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Hometown: Waconia, Minn.
Current home: Stillwater, Minn.
Known for: In 19 seasons as a member of Children’s Theatre Company’s resident acting company, Ness has workshopped, developed, and performed in more than 60 productions. Highlights include the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the Stepmother in Cinderella, Bagheera in The Jungle Book, Fiona in Shrek the Musical, Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan, Betsy Bear in Busytown, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, and Mrs. Whatsit in A Wrinkle in Time.
What’s next: This winter she’ll perform a “no-boundaries” solo preschool show at CTC, The Biggest Little House in the Forest. And with the support of a Theatre Communications Group Fox Fellowship Grant, she’s writing/creating a new preschool piece titled Babble Lab, based in Dadaist sound poetry, and developing new interactive programming at CTC for children on the autism spectrum.
What makes her special: CTC artistic director Peter C. Brosius calls Ness “Minnesota’s own Lucille Ball,” going on to describe her as “fearless, hilarious, inventive, and a wonderful spirit to have in any cast. She is also a fierce advocate for young people, respecting them deeply, and demanding only the best for them.”
Serious play: Ness’s favorite thing about working in theatre for young audiences, she says, is “thwarting people’s preconceptions about ‘children’s theatre.’ There is the stereotype that this work is condescending or surface. But when people see that our multigenerational theatre is not only innovative and artful, with real and necessary stories to tell, but that we are also redefining the ways theatre can transport you into the world of the play—it’s pretty badass.”
Ishmael (Izee) Figueroa
Profession: Facilities and
Current home: Queens, N.Y.
Known for: Figueroa serves as director of facilities and operations management at the Public Theater in New York City, where the staff knows they can depend on him to efficiently anticipate and resolve complex issues in a building which comprises six spaces that are used for productions, readings, workshops, rehearsals, events, concerts, and meetings.
What’s next: As the Public grows, Figueroa says, he’s striving to make sure all operations remain efficient. “My goal during our time of growth is to manage my available resources throughout all of the spaces I am responsible for accommodating the Public’s staff while minimizing any impact on their job production.” Shows currently at the Public include Girl From the North Country, Mother of the Maid, Eve’s Song, and Wild Goose Dreams.
What makes him special: “Izee is the heart and soul of the Public Theater,” effuses Laurie Woolery, the director of the organization’s Public Works. “From emergencies to opening nights, Izee is the steady heartbeat for us all. His warm smile and steadfast presence lets you know that there is nothing we can’t get through because Izee has our back. He is a magician, shaman, and trusted friend.”
Workplace bliss: Since he first started at the Public, nearly 25 years ago as a freelance scenic carpenter, Figueroa says he’s had a deep love for the organization. “I love what I do every day in regards to my job duties. I enjoy working with my staff and also serving the staff inside the Public Theater, who contribute to my love for theatre.” His vision for theatre, he says “is a place where people could express who they are and what they feel.”
Hometown & current home: Atlanta
Known for: Seven world premieres at the local Alliance Theatre, including The Geller Girls, Broke, and the musical Troubadour, with the songs of Kristian Bush (Sugarland).
What’s next: She’s currently working on a new commission from the Alliance, titled Ladies in Waiting, and planning next steps for Troubadour as well another project with Bush.
What makes her special: “If drama is easy and comedy is hard, Janece should get Olympic gold for heavy lifting tons of laughter easily from the most broadly diverse audiences,” enthuses Tom Key, artistic director of Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit, which produced her play Brownie Points. Key says that Shaffer made sure the show drew wide-ranging audiences and that there were talkbacks after every show. “They were transformative discussions, especially on the subject of race, and I marveled at what a combustion of conversation she had created.”
Stories of the South: A third-generation Atlantan, Shaffer writes about “a South that is more complicated than common assumptions and stereotypes would suggest.” Her narratives have dealt with, in her words, “young women in Atlanta who are forever changed by the Cotton State Exposition of 1895, the ‘good intentions’ of the white mother who locks her car door with her elbow as she smiles at the black man on the street, and an Atlanta matriarch forced to reconsider her marriage and her self-worth when she loses her high-paying job and all of her possessions in the 2007 economic downturn.” She strives to depict women “as compelling and complex as my South.”
