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6 Theatre Workers You Should Know

From a charge artist from the Ukraine to a playwright/yoga teacher in Austin, here are some folks to have on your radar.

Benjamin Bonenfant

Benjamin Bonenfant. (Photo by Claire Thorington)

Profession: Actor
Hometown: Born in Lewiston, Me. and raised in Colorado Springs, Colo. (but “Denver will always feel like home too”)
Current home: New York City (after two years in Ashland, Ore.)
Known for: In his Oregon Shakespeare Festival debut in 2016, he played Pip in Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper’s new adaptation of Great Expectations; this year he appeared as Telemachus in Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey. Highlights of his years in Colorado include appearing in Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere of Kent Haruf’s Benediction, playing Hal in Henry IV 1 & 2 and Henry V over two seasons at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and winning a 2012 Colorado Theater Guild Henry Award for his work in Curious Theatre’s Red.
What’s next: A new chapter in New York City seeking opportunities to write, produce, and direct as well as act.
What makes him special: Scott RC Levy, producing artistic director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, called Bonenfant “an extremely versatile and brilliant actor to watch in a variety of roles, ranging from the classic to the modern. In our production of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, his nuanced portrayal as Leo became one of the most celebrated performances on our stage in recent memory.”
Only connect: Bonenfant’s favorite kind of theatre, he says, “connects us to a larger whole. When we laugh and cry together for people onstage we’ve never met, we recognize things we all share—aspirations, failures, love, and deep pain. By showing us both the darkness and the beauty of the human soul, theatre can lead us to combat injustice and treat people with dignity.”

Irina Portnyagina

Irina Portnyagina. (Photo by Lawrence Gregorek)

Profession: Charge artist at Scenic Art Studios, instructor at Studio and Forum of Scenic Arts
Hometown: Lviv, Ukraine
Current home: Nyack, N.Y.
Known for: On Broadway, Portnyagina painted backdrops and sets for Mary Poppins, Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, South Pacific, The King and I, Beauty and the Beast, and The Book of Mormon, among others. She has also worked on Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and recently worked with set designer Mark Ryden on American Ballet Theatre’s production of Whipped Cream.
What’s next: She is currently working on Richard Hudson’s backdrops for The Lion King’s national tour, and with with designer Beowulf Boritt on the Broadway-bound production of The Honeymooners.
What makes her special: “Irina is a brilliant artist with a range that stretches from architectural rendering, portraits, the human form, and incredible translucent skies,” says Joseph Forbes, founder of Scenic Art Studios. “Her ability to take a design and breathe life into it has also earned her the admiration of many designers.”
The language of theatre: After working as an architect in the Ukraine, Portnyagina came to the U.S. in 1996 and found, “in a strange way, not speaking the language helped me.” On her first day at Scenic Arts Studios, she recalls, “My sense of perception and focus sharpened, and I was quickly starting to master the scales.” She knew then “that fate had brought me to the right place: the theatre. Everything fit well for me there—the scale, the audacity, the colors, the feeling of flight!”
Working with designers: Portnyagina works with designers to enlarge their concepts by a factor of 25, calling herself “an enlarging lens, in a full meaning of that word.” She’s not a mere copyist, though, but “a conduit for their vision. It’s very important for me to feel it, to get on the same wavelength as them, and to convey the mood and the emotional state.” Her interactions with designers, however brief, provide “the seed to the whole creative process.”

Marrok Sedgwick

Marrok Sedgwick. (Photo by Marley Townsend)

Profession: Creative producer, documentarian, and educator
Hometown: Rural Monterey County, Calif. (“I grew up with goats and chickens, riding horses, and training dogs”)
Current home: Santa Cruz, Calif.
Known for: Activism around disability inclusion in performing arts, specifically Universal Design for performance, an approach that makes it possible for all audience members, regardless of ability or disability, to fully experience the art.
What’s next: Sedgwick is in the first semester of UC Santa Cruz’s MFA in Social Documentation. Regarding Santa Cruz, Sedgwick says, “As a disabled transgender queer person, it’s deeply vital to my health and well being to have access to my community members.”
What makes them special: Megan Carter, who served as Sedgwick’s mentor in CalArts’s Creative Producing and Management MFA program, call them “a passionate advocate for trans and disabled rights with a sharp mind, a strong sense of justice, and a commitment to the intersection of art and activism. Marrok is a connector and a storyteller that the theatre needs.”
Looking forward: Sedgwick says their vision for the theatre is also their vision for the future. “I want to live in a world that is fully integrated, which means a world that has been universally designed,” Sedgwick notes. “Theatre and film have the power to model this sort of world, both within the world of the individual productions, and through the culture of the companies creating those productions (and our interactions with the communities in which we make our productions).”

