He’s back. It’s been awhile since Blake White darkened our oversized metal warehouse doors, but we were fortunate enough to have him roll back in and sit at the helm of All My Sons. Blake spends most of the year tending to his many duties as the Executive and Artistic Director of Lean Ensemble Theatre on Hilton Head. While he was here, in between giving acting notes to Brock Koonce and making sure Marc Gwinn got all the bird chirps right, Blake sat down and spent a little time with us. Here’s how that turned out.
WHT: It is always a thrill for us to welcome back a former Journeyman of longtime Warehouse Artistic Director Jack Young. You’ve returned at least once since you left after your J year, what does it feel like to be back after a longer hiatus?
Blake: I love the Warehouse Theatre, from its artistic aesthetic to its people to the physical space. It feels right nice, thank you. It also smells the same.
WHT: Why, yes. Yes it does. What is the most significant thing Jack taught you…that you find yourself using over and over again in your work?
Blake: Jack taught me and I firmly believe that professionalism of any variety has everything to do with your state of mind and nothing to do with the size of your paycheck.
WHT: Is there a memory of your time here as a J that truly sticks out in your mind that you’d like to share / can share?
Blake: No specific memory that’s fit to print. I’m glad no one is making me run in a circle in the meeting room though.
WHT: Since leaving as a Journeyman, where has work taken you so far in your career?
Blake: New York City, where I met my stunningly beautiful wife Peggy. Will she see this? Binghamton, Boston, Lexington, Louisville, Indiana, New Mexico. My super cool wife…will you make sure she sees this…and I have lived on Hilton Head since 2007.
WHT: Do you keep in touch with any of the Journeymen? If so, which ones and how are they doing?
Blake: I’ve worked with Matt Mundy a bunch since our Warehouse season. He just did Buyer & Cellar for us at Lean Eensemble. He was also my roommate in New York and a groomsman in our wedding. He is my BWAM (brother with another mother). Christine Albright will be directing at Lean next season.
WHT: And how are they doing?
Blake: Not good, Jason, not good. Don’t tell anyone but I’m just throwing them bones. It’s a little sad. Seriously, they’re killing it! Albright was a company member at Oregon Shakes for many years and now lives in Chicago with her handsome husband, John, and even more handsome son, Henry. Mundy works all over and is still based in NYC.
WHT: What piqued your interest about coming home to Greenville and working at The Warehouse again?
Blake: Arthur Miller. I was in Death of a Salesman twelve years ago at a theatre in New York’s Southern Tier and it remains a highlight for me. To get to spend an extended amount of time neck deep in anything Miller is a privilege. And to swim through it with this All My Sons company? Come on man, that ain’t work!
WHT: What’s been your favorite thing about being back in Greenville thus far?
Blake: Seeing downtown’s growth without losing its identity and beauty.
WHT: In your journey as a theatre professional, what have been the most significant influences upon your choices in your career and how you approach the year-to-year task of making a living in a tough field?
Blake: I try and see as much theatre as I can. Every once in a while, not often but occasionally, I see something…could be anywhere…that reminds me why I want to be a part of this. The shattering power that live theatre can have, something that skews my view of the world in unexpected ways. Those rare occasions when you find yourself still pinned to your seat when the house lights come up. For me, some examples are Angels in America Part 1 at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1997, Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway in 2003, The Iceman Cometh at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015. I’ll see 1,000 shows for the chance that just one of them could hit me like those productions. And that readies me to go to work, with a renewed sense of purpose and gratitude for being in the room. I fell out of love with theatre for a while, and I was miserable. I don’t intend to let that happen again. We are very lucky people.
WHT: Let’s talk about the show a bit. When you begin working on a script as a director, where do you usually start your journey?
Blake: Honestly, I have no set formula. I just keep thinking and reading until I find my path into a play. To see how I can help tell the story, which leads me to any number of places. With All My Sons, I started thinking about where Kate is before the play begins, which informed the beginning of our production. Also, I took a directing class from Chip Egan at our shared alma mater, so we can always blame him.
WHT: What’s been the greatest challenge of working on this play?
Blake: Finding the humanity. The life. All My Sons is not easy. There is great pain in this play, which, if constant, can remove an audience’s sense of empathy. If everything is tragic then nothing is tragic, and that is ironically the easier story to tell. So, we spent a good amount of time trying to find the bucolic life and humor in this world. That foundation gives us a something to build on and more places to go, hopefully creating a fully fleshed out journey to the end.
WHT: Is there something…a theme maybe…or guiding principle…that you’ve tried to communicate to the performers throughout the rehearsal period?
Blake: Individual truth. Not facts. But truth. What a character chooses to believe, and the lens that each character views life through. I’d be lying if I told you that current events didn’t influence that point of view, but that’s a beauty of the writing. No matter what, good writing finds relevance.
WHT: From the beginning of rehearsal until now, what’s the biggest shift you’ve witnessed in the show?
Blake: Actually, that began all the way back in callbacks. Chip and Mimi were kind enough to come in and read with folks. Chip made a choice while reading a scene which made me think for the first time “Joe Keller is a fighter.” I also got lost in Mimi’s eyes. I had never met Mimi before…always present, engaged, piercing, alert, active, which immediately made me think about Kate well beyond simply being a mother in denial. That’s the great beauty of theatre in a collaborative setting. No one knows everything and we’re all teachable. We just need to find ourselves pointed towards the same story, learning from each other along the way.
WHT: Shifting gears again…you’ve been at Lean Ensemble how many years?
Blake: We had a launch party in January 2015.
WHT: And where is the theatre now in its growth and where do you see it heading?
Blake: I’m rather amazed at what we’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time, if I do say so myself. 26 months ago, we didn’t even have a bank account much less money to put into it. Since then we’ve produced seven mainstage shows and our education department and community outreach are already rocking. Next season, we will add a new play initiative, called Lean Lab. I just hired an Associate Artistic Director, which puts the staff at three, plus a board of ten. I have an office. With furniture. It’s easily the most thrilling thing I’ve been a part of in my career…not the office part. We want to get to five mainstage productions per season, we want to add musical theatre to our rep, and we want to produce something outdoors.
WHT: Is there someone else’s work that you greatly enjoy? If so, who and why?
Blake: If you love what you do and aren’t hurting anyone, then I greatly enjoy you. My step-father is a straight up businessman. I don’t even know what that means, but he loves it and that’s inspiring. Watch Bruce Springsteen on stage and tell me that man isn’t still having the time of his life. It’s infectious. I mentioned earlier in this amazingly intelligent and humorous conversation, that I fell out of love with theatre several years back. I didn’t know why I was doing it anymore. Eventually, I stopped for almost a year. That distance helped me refocus my life and remember what I loved. Remembering that now has me in a room discussing Arthur Miller with the likes of Tony, Shannon, Marc, Louise, Mimi, Chip, Mike, etc. Waking up feeling lucky to tackle a day. I love that feeling and I enjoy it in anyone. I do need coffee though.
WHT: What is your next gig after All My Sons closes?
Blake: I’m directing Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House at Lean in April.
WHT: Is there a question you didn’t get asked that you’d love to answer?
Blake: Do you miss Ms. Connie’s snack cabinet for starving Journeymen? The answer? Hell. Yes.
Catch Blake White’s directing excellence in All My Sons, running now until April 15th.