Daniel Talbott An Indie Theater Profile by Denis Butkus (edited by Samantha Soule)

San Francisco is a magical city when the fog rolls in off the bay wrapping the buildings in a blanket of sweet, salty air. It’s easy to get lost in the mist, to wander the hills for hours dreaming, and then take refuge in a local café, boutique