November 30, 2010


Click on the title to go directly to the story

Remarks from the Chair — The Lighting Mafia Strikes Again

It's not every day that one of our alumni has a show opening on Broadway — so when I learned the Justin Townsend '97 was about to become the third of my former lighting design students to achieve that landmark, I knew I was New York-bound.

Justin is the lighting designer for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (read more about him and his work on the show elsewhere in this issue of Stages), a show that's gotten rave reviews all through its journey to Broadway, and in my (completely) unbiased opinion, it's earned every one of them. Justin's work on the project is stellar.

I was privileged to see the show on its opening night, Oct. 13.

It is amazing to contemplate the trajectory of someone’s career and know that you were there at the beginning of it. I was there when he was just beginning to get the idea of what lighting design is and how to make it work. To then be able to sit in the theater with an opening night audience and absorb the energy of a really fantastic musical is an incredible feeling.

I hasten to say that it's not necessarily that Broadway is the end-all be-all — but there is something about an achievement like Justin's that really cements what we’re trying to do at UMass Theater. As teachers and mentors, here, this is what all of us faculty members are hoping for, for our students, that we can help give them the tools to be happy and successful in their careers.

Earlier that day, for example, I went to see Jane Cox’s design work on Kopit's Wings, a play that I’ve only read and always wanted to see in performance. Again I had the same feelings, sitting in the Second Stage Theater, about a student's trajectory and the impact that a mentor can have on an individual.

I took the opportunity of my trip to invite Justin and Jane and several of other former students to join us for a celebratory drink, not just for Justin's Broadway opening, but to mark all of their achievements. It was a distinguished crew that assembled at Ca Va Todd English. Included in the group were: Matt Richards, who is teaching to UMass this year for me and designed Graceland at Lincoln Center this year; Traci Klainer, who lit Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City; and Ben Stanton, who ran over from the Signature Theater, where he was in tech for the revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (I've already got my tickets to see this piece, too, of course, and you can also read more about him and his work on the show elsewhere in this issue of Stages).

It was wonderful to be able to see that they all have this connection to UMass, that they feel warmly about where they’ve come from. Even though they're all working successfully, they’re so positive and encouraging of one another’s work, going out of their way to open their arms to future UMass lighting designers, continuing the mentoring that they received. I was proud to be there, to have played a part in their careers, and to be a part of UMass Theater.

— Penny Remsen, Chair

Slideshow: The Lighting Mafia Strikes Again

Justin Townsend '97 makes a presidential Broadway debut

Image removed.Thirteen was a lucky number for one UMass Theater alumnus this fall — Oct. 13 marked the official opening night of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a hotly anticipated Broadway show that features the lighting design work of Justin Townsend '97.

The show has been attracting attention and rave reviews in New York since its time at the Public Theatre in spring 2009, where Townsend first got involved with the project.

Coming Aboard

Townsend and Alex Timbers, BBAJ's writer and director, had collaborated on a project some years back. BBAJ was developed first at Williamstown Theatre Festival and then in LA with a different lighting designer on the team.

When it came time to move the project to New York, Timbers called on Townsend to give the project what Townsend termed a "style change."

The approach to designing the piece, which combines political commentary, presidential myth-making, a hefty dose of humor and an emo-music mindset into a raucous musical, began in the Public Theatre's storerooms.

Townsend enjoyed his working relationship with Timbers. "Alex is very specific about light, but at the same time, he likes to be surprised," he explained. "I like to take the note, and run past it."

"We raided the basement and said 'Whaddya got?'" Townsend said, describing the approach he and set designer Donyale Werle took. Just as the play throws seemingly disparate elements together to great effect, the set and lighting design took the same approach. Their handiwork is evident in the theater the moment you enter, with strings of red Christmas lights draped around a theater that's decorated with a strange mixture that includes a stuffed horse, but also what appears to be a take-off on the ACDC logo.

The musical, Townsend said, "is about putting together things that don't necessarily belong, and we wanted to do the same thing with the design."

When they translated that grab-bag aesthetic from the smaller off-Broadway venue to the Jacobs Theatre, Townsend said, "we took the same idea and turned the volume up a little bit."

Transferring to Broadway

That approach was not without its complications.

