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Profession: Director and producer
Hometown: Born in Miami, raised in Los Angeles
Current home:Los Angeles
Known for: Cisneros recently received a Leadership U: One-on-One grant, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group, with her residency at Center Theatre Group. For her CTG residency she produced an improv and sketch show, Chisme y Queso, for two seasons. She also produces the “cult classic superhero” series El Verde! She’s an alum of Director’s Lab West, a NALAC Leadership Institute Fellow, a Directing FAIR Fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a Nathan Cummings Young Leaders of Color recipient.
What’s next: She currently works at OSF as community liaison for the theatre’s La Comedia of Errors tour, and she is in pre-production for a new episode of El Verde!
What makes her special: CTG’s community partnerships director, Jesus Reyes, describes Cisneros as a source of strength and determination. “What the theatre needs now more than ever is family and force, to make things happen and to help people understand that there is more than just the self and to create long-lasting change,” Reyes says. “Keep an eye out for Hurricane Alejandra, because she’s ready to shake up U.S. theatre.”
Owning our narratives: “I want the field to reflect global citizenship and commit to equitable access for all,” says Cisneros. “The single thing that keeps me going is the desire to produce new work that uplifts communities of color through joy and laughter. In elevating these voices, we regain ownership over our narratives and void the single story, uplifting individuality as awesomeness.”
Hometown: Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a.k.a. Zaire), raised in Miami
Current home: Los Angeles
Known for: Among Benson’s most produced plays are Fati’s Last Dance and The Talk. Her play Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution Part 1 also received attention during its workshop at the New Black Fest in 2018. The first installment of a trilogy, Deux Femmes Part 1 won Benson a residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, as part of the Cultural Diaspora Program.
What’s next: Minneapolis’s Playwright’s Center will produce Deux Femmes Part 1 as a workshop this July. Her play Detained is in development with Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles.
What makes her special: Benson was among the first playwrights featured in the Monologue Project, an online resource for women of the African diaspora cultivated by Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas. Her monologue “deeply resonated with me,” says Bishop Arts’ executive artistic director, Teresa Coleman Wash. In an interview for The Dramatist, Benson told Coleman Wash about “the emotionally debilitating narrow perceptions” she must combat as Black female writer. Concludes Coleman Wash, “Her work is beautifully compelling and engaging, and deserves a platform.”
Healing through humor: Benson, whose plays celebrate Haiti’s history and culture, believes in the power of laughter. “My favorite kind of work is anything that makes me laugh, really laugh, while also illuminating poignant truths about the human condition,” she says. “Laughter can be profoundly transformative, and writing humor is such an extraordinary skill. If you can make people laugh, you’re essentially a healer.”
Profession: Technical director, scenic designer, and sound designer
Hometown: Wellington, Ohio
Current Home: Houston
Known for: Mullins, the technical director for A.D. Players at the George Theater, previously served as assistant technical director at the Houston Grand Opera.
What’s next: He is transforming the George Theater’s stage into a black box to honor the founder of A.D. Players, Jennette Clift George. After that he’ll assist in A.D. Players’ productions of The God Committee and West Side Story.
What makes him special: “Michael is our technical director in job title, but the limited description doesn’t do him justice,” said Jennifer Dean, marketing director of A.D. Players, who adds “outstanding and thoughtful mentor” and “superior set and sound designer” to his credits. “Michael is only capable of going the extra mile, even when you specifically tell him not to do so! His DNA won’t allow him to settle for anything less than excellent.”
A thriving artistry: Mullins strives to create opportunities for not only himself, but other artists. “I enjoy teaching theatre technicians to think as artists, encouraging designers to expand their craft, and collaborating with company executives to ensure them that their dreams/mission for our company are attainable,” he says. “Our industry is ultimately about storytelling and learning how to survive and thrive as starving artists, literally and philosophically. It certainly feels like an unachievable task, but the chase creates a blissful, unquenchable thirst for more.”
Profession: Lighting and scenic designer
Hometown: Montclair, N.J.
Current home: Milwaukee
Known for: She worked on both international tours of Mercy and Impermanence, and recently finished lighting The Chinese Lady at Milwaukee Rep. She also created the concert design for the vocal ensemble of composer Meredith Monk.
What’s next: She will light productions at her two favorite companies, the Forward Theatre in Madison, Wisc., and the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich.
What makes her special: After working with Stollmack on their production of Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles, Forward Theatre artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray says, “I was immediately so impressed by her brilliant blend of artistry and no-nonsense pragmatism.” It’s a balance that’s rare in the business, Gray says. “When I find a collaborator who has it, I want to work with them again and again. As a director I absolutely love having Noele on my team—she makes all of our work look better, and is a calm, steady presence in tech.”
Lighting up stories: “Years ago, a director for a new project stated that she wanted the lighting to feel like ‘the weather’,” said Stollmack. “She was not talking about an effect. She wanted the light to interact with the actors and the performance space like…the weather. I translated that concept into a composition that collaborated with—or in that case, created—the stage picture in an integrative fashion like another character onstage. The design enhanced, not overwhelmed, or distracted from the story.” She thinks of that director’s note, and her experience responding to it, as a major influence on her approach to lighting and scenic design.
Hometown: Born in Elmhurst, Queens, raised in East New York, Brooklyn
Current home: Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan
Known for: Piniella was among the cast of the 2017 production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus and the 2016 production of Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, both at Signature Theatre. He also played Henry in Theatre for a New Audience’s 2017 production of The Skin of Our Teeth.
What’s next: Piniella is a recent recipient of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship for Exceptional Merit, which supports the artistic growth of an actor through their collaboration with a TCG Member Theatre, in this case Classical Theatre of Harlem, with whom he’ll develop a bilingual production of Hamlet. And Piniella’s own play Black Doves has been selected for HB Studio’s 2019 Rehearsal Space Residency.
What makes him special: Director Emily Lyon first met Piniella at the Shakespeare Initiative at the Public, then called the Shakespeare Society, and he impressed her as “one of the hardest-working actors in the business—I can never keep up with all the readings and shows he’s doing. He’s also dedicated to constantly growing and learning. If you want a true professional who will work hard, call him.”
Think pieces: “I believe in the power of storytelling to create change and open minds,” says Piniella, who was introduced to theatre by his high school English teacher. Years later, his passion for the field hasn’t dwindled. “I’m interested in thea-tre that is inclusive, accessible, and aims to leave the audience thinking long after the curtain call is over.”
Hometown: Born in Corpus Christie, Texas, raised across the U.S. and Germany
Current home: Queens, N.Y.
Known for: A frequent actor at Alaska’s Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre, Robenolt co-conceived and directed Lear Khehkwaii, an Alaskan Native adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which toured remote Alaskan Native villages on a Shakespeare in American Communities NEA grant.
What’s next: A role in Perseverance Theatre’s upcoming production of Guys and Dolls, and Macbeth at FST this summer. He’s also at work on an audio recording of The Tempest.
What makes him special: “He is smart, dedicated, and a true lover of the theatre arts,” says Carey Seward, who has known Robenolt since they were both young actors in Fairbanks, Alaska. Seward, now the managing director of FST, notes Robenolt’s consistent efforts to create authenticity onstage. “He designs the action in his head until he has crafted the perfect moments.”
Art and community: Robenolt caught the Shakespeare bug soon after college, working as an actor with FST and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. “The work I was able to do as a young actor at these theatres and observing their solid structure as organizations launched me into a career of acting, directing, and administration,” he says. He also cites the leadership of these organizations as inspiration, saying, “I keep the pursuit of this profession because of the people I have met along the way, the stories that I get to share, and to witness the impact that art has on a community.”