The play’s the thing

A creative team that formed in Culbreth Theatre more than 10 years ago is still going strong — and being noticed.

By Allison Knab (Biology '97)
Hussa and Cummings.

Hussa and Cummings.
Photo courtesy of the Transport Group.

A creative connection — between director Jack Cummings III (MFA, Drama ’96), actor and producer Robyn Hussa (MFA, Drama ’96) and University of Virginia professor and lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy — that began more than a decade ago in Culbreth Theatre paid off in a big way this spring. Their most recent play, “The Audience,” was nominated for three Drama Desk awards. 

Cummings and Hussa were second-years in the Master of Fine Arts program and Kennedy was a young professor when the three were assigned to a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”  “We just had a really incredible collaboration that we all recognized,” said Kennedy, who is still a professor at the University. 

Since that production they’ve never stopped working together.  “As far as the designers go I haven’t really done any show without them for 11 years,” said Cummings.  Their continued collaboration has also included former U.Va. professors John Story and Kathryn Rohe, sound designer Seth Guterman (Drama, Anthropology ’96) and a host of other U.Va. actors and designers. 

In 2001, after years of working on productions in both Virginia and New York, Hussa and Cummings formed the Transport Group in New York City.  For Cummings, its founding hinged on the participation of Hussa, an actor and producer. “If I had gone to her and she had said ‘no’ I would not have done it,” he said. 

The Drama Desk awards were created to recognize productions done on and off Broadway, as well as in not-for-profit theaters. Transport’s competition for Outstanding Musical included such acclaimed works as “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which ultimately won the award.  Cummings was nominated for Outstanding Director of a Musical (also against the director of “Monty Python’s Spamalot”), while Kennedy received a nomination for Outstanding Lighting Design. 

“The Audience” originated from an experience Cummings had workshopping a new musical that he didn’t care for but that audiences loved; he became intrigued by their responses.  The play follows the reactions of a typical audience and includes musical numbers that reveal their inner thoughts.  Cummings conceived the structure and outline of the play, then went to 28 writers — including playwrights, composers and lyricists — and asked them to write specific components. 

Cummings said he wasn’t sure of the play’s success until the eleventh hour.  “It was so sprawling and huge,” he said.  “I was weaving together 19 stories, some of them involving musical moments.  I think before we officially opened I’d had all 46 actors together twice.”   Nonetheless, when it finally came together “it did work, and it worked really well,” he said. 

“It was such a rigorous process that it was really the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” to receive the nomination, said Hussa.  For Kennedy, the lighting was like nothing he’d ever done before. The minimalist set involved rows of theater chairs; with no movement on stage it was up to lighting to draw attention to each character.  There were 539 lighting changes during the 90-minute show, Kennedy said. 

Given the stiff competition Cummings, Hussa and Kennedy never believed they had any chance of winning, but they were all thrilled to be recognized.  “In a way it kind of feels like an award just to be nominated,” said Kennedy. 

All involved appreciate how their experience at the University of Virginia shaped them.  “We feel like we were really a fortunate and lucky group to have met how we did,” said Hussa. “You can’t really separate our work from each other,” Cummings said. “That was a huge gift that came from going there.”

For the Transport Group’s cofounders, the future definitely includes continuing with the company.  “I look down 25 years from now and I see Transport Group being a major institution in the arts in New York City,” said Hussa.  “I feel like that’s how it’s meant to be.”