"What seems downtown to be a cheap, fast solution, uptown is a really expensive thing," Townsend said, explaining that "13 Union guys on a ladder putting up Christmas lights" is not an inexpensive proposition. He expressed gratitude to the show's producers, for having the confidence in the design team's vision and sinking the money into labor to make the design successful.

Not insignificant in all of this is the fact that this was Townsend's first time at the dance. He has plenty of experience in the field of lighting design, of course. At UMass, he especially prized the joint influences of lighting design faculty member Penny Remsen and scenic design professor Miguel Romero and made full use of the Five College theater opportunities. Afterward, he worked with professionals in New York and eventually made his way to CalArts for a master's in lighting design; since then, he's been back on the East Coast designing theater, opera, dance, and more.

In this case, it was something of a nailbiter to find out whether he'd get the chance at that experience on Broadway. Rave reviews aside, the group wasn't sure of a Broadway transfer for some time, and then when things fell into place, he had to squeeze a half year's work into 3 months — "and I was the new kid. I don't know the rules."

That seems to have been no big obstacle, though, because he was able to do what draws him to lighting design in the first place.

"I like working with people who make beautiful experiences," he said.

The review of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson by the New York Times' Ben Brantley.

In the room with Angels: Ben Stanton '99 designs the revival of Tony Kushner's classic play

In the late 1990s, Ben Stanton '99 was a theater major, Rent was the musical of the moment, and Harley Erdman was handing out Tony Kushner's Angels in America to his students to read.

This fall, Stanton spent hours in the theater with Michael Greif — Rent's original director — and Tony Kushner, as they mounted the first New York City revival of both parts of Angels at the Signature Theatre, to a great review from the New York Times, among others.

" Twelve years ago, I was dreaming of this… When I got the job, I was flabbergasted," Stanton admitted.

Stanton had crossed paths with Greif throughout his time in New York City and had always found him to be a very kind and supportive. However, they had never worked together directly, and so, he said, "I was astonished when I learned I was on the list of people being considered."

As he started his work, he realized that not only would he be lighting a Kushner play, he'd be working directly with the playwright. Kushner, he learned, was planning to be extremely involved in the production. "In a weird way, it's probably even more stressful than a new play," he said of the process of remounting a hallowed classic. Kushner rewrote chunks of Perestroika and had ideas and notes for all areas of the production, which he shared with the designers.

"It's an exciting and terrifying process. I've never worked harder on a show," Stanton said.

Designs on 42nd St.

Stanton's work on Angels stretched longer than originally anticipated, overlapping with several other assignments. In addition to Angels, Stanton designed lights for Amy Herzog's After the Revolution, being directed by Carolyn Cantor at Playwrights Horizons, as well as Nick Jones' The Coward, at The Duke. Signature Theatre, Playwrights Horizons and The Duke are all on 42nd Street.

"It's very convenient to have everything within three blocks," he said, describing an occasionally break-neck schedule of making final adjustments to Angels during morning and dinner breaks in rehearsals for the other shows.

When asked if that sort of high-speed switching between shows becomes confusing, Stanton said it's actually not. Whatever the show may be, "I'm still the same," he said, and he does have a particular aesthetic and approach to lighting. Once he steps into the theater, it's easy for him to pick up where he left off last.

"That's not to say that I only light one way," he pointed out — he may have a particular style, but the actual final design is dictated by any number of variables, such as, for example, the sets, and so, all three productions will have a different lighting design in spite of having the same designer.

With Angels now up and running (to good reviews), Stanton is looking ahead. He works regionally, too, is working on and The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez and directed by Doug Hughes, at the Manhattan Theater Club, and has several West Coast assignments lined up in the coming months, among others.

Preparing the way

Although the Angels project is a hold-held dream achieved, Stanton notes that he needed the experience he's accrued in order to be successful at it.

"I would not have been ready to design Angels after coming out of UMass," he said. He does not have a graduate degree, citing instead experiences interning at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and assisting renowned designers around the country as providing the training that put him where he is today.

That said, he credits UMass, and lighting design professor Penny Remsen specifically, for providing "the foundation" from which her students can build successful graduate school or professional experiences. "She was so great at the proper training; not just the technical skills, but in the mind set she instills to succeed," Stanton explained.

Gabrielle Capolupo '86: A skill set that matters outside the theater world

Over the 2010-2011 schoolyear, we'll be using our Stages newsletter to introduce you to some people who are supporters of the Department of Theater, who remember their time here when they think about the charitable giving they want to do.

