When a person is skilled in many areas, he or she is sometimes unfairly labeled a dilettante. The group profiled here are remarkable not just for their skill at their primary disciplines but for their success in various pursuits -- actors who write plays, writers who produce and direct, directors who study dance, etc. These rising luminaries demonstrate that some of the theater's best work is done by those who have many interests, talents and perspectives on the art form.
Lisa D'Amour, Playwright
New Dramatists member Lisa D'Amour works in Austin with several local theaters and also spent six years in Minneapolis, which she still considers home base. Her highly innovative play Nita and Zita, about two New Orleans women who made their home into a lifelong visual artwork, was developed in collaboration with her cast and only played in New York for four days last year. How surprised were D'Amour and company that they won an Obie award for the play? "We were totally shocked," she says. "I invited a friend who invited a bunch of people who were on the nominating committee, but I had no idea that it could be eligible."
Having worked for years on the show, getting tiny grants and honing the piece through performances in her hometown of New Orleans and elsewhere, D'Amour created a theatrical experience that impressed packed audiences at its New York premiere. She reports that many of her New Dramatists friends were encouraged by her award: "They thought, 'Wow! Every now and then, this kind of hard work gets recognized.'"
D'Amour remarks that her life hasn't changed dramatically since her Obie win: "Some theaters might feel more comfortable giving me commissions, but Hollywood isn't calling or anything." But she's very pleased that her next work to be seen in New York will be presented by New Georges, the prestigious Off-Broadway company. In the meantime, D'Amour balances writing with a visiting professorship at the main campus of the University of Texas in Austin, her MFA alma mater. "If taking aesthetic risks means I'm not likely to make a living through art, I can cobble together grants and teaching gigs," she says candidly. "I've become more comfortable since I realized that money isn't going to be part of this." Perhaps, as more theaters learn how audiences respond to D'Amour's riveting work, that equation will change.
Susan Bernfield, Producer
Susan Bernfield has been producing some of the finest new plays in the country for 12 years through her theater company New Georges, which she founded with other actors frustrated at the kinds of roles they were being offered. "I just thought, 'There must be people who are writing better plays,'" recalls Bernfield. Her search led her to some of today's most promising writers, including Carson Kreitzer, Lisa D'Amour, and others.
The company's first years were self-funded and grueling, but around the time when Bernfield's resources began to dry up, grant money finally started arriving. The payoff is the ability to do the kind of work that won the theater an Obie award in 1996 -- potent new material that aims to reshape how we view theater. "Luckily, I don't have to deal with any inherent conservatism within our subscriber base," Bernfield notes gratefully. She adds that, while larger theaters with elaborate facilities to maintain have suffered in recent years due to the state of the economy, New Georges is poised to continue to grow steadily.
Similarly, Bernfield's career as a playwright is burgeoning, evidenced by her admission to the prestigious O'Neill Playwrights Center this summer and the production of one of her plays by the Vital Theater Company in New York. If a playwright seems well suited to finding terrific new plays and producing them, Bernfield also notes that "I find it hard to produce my own work; it's difficult to nurture yourself when you're both the producer and the writer, so it's better to do my plays with other companies."
Currently, Bernfield the producer is investigating "How to create events -- to make sure that what you're doing isn't just some play, it's an event that will be unusual, have a unique impact."
Ellen Beckerman, Director
Ellen Beckerman recently got rave reviews for her taut, thrilling direction of playwright Charles Mee's take on a Greek classic, The Trojan Women: A Love Story at Double Helix Theater Company. But Beckerman studied history in college and did not intend to go into theater as a career until she moved to Chicago and decided "to have fun before becoming a lawyer" by working for a theater company. The folks at Steppenwolf, where she paid dues mopping floors, quickly gave her a chance to identify a position in the artistic office that seemed to need filling. That's how she became the company's first literary manager in 1994.
