Red: Fresh canvas

A PCCA teacher takes direction from a former student in a play about artist Mark Rothko.

click to enlarge ART LESSONS: Actors Renken and McNally tackle the painting process as director Monroe and artist Yoko Nogami look on. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
ART LESSONS: Actors Renken and McNally tackle the painting process as director Monroe and artist Yoko Nogami look on.

Keven Renken (or just plain “Renken” to many of his students) has been teaching theater and directing plays at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts (PCCA) at St. Petersburg’s Gibbs High School for 23 years. This weekend, the tables turn.

In Red, the Tony-winning drama opening Thursday at [email protected], Renken, 55, is being directed for the first time by a former student, Elon College sophomore Ryan James Monroe, 19. Renken’s co-star in the two-character drama is another former student, 2013 PCCA grad Dacey McNally, 18.

John Logan’s play imagines an encounter in the late 1950s between the abstract impressionist artist Mark Rothko and a young assistant as they prepare canvases for a major commission — a series of paintings for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Mies Van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, which Rothko hoped would “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” At the peak of his career at the time of the commission, he nevertheless saw the tastes of the art world changing (Andy Warhol was on the horizon), and in the course of the play he and his assistant, Ken, a representative of the coming generation, get into a passionate debate about what art is.

Renken is happy about handing the director reins to Monroe, he says during a CL interview with the Red trio at the Studio. “It really is nice to let that go and just act” — and also to let his students teach him.

“We’re totally in a different role. That shift fascinates me.”

Not that Ryan is a directing novice. He co-directed with Renken at PCCA, and Red marks his third time helming a PCCA production at [email protected], which regularly hosts the students’ summertime shows. The last two of those plays, The Laramie Project and The Manuscript, used all-student casts. But he wouldn’t have done Red without an age-appropriate actor as Rothko.

“Nobody wants to see an 18-year-old playing a weathered 55-year-old man. No offense,” he adds quickly.

Renken, an NYU-trained actor who came to Florida many years ago with his partner, started acting in local community theaters here in 2007. But this year, after going through a difficult time helping a family member through a serious illness, he was particularly eager for a creative outlet.

Monroe recalls receiving multiple text messages from his former teacher, pleading, “‘Ryan, I need to be on stage!’”

And Red is proving to be the ideal vehicle.

“The script is so relevant,” says Monroe. “The first day in rehearsal I told them to try the find the ties between the two characters and their [own] personal relationship”: Rothko and Renken, the aging artists; Ken and Dacey, the protegés on the threshold.

Dacey McNally is indeed looking to the future. A member of a theatrical family (his brother’s a dancer in the Off-Broadway company of Sleep No More, and both his parents are working actors), he will enter the SUNY Purchase theater program in the fall.

Monroe made one major adjustment in the relationship right away: “I removed Renken from his desk.” They had been rehearsing in the classroom, where Renken’s tendency was to stay behind his desk. Monroe moved them to neutral ground, the dance studio. “I had to destroy the teacher element,” says the director.

Because the play calls for the two actors to create a painting on stage, Monroe also arranged for them to learn the right moves from an actual artist, PCCA faculty member Yoko Nogami.

“I’m apologizing ahead of time,” Renken tells his co-star, “because you might get a lot of paint on you.”

In working on the script, the company has gone deep into their characters’ opinions about art. Rothko wanted art to be so powerful that it would “stop your heart,” says Renken, while Ken’s opinion is “that art doesn’t have to hurt you,” says McNally. “It doesn’t have to make you want to commit suicide.” (Rothko eventually did kill himself years after the time period of the play.)

The older artist ultimately shows his support for Ken’s future, by literally letting him go. The moment when the two part will be loaded with subtext when they play the scene, Renken expects. “I know on the 29th [the final performance in the run] I’m going to feel like I’m saying goodbye to you.”

The relationship between Rothko and Ken in the play is, it should be noted, purely platonic. In fact, McNally, who’s straight, thinks the playwright added extraneous references to Ken’s girlfriend just to make sure audiences didn’t get the wrong idea.

But it’s also worth noting, in this weekend devoted to LGBT pride, that both Renken and Monroe are openly gay — and while that may be irrelevant to Red, Renken’s openness on the job, and PCCA’s supportive atmosphere, made Monroe’s coming-out process easier.

“Seeing that a teacher I respect was openly gay, that helped a lot.”

PCCA students are coming from all over the country to see Red, says Monroe, eager to see their former teacher in a dramatic role.

But they’ll have to get over one hurdle: his name.

“I’m waiting for them to call me Keven,” Renken says. “It’s okay now.”

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