Whitney WhiteEmerging Masters

Whitney White: “Just keep expanding”

Short Profile

Name: Whitney White
Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Occupation: Theater director, actor

Whitney White is the protégé of Phyllida Lloyd in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020-2022.

Whitney, as a stage director, how do you cope with the pressure that comes with being in charge of your productions?

How much time do you have? (Laughs) I mean, that's the real question! I always joke that of all the jobs, to me, directing is the hardest, because you have to be responsible for so many decisions. And, you know, when you ask me how I deal with stress, I just try and make sure I have other outlets. I feel like you can't just look at a Picasso all day and figure it out, you have to look at it and then look away, look at it and then look away. So I think the way I cope is by doing as much as I can, but also giving myself creative breaks where I can fill up my gas tank, fill up my creative tank. That's kind of how I deal with it.

What was the last big creative break you gave yourself?

Music is always my outlet! I went to see an incredible concert last night. My first love as a creative, hands down, was music. I started singing very young. I learned how to sing songs and read music in school, but my grandfather also took me to a very, very prominent black church in Chicago. I'll never forget the first time he took me… You walk into the church, and the music is blaring, and the lights are so bright, and the people are beautiful. There was a 50 person choir singing, and a full band with piano, drums, bass guitar, horns, and I was just blown away. So I started singing myself, and I was very obsessed with it. I took voice lessons, I studied music. So music was kind of my gateway drug, I like to say.

“I got my first chance to direct, and it changed everything. It was the first time I felt that all of my skills were being put to use.”

How did your love of music evolve into a love of theater?

I found theater because I love stories. The first play I was in was a musical, and that's how I came to theater; as an actor, as a performer. And I found my voice as a writer and director and creator a little bit later.

What was it specifically that interested you? What kind of stories spoke to you then?

Well, in the first year of my MFA at Brown University/Trinity Rep, I met a teacher named Brian Mertes, he was the Head of Directing. I was in the program as an actor, and every actor has to take one directing class. And that changed my life. I got my first chance to direct during this class, and it changed everything. It was the first time I felt that all of my skills were being put to use, that my brain was quiet and focused. And so the first thing I ever directed was this adaptation I wrote of Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. And the reason I did it, I just can't explain it. It just felt so right to be looking at this woman's story. I was raised by a fierce single mother, I've been surrounded by women my entire life. But looking around at the stories I would see on screen and on stage, they didn't reflect any type of femininity I recognized.

You wanted to see your own experiences in the stories you told.

I think I quite naturally gravitated towards stories like Hedda Gabler, Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, Lady Macbeth’s story, these women where it’s like, okay, I see my experience. And I see my mom and her sisters’ experiences. We are here. I see us in the story. So I think directing and writing wasn't necessarily about me telling my story, it was about me exploring feminine experience and life as it feels real to me. What is the experience of being alive in a very complex modern world? That's where I started.

What other kinds of questions are you asking yourself as a director?

Oh, for example, when I read it, do I smell something? Do I feel something? Does it remind me of something? Are there any kind of sensory-based triggers? Are there emotional or memory-based triggers? And it's hard, it doesn't happen as often as you think.

Do you remember the first time that happened to you?

Yes, so when I was a little girl, my mother took me to see Quidam, that Cirque du Soleil show about the little girl. She took me to see that in Chicago — I don't know how she got the tickets. But it blew my mind. I will never forget going to that show. You know, Cirque du Soleil shows don't necessarily have a lot of text, it’s a lot of music and tricks, and yet there was a narrative story to follow in this particular show. And I just had such a visceral reaction to it because of its aesthetic, beauty, and rigor, and how well it was put together… I'll never forget that because it was a real moment for me about the power of seeing something happening in front of me, live.

Oscar Wilde calls theater the greatest of all art forms because of that. He say it’s the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.

I love that. I think that's beautiful, and it's a very true reflection on the power of theater and what it can do. At the end of the day, for me, and I would say for many audience goers, there's nothing like being in the room when something happens, right? You're in the room, there's someone on stage 10 feet from you, and you're experiencing the same thing. The very reason theater exists is because people need to commune to figure things out, they need to see a story on stage to explore the human experience. And when you see someone delving into that right in front of you, you can't help but have your heart beat with theirs.

Have you ever thought about bringing your stories to the screen?

I have started to dabble with television now as a writer on Boots Riley’s I’m a Virgo. My partner is also a very brilliant filmmaker, and I think that film is a beautiful way to explore story, so I do very much want to work in film! I recently got to spend a lot of time with Phyllida Lloyd while taking part in the  Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative, and you know, she's worked in stage, in opera, she's worked in film. She's done Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady… That's range, right? And when I talk to her about her experiences in film, she has a lot of very positive things to say. I think filmmaking can be very parallel to theater insofar as you're following one story from beginning to finish. She's just this incredible, grounded woman who knows what she's doing. And she's found a way to do it any way she wants. And that's what I want, so I’m trying to soak up from her.

“I think the most radical thing that any of us can do is to be optimistic, to say it’s going to be okay.”

What else have you learned from spending time with her through this mentorship programme that you’ve directly distilled into your work or life?

If I could learn how Phyllida has managed to create a career that allows for her to work across mediums, but also just to live well… She has a beautiful life, you know, she's very intact. Another thing where Phyllida and I really link up on is a love of Shakespeare and how Shakespeare can translate to today, and that’s really how my new show The Case of the Stranger came to life. She sent me this monologue that Shakespeare wrote, which is often referred to as The Stranger’s Case — Ian McKellen has a clip of himself performing an edited version of it. This monologue, it’s essentially a man talking to a crowd that wants to expel and kill foreigners.

That was the jumping off point for the project?

That was the kickoff of the piece, yes. She literally sent me that speech, and from that provocation, we started just exploring themes of migration, immigration and travel. What are the different kinds of relationships that we have to crossing borders in the modern world? I mean, we're living through a very disturbing time. You can't ignore it. At the same time, you don't want to succumb to pessimism, so I think the most radical thing that any of us can do is to be optimistic, to say it’s going to be okay.

Is that optimism extending to your thoughts and feelings about your own work as well?

It totally connects because I think what I've taken away from all this is that you have to dare to remove the borders from your work. I think sometimes making theater in the US, it can get very singular. But you can make work and you can push past it because there's a whole audience in the world out there. And you need to be a part of it and learn from it and also contribute to it. And so these days, for better or worse, I’m thinking a little less domestically. An idea can reach a lot of people and perhaps might reach other people better than the people where you live, you know? Get rid of this tunnel vision, and just keep expanding.