David Lee White’s Journey with Passage Theatre


You know that whole “Life is something that happens while you’re making other plans” thing? People usually attribute it to John Lennon, but writers had been plagiarizing it from one another for decades before Lennon got ahold of it. But we like to throw that phrase around because…you know…it’s true. (Although it does raise the question “What in God’s name could John Lennon possibly have dreamed about besides being John Lennon?” But I digress…)

I started my full-time job at Passage Theatre in 2002 and it was bittersweet. For months I had been telecommuting for a small software company in Chicago. The plan was to keep that job and start auditioning in New York. I had spent my entire adult life as an actor and had no plans to give it up.

“Plans?” says life, “You have plans??? Bahahahahaha!!!!”

Shut-up, life.

9/11 screwed up my big plan, much as it screwed up a lot of people’s plans. The company I was working for went bust and I was suddenly unemployed, living on the streets and playing three card monte for loose change.

Okay, not really. I was living with my wife and her amazing family in a very nice house in Plainsboro. But I still needed a job.

Enter – Passage Theatre.

Since working at Passage took up all my time (full time theatre professionals typically work about 80 hours a day, 9 days a week) my life as an actor was on hold. But I would return to it soon! An actor never stops being an actor!

“Bahahahahahaha!” – Life

For two years I was Passage’s Managing Director – a job I sucked at. To be fair, actors aren’t known for their financial management skills. I tried my best. So June Ballinger made me Associate Artistic Director. During that time, I began working with Trenton youth in a program called “Playmaking.” This program, created by the 52nd Street Project in New York, inspired kids by teaching them playwriting in a way that allowed their hidden talents to emerge. Many of them had been denied the opportunity to explore their inner talents and watching them realize that their dreams didn’t have to live inside of them forever, that they could wish for things out loud and watch their stories land on the stage, was one of the most inspiring things I had ever seen.

So I wrote. I wrote a piece for Trenton youth called “If I Could, In My Hood, I Would…” It was inspired by the gang violence taking place in Trenton at the time, and I worked with young people all over the city to create it. It was something of a hybrid – while I was responsible for writing most of the scenes, the young people provided poetry that was interspersed throughout the play. I spent the next few years creating pieces through this process.

In 2009, June Ballinger and Resident Director Adam Immerwahr dared me to write a full-length play for Passage’s mainstage. The result was “Blood: A Comedy.” Passage’s production remains one of the highlights of my theatrical life. It was followed by “Slippery as Sin,” “Trenton Lights” (which I created with June Ballinger) and “Fixed.” Eventually, this led to the creation of “Panther Hollow” which was a work I had been waiting 25 years to write.

Anyway, I’m a writer now. It’s harder than being an actor was. But it’s who I am. It’s possible that it’s maybe who I always was and I just didn’t know it.

Because here’s the thing about Passage Theatre –

Since its inception, Passage has brought out the hidden, buried voices in the Trenton community. There is so much beauty there. So much talent. So many stories. From the beginning, Passage could have taken the road most traveled – produced familiar works by famous writers to pack the theatre with non-Trenton residents. Instead, Passage has taken an artistic risk with every single production – producing new writers as a way to connect with the Trenton community and telling stories that arise out of that community. For 18 years, I have watched theatre artists – from Trenton, Philadelphia, New York and Jersey – people of all ages, ethnicities and walks of life – share stories under the same roof.

Very few theatres do this.

I would not be a writer if it weren’t for Passage Theatre.  Hundreds of young people would not have seen their plays on the Mill Hill Playhouse stage if it weren’t for Passage Theatre. The Trenton community would not have had the opportunity to hear their own stories, and the stories of others, reflected back at them if it weren’t for Passage Theatre. It is a legacy that was created in 1986, continued through June Ballinger’s tenure as Artistic Director and continues through the leadership of Ryanne Domingues and Damion Parran today.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, here. If you’re reading this then you already know how special Passage is. So I hope you’ll stick around through this completely unexpected turn of events that life has thrown at us while we were making other plans. Our need for stories hasn’t gone away. Please join us online for stories now…and soon we’ll be back together at the Playhouse. I can’t wait to see you there.