1935 – 2021
Paul Owen, 85, nationally acclaimed retired scenic designer for Actors Theatre of Louisville, died Friday at Baptist Health palliative care unit in St. Matthews.
Owen, a native of Dobbin, Texas, was born in August 1935 to Mr. and Mrs. Edward Sargent Owen. He set out to become an engineer, but at Wharton County Junior College, he was hooked on theater after playing Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew.”
That was also where he fell in love with his “Kate,” Mary Lou (ML) Vincent, whom he married in June 1957. After serving in the U.S. Army, he joined the Alley Theatre in Houston, then among the first resident regional theaters in America. Their marriage and creative partnership continued for 38 years until her death.
After a very successful decade in Houston, Jon Jory, then the young artistic director of Actors Theatre, brought Owen north to Louisville as costume designer, a role that quickly expanded to scenic and lighting designer for the fledgling repertory company. His work had an immediate impact on Louisville audiences.
Jory, who now lives in Los Angeles, said this: “I love Paul Owen. His many virtues as a man and artist kept Actors Theatre afloat through many a crisis and his designs enabled many a production.”
“Paul never got rattled, not ever; that may not sound as important as it is. A theatre production has many moving parts in a tight time schedule. Small problems are big problems because the public is going to be out there. Paul negotiated those problems with grace, endless energy and artistic insight. Pick any 10-year period and because Actors produced so much work, (up to 17 productions a year), Paul was designing more sets than most if not any other American designer. And guess what? When that curtain went up, the audience always applauded.”
Among the memorable plays for which he created special on-stage worlds included “Food From Trash” (1983), “Chips ’n’ Ale” (1974), virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays, annual productions of “A Christmas Carol,” and many, many others.
Owen’s gifts were given national exposure through ATL’s Humana Festival of New America Plays, which were viewed, and reviewed, by the world’s most famous theatre critics. In 1984, The New York Times’ Mel Gussow, hailed his versatility, by quickly changing the set from Kent Broadhurst’s “Lemons,” a “good old boy caper” set in a car dealership, to “Courtship,” a period piece by Horton Foote.
“The set, complete with many new cars, looks like a sound stage, reminding us of the contribution of Paul Owen, the company’s resourceful designer. At the swing of a turntable, Mr. Owen transforms the main stage from the flashy salesroom to the elegant, wicker-filled home of ‘Courtship’ to the chaotic slaughterhouse of ‘The Undoing’ without dropping a chicken feather,’” Gussow wrote.
Owen was instrumental in the design and expansion of ATL in 1994, crafting the lobby and backstage expansion with the addition of the Bingham Theatre for arena productions. In 2008, as he neared the end of his 38 seasons, ATL honored him by naming in his honor a production studio at 9th and Magnolia, providing a 44,000-square-foot building to house the ATL production shop areas, trial set-up areas for ATL for productions, offices for the technical staff, meeting spaces and storage for scenery and props.
In retirement, he continued to advise local theatrical companies (notably Kentucky Shakespeare Festival) and mentor up-and-coming designers. His influence was national in scope, and the honors he received were commensurate with the mark he left on his profession. Perhaps the greatest of these came in 1980 when ATL received a special Tony Award for excellence in regional theatre.
Jory said, “His work had fabulous shape and remarkable detail and, in the midst of our enormous output, it was never the same. And his very presence settled down a lot of artistic temperaments. Times have changed and I doubt we will ever see his like again. I love and admire him. The American theatre is in his debt.”