Bringing Light to Dark Places- Pitt alumnus David Lee White on his new one-person play “Panther Hollow”
In a recent conversation with alumnus David Lee White he explained that theatre has “always been what I’ve done. It’s my medium, it’s the language I speak… the only way I’ve ever really seriously interacted with the world.”
White began studying at the University of Pittsburgh as an acting MFA in 1991. Since then, White’s theatre experiences have multiplied along with his talents, expanding to include director and playwright. Among White’s early experiences playwriting were the “great” classes of Pitt’s Dr. Kathleen George, and a staging of an original piece by the school. He is now the Associate Artistic Director and Resident Playwright at Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey. White’s most recent endeavor, the one-man show Panther Hollow, is the newest fruit of White’s lifelong labor and passion for theatre, as well as a deeply personal return to the landscapes of Pittsburgh.
White recently brought Panther Hollow to our city for a performance at the Arcade Comedy Theatre, and is currently in talks with Pitt about an upcoming, on-campus production, the details of which we will be excited to announce.
Panther Hollow is directed by John Augustine and confronts, in comedic and confessional fashion, the darkest point in White’s struggles with clinical depression. He summarizes the potent concept of his play- “Back in 1995, I had just finished grad school and was still living in this run down house in Panther Hollow. One morning, I found a dead body hanging from a tree down the street from my house. I spent the next year cruising therapists, popping meds and trying to piece my broken life back together. When I turned forty-five, I stumbled across my twenty-year old journal and starting piecing the story back together. This show is the result.”
And this result, believe it or not, is hilarious as well as moving. “I’m unable to avoid comedy,” White said, and he does indeed demonstrate excellent humor in discussing even the most difficult of times. Bringing forward the comedy that surrounds serious issues can be “breathtaking” for White, who cited the work of John Guare and Christopher Durang as examples. White accomplishes this same juxtaposition in revisiting the most “internally intense year” of his life with openness and a readiness to make people laugh.
This is not to say the writing process was easy- White says he struggled with how to honestly approach these experiences, how not to judge such loaded subjects or himself. He also wrestled with how to portray that period in a dramatic way because “depression is really kind of boring.” Eventually, enthusiastic audiences convinced him that this is a story they wanted to see told and subjects they wanted confronted. They were drawn in by White and his journey as well as the intriguing atmosphere of Pittsburgh, which developed into an important component of the play. Asked to describe Pittsburgh in three words, White went with “nostalgic,” “confusing,” and “ever-changing”- an intriguing setting indeed!
Despite the highly autobiographical content of his play, White’s vision is large- the motivation for telling his own story comes in part from his long-time mental health advocacy. White described how the play is a way of sharing information about the deep and unique structures of depression and illuminating ways of emerging out of it- for those who may suffer, and loved ones who struggle to help them. More basically, it is a means of creating communication and openness about illnesses and even treatments still shrouded in mystery and, too often, stigma.
Through the process of developing the play and facing its challenges, it became “liberating” for the playwright and audiences. White explained, “staging the worst year of your life, and having people laugh at it… to put this out there and share this with other people who’ve experienced this” is a way “to say, ‘Let’s not be embarrassed by it.’” By “it” White does mean depression and mental illness, but he also means any experience that causes people to feel isolated and embarrassed. White’s speaking honestly about difficult and lonely times, the sort that had once ashamed him but in fact help define us all, becomes a way for audiences to regain compassion for themselves and openness towards others. This simple but very important transformation of perspective and emotion is just that sort that theatre is able to create, and a testament to White’s multi-faceted commitment to the form.
Asked to advise young artists less far along on their paths, White offered “don’t wait.” “Don’t worry about whether or not it’s going to make you famous,” he said, “do what you want do as soon as possible. Right away.” It’s a good lesson from someone who has not stopped exploring and discovering his creativity and himself, and who has strengthened and contributed to communities in the process of hard work, honest bravery, and an eye for the humor to be found just about anywhere.
Praise for Panther Hollow:
“Unique, compelling and honest. I laughed forty-four times and cried twice, which is the perfect solo show ratio. Panther Hollow is a personal story of imperfect humanity, perfectly told.” – Lauren Weedman, HBO’s Looking.
“A tapestry of hilarious and poignant stories. White is an engaging storyteller who’s expressive and fun to watch.” – Nancy Giles, Commentator, CBS News Sunday Morning.
David Lee White is a New Jersey based playwright and educator who has worked with Passage Theatre, McCarter Theatre, Dreamcatcher Rep, PlayPenn, Rider University and Drexel University. He was recently commissioned by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Passage Theatre to create the play Sanism, which will premiere in 2017. His play Blood: A Comedy was produced at Passage Theatre (2009) and Dreamcatcher Rep (2012). His play Slippery As Sin also received its world premiere at Passage in 2011.