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Newcomer Jonathan Wright hopes to bring new energy to Richmond stages. 

Directing Dynamo

An unusually large number of young directors made impressive Richmond stage debuts last year, among them Rachael Buckner at the Barksdale, May Adrales at Fieldens and Steve Forth at the Firehouse. And that's not even mentioning Richard St. Peter, who has directed so many shows since his breakthrough production of "subUrbia" last fall that he already seems like a grizzled veteran.

On deck to be Richmond's hot new directing talent is Jonathan Wright, who will mark his Richmond coming-out with "The House of Yes," opening at the Firehouse Theater on March 17. Though he is new to our town, the 23-year-old comes here with more than six years of experience onstage and behind the scenes with the internationally acclaimed ShenanArts program, based in Verona in the Shenandoah Valley. Not only did Wright gain experience at ShenanArts, but he brings some newfangled ideas from that program that he hopes will invigorate the local stage scene.

"People think theater is about all these different steps," Wright explains. "There's this script that you found that's kind of cool, and you think you have a director, and you think you could find some actors. … All you really need is a group of people. You don't even need a play. All you need is people that you trust and that you can believe in and it'll happen."

In Richmond, Wright has found at least two trustworthy people in Justin Dray and Stephanie Kelley, who are best known for their skillful acting in several local plays (Dray currently stars in "Lebensraum" at the Firehouse Theatre). The two are also the economic and creative forces behind Yellow House Productions. Yellow House has produced three short films and, with Wright's assistance, now plans to expand from film into theater work.

Dray says that Wright has fueled his desire to do more with Yellow House: "At first, I was just going to produce 'The House of Yes.' Then we started talking about doing other things and it's just kind of snowballed."

Wright brings an energizing approach to theater: "One of the things we are trying to do is to go back to the way things used to be and make theater more of a recreational activity," he says. "People shouldn't just be getting passively entertained, then leaving the theater and not thinking about it. We want to do shows that people will have to talk about."

The director has a refreshing perspective on casting as well: "When I cast 'House of Yes,' I wasn't looking for people with the most experience or the most acting training,' he says. "I was looking for people who had presence and drive, and who really wanted to do it. Except for one person, the entire cast is essentially green actors. It helps establish a feeling of an ensemble and the ensemble is the most important thing in theater."

Wright's ideas were fostered by the Teen Theater program at ShenanArts which produced Wright's acting debut in 1993, a stage version of Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Kathleen Tosco, ShenanArts' managing director, says Wright has proved invaluable to the organization over the years, assuming roles as a stage manager, technical director and designer for various productions. "Jonathan is a real hard-working guy and he is absolutely devoted to theater," she says enthusiastically. With that kind of endorsement, it sounds as if Richmond has yet another directing dynamo on its
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