Like many arts organizations finding their way through the pandemic, central New Jersey playwright, director, and actor David White is approaching a reduced yet busy schedule of four new projects.
One is for White’s regional artistic home, Passage Theater, Trenton’s only nonprofit professional theater.
The company’s former associate artistic director, White is participating in a digital fundraiser to help Passage address COVID-19-related revenue losses.
The event running from Saturday through Tuesday, October 17, through 20, is a recording White’s solo performance of “Panther Hollow.”
Here’s how the show’s press pack describes it: “Storyteller and monologist David Lee White details his struggle with love, sex, and clinical depression at age 25 while living in a one-hundred-year-old house in Pittsburgh’s hidden neighborhood, Panther Hollow.”
And while the theme seems a bit heavy, White, now 50, lightens the load in his opening, “Everything I’m about to tell you is true. And, fair warning, some of it is upsetting so I’m going to apologize in advance. There are eleven corpses in this show — eight victims of suicide, one tragic accident, one fake dead body, and one cat. I apologize for that. I especially apologize for the cat, although it’s not me that kills it . . .
“There are also two skinheads, one reference to public fornication, a few ghosts, Satan, and Shakespeare. I’m sorry that I take a few potshots at religion, although I feel it’s warranted. Also, because of lifelong feelings of self-loathing, I feel the need to say ‘I’m sorry’ for everything you might find offensive and for that, I apologize. So let me just start with the first dead body and you can tick everything off as I go along.”
White says the fundraiser’s roots come from a past presentation of the show during Passage’s annual series of one-person presentations, “Solo Flights.”
White says he wanted to get a good record of the show on film and thought of College of New Jersey filmmaker Susan Ryan, who had created a 30-minute documentary on one of Passage’s theater education projects.
“I called and asked if she and her students would like to film ‘Panther Hollow,’” says White. “She went all out. It is a really nice recording of the show.”
Then he adds, “When the pandemic started and arts organizations started closing, I was wondering, ‘What could I do?’ And since I had been working at Passage, I offered it as a fundraiser, and they took me up on it.”
He says the play resonates today because it deals with coping with depression and finding optimism.
He also says it has been his most popular stage work to date and resonates with theater companies looking to address social themes and in an economical way. “It’s just me, a desk, and a whiteboard. It’s a cheap date,” he says.
However, says White, he may let the tape be the legacy of the play and may not perform it in the future. “I was doing it at least a couple times of year. It is a show that is tricky to do. Part of it is, ‘Is there a need for people to see it?’ The other is whether or not I can tell it. It is so personal. It was a very healing experience for me. But I may not need to tell it anymore. It exists (on tape) and I don’t have to tell all that stuff.”
Another project is the play “Ways to be Happy.” Presented by the Summit, New Jersey, Dreamcatcher Theater, the recording can be purchased for download on Dreamcatcher’s website later in October.
“It is a comedy. I’m pleased with all the seriousness that I had a comedy out there,” he says about the work that has “been in development for years. It has readings and workshops, and Dreamcatcher was going to produce it in the spring. But that got canceled. So they moved it to the fall. And (the director) asked if I could develop it as an audio play. I hope people will listen to it and get a giggle for 90 minutes.”
Then on the schedule is Passage’s “OK Project.” It’s based on the 2017 removal by the City of Trenton of a six-foot-tall public art sculpture created by 16 young people involved with a city community project. According to city officials, the hand’s OK symbol resembled a gang-symbol.
Passage took the ensuing community discussions about art, policing, and censorship as the source of a community-focused work that received a MAP Grant — a fund primarily supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to invest in artistic production and create “a more equitable and vibrant society.”
Calling himself a member of the team, White says the project is “an interview-type play. You can’t invent anything. Obviously interviewing people during a pandemic was a problem. Another difficulty is that the world is changing every day and the perspective changes — asking why this little story is important changes every day. It is hard to figure that out. We decided to wait to create the end of the script until after the election.”
“We’re going to have reading — a workshop over Zoom (date TBA). There will be a public reading in February. Then hopefully it will be on the Passage stage in about a year from now.”
