August 22, 2012

A&E Guide: Spotlight on Les Waters

With his graying beard, lanky frame and tattooed arms, Les Waters looks more like an aging rock star than an acclaimed director. But five minutes with the new artistic director of Actors Theatre reveals an insightful theater-maker of great vision and enthusiasm, all of which bodes well for theatrically inclined Louisvillians.

Originally from Cleethorpes, England, Waters spent the last eight years in California as associate artistic director for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. His work has garnered rave reviews from the nation’s top critics — The New Yorker, New York Times, you name it: They all love him — as well as earning him a prestigious Obie Award. In fact, the prize was awarded not for Waters’ work at Berkeley, or on Broadway, where he directed the premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” in 2009, but for a production of Charles Mee’s “Big Love,” which Waters directed as part of the 2000 Humana Festival. It was through “Big Love,” followed by a 2004 production of Naomi Iizukia’s “At the Vanishing Point,” that Waters came to know Louisville.

“I was drawn here because people in the community were so engaged with the theater,” he explains. “When I interviewed for this job, I had an extraordinary conversation with a woman in a store on Bardstown Road about why ‘Christmas Carol’ meant so much to her. I thought it was going to be one of those stories where she used to bring the kids and now she brings the grandkids, but it wasn’t about that at all. She just thought that it was a great story about transformation. And I was saying to her, ‘Well, lots of plays are about transformation.’ Actually, that may be the central part of what theater really is.”

Waters has risen to prominence in the theater world largely for his collaboration with contemporary playwrights, from Ruhl and Mee to Wallace Shawn and Anne Washburn. This passion for developing new work made him a clear choice for ATL, with the director starting his term in the middle of the nationally acclaimed Humana Festival. “I’ve really built my career on developing new work,” Waters says. “So for someone like me, Humana is an extraordinary gift.”

Though he’s only been here since January, Waters has lost no time becoming immersed in Louisville. “I wish I could quantify what I really like about the city,” he says. “I feel comfortable here in the best way. It’s interesting, and I think it’s genuinely hip — that real hip of places that don’t know they’re hip. I like that; I find the energy interesting.”

While his family remains in California as his daughter finishes up high school, Waters is excited to dive into his first season with Actors Theatre, starting with Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and the American classic “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The walls of Waters’ office are covered in postcards, images he’s using in preparation for “Night.” “Time will tell,” he says, smiling. “But so far, I’m having a great time.”