The talent pool that infuses the New York theater scene is one of the most interesting, vital, and creative groups of people on earth. Meeting with these artists, one senses the hope, energy, doubt, fear, and potential that powers every show in the city. This is the first in a series of articles in which TheaterMania will profile some of the many "people to watch" on the scene.
Randy White, Director
Canadian native Randy White, director of the breakout Off-Broadway hit Underneath the Lintel, came to New York five years ago to join his girlfriend (now wife) as she studied Shakespeare at Columbia University; at the time, he had already obtained an M.F.A. degree in theater from the University of Alberta and had held an associate artistic directorship in Vancouver.
How was he greeted at his arrival on the New York theater scene? Says White, "You show up elsewhere and people say, 'Who are you? We had a fine theatrical community without you!' But in New York, it's more 'Hey, show me what you got.' No one sees you as taking away from a finite pool of resources. It's all contribution."
White's early work in New York was with the prestigious Lincoln Center Director's Lab and with the Obie-winning Clubbed Thumb company downtown. Lintel, which opened in October 2001, became a word-of-mouth hit and ran for well over a year at the Soho Playhouse. Even before his collaboration with playwright Glen Berger on that piece, a passion of White's had been working with writers to make new plays happen, and he expresses excitement about the new voices he's finding: "When I pick up a play by younger playwrights, I can tell immediately who wrote it -- not only from their use of language but how they express their story theatrically, their use of space, bodies, technical elements. It seems they've absorbed the large theatricality of directors and performance artists from the '70s and '80s and have made it part of their own lexicon."
The director also enjoys collaborating with artistically engaged producers. "I'm a big fan of old-time producers," he says, "those who like to get in there and get their hands dirty and have an idea for what this piece is going to be. That model is something that the American theater needs more of."
Upcoming work for White includes his play development efforts as a resident director at New Dramatists in New York and assisting on David Edgar's Continental Divide at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Where does he see himself now? "I guess the popular term is 'mid-career director,'" he says. "I don't know what that is. I've just been fortunate to work with people who are terrific and I hope to continue to do so."
Erich Jungwirth, Producer
"As a producer, it's hard to succeed unless you're on a project you're willing to lay down your life for," says 33-year-old Erich Jungwirth, the goateed Detroit native who recently presented the well received American premiere of Conor McPherson's Rum & Vodka at the Ohio Theater.
Asking people to plunk down money for a venture that will almost surely not win it back takes guts that few possess. With every new endeavor, Jungwirth is asked by potential investors, "What do you have invested in this?" To which he responds, "My time, my energy, my belief, and some of my own money." Sometimes, it's more of the latter than Jungwirth would like; but he views these ventures as investments that have paid off in terms of experience if not always in lavish fiscal rewards.
The privilege of developing and presenting work he cares about is what primarily motivates him, along with presenting well polished but unheralded material to a wider audience as he did with Three Dark Tales, an amazingly inventive show seen last year at the Culture Project (co-produced by Rachel Neuburger). The well spoken Jungwirth -- his bass tones have brought him some voice-over work -- says he frequently encounters new material at the Edinburgh Festival, which he attends every year.
So, how does one become a producer, especially at such a tender age? "My collaboration with Robert Lyons of SoHo ThinkTank was really my launching pad," Jungwirth tells me. "I went to him with a show for his space and our relationship developed from there." Before that, Jungwirth was an actor who trod the boards in Detroit, L.A., and New York for a total of eight years before realizing that, as a thespian involved with small theater companies, "I was picking up balls that other people were dropping in terms of production."
As managing director of the International WOW Company, Jungwith will bring to a larger venue that company's lauded show The Bomb, about the nuclear century and the life of Robert Oppenheimer. Always looking toward what's coming next, Jungwirth is very enthusiastic about WOW's vision and the integration of movement and live music in productions by other companies that he has seen of late. "I'm so sympathetic to people presenting to the world their brainchild with the chance that they'll hear, 'This kid's all right -- maybe not my cup of tea, but keep putting it out there!'" Regardless of how they're born, Jungwirth hopes that the projects he produces will provoke and stimulate. "If somebody doesn't leave the theater pissed off," he says, "I'm not doing my job."
Jason Williams, Actor
As Sean, the headstrong Irish son in the Off-Broadway premiere of Colm Byrne's play Himself, Jason Williams is very pleased to be plying his trade nightly in this four-hander at the DR2 Theater. "When I asked Colm about the accent, he said I did a good Dublin," Williams relates. "So we just inflected some words to countrify them because the character is from County Claire in Western Ireland."