Graduating year: 1986

Major: Theater
Favorite UMass Theater memory: Gabrielle fondly remembered two of her teachers, the late Doris Abramson and Harry Mahnken, for reaching out to her in different ways when she was a student. “(Prof. Abramson) was wonderful for a girl who never got a major part in anything. She always remembered me.” Prof. Mahnken, on the other hand, she remembered for trying to draw her out of her shell — he would tease her if he ran into her crossing the campus. “I never knew why, but you don’t go out of your way to tease a person you don’t like.”

Why do you donate to the Department of Theater? I never ended up working in theater, but I don’t regret a minute of what I learned. It’s so much more valuable than I could put a price tag on — that’s why I keep contributing.

When Gabrielle Capolupo '86 first made plans for college, they did not include the University of Massachusetts or the Department of Theater, and yet that's where she ended up. Years on and seemingly light years removed from her time as a creative, introverted teenager who saw theater as a challenge to conquer, she still values her time here. The information technology world, in which she is now a player, draws on her theater skills in ways she never anticipated.

An unusual trajectory

Gabrielle, or Gabe, as she's known to friends, originally planned a career in music.

"I was a piano player for many, many years. I had planned on attending Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia for years," she said, when she realized, "I'm very good, but not good enough."

When she reached this conclusion, application submission deadlines for most schools had already passed. However, she attended a Boston-area high school, where her guidance counselor had a connection at UMass and helped her submit an application. Several months later, that's where Capolupo found herself as a theater major.

"I was always a very creative person, and I had been very interested in theater in high school," she said. It was something that was outside her comfort zone; although she used to play piano in national competitions, Capolupo considered herself "very much an introvert. It was something I needed to conquer."

Though she said she was "not an outstanding student," Capolupo enjoyed her time here and had fond memories in particular of the late Doris Abramson, with whom she exchanged Christmas cards until shortly before her passing.

"When I didn't get a Christmas card, I said to my husband, 'Something's wrong'," Capolupo recalled.

She recognized early on that despite an interest in performance, her strengths were not onstage but backstage. It was a interest she intended to transfer to the movie business. Her goal, when she finished her degree, was to move to California and work in film production; her dream employer at the time was Industrial Light and Magic.

After several years living at home in Boston she took the plunge, moving to California to stay with a cousin of her father's and taking a temp job at Novell Inc. as a receptionist.

One of the executives there noticed that she had a good head on her shoulders, declared "You shouldn't be answering the telephone," and became her champion at the company. Against her expectations, she found she had an interest in and aptitude for the information technology business. "I kind of fell in love with the place," Capolupo said.

She still had dreams of her movie career, though, and quit, once, for about a week, to pursue it in Los Angeles — but the brief interlude convinced her that her career path now lay elsewhere and she asked for and got her job back at Novell.

She obtained an MBA from San Jose State University in 1994 and worked her way up Novell's hierarchy. She also became involved with the International Collegiate Business Policy Competition, first as a competitor and since 1995, as a judge.

Nowadays, she works for JUNOS-Juniper, another technology firm, for the company's chief technology officer. While she's been at the company for years, her current post is fairly new, and she described it as "getting people moving in the right direction." Her position is, in theater terms, a sort of hybrid of a stage manager and director position, ensuring that the software developers and engineers responsible for new products are all working in concert and that all angles are being considered as a new product moves through the development stages.

A transferable skill set

Although Capolupo's theater days are long behind her at this point, she calls on the skills she learned here constantly.

"It's weird, because I use more of my theatrical background than people understand," Capolupo explained.

For starters, there's the original reason she came to theater: her desire to overcome her shyness and build her self-confidence.

"Even though I still consider myself an introvert, I can put myself in situations where I am not comfortable," she said. "Onstage or behind the scenes, you have to have a good sense of who you are and what you know."

She also brought with her the ability to see the big picture, and the ability to get people from a variety of disciplines onto the same metaphorical page.

She originally intended to use these skills in film production. "You don't shoot a movie in the order you see on screen," she said; every production needs people who can keep their eyes on the various parts and make sure they fit.

"That's exactly what I do, here, but with software, as opposed to in a movie... I'm Miss Connect-the-dots," she said. She's not an engineer or a software developer, but that's why she's valuable to the team. "I'm bringing stuff to the table they don't think about."

