“I can do this in my sleep. I’ve done it for 30 years and the lighting for over 650 productions,” said a laughing Chris Akerlind, recently. A Munjoy Hill resident for over 20 years, Akerlind was referring to his work on the upcoming Portland Stage Company production of “Babette’s Feast.” Seventy or so of his productions have been world premieres – which this production is as well. The conversation came during a warming lunch of homemade tomato soup at Akerlind’s home on Munjoy Hill during the recent cold spell.
Akerlind, who has won two Tony Awards for his lighting designs, was hired by the play director, Karin Coonrod, to do the lighting and set design for “Babette’s Feast.” Coonrod, who teaches at Yale University and has a national reputation for creativity, works with Akerlind frequently on productions that she directs.
The Portland Stage Company production of “Babette’s Feast” is a 2 l/2 week out-of-town tryout that is scheduled to open in mid-March at St. Clements Church, in New York City. It’s a former Episcopal Church turned theater, similar to the St. Lawrence Arts Center, on whose Board Akerlind sits. It’s an “open-ended” run in New York City because “it will run until it runs out of an audience” Akerlind said. The play is based on a book by Isak Dinesen, “Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny.” Rose Courtney wrote the play adaption from the book. The story is also a video available at the Portland Public Library.
The play takes place on the edge of the world – which has certain physical challenges for the set designer. “I solve problems like how to keep it dark and cold while keeping it light to allow the story and comedy to happen,” said Akerlind of his role as set designer. There are nine actors in the production and they are all from New York City. Because of the unusually large size of this cast, the Portland production has received some financial assistance – called New York Enhancement Funds – to support such a large cast.
The production came about because Anita Stewart, Executive & Artistic Director, of Portland State Company, 25A Forest Avenue, was approached by Abigail Killeen, an acting professor at Bowdoin College, to do the initial production of the play here in Portland. “Abbie” is on sabbatical from Bowdoin and hence had the time to get involved with this project. Apparently Stewart said “Yes.”
Akerlind, who is from Hartford, Connecticut, attended Yale Drama School where he met Anita Stewart. He decided then that he was more interested in lighting design than acting. At 56 years of age, this side of retirement, he says he’d love to live in northern Italy. The area has great food, great art, wonderful cities and wonderful people. He has spent a lot of time there – especially when he worked in Milan at the Teatro Alla Scala. There he worked on a theatre production with choreographer Martha Clarke, who won a MacArthur Genius Award in 1982.
Akerland travels extensively – all over the world – in pursuit of his career. It’s a very social business so his home on the Hill serves as a refuge for him in the downtime he spends here. It’s an escape from all of the complicated relationships found in the world of the theater. There are actors, writers and other collaborators that contribute to an environment where gossip flourishes and a respite from it all is required. “I’m here and often I don’t want people to even know I’m here,” he said, of his under-heated home that is under restoration. That’s not a surprise as Akerlind has said repeatedly he prefers to remain under the radar and does not seek publicity for his impressive accomplishments. In fact, he admitted that he was very nervous about this interview as one of his knees rarely stopped shaking. “I don’t know what you are writing down there,” he said of this long-time blogging friend.
He has been nominated for seven (7) Tony Awards. So far, he has won two of them. The first was for “Light in the Piazza” and the most recent for “Indecent.” The first Tony he gave to his niece who accompanied him to the award ceremony. The second Tony he keeps at his Munjoy Hill home, although it is not prominently displayed. A visitor must ask to see it because it is kept in a cabinet on the second floor. He was nominated for his lighting design for “Rocky,” among the others. Although “Rocky” was not a commercial success in the US, it was a commercial success in Germany – running for 2 – 3 years there. Germans were willing to pay $170.00 for a ticket.
Until then, he’ll just have to live on Munjoy Hill where he loves to cook from recipes collected from his worldwide travels and where his neighbors are proud to call him a friend!