With The White Chip, Annaleigh Ashford Makes a First Foray Into Theater Producing

The Tony winner presents this off-Broadway dark comedy about addiction starring her husband, Joe Tapper.

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Annaleigh Ashford
(© Tricia Baron)

Annaleigh Ashford’s head has been in a lot of different places. She finished her run as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd on January 14 and jetted to Los Angeles for the Emmys the very next day, where she was nominated for her role in Welcome to Chippendale’s. She headed to the Grammys a few weeks later, representing her nominated vocal performance on the Sweeney Todd cast recording. In between, she was announced to star in a new Paramount + series playing the daughter of a serial killer, and she opened her first off-Broadway show as lead producer.

Wait, what was that last one?

While many celebrities have been lending their boldfaced names (and wallets) to the producing teams of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, few are among the actual decision-makers. On Sean Daniels’s dramedy The White Chip, directed by Sheryl Kaller at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, Ashford is not just the lead producer, but the first name at the very top of the program. It’s a debut in an industry she thought she knew every facet of, but the experience has given her a new understandin about — to borrow a metaphor she apologized for using, given her most recent role — “how the meat and potatoes are cooked and put into the pie.”

Ashford’s interest in The White Chip, a biographical play about a theater director who hits rock bottom and rebuilds his life while battling alcoholism, is personal: her husband, Joe Tapper, is both the leading man and a proudly sober person. “I would argue that every piece of art that we put on stage is an act of service,” Ashford says, “but this play is truly an act of service.”

The White Chip has been produced around the country, and Tapper has appeared in many of those versions. He first did it in New York in 2019 at 59E59. Universally well-received, the desire to give it another life in Manhattan has been strong since theaters reopened after the initial Covid wave. “There was a deep need after the pandemic for pieces like this,” she says, “that highlight how much of a struggle the recovery world had during the pandemic. It felt like a story that the world needed, and it felt like the strongest path forward was for me to help get it there.”

She reached out to two members of her theater cohort — producer Aaron Glick and general manager Andy Jones of Baseline Theatrical — to help. “All three of us agreed that this is the kind of play that reminds us that art can change the world. It starts an active conversation about recovery and how art can help remove the stigma around recovery.”

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Annaleigh Ashford and Joe Tapper
(© Tricia Baron)

The Tony winner, who never met a character or line of dialogue that she couldn’t make hysterical, realized early on that producing a play, even a small three-character one like The White Chip, wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. “I know what tech feels like, I know how to make the running time right for the piece, I know how to make a laugh work and get it the second time around. I knew my way around the creative side of this position. But man, oh man. As an actor, I always strike to make a bold choice, and it was a bold choice to choose producing. This has certainly been a path of learning and growth and humility. And I’m not afraid to ask questions or admit that I’m wrong.”

Her biggest learning experience was around fundraising, and the “volume of fundraising that is done to get that piece of art to the stage. It is your job to not only shepherd the piece from the creative standpoint, but then you also have a responsibility to your investors and co-producers, which I always knew, but I didn’t know in the same way. I keep thinking that I live in the Language Arts portion of the day most often in the business, and now I’ve gone onto the math portion, which is my least favorite portion.”

Along with that aspect comes other responsibilities. Ashford has a desire to make sure that The White Chip gets licensed for future productions. Emotionally, she wants to make sure they’re doing right by Daniels and “all those who have come before us in this art form who have been touched by recovery in some way,” including late playwright Terrence McNally, who was an early champion of The White Chip, and his husband Tom Kirdahy, who was among the producers of the 2019 run.

And then there’s the audience. “We have people come up to Joe or Sean or Sheryl or [co-stars] Crystal Dickinson or Jason Tam after every show to say ‘I have 32 years. I have 10 years. I have two months. Or, I need help.’ We have so many resources for people, and it’s been beautiful to watch it all unfold.”

Ashford is quick to note that while she finds this newfound résumé item interesting and rewarding, she’s not planning to switch her focus anytime soon. “I believe in creating and producing art that helps people understand themselves and understand the world. If there’s a play or musical that comes along and it’s in alignment with my intentions as an artist, I’ll do this again, and I’ll know a lot more the next time. But I would not be producing this if it wasn’t an act of service. It’s too hard.”

Production Photos Off Broadway White Chip
Crystal Dickinson, Joe Tapper, and Jason Tam in The White Chip
(© Matthew Murphy)

Featured In This Story

The White Chip

Closed: March 9, 2024


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