Profession: Director, writer/adapter
Hometown: Billings, Mont.
Current home: Seattle
Known for: Aaseng is associate artistic director of Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre, where he previously served as literary manager. At Book-It he directed and co-adapted (with Daemond Arrindell) Welcome to Braggsville and adapted and directed Slaughterhouse-Five. He served as a consulting director with Rachel Chavkin on Frank Boyd’s The Holler Sessions, which has toured nationally and internationally.
What’s next: Aaseng is currently working on a new project at Book-It, pending a rights agreement. He’s also developing screen projects with Braggsville author T. Geronimo Johnson and Arrindell, and working with Arrindell on a commission from Freehold Theatre to create a play inspired by Mother Courage for the company’s Engaged Theatre project, which presents works in correctional facilities and elsewhere in Washington state.
What makes him special: Jane Jones, Book-It founder and founding co-artistic director, says that working with Aaseng has made her a better artist. “His passion for community and collaboration, his ethos for the art, his shoot-from-the-hip candor, and his sense of fair play have made him a welcome presence from staff meetings to pre- and post-production critiques,” Jones says. “I value his opinions and suggestions, knowing they are well tethered in the essential spirit of creativity, intelligence, and generosity. He’s a great thinker and talent.”
By the book: Aaseng taps into his background as a literary manager when he approaches a directing project. “I’m inclined to trust writers and prioritize their voice and vision in my directorial choices,” he says. “Any time I find myself getting a little clever, I just try to center the story and get out of my own way—it almost always yields something better.”
Profession: Set designer
Hometown: Hato Rey, Puerto Rico
Current home: Chicago
Known for: García, nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for El Paso Blue at GALA Hispanic Theatre, also designed The Rembrandt at Steppenwolf, The River Bride at Arizona Theatre Company, and American Mariachi at the Denver Center and the Old Globe in San Diego.
What’s next: This season she’ll design La Ruta at Steppenwolf, Twilight Bowl by Rebecca Gilman at Goodman Theatre, Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal at Writers Theatre, and Between Two Knees by the 1491s at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
What makes her special: Actor Sarita Ocón, who met García on ATC’s The River Bride in 2017, say her designs “ignite our senses, bridging the players and the audience to coexist and journey together through the world of the story.” Beyond her work as a stage designer, Ocón says García is dedicated to “community and engagement,” saying “she is devoted to advocacy and mentorship of other theatre artists of color, especially designers.”
From fine to performing art: García, who started out as a painter, was attracted to the stage “for its scale” as well as for “the collaborative nature of theatremaking and the tools at my disposal.” These days she tends to be drawn to projects that have “social justice themes, strong cultural landscapes, and stories about human connection and love,” and she hopes the American theatre will continue to support work that is “visceral and doesn’t hold back, led by artists and managers who are supported by energized donors without any qualms about funding their work.”
Profession: Creative producer
Current home: Washington, D.C.
Known for: An associate producer at Octopus Theatricals, Penoi is also an advocate for indigenous artists and programming (she herself is Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee).
What’s next: She’s on the producing team for Phantom Limb’s Falling Out (at the Kennedy Center next April), “a rippling meditation on water, heartbreak, and toxic fallout” inspired by the catastrophic 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. She’s also working with Andre Bouchard on a national tour of Cherokee artist DeLanna Studi’s solo show And So We Walked.
What makes her special: Octopus Theatricals founder Mara Isaacs hails Penoi’s unique synthesis “of an artist’s understanding of process (she is a trained musician), an insider’s view of institutional priorities, and the ability to navigate the murky space between the two as a facilitator, advocate and taskmaster.” Isaacs also admires Penoi’s “strong personal aesthetic and dramaturgical sensibility…along with the determination to see things through to their most favorable conclusion, building trust and lasting relationships with everyone she touches.”
Hard but worth it: “The art is what inspired me to pursue this career, but it’s the community that keeps me going,” says Penoi, citing her TCG Rising Leaders of Color cohort and others who “make hard decisions every day that make a positive impact on those that will come after.” To advance her own vision of “challenging theatre, intellectually and aesthetically, that is made and shared equitably,” she hopes to develop a “producer hub” to allow “independent producers of any background or geographic location to share resources and expertise online.”