Meanwhile, in addition to teaching at Drexel University, White says he is still writing musicals with his composer partner Kate Brennan — the two collaborated on the creation of the musical “ALiEN8” during McCarter Theater’s 2017 Education Program and took the work to Oklahoma City and Philadelphia.
Their latest is “Illuminate,” a project White says “could be done on Zoom” and features 12 songs and 12 scenes that tell a story.
“You can put them together in any order you wish. Any character can sing any song,” he says.
He says the title came from the composer’s interest in thematically exploring the social significance of light and darkness.
The original plan called for a mainly dark theater stage where specific objects would be illuminated at different times, but White says, “The pandemic came and we changed it.”
The play was reimagined for Zoom and gave the two the opportunity to discover a new tool for making theater. “We were able to collaborate with people in different states,” says White. “I interviewed them and wrote scenes inspired by what they said.”
Eventually they came up with a story that is both a play about memory and an allegory for what it is like to live during the pandemic.
“A woman who loses her memory wakes up in the hospital. Everything is dark and she goes on a search — but since she’s lost her memory the scenes do not have to follow an order. She is also a songwriter, so songs are part of her memory.
“We have all the scenes, and all the songs and further development with. No two productions of the show will be the same. We’re looking for a group of students to help pilot it.”
While a quick glance at White’s biography shows theater study in college, the son of a family counselor father and high school teacher mother says he actually got interested in theater as an elementary school student in his hometown of Wentzville, Missouri. “There was a college giving acting classes to kids, and I was taking them on weekends. I was pretty locked into theater by the time I was 12 or 13.
“In fifth grade there was a talent show. I was sick on the day of the audition, so I couldn’t audition. But my fifth grade teacher asked if I wanted to write something and also be in it. And I wrote ‘The $6 Million Dollar Frog’ — a combination of the television shows ‘The 6 Million Dollar Man’ and ‘The Muppets’ Kermit the Frog.”
Formal training followed years later at the University of Missouri and the University of Pittsburgh, where he received an MFA and met his future wife, art organization consultant Allison Trimarco from Plainsboro.
After experimenting with establishing careers in Chicago, the couple moved to New Jersey and settled in Bordentown Township, close to Trimarco’s parents and providing opportunities in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Later when they adopted their son, Nick, the couple realized that the community and schools were additional benefits.
White says he connected with Passage after a telecommuting job he started with a Chicago software company folded in 2001. “I was unemployed and thought I’d try to get a theater job and blind emailed everyone I could find.”
One person who responded was Passage Theater’s associate artistic director Nick Anselmo. He was less than 10 miles away.
“He had been from Chicago and called me,” says White. “I started volunteering with Passage. When Nick took another job, I took his position at Passage.”
Since then White has written several plays for Passage, including “Blood: A Comedy,” “Slippery As Sin,” “White Baby,” and “Fixed,” worked on the interview-based Trenton-specific projects “Trenton Lights” and “Profiles,” and worked on projects at McCarter Theatre, Dreamcatcher Rep, PlayPenn in Philadelphia, Rider University, and Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he also teaches.
While currently active and looking at a season with play development and experimentation, White also looks at the current disrupted theater landscape and shares two trends.
One, he says, is that theater artists are “coping with the grief of theaters being closed — live theater with a live audience. It is not only a spiritual grief and a practical one for people who count on it for a living.”
The other is they are also thinking about how theater was being created. “There are things about the theater culture that are not fair, not equal, and toxic. So people are looking at an opportunity to create more diversity.”
He says he found a symptom of rigidity of thought when theater artists starting using Zoom. “Right away, people were saying it was not theater. Meanwhile some people saw it as an opportunity to make it new.
“Play readings are a thing that Zoom has changed for the better. I have found it enlightening. For (play) development, it has made (the process) clearer. And you can get actors and audiences from all over the nation.
“There are a lot of gatekeepers out there who will define what theater can be. You see it in a lot of theater training, that you could only be a theater person if you have a certain personality. So there are people questioning how we do this.
“And like a lot of people, I love it and can’t wait for it to come back. But I hope it is a little different.”
Panther Hollow, Passage Theater. Saturday through Tuesday, October 17 through 20. $25. www.passagetheatre.org.
For more on David Lee White, visit www.davidleewhite.net.