When she reconnects with people from high school or college, they often react in laughing disbelief when they hear about her career trajectory, especially since she was vocal, back then, about never wanting to be in business or involved with computers.

Still, she's quick to say, "I don’t regret a minute of what I learned. It’s so much more valuable than I could put a price tag on."


Juliana Agosto ‘89 was just appointed Development Consultant for TV Azteca Television, the second largest television station in Latino America. She has been living in Mexico since 2004 where she has been Manager of Programming and a Creative Executive at TV Azteca. 

Alan Ball ’87 is in his third and final year of MFA training at Wayne State University in Detroit. Currently rehearsing David Bliss in Hay Fever, Candy in Of Mice and Men, and Buckingham in Richard III, he comments that he “can't wait to get back to the real world, where I rarely rehearse more than one show at a time.”

Megan Cannon '96 will soon celebrate the first birthday of her son, Spenser Michael, as he was born December 23 of last year. She says, “he's a sweet, happy kid that already loves theatre!” Megan also had the pleasure of working on the Fringe Festival in NYC this summer.

Ruth Countryman ‘73 will celebrate daughter Sarah’s college graduation this December.
Ruth currently teaches 6th grade English/Language Arts/Reading in Floyd County, GA, after working for many years as a costume designer at schools and theatres in Virginia and Georgia. Ruth and Liz Weiss Hopper, former UMass professor and costume designer, have published two books on women's everyday dress in the 1920's and 1930's. They are currently at work on their 3rd volume, a study of a 1933 trousseau collection.

Jason Czernich '00 was recently in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde at Ja'Duke performing arts and is about to enter the second year of his A Man Finally Eats His Veggies blog,, which has gone from hundreds of visitors per month to thousands!

Professor Harley Erdman will present at “A Symposium of Scholars and Artists on Jewish Identity in American Theatre and Performance,” in early December. Harley also recently discovered that the work of David Korins, Justin Townsend, and UMass guest lecturer Traci Klainer was featured in the textbook, The Creative Spirit, by Stephanie Arnold, which he uses in theater 100H.

Mary Fegreus ’09 just earned her SAG card and will be seen in an episode of Body of Proof when it airs on ABC.

Jay Herzog ‘87G is the current chair of theatre at Towson University in Maryland. He is also resident lighting designer at Everyman Theater in Baltimore and works in the Washington DC/ Baltimore area as a freelance designer.

Tim Joliat ‘87 and wife Carol welcomed daughter, Olivia Clara Joliat, into the world on 10/14/2010.

Troy David Mercier ’06 is currently working with Admiration Theatre Ensemble in London, acting, directing, and teaching physical methods of acting to children and professionals alike. In addition from staging Brecht's Visions of Simone Marchard, the ensemble is creating original works in East London.

Sean Middlebrook '06 works full time at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL. In early 2009, he opened a new show, The American Idol Experience, at Disney's Hollywood Studios, as a backstage coordinator, which is similar to being an Assistant Stage Manager. Outside work, Sean is currently Assistant Stage Manager for Is There Life After High School? The Musical. Visit for more info.

Natasha Norman ’02 recently choreographed Forbidden Zone: Live in the 6th Dimension, the world premiere stage adaptation of Richard Elfman's cult film classic ( She is currently reprising her role as a principal dancer for the remount of the musical Savin' Up for Saturday Night and choreographing the world premiere play Watson.   

Gold From Straw Theatre, founded by Aaron J. Schmookler ‘09G, is getting rave reviews for its second production, Almost, Maine, in Seattle, WA.

Virginia Scott, Professor Emerita, has been very busy. Her new book, Women on the Stage in Early Modern France, was published in July by Cambridge University Press. This past April she spoke at the Renaissance Society of American conference in Venice and in May for a scholarly group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. On the personal front, she welcomed a new granddaughter from Ethiopia, Sefan Elizabeth Thomsen, and has two more grandchildren on the way, Hana and her sister Woltesemat, who are being adopted by son Peter and his wife Suzan.

Dennis Wemm '85G is currently working on his third production of The Three Musketeers. He’s adapted it and is staging, choreographing, and playing two doubled roles in it. Dennis is also the current president of the West Virginia Theatre Conference and is planning this year's conference in Charleston, WV.

Donate to the Department of Theater

Visit our donation page to support the Department of Theater