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6 Theatre Workers You Should Know

From a physics major turned properties master to a wannabe politician turned playwright, here are some theatre folks to have on your radar.

Boo Killebrew

Boo Killebrew.
Boo Killebrew.

Profession: Playwright
Hometown: Gulfport, Miss.
Current home: Brooklyn
Known for: Killebrew’s Romance Novels for Dummies bowed at Massachusetts’s Williamstown Theatre Festival in July, and she’s a fellow in the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Program at the Juilliard School in NYC. She also co-founded the theatre company CollaborationTown.
What’s next: Her play Miller, Mississippi, which follows a Southern family’s “unraveling in the midst of societal change” from the Civil Rights era to the early ’90s, premieres at Dallas Theater Center in 2017.
What makes her special: Liz Frankel was first introduced to Killebrew through CollaborationTown’s 2011 premiere of The Play About My Dad, and Frankel, who worked at NYC’s Public Theater at the time, admitted her into the Emerging Writers Group. Now Frankel is the director of new work at Houston’s Alley Theatre, which presented Miller, Mississippi as part of its Alley All New Festival. “She thinks hard, feels deeply, and works tirelessly,” Frankel says of Killebrew. “She welcomes the artists in the room into her process, while leading with humble grace and her Brooklyn-infused Southern charm.”
Southern hospitality: Killebrew’s front porch was her stage from the age of 3, when she first knew she wanted to tell stories in that medium; she would even charge admission to her neighborhood plays. Her Mississippi upbringing continues to inspire her work. “In the South, being able to tell a story well is an essential life skill,” she says. “Growing up, I was surrounded by stories, from Southern Gothic legends to front-porch gossip to absolute bottom-of-the-barrel tragedy. It all got mixed up, story and reality. And that’s how I’ve lived my life: watching it, living it through a storytelling lens—which is great for the arts but kinda wacky for actual day-to-day stuff!”

Catherine María Rodríguez

Catherine María Rodríguez. (Photo by T Charles Erickson)

Profession: Dramaturg
Hometowns: New Orleans and Chinandega, Nicaragua
Current homes: New Haven, Conn., and New Orleans
Known for: The Dramaturgy Open Office Hour Project; #WikiTurgy, a global call to edit Wikipedia for more equitable theatre coverage; her dramaturgy at Baltimore’s Center Stage, especially Wright-Right-Now; and her involvement in the Latina/o Theatre Commons.
What’s next: She’s the production dramaturg for Seven Guitars at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven (Nov. 25-Dec. 17) and is dramaturging a new play by fellow Yale School of Drama student Tori Sampson at this season’s Carlotta Festival of New Plays.
What makes her special: Gavin Witt, Center Stage’s associate artistic director/director of dramaturgy, says Rodríguez’s work impressed him from when “she was still a senior at Carnegie Mellon, submitting a bursting binder of production dramaturgy to the KCACTF regional competition,” for which he was an evaluator. Of the two seasons she later spent with his team at Center Stage as an artistic and dramaturgy fellow, Witt raves, “I’ve not worked alongside anyone with more energy, more enthusiasm, more passion for our shared endeavor, or more abandon and rigor than Cat.”
The power of theatre: A performer since kindergarten, she was a high school drama student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts at the time of Hurricane Katrina. The first performance she attended after the storm was Paul Chan and the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s site-specific Waiting for Godot. “Those of us blessed to experience the production were blessed again with how it fell into us,” she says. “We understood it innately. That performance spoke the language of our soul.”

Jaime Castañeda

Jaime Castañeda.

Profession: Director, associate artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Current home: La Jolla, Calif.
Known for: A former artistic associate at New York City’s Atlantic Theater Company, he directed the world premiere of Chimichangas and Zoloft there, and helmed Guards at the Taj at La Jolla and Welcome to Arroyo’s at American Theater Company in Chicago and the Old Globe in San Diego.
What’s next: After directing Tiger Style! by Mike Lew at La Jolla (Sept. 6-Oct. 2), he says he’s doing fall workshops with playwrights Mat Smart and Lauren Yee, while planning for the 2017-18 season and handling various producing and administrative duties at the Playhouse.
What makes him special: To fill the newly created role of associate artistic director at the Playhouse, says artistic director Christopher Ashley, the organization was “looking for someone who could bring experience in both the worlds of directing and administrative leadership, while sharing in the Playhouse’s deep commitment to new work and our eclectic artistic aesthetic.” Castañeda fit the bill to a tee, as “a full-throated advocate for new plays” who “is attracted to singular, personal, daring playwriting voices.”
Why new work: Castañeda admits that he didn’t grow up as a “traditional theatregoer.” Instead he read comic books, played video games, and in particular “grew up with hip-hop, so that influences my approach to contemporary plays.” He says he’s drawn to “compelling work that will both engage me and make me think. I also appreciate texts that only belong on the stage. I love humor. I also search for and am interested in plays that bring different voices and cultures into the rehearsal room.”

