Brooklyn shines bright in ‘American Buffalo’ on Broadway
Lighting designer and Park Slope resident Tyler Micoleau is illuminating a historic revival.
Enter the dimly lit lobby of what feels like a new museum, bordering the cold Paramount Plaza parking lot in Midtown. A giant taxidermied buffalo is roped off, in front of which people take hurried selfies to post to their timelines. Walk further and you’ll find what appears to be the most elaborate junk-shop-thrift-vintage store you’ve ever seen; like something you’d stumble into off the sidewalk in Williamsburg, only there’s a strange emptiness to it, an unfamiliar nostalgia, and it’s surrounded by hundreds of seats on all sides.
You’ve just entered the Circle in the Square Theatre, and are about to witness a distinct moment in time on the Broadway stage. After a two-year pandemic-induced freeze-frame, the award-winning play by the mythic David Mamet has thawed out, and is entering previews alive and red hot, featuring some of the best film and stage actors of our day. With them every step of the way, and illuminating their work, is Brooklyn’s own, Tony-award winner and one of the fastest-rising stars in Broadway design, Tyler Micoleau. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him during the first week of the show’s long-anticipated relaunch.
“It’s been a bizarre experience, Micoleau tells me. “We started focusing the lights and pointing them on March 12th (2020) and that was the last day in there, so they sat in there for most of the pandemic.”
American Buffalo was originally slated for an April 14th debut in 2020. After a COVID-19 hiatus, it’s now finally happening — exactly two years later — opening fully April 14th, 2022.
“It was strange because at first I thought, ‘Oh, this is only going to be for two weeks.’ And then our livelihood sort of stopped and our careers were on a major hold. I started thinking less about this production and more existential, like ‘What am I going to be doing?’”
For almost his whole life, Tyler Micoleau has been doing only one thing. He started backstage on student productions in middle school and seeing the local professional theatre company in his hometown of Portland, Maine, until following his passions all the way to Bowdoin College. Here, he created his own major (Theatre with an Emphasis in Design) after taking a gap year and spending time living in the Rocky Mountains. In part, it’s been his love of the outdoors and his expansive artistic curiosity that has propelled him in his career. Micoleau considers stage design, “a pursuit of the Renaissance man – the historian, the poet, the architect, the musician, the scientist, the artist – all wrapped up in one package.”
He says his love for rock music, spanning from The Pixies to Elvis Costello, has an influence in his work now. “Light design is a time-based art form, so music informs that a lot in terms of rhythm and composition.”
But his process is a collaborative one. “I work mostly with the set designer, because I’m very much interested in the space and how that’s going to inform what I do. American Buffalo is a great example because it’s a very developed space with a lot of objects and almost a full ceiling with objects. So there’s a lot of dance I did with (Scenic Designer) Scott Pask. He wanted to put objects in the air and I wanted to put lights in the air that were necessary to illuminate the actors. So, there was a constant back and forth.”
There’s also great collaboration beyond that. Micoleau speaks of trying to capture the playwright’s “vision” with a new play. “This one is a revival, so it’s been done a lot and first done in the ‘70s. But (Director) Neil Pepe was a student of Mamet’s at the Atlantic (Theater Company – founded by Mamet and others in 1985), so we’re getting a lot of feedback from Mamet via Neil and some of the other actors who are members of the company.”
Micoleau has worked with the Atlantic Theater Company since he first moved to New York, gaining early experience on the play Dangerous Corner (1996), directed by Mamet, and Mojo (1997), directed by Pepe.
“Mamet is…I don’t know how to describe it.. he’s such a presence. He’s very strong, when he’s not directing, he’ll be off in the corner shadow boxing. He’s very much like his plays.”
Indeed, as one watches Buffalo, one cannot help but feel the indelible energy that has survived in its crass and rapid language. The palpable virility of the play flows through the shifting triangle of the cast – breaking it, bringing it back together, pulling each corner taught until finally it snaps. It also boasts one of the most exciting stage casts in recent memory, who have their own ties to Brooklyn.
Academy award winner Sam Rockwell plays Teach, a confident and smooth-talking gangster. He collaborates on every role with acting coach Terry Knickerbocker – whose studio in Industry City, Brooklyn has become a bastion for young actors looking to hone their craft. The Tony award-winning Laurence Fishburne, an intimidating presence, plays the ever-serious and impressionable Donny. Fishburne, who moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant with his mother after his parents’ divorce and was raised there, has since gone on to have a massively successful 50-year career on the stage and screen. Emmy and Golden Globe winner Darren Criss, as Bobby, is the third pillar of this great acting tabernacle, a character whose youth and naivety serve as the foundation for much of the play’s humor.
But enough about them. Back to Tyler Micoleau, the man who illuminates. The man who takes darkness and creates light; who takes daytime and – in this play – turns it into night.
“One of the things we did, was during intermission when that shift starts, there’s a moment where all these practical lamps hanging in the ceiling are all turned on, leaving the audience a few hours ahead of time. Ideally, the experience is that when you come back in after intermission, you feel that we’ve traveled in time.” In this way, Micoleau is able to transport the audience, establishing a clear and vivid tableau, deftly through his lighting arrangement.
American Buffalo comes, for him, during a recharged Broadway ascent. Receiving numerous awards over the course of his career, all across the country, Micoleau has only recently broken through the ranks and received top recognition – garnering a Tony Award for his work on The Band’s Visit in 2018.
“I had done most of my work Off-Broadway up until that point, so it was sort of an acceptance that – one, I could do Broadway and two, that I could do it well – and the community was very welcoming of me.” Through all of his success, Micoleau remains humble and gracious. He speaks of other lighting designers (Don Holder and Chris Akerlind, specifically) as those who inspire him to continue to grow. “I’m not trying to compete with them. They’re just my heroes, people I look up to and aspire to their level.”
Micoleau hones his craft in Park Slope, Brooklyn and has called the borough home for the past 26 years. He credits the abundance of trees and nature as his deciding factor over Manhattan. “I needed to have trees, so I needed to live in Brooklyn.” He highlights the Greenwood Cemetery, which served as his pandemic safe-haven, and Prospect Park as one of his favorite spots to ride his bike.
One piece of advice that Micoleau would give to aspiring designers comes from an old Zen proverb: “To make the perfect painting, first make your life perfect, then paint naturally.” I asked him what perfection looks like to him, both on the stage and his own life.
“On the stage… to use another quote from architect (Mies) van der Rohe, ‘God is in the details.’ That’s where you find perfection, when you discover and exercise every nuance to a piece. In life … I mean, living a disciplined life, a happy life, one filled with love. The pandemic was great for my relationship with my wife. I spent a lot of time with her. We have a small dog, she’s a Chuweenie (Chihuahua-Dachshund mix). She’s a bit of a beast, definitely a lot of chihuahua in her … a lot of energy.”
American Buffalo is currently in previews and runs at The Circle in the Square through July 10, and is recommended for ages 14+.
You can see more of Tyler Micoleau’s work in the upcoming production of A Case for the Existence of God, at the Signature Theater, beginning April 12th.
Evan Rosen is a culture writer and reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He can be reached at [email protected].
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