by Martin Brady
If we can’t get imagination into the audience,” says Matt Logan, “then we can’t get the story to live in their head.
Since 2009, Logan has been inciting imagination in audiences as the artistic director of Franklin-based Studio Tenn theatre company. Under Logan’s guidance, Studio Tenn established its high standards immediately and has gone on to produce nonstop consecutive seasons of remarkable theatre, presenting a mix of musical and straight classics, the occasional contemporary drama, and also a few original revues based on the careers of famous music personalities.
Logan is clearly a director who gets results, but it is his background as an artist that drives his approach to every show. Anyone who has experienced such amazing Studio Tenn productions as The Wizard of Oz or Into the Woods or even the 2014 Nashville premiere of the brooding Frost/Nixon can attest that Logan’s skillset combines an eye for stage movement with a keen visual sense of costume and scene design. Logan’s professional story begins as a child, with art lessons at the age of 7. “I was always drawing and painting,” he says. “Charcoal, watercolors … I just did stuff, and my parents saw that I liked it and they encouraged it.”
Brentwood native Logan attended Christ Presbyterian Academy, where he explored singing and acting and also discovered how his art could serve him in the theatre. “I was a kid, and everything I did was to mirror reality—draw an apple to look like a photograph. I didn’t understand the poetry of the abstract,” Logan says. “So I didn’t really have a voice in art until high school, when the theatre gave me some momentum. It also provided me the freedom to fail.”
Logan later attended Pepperdine University in Malibu on a special achievement scholarship, after submitting an impressive design portfolio. Yet he majored first in acting before switching to directing. “I was in shows and doing costumes and sets, and painting backdrops,” he says. “I was learning what a production should look like, and what everyone should wear, and how all of that was storytelling and art coming together.”
Following college, and after a few years working and performing in Los Angeles, Logan made the move to New York in 2003 in answer to a colleague’s challenge. Acting opportunities did not come readily, but exposure to the business—working wardrobe and in casting—kept him busy and also paying his bills.“New York became my master’s degree,” Logan says. “It was incredible working backstage in shows, plus working with phenomenal directors and designers. Mike Nichols was my everything in Spamalot.” Logan also worked on high-profile Broadway revivals of Gypsy and Oklahoma.
Just as important, New York is where Logan gained important recognition as an artist. He was singled out in an August 18, 2010, New York Times feature—“Illustrating the Moxie of Broadway”—as one of the four heirs to the legacy of the late, great Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), the caricaturist best known for his stylish black-and-white portraits of Broadway stars and celebrities.
“Hirschfeld created a language and I continue to try to speak it,” Logan says. “I love the simplicity of black-and-white and how a little line means so much.” Logan’s drawings were a big hit as cast gifts when he worked in regional theatre, and that tradition continued in New York, where his notoriety as a specialty artist began to attract the favor of the likes of Bernadette Peters, Sam Mendes, Mary Tyler Moore, and Alec Baldwin, the latter even introducing Logan to Hirschfeld’s widow.
“My approach to those drawings is what I strive for in designing for the theatre,” Logan says. “It’s the sparest and simplest form, but in an edited version.”
Career goals as a director eventually led Logan to leave New York and return to Nashville, where supportive friends and family encouraged him to head up the theatre company that would soon give legs to the designs he’d been channeling for years. His striking costume ideas, not to mention his scenic conceptualizations, were the driving forces behind early-era Studio Tenn productions—including a jewel-like The Glass Menagerie and a powerful, broad-canvas staging of A Christmas Carol—and paved the way for subsequent, equally impressive musical shows like Hello Dolly!, My Fair Lady (in which Logan co-starred as Henry Higgins), and Fiddler on the Roof. Logan’s creative eye even breathed new life into the art direction of the oft-produced Southern standby Steel Magnolias.
“I have to have a portal into every project, something I can connect with through story or music,” Logan says. “I am also very aware of how cinema has influenced theatre. Yet even when I do my Broadway-style art, I am trying to capture the show in a design sense: the set, the actors, the facial expressions, the whole idea of the piece.”
See Matt Logan’s art in action during Studio Tenn’s The Glass Menagerie, February 18 to 28 at Jamison Hall. For more information, visit www.studiotenn.com.