Joe Wilson Jr.

Joe Wilson Jr.
Joe Wilson Jr. (Photo by Anne Harrigan Photography)

Profession: Actor and playwright
Hometown: New Orleans
Current home: Providence, R.I.
Known for: Wilson has been a member of Trinity Repertory Company’s resi­dent acting company for 12 seasons, and he is a Fox Foundation Fellow in Distinguished Achievement through Thea­tre Communications Group.
What’s next: Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, The Mountaintop, and Fuente Ovejuna at Trinity Rep. At Trinity, he’s been involved in readings of The Every 28 Hours Plays, a national effort to create and present works about police violence (see p. 128). He’s also developing his own play based on the life and music of composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn.
What makes him special: Trinity Rep artistic director Curt Columbus, who joined the theatre at the same time as Wilson, says that the actor’s many roles since then have displayed “the most profound connection to an audience that I have seen an actor make.” Columbus, who calls Wilson “one of the greatest artists working in the American theatre today,” particularly notes the way Wilson “cares about the entire production and how the storytelling works as a whole. He always brings his boundless intellect and equally boundless heart to the work.”
How he’s fulfilled his dreams: When he started doing theatre as a senior political science major at the University of Notre Dame, Wilson “wanted to someday be the governor of Louisiana.” But after taking an acting class, he decided to attend the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis’s training program instead of law school. He doesn’t find the two fields to be hugely disconnected. “My community gives me license and agency to not only be a theatremaker but also provides me with the opportunity to use my voice as a way to help create a more empathetic world,” he says. “While I may not be the governor of Louisiana, my work as an artist is a public service.”

Karin Rabe Vance

Karin Rabe Vance.
Karin Rabe Vance.

Profession: Properties master
Hometown: Born in Dundee, Scotland, raised mostly in Pensacola, Fla.
Current home: Houston
Known for: As manager of the Alley Theatre’s prop department, Vance oversees creating of all props for the thea­tre’s 11-plus-show season, new-play workshops, and touring educational programming.
What’s next: She recently built furniture and hand props for the Alley’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oct. 7-Nov. 5) and is currently “doing pre-build planning” for next spring’s collection and looking at tweaks on her perennial set for the theatre’s annual production of The Santaland Diaries.
What makes her special: Scenic designer Hugh Landwehr praises Vance’s “rare combination of two virtues: the ability to imaginatively participate in the world the designer is trying to create and the organizational skills to actually get that work onstage.” The Alley’s production manager, Raymond Inkel, noting the trust Vance builds with designers, says she “often becomes a sounding board” for designers, even a “de facto design assistant.”
The science of props: While studying physics, advanced math, and vocal performance at a community college, she got roped into helping the theatre department’s technical director build “an eight-foot scale model seaplane that had to crash into the deck every night,” Vance recalls. “Needless to say, I was hooked on both theatre and on props—and I managed to get some extra credit in my physics courses.” She says “the day-to-day solving of prop problems” is what keeps her coming back. Whether it’s “dumping over 12 gallons of blood on the stage every night with The Lieutenant of Inishmore to building all the puppets for Hand to God to decorating a set with more than 1,000 pieces of set dressing for You Can’t Take It With You,” she enthuses, “each show presents us with a different puzzle to solve, and I love it.”

Madigan Stehly

Madigan Stehly.
Madigan Stehly. (Photo by Casey Woods)

Profession: Lighting director
Hometown: Carlsbad, Calif.
Current home: Los Angeles
Known for: He was the lighting director for “Grease: Live” on Fox and for the 68th Annual Emmy Awards. He also served as the assistant lighting director for the Academy Awards and the Grammy Awards. He doesn’t just light awards show, though; he also received a 2016 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lighting Design/Direction for a Variety Special for his work on “Grease.”
What’s next: “Stand Up to Cancer—Kiss Cancer Goodbye” at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater, and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
What makes him special: Elsbeth M. Collins, head of production and associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts, recalls her former pupil as  “extremely knowledgeable about lighting instrumentation,” and says that he “always strove to tell the story most lucidly through his lighting choices. He always came well-prepared to techs, and had a strong collaborative drive to make things better.” What’s more, she says, “His training as a technical director has provided him with the big-picture overview and nuts-and-bolts literacy to know how to implement his designs.”
Theatre vs. TV: “When you go to the theatre,” Stehly notes, “the lighting distinctly influences your experience as an audience member. From the level of the house lights as you walk into the house to the final musical button, lighting can be used to amplify the mood onstage, dictate where you look, and even fool you into seeing something that may or may not be there.” Designing for the screen, on the other hand, means “working within the mechanical and digital limits of modern cameras.”

A version of this piece appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.

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