A trip to upstate New York, where she studied at Anne Bogart's SITI school of movement-oriented performance, sealed her commitment to directing and helped form her style, which draws on Butoh and Kabuki as well as cheeky pop-culture references. Over the course of initial, self-funded productions that included Hamlet and an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull called Gull, Beckerman formed EB&C, a company of talented actors such as Margot Ebling and Shawn Fagan. She also developed a loyal audience and won an NEA/TCG Directing Fellowship, which has freed her from her day job and allowed her to focus on directing for other companies as well as her own. Her artistic process, wherever she works, creates a unique performance style for each production, making them so inimitable that they call for repeated viewings.
Fortunately, Beckerman's company plans to bring back shows that have run once or twice already -- e.g., Orestes 2.0, another Mee play. As the director notes, "We realized that doing a play, leaving it, and coming back lets us relax into the style and really dig deeper next time around."
Raquel Hecker, Actress
Raquel Hecker is hilarious. A member of the original cast that made Urinetown a hit at the New York Fringe Festival, she was recently back on the boards in a new tuner created by her aptly named partner in crime, Ben Medley. The show, One Hit Wonder, concerns the rise and fall of an industry-created pop band. It's a tongue-in-cheek musical -- "Hedwig meets Showgirls," in Hecker's description.
With infectious energy and wit, Hecker rocked the house at every performance, and her off-stage conversations have the same spirit. She says that Wonder is about a group called Venga Boys, led by "A young man coming to grips with himself, literally, in a Michael Jackson kind of way. Well, maybe not so deviant -- more of a George Michael sort of way."
Hecker met Medley while both were touring with a show called Mañanas de Abril y Mayo, and she cites Menudo -- the original Latin boy band -- as an early inspiration. She and Medley are fairly prolific writers of material, having begun with 10-minute plays and run the gamut of forms. She says "acting in work that I write or produce is difficult but fulfilling, an experience that not many actors get to have."
Aside from Urinetown, Hecker's other major credits include the U.S. premiere of Cameron Mackintosh's The Fix and an appearance with Liza Minnelli at the Helen Hayes awards. "There were three of us from the original Urinetown cast in the Fringe festival this year," the actress notes. "As one of us said, we apparently haven't learned our lesson!" Let's hope that Hecker never learns her lesson and gets a chance to teach audiences a thing or two about stage presence, dauntless humor, and serious talent.
Ty Jones, Actor
Ty Jones has appeared on Broadway as Lieutenant Byers in Judgment at Nuremberg but his breakout performance was in last winter's controversial, highly lauded production of Genet's The Blacks at Classical Theatre of Harlem. Genet's take on the Theater of Cruelty had Jones researching the concept for "hours online, reading Artaud and the rest." His crash course served both him and New York audiences well; it has helped put Harlem theater on the map.
Unlike some other actors, Jones -- a product of the University of Delaware's professional acting program, for which he auditioned "on a whim" -- seems more authentic the more he stretches himself. He is also a writer whose screenplay Emancipation received a reading at LAByrinth theater company and was a finalist in the Sundance Script Festival. Jones is taking on the producer's role of looking for funding for that project; he says it's "about halfway home, budgetwise."
His passions extend to politics, history, and other areas, but Jones is clearly most excited about the possibilities facing Classical Theatre of Harlem. "There's an audience for theater in Harlem; this kind of thing can sustain itself and stimulate growth in the area," says Jones, who just performed the title role of Macbeth with the same troupe. "Europeans know that arts are a salient part of the culture but America's slower to embrace that idea, despite evidence that the arts do more to develop communities than anything else."
This fall, Jones will be speaking to MBA students at Columbia about the ways in which Shakespeare offers lessons and warnings for leaders. The lesson he's most focused on now? "Having performed in the Scottish play, I'd say that ambition would be it. Our national leadership lately has been doing many things out of ambition." With any luck, Jones's ambition will continue to lead him to interesting new places.