“Penny-Approved”: Two alumni, two decades apart, share a mentor
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Thursday, December 12, 2019
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Thursday, December 12, 2019
Matthew Richards graduated in 1995 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Theater; Erin MacDevitt graduated last May. Both are lighting designers, both count Professor of Lighting Design Penny Remsen as their mentor, and both benefitted from Remsen’s generous policy of connecting current and past students professionally. This October, thanks to Remsen, they worked together as lighting designer and assistant, respectively, for Hartford Stage’s production of Cry It Out.
When they’re asked if they discovered any common threads in their experience with Remsen, Richards mentioned the phrase “Penny-approved,” which means that Remsen is vouching for that individual’s skill and professionalism. “I specifically asked if there was anyone who was ‘Penny-approved’,” he said, when he was looking for someone to help him on this project.
MacDevitt laughed in recognition, explaining that whenever Remsen gives her the name of someone to contact about work, “she says, ‘tell this person that you’re Penny-approved’!”
Remsen’s class is rigorous, Richards said, and she expects her students to be on top of their work. Remsen instills professionalism and how to conduct oneself in the theater along with teaching the creative aspects of lighting design. When she gives someone that stamp of approval, Richards said, “you’re going to get a responsible person.”
“She wants people to succeed,” MacDevitt agreed. “She’s teaching a class of people that want to do this for a living, so she’s not going to take any nonsense from people that are going to slack off in her class.”
Richards and MacDevitt’s collaboration began, no surprise, with a phone call to Remsen.
“I use assistants all the time,” said Richards. While he has a slate of folks he works with regularly, he was interested in finding someone new for this project, so he consulted his former teacher to see if she could recommend anyone.
“She immediately said ‘Yes, Erin!” he said. “She was really emphatic.”
The two met, and Richards liked what he saw of MacDevitt’s portfolio. Being an assistant lighting designer is “a nuts and bolts kind of a job,” he said, “but I prefer to have someone who has a design eye, and I was taken with Erin and her work.”
Richards often does work delegated to assistants, such as putting the design down on paper, himself. “I use the process of putting the design on paper as part of the design process,” he said. “I’m very hands-on.” However, he wanted to bring in someone who could help him out in the theater during the final week of technical and dress rehearsals. Besides having another person with an eye for lighting in the theater, MacDevitt helped by handling a number of tasks for Richards when he was occupied offsite.
Richards has history as a designer for Hartford Stage that began under its previous artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, and is now continuing with new artistic director Melia Bensussen. He also knew several of his Cry It Out collaborators from previous projects.
“I really love working at Hartford Stage. It’s a really terrific group of people… so it was great to be asked back,” he said.
The play, a comedy about the dilemmas often faced by new mothers trying to balance career and family, is set in New England in spring “and all of the gray malaise that that inspires,” Richards said. “I had this impulse to lean into the comedy and make it bright and cheerful,” but instead, he held back the sunshine until it served to punch up the resolution offered in the last scene.
MacDevitt noted that Richards was simultaneously working on American Son, a play that is set during a rainy night in a police station, at TheaterWorks Hartford.
“Yeah, Matt said, ‘I promise I do plays that aren’t just gray lighting!’” she laughed.
MacDevitt has worked as an assistant lighting designer at Spoleto Festival this past summer, and has interned at Williamstown Theatre Festival. She appreciated the opportunity to work with an established designer, saying she learned “a ton” from Richards over the course of the week-long collaboration.
“I eventually want to be in Matt's position with my career, but I know it’s a slow sort of build to get to that point for many people, so I’m trying to assist as much as I can, be around as many designers as I can,” she said.
She’s assisted for a production at the Flea Theater in New York City, worked at Federal Hall in New York City for fashion week, and helped set up a red carpet event for the premiere of an Apple TV show — anything to start building up her network.
“I think that’s the big challenge, is figuring out who your people are. Theater is an art that’s not like writing or being a studio painter. You need community in order to do it,” Richards said.
We're currently working on a campaign to raise money to help current students afford internships that lead to important career opportunities. Please click here to learn more and give.