Raul Garza

Raul Garza. (Photo by Alexander Koffler)

Profession: Playwright
Hometown: San Antonio
Current home: Austin
Known for: Fantasmaville, which won the National Latino Playwrights Award and premiered at  Austin’s Long Center Rollins Theatre, produced by Teatro Vivo; Confessions of a Mexpatriate, staged in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in partnership with Shelter Theater; and El, which received a staged reading at Two River Theater’s Crossing Borders Festival.
What’s next: Ruby, about virtual reality and dead reckoning; and Roger:Love, a one-person show inspired by writer David Foster Wallace’s “epic” article about tennis legend Roger Federer.
What makes him special: John Dias, artistic director of Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., says he read El and “immediately fell in love with the play and with Raul’s voice. In his work, Raul explores issues of identity in fresh, honest ways. His characters vividly come to life and feel like friends—you miss them when they’re gone—and his play is infused with warmth, humor, and just a touch of magical realism. He also deftly plays with form to add multiple narrative layers, a juggling act that is both cleverly handled and illuminating.”
How he became a playwright: Garza says he “fell into theatre” as part of the sketch troupe the Latino Comedy Project. He stuck with it because “playwriting satisfies my craving to have a voice, but not be the only voice. While I am passionate about short fiction and other disciplines, I thrive on the shape-shifting narrative only playwriting delivers.” When he’s not writing, Garza teaches kundalini yoga and is the creative director of TKO Advertising. “Projects based on fearlessness, funkiness, and soul speak to me. I’m especially intrigued by the intersections of popular culture, personal identity, social justice, and spirituality.”

Ron OJ Parson

Ron OJ Parson. (Photo by Ingrid Bonnie Photography, courtesy of TimeLine Theatre Company)

Profession: Actor, director, and voiceover artist
Hometown: Buffalo, N.Y.
Current home: Chicago
Known for: The Court Theatre resident artist, TimeLine Theatre company member, and Onyx Theatre Ensemble co-founder has repeatedly directed Let Me Live and A Raisin in the Sun, the latter most recently at TimeLine, and he staged Palmer Park’s world premiere at the Stratford Festival in Canada.
What’s next: This month marks Parson’s 24th production appearing in or directing August Wilson, with his staging of Fences (Oct. 13-Nov. 12) at Missouri’s Kansas City Rep.
What makes him special: “What makes him so special is the sense of community and family that he fosters in his rehearsal rooms and in the shows he directs,” says dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers, who’s worked on nearly all productions Parson has directed at Court Theatre since Home in 2010. “He is invested in what his collaborators, audiences, actors, etc., have to say about the work we are doing.” That’s why, she says, “His shows always tend to be a hit in Chicago.”
Then and now: Parson says he started acting in the third grade and never stopped, and he began directing at 15 when he was recruited for the Studio Arena Theatre School in Buffalo, as the school was looking to diversify. He kept at both through high school, and then, “when my professional athlete dreams were curtailed,” he continued acting and directing in college at the University of Michigan. “What keeps me going is the excitement of what the future holds,” he adds. “Continuing to educate and entertain and develop new work. Paying it forward to young people, to inspire them to work in theatre in all areas, even beyond the stage.”

Shayla Roland

Shayla Roland. (Photo by Carolina Dulcey)

Profession: Theatre administrator and producer
Hometown: Born in Landstuhl, Germany, raised by way of Texas, Florida, Arizona, Utah, and Virginia (“courtesy of the U.S. military”)
Current home: St. Paul, Minn.
Known for: Roland, who was in the first cohort of TCG’s Rising Leaders of Color in 2016, worked as special programming associate at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., serving as key producer and coordinator for events around the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination in 2015. As an associate producer at Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre, she coordinated that theatre’s anniversary gala last May.
What’s next: At Penumbra she’s working on the My America Initiative, a statewide effort to collect first-person stories about “what America looks, feels, and sounds like, and what we dream it can become,” which will culminate with a “Let’s Talk: My America” evening in March 2018.
What makes her special: Ford’s Theatre director Paul Tetreault praises Roland’s “vision and judgement…Her thoughtfulness in planning many of our most important and high-profile special programs and events was essential to their success. There’s no limit to what she will accomplish in her career.”
Accidental and ephemeral: Roland “fell into theatre by accident” via a friend in college, she recounts. These days, she says, she’s excited by “opportunities to connect theatre and art with both local and national communities; to create events that allow artists to work in new ways; and for community members to see themselves as a valued part of something special and ephemeral.” She also clearly thinks like an administrator: “I love a well-organized Excel spreadsheet and good run list!”

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ADV – Billboard