Hometowns: Taipei, Taiwan, and Miami
Current home: Echo Park, Los Angeles
Known for: Den performed in the 2017 Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, directed by Julie Taymor, the world premiere of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans at Cambridge, Mass.’s American Repertory Theater and the Young Vic in London, and the world premiere of Zoe Kazan’s Trudy and Max in Love at Costa Mesa, Calif.’s South Coast Repertory in 2014. Also that year, she was a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s acting company.
What’s next: Den is writing a collection of autobiographical stories about growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., and she plans on developing the collection into a solo performance piece.
What makes her special: “Celeste is fantastic in the room,” says director Leigh Silverman. The two worked together on productions of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre and South Coast Rep, as well as at the 2013 Hong Kong Arts Festival. “She is a funny, emotionally grounded, and totally connected performer.”
Mutual empathy: “I’ve always been drawn to theatre as a place where people from all walks of life come together to build something greater than ourselves,” says Den, whose sense of belonging in the theatre has only deepened over time. “I believe in its alchemy to create empathy in both the creators and the audience. It’s why I’ve always been most excited by true ensemble work by companies like SITI or Wooster Group or Rude Mechs. It’s the one style of work I wish I got to do more of.”
Profession: Director, actor, and theatremaker
Hometown: Laredo, Texas
Current home: Dallas
Known for: Vela is the associate artistic director of Theatre Three in Dallas. She is also a founding member of the Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company at Dallas Theater Center, where she most recently helmed the regional premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria as well as Tanya Saracho’s Fade. She also appeared in Selina Fillinger’s The Armor Plays: Cinched and Strapped at Theatre Three in June.
What’s next: She’ll direct Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at Trinity Rep next season and a new play by Blake Hackler, What We Were, at Dallas’s Second Thought Theatre. She’ll then direct a new adaptation of Dracula by Michael Federico at Theatre Three.
What makes her special: “I always turn to Christie when we choose to tackle particularly delicate and difficult plays,” says Alex Organ, artistic director of Second Thought Theatre, where Vela has also directed such productions as Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men and Alice Birch’s Revolt, She Said. Revolt Again. “Christie’s success comes from her fearless and deeply curious approach to the work,” Organ continues. “Quite simply, she elevates every project she touches and sets a high bar for the rest of us.”
Active engagement: “Theatre should be an event: It’s a verb, not a noun,” says Vela, who believes an audience’s engagement in a play or musical should last from the moment they leave their house to come to the theatre until the morning after. “It should make you laugh loudly and joyfully and then punch you in the gut with a big ‘truth fist.’ It should be terrifying and beautiful and imperfect.”
Profession: Artistic director
Hometown: Born in Austin, raised in Raleigh, N.C.
Current home: Providence, R.I.
Known for: Through a TCG Leadership U[niversity] Grant, Martin developed Spectrum Theatre Ensemble, a neurodiverse theatre company based in Providence, and led the production of The Hotel Plays at STE in association with Trinity Rep. He also established the BurkTech Players, a program similar to STE, at Texas Tech University.
What’s next: Martin is developing a neurodiverse play with STE’s playwright-in-residence, Jeremy J. Kamps, and other company members; next step is a reading at Brown University. Martin is also launching STE’s first full season.
What makes him special: When Mark Charney, head of Texas Tech’s School of Theatre and Dance, persuaded Martin to do his MFA there, he didn’t know the school was in for some learning too. At the university’s center for studies in autism, Charney says, Martin “blazed the trail, fostering relationships with the students, teaching classes, sharing theatre exercises, and teaching us how to reach students very different than those we were accustomed to. Clay has a tendency to want to share his knowledge with the world, and he speaks the language of generosity, a rare trait in someone so young.”
Blended artistry: “I believe in the idea of hybrid artists, professionals whose work is not limited to the stage, but who can use the stage to help give others in society a voice, a place to gather and collaborate,” says Martin. “Those are the people I want to work with and who feed my soul as an artist.”
