For playwright, a late bloom on Broadway
COLD SPRING, N.Y. — Sharr White rises every weekday at 5 a.m. to get some writing in before his two little boys wake up. Aboard the 7:58 a.m. commuter train that snakes south along the Hudson River toward Manhattan, an hour-plus away, he reviews his morning’s output before grabbing a nap. At day’s end, he writes all the way home. White is 43, a square-jawed marketing guy who drives a black Lexus SUV. He is also, rather suddenly after long years of determined scribbling in obscurity, a Broadway playwright.
“I wrote three hours a day, at least, every day for 13 years before I got my first professional production,” he said last weekend, sitting on his back deck, an iced coffee in hand, his dog Jasper curled up under the table.
That first production was in 2006, at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville. That got him on the regional-theater radar, but the leap to Broadway happened only this year, with the January opening of “The Other Place,” directed by Joe Mantello and starring Laurie Metcalf as a brilliant Boston scientist coming unmoored from reality. White’s second Broadway play, “The Snow Geese,” is due to open in October, directed by Daniel Sullivan. A drama about the end of the Gilded Age, it will return Mary-Louise Parker to Broadway, playing a recently widowed, financially ruined mother of two sons — which is pretty much the only similarity between White’s ensemble piece, set in 1917 in upstate New York, and “Weeds,” the Showtime series in which Parker starred.
This week, White will be at Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth, where “The Snow Geese” is getting a trio of developmental staged readings. Directed by the theater project’s artistic director, Hal Brooks, they will feature an entirely different cast than the one that will perform in New York.
“Really what they’re doing is a great service to me and to this play,” said White, who finished his second draft of the script at Cape Cod Theatre Project last summer, when he was a writer in residence there. He hopes audience reactions at the readings will help him detect any weak spots in the play, which he can try to fix pre-Broadway rather than in a scramble during previews. “And then, crucially,” he said, “I want a couple of weeks to regret those decisions.”
Out of the wilderness
When “The Other Place” was produced — first off-Broadway, at MCC Theater, in 2011, and then on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club — it took White to a new level, said Brooks, who has known the playwright for more than two decades and directed his play “Six Years” at Humana.
“I think it just proves that the notion of overnight success is sort of a nonsense idea,” Brooks said. “Sharr has been writing plays all along and working really, really hard at honing his craft while holding down a steady job and living the life that he needed to be living.”
In conversation, White sounds practical, strategic, measured in the way people do when they’ve achieved a certain maturity, constructed a life with certain satisfactions. Simultaneously, he sounds like someone who spent a long time wandering in the wilderness — who might have given up, but wrestled his doubts to the ground instead.
To explain why he kept writing plays even with no one to give them to, White reached for a line from “Macbeth,” spoken by the barbarous thane, who’s murdered so much already that he’s going to keep on killing: “I am in blood/Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
“There I am: I’m standing there in blood,” White said. “I’m equidistant. I may as well keep going. You know?” He laughed.
White grew up in Orange County, Calif., and later, after his parents’ divorce, in Colorado. He “forgot to apply to college” — neglected even to take the SAT, he said. After high school, he moved back to California and went to work in a warehouse, then embarked on junior college, thinking he might follow his biophysicist father into science.
A drama class refocused his ambitions. At 21, he enrolled in the master of fine arts acting program at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where Brooks was one of his fellow acting students. In their first year, Brooks recalled, he was cast as a pair of hands, or possibly a nose, in a play White wrote called “Body Parts.”
In retrospect, White views acting as a flagrantly ill-chosen path. “I wish somebody had said, ‘This is a really [expletive] life. Don’t do this,’ ” he said. The allure of graduate programs in theater is, for many students, largely about the connections they make there, but when White moved to New York in 1993, he found his job opportunities mainly in food service.
He was working at Gotham Bar and Grill one day in 1999 when a pretty woman came in for lunch with her father and cousin, and left her number for him on a scrap of paper. He called her, officially to tell her that he had a girlfriend, but they talked for two hours, and she came to the restaurant every week for six weeks. The young woman from lunch is now his wife, Evelyn Carr-White, who grew up in Brookline and had, for a time, been an actress herself. He marvels now that she saw past his lack of success to something better.
“It was in a period of my life when I was at the end of my rope,” White said. “I had waited tables for almost eight years. I had no prospects.” He laughed. “She says that she knew that I was the one. And my thing is like, how would you have known that I was the one? I was the waiter. Nothing was gonna happen in my life. This was a fact, when we met.”
Except, of course, that he has proved it wrong.
“Those were some tough years,” White said. “At the time, this was a fact. It had been sort of empirically established.”
Old-school East Coast
This spring, in Los Angeles, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman starred in White’s 2011 play, “Annapurna,” a two-hander about a woman from the Northeast who shows up unannounced, after a silence of 20 years, at the Colorado home of her ex-husband. White, whose five siblings include four sisters, has a habit of writing juicy roles for actresses.
The Bay State crops up repeatedly in his work: In “Annapurna,” a key plot point is located in Framingham, surely a dramatic rarity. The title of “The Other Place” refers to a Boston family’s second home on Cape Cod. Does this have anything to do with the fact that the playwright is married to a woman from Massachusetts?
“I just sort of like old-school East Coast,” White said.
“He’s sort of intrigued by that, because he isn’t of it,” Carr-White said. “It’s the other that I represent, at least as far as geographical locations.”
Not long after they met, White sent out “an emergency e-mail” to his friends, asking for connections to the copywriting world, and landed a job at J.Crew. He’s worked in corporate America ever since, and it’s been good for his art. “As my life on one track improved, I was writing about things other than, you know, anger and frustration,” he said. “So I’ve had this parallel career track that’s been able to bring me a house and stability, and I’m able to provide for my family, and then sort of magically, my writing career started flourishing.”
He began “The Snow Geese” several years ago, not long after the economy crashed, when he wanted to address the class issues, xenophobia, and despair he was seeing around him. Some of the play, too, draws on his relationship with his brother, and some of the mother’s advice to her sons is also his advice to his own boys, who are 6 and 8. “I found myself sort of passing messages to them through the play,” he said.
Now, no longer so isolated creatively, White is seeking guidance in the wisdom of his fellow theater artists. “I want to work with people who I can learn as much as possible from,” he said.
Recently, a glossy new art magazine about theater, Chance, asked him to interview “Red” playwright John Logan. “And that was such a relief,” White said. “It was such a pleasure to spend time with a working writer. I don’t get that opportunity much.”
Part of the fun was in discovering shared habits — in realizing that maybe he’s been getting it right on his own.
“ ’Cause John gets up at 5,” White said. “He works obsessively. It’s validating to know: How do you do it? How’s it done?”