Williams, who hails from Baltimore and attended the University of Viriginia, says he's learning a lot from this play; he says it's challenging because the script "mixes naturalism with the non-linear and a really poetic voice." He has kind words for Byrne's direction, noting that he enjoys directors who "really let you go, let you follow your own instincts and then guide you from there." The young actor obtained an M.F.A. degree from the Actor's Studio, which produces James Lipton's celebrity interviews on the Bravo cable station. "That's us sitting in the audience asking dumb questions," he says of the students in the audience for those tapings.
Having begun his career with lots of Shakespearean roles, both regionally and in small New York venues, Williams says that he has developed a taste for characters who are not always the most nobly motivated. "I did [David Auburn's] Proof recently in Virginia, and that was great because the characters are pretty clear in stating what they think and want. But I've always liked the Iago roles; I'm attracted to the jerks in the world because you learn more from them." In that, he agrees with one of his favorite playwrights, Neil LaBute. "I would love to play Adam in The Shape of Things," Williams says. "LaBute really gets under the skin of people."
On stage now with Eileen O'Connell and Broadway veteran Patrick Tull, Williams offstage is half of a performing couple: His wife, Charlotte Cohn, is a member of the ensemble of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème. As busy as these two are, will they be cast together in the future? "Only time will tell," says Williams with the sense of possibility that keeps him coming back to the stage.
Jessica Alexander, Actress
Jessica Alexander surprises us from role to role, morphing from a sophisticated Gotham socialite in a recent workshop to a Rhode Island provincial in the well-received Ray on the Water, produced at HERE last October. In each part, the Bucknell graduate seems to find the element that will attract audience sympathy like a magnet while presenting enough complexity of character to compel critical attention.
Has she been honing her craft diligently for years, like most New York actors? Yes and no. After leaving Bucknell, the New York area native says, "I took three years off to travel and find myself. I was in Atlanta for awhile; I wanted to learn about life and make sure I was ready for a commitment to acting." Alexander studied at Black Nexxus with Susan Batson and is currently involved in the Ensemble Studio Theatre's internship program.
Her first Off-Broadway show upon returning to New York was a forerunner of the current porn on stage trend, bluntly titled Making Porn. She has appeared regularly in a variety of regional and Off-Off Broadway productions, as well as in some commercials and films, but hopes to get to that elusive next level which eludes so many New York actors. She also flexes different muscles by writing short plays as part of her internship at EST. "It helps exercise my mind," she says. "Acting is mindful but also extremely bodily -- you're creating a relationship with the other actors and the audience. By the time you're on stage, it had better be instinctive or the audience will feel it."
What's next for Alexander? "I just want to keep fleshing out characters, taking new strides, meeting new people, and doing what I love most." Look for her in the EST internship program productions this spring.
Sheila Callaghan, Playwright
The writing of New Jersey native Sheila Callaghan is bracing and inventive, blending comic, poetic, and poignant elements in ways that are rare to find in theater. She seems to intend, as one of her characters says, to "build a ladder rung by rung and climb into your soiled Universe." Given the images and musicality of her language, it should not be surprising that Callaghan reads a lot of poetry; she cites John Ashberry and Lyn Hejinian as two poets whose work she enjoys repeatedly.
In the plays of this amiable, forthright recipient of a UCLA master of fine arts degree and a Jerome Fellowship, characters at times resemble the population of a dream, placed in situations that can be rivetingly hyper-real. Los Angeles itself influenced Callaghan: She arrived with an interest in screenwriting but soon "ran screaming" away from that career path, she says with a laugh. While living there, she won a one-act playwriting award from L.A. Weekly.
After living in Minneapolis for one year, Callaghan returned to the East Coast in 1999 to reside in Brooklyn with her boyfriend, a composer named (no kidding) Sophocles. It was her play Scab, about roommates in Los Angeles, that helped elevate her from the process of "doing festivals and Equity showcases." The piece was lauded by critics and has helped spawn commissions.
Still, the venues that fund her writing aren't so quick to produce her work. "I'm not exactly sure what makes a career in playwriting," says Callaghan. "I see people around me who are getting productions and some who aren't. I'm not sure what makes something producible." If creativity, boldness, and a willingness to examine the mental and emotional foibles that make us human are important criteria, then increased attention will be paid to this young talent, and soon.