Profession: Hair and makeup designer
Hometowns: Houston and Dallas
Current home: Brooklyn
Known for: Nealey was a supervisor and assistant designer on the 2017 Broadway stagings of Sweat and Once on This Island, and more recently worked on Matilda at SaGaJi Theatre in Colorado Springs, Colo., Cadillac Crew at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., and Fireflies at Yale Cabaret. She’s also worked with Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, N.C., on the company’s run of Memphis, with the Public Theater of New York City’s Mobile Unit production of The Tempest in May, and with Dallas Opera and Dallas Music Hall.
What’s next: Nealey is currently on the hair crew for The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.
What makes her special: “Earon brings a depth and understanding of hair and makeup design that rivals seasoned professionals,” says Harold Steward, interim executive director of the Theater Offensive. “Designing with wisdom and spirit, she epitomizes the rigor of creativity.”
A place at the table: “The biggest thing that keeps me going are my two angels, my grandmothers,” says Nealey. “They were Black women from the South, and they broke through so many obstacles. I feel it’s my duty to keep going and pushing, because I know what I am doing is something they never imagined. I want to create a space for women of color and queer women to always be accepted at the table. For us to be the rule and not the exception. I want kids to not see positions in theatre as gender-related, but as a job that anyone can do as long as they love it.”
Hometown: Los Angeles
Current home: New York City
Known for: Payne was the 2018 Page One playwright at the Playwrights Realm, where his play The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d was presented last fall. His other works for the stage include Opal Root, Poor Edward, and The Briar Patch.
What’s next: Payne’s play A Human Being, Of a Sort will be performed this summer at Massachusetts’s Williamstown Theatre Festival. The production, starring Andre Braugher, runs June 26-July 7.
What makes him special: “Everyone loves the guy. And for good reason,” says playwright Madhuri Shekar, who was Payne’s classmate in the Juilliard playwriting program. “He is kind, gentle, patient, wickedly funny, and a huge comic book nerd, which makes him the most delightful person to be around.” Shekar accordingly describes Payne’s writing as a reflection of his personality: “It is deep, slyly funny, multi-layered, and always surprising,” she says. “His work is both magical and deeply grounded. He is incredibly thoughtful about history, and the way in which we tell and retell historical narratives, particularly Black historical narratives in the U.S. He challenges your expectations at every turn, and he uses humor to disarm, then devastate you.”
Writing unheard stories: In addition to being a playwright, Payne has a day job in human services. “The stories I hear from time to time are all from people on the fringes of society, who are unheard and underrepresented,” he says. “Whenever I feel hopeless as a playwright or frustrated with the business of art, I am reminded of why I write and engage with the stories I do. It is the people I support who keep me going.”
Profession: Production manager
Hometown: Fort Smith, Ark.
Current home: Minneapolis
Known for: Rea, production manager at the Walker Art Center, worked on Merce Cunningham’s Ocean there and for its premiere at a working rock quarry in central Minnesota. Her credits stage managing and/or lighting include Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance: The 50-State Tour and the Shapiro and Smith Dance Company’s Notes From a Séance in Minneapolis.
What’s next: The Walker’s annual summer rock festival, Rock the Garden, at Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
What makes her special: “Pearl is that rare creative collaborator who can make almost anything happen with grace, humor, and constant care of the process,” says Bonnie Schock, executive director of the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing, Minn. “Pearl builds spaces that are inclusive, creative, and sparking with good energy. As a woman in design, production management, and stage and tour management, she has succeeded against the odds in a field that too often ignores women.”
Working women: Rea says initially she planned to be a performer (“I cornered the market on old ladies, town drunks, and old-lady town drunks”), but in college she “discovered there was so much more to theatre then just being onstage.” Of her work with the Walker, Rea says, “Our team’s current focus is crew diversity. In the last five years, since this became a priority, our gender diversity is hovering right at 50 percent male/female for our technical crews. We continue to improve the ethnic diversity of our team.”