience.
“I love stories. I love telling stories,” she says. “I love watching stories unfold and the dramaturge is in many ways the keeper of the story and thinking about how the story is transmitted to an audience. As an academic, I’m inherently curious about the world and helping interesting, esoteric ideas make their way to the audience with clarity and passion.”
For “The Inheritance,” her work has included researching the playwright’s inspiration for the play – E.M. Forster’s classic novel “Howards End.” That also meant a thorough examination of Forster’s other works and the novel’s film and TV adaptations. That helped her provide a crash course on the connections between the characters in the “The Inheritance” and “Howards End.”
She also researched the New York theatre group Elevator Repair Service’s production of “Gatz,” an eight-hour theatrical reading of “The Great Gatsby” – another of Lopez’s motivations. But perhaps most impressive: Walshe annotated “The Inheritance’s” very long script – about 100 footnotes in all.
“The play is in many ways a chronicle of the lives of gay men in the wake of the AIDS crisis,” she says. “There’s a lot of social political context and details that show up in the play. So, when something comes up that references, for example, a medical condition or specific place that may not be obvious, I provided resources so that anybody who’s working on the play in any capacity can say, ‘Oh, that’s what that is.’”
While work at outside theaters is professionally and personally gratifying, it is also required of tenure-track theatre faculty at URI. David Howard, chair of the Theatre Department, explains the requirement as theatre’s nod to a professor’s commitment to academic scholarship.
“If you were in the history department or English, you would have to present at conferences, you would write articles or books,” says Howard, a costume designer who regularly collaborates with other theaters. “Well, this is our professional contribution as well to do production work in professional houses. We can write books, we can write articles. But our professional work has as much weight as those in other areas.”
This fall, Howard is designing costumes for “Describe the Night” – directed by URI alumnus Tony Estrella – at the Gamm Theatre. He, Walshe and Horban see many benefits in the faculty’s collaborations at outside theaters.
They get to mix with artists away from the University who have their own unique perspectives on theater. They are exposed to technologies that might be new to them. All of which benefit them as educators, and help to provide professional experiences to share with students and even the chance to expose students to professional settings.
“It is my work. That’s one of the wonderful virtues of being in a university setting. We are here not just to teach; we’re here to build a body of research or body of creative work. And that’s what I get to do as a professional director and dramaturge,” says Walshe, a professor of acting and playwriting, who is resident scholar at the Gamm. She will direct Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” at the Gamm this fall with Horban as lighting designer.
“Everyone has developed their own aesthetic and their own working practices,” adds Horban, who joined URI in 2020 as a professor of lighting and design. “Collaboration helps keep things vibrant and alive because your work as a designer is inspired by other things that you see. So, being able to work with more people only makes the community stronger.”
At Trinity, “The Inheritance” Part 1 runs Sept. 1 to Nov. 5; Part 2 runs from Sept. 22 to Nov. 6. For more information, go to the Trinity website.