The DFW theatre industry is growing larger and more diverse. Growth can mean change and excitement but it can also mean big changes that force theatres to take risks. Ashley H. White and Joe Messina's new theater company, Imprint Theatreworks takes big and exciting risks as it emerges in a growing and competitive industry. If any of you saw their first performance of Glengarry Glen Ross you know that this is a company to be reckoned with. Ashley H. White's direction was daring, thoughtful and accurate to David Mamet's incredibly difficult style, yet she executed it with confidence as only a seasoned professional could. I couldn't wait to sit down with her and share her story with you.
If any of you know Ashley H. White you know that she is confident. The kind of confidence that makes you sit up a little straighter. But Ashley is also extremely humble. She credits her team and support system around her and she also is open about her struggles in the industry. Clearly she has been doing this a long time. "I've been doing it almost as long as I can remember. I think my first interaction would be when I was 4 years old. I started doing these voice overs for Kroger commercials. So that was my first encounter with acting." Do you guys remember Borden milk? 'I was the Borden girl" she says with a smile. She started acting all throughout school even though nobody in her family had any performance background. When she graduated at 17 she decided to make the move to the big city to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) to study Acting. "I had never really even been outside the state of Texas. Big culture shock. I had to find out who I was very quickly." At AMDA she discovered fight direction and there she became passionate. "I really loved stage combat certainly more than I loved acting. I felt at home in it. Every time there was a fight call I was there kicking butt." Right after she graduated AMDA she met her now husband, Aaron, at an audition at the Manhattan Comedy Club.
Ashley would soon sign on as an Artistic Associate to help a friend direct a play he had written and was selected for the New York Fringe Festival. It was there she realized her passion for directing. "I remember it so vividly. It was during one of the rehearsals, and I was giving notes, and working through some blocking and it was like the clouds parted, the sun shines through and it was clear that this is what I was supposed to be doing. It was in that moment I realized how not right acting was for me. There was always something imbalanced about it." Ashley soon started to actively seek directing opportunities, especially when returning to Dallas. However, Ashley's journey with theatre was not without it's ups and downs. "I broke up with theatre for about three or four years. We finally got back together after I moved here when I realized I couldn't live without it." She actively pursued directing here in Dallas about ten years ago starting with operas and moving into theatre. "Glengarry Glen Ross was my 20th full production to stage in the Dallas area and I thought that was pretty cool. I like to think that I've done it. I have a place in this town. It feeds my heart in such a huge way. It's home to me and it's my true way of having an artistic language."
Ashley would soon also find her way back to fight direction as well. In 2010 she was directing an opera that had a broad sword fight and that passion for fight direction came back. "I was reminded as soon as I picked up the sword and started teaching, and it was this rewarding moment." She would become certified over the years in a majority of the weapons, attending workshops across the country. "I want to get more attention paid toward the necessity of fight direction in the Dallas community in a huge way. Not just for performance value but for safety. There are things on some stages that I have seen that frankly terrify me. So it's become a huge passion for me to spread awareness of the importance in fight direction." Following that passion she founded SC Dallas in 2012 to be an open resource for combat training and education, aligning theatres with fight directors. "We host a huge, national conference every November with top of the line training and it's open to anyone over 16. I'm very proud of SC Dallas, but I still think we have a long way to go as a community. Stage Combat training is essential for safety and it's essential to the story. Some theatres rush through the fight scene because they don't know how to do it. We have qualified and trained professionals to come in for a few rehearsals to make something really special. You can go for realism in a safe invigorating way that enhances your story. This town is a theatre city to be reckoned with so we should act like it."
Her advice for fellow artists finding their own way in this community? Try. "Just go for it! The worst thing that can ever happen is that someone says no. Then you try somewhere else! Rejection is not the worst thing in the world and it might not be a 'no' forever. And you can't have an ego. When I first started directing here nobody knew me, so that was a problem. I had to meet people! I went to shows and I talked to people. I've submitted for plenty of things and got told no. We all hold ourselves back more than society does, with fear and insecurity. Sometimes yes, you're going to fail and sometimes you aren't going to be a right fit." For future directors looking for a foot in the door, Ashley has an open door policy. "If anyone ever wants to Assistant Direct with me all they have to do is ask and if there is an opening, yes, absolutely. Because I didn't have a ton of AD opportunities when I first got here and I think that's a shame." Imprint Theatreworks is trying to help future directors find opportunities to work on their skills. "That's a huge part of what we're doing with the First Impressions Festival at Imprint. We are gearing it to young directors to give them opportunities to work with these writers." When it comes to working with actors during a rehearsal process, she has some advice, "It's twofold. Keep an open mind but also don't be afraid to use your voice. Regularly I have run into two types of actors in the rehearsal process. One that knows their character and knows exactly what their character's journey is and not being open to exploring additional opportunities for their characters. Be open. Don't make all your decisions before the first rehearsal. On the flip side I've had actors say yes to everything. They should be the first one to say who they are. The ones that don't say anything almost turn into puppets. And that's not fair to the actor. We are meant to be creating something together."
I really wanted to ask Ashley on where the idea to create an ensemble based company originated and she answers readily, "That is all Joe and I. Joe is from Chicago and I got my training in New York and both of those cities focus on the ensemble style atmosphere. It's something that happens in Dallas, but there aren't many ensemble focused groups here. The ensemble mindset is extremely important to me. I wouldn't want a sole leading force. Joe and I started driving these conversations about how we were going to have a theatre, when we were going to have a theatre, and one day we just went for it." When asked about what has been a challenge and rewarding so far with Imprint's opening season, "Everything. It's incredible. I'm so humbled and overwhelmed, and scared, and happy, and all of the emotions. It's a lot of work, but it's good work. I'm blown away by the support of the community. I'm blown away by the caliber of the team. It's not me, it's not any one of us, it's all of us. I'm overwhelmed by the potential. On the flip side it is so much work. There are so many balls in the air and you have to catch them all. We are always thinking ahead. But it feels right for right now. I needed the right time, the right company, the right team. No one is harder on us than we are and I think we are setting the bar really high."
I ask Ashley what she is looking forward to the most this year. She thinks for a bit before answering and says, "I think the thing that I am genuinely forward to is closing Blood Brothers* and looking back and saying 'holy sh** we did it." A day I am looking forward to as well. I'm sure we can expect exciting things from this company in the future.
*Blood Brothers will be Imprint's season closer.
Keep up with Ashley on her website at www.AshleyhWhite.com. You can also here more about Imprint Theatreworks' season as well as their First Impressions Festival at www.imprinttheatreworks.org as well as follow them on Instagram @imprinttheatredfw.
If you have recommendations for artists you would like me to interview, please message me at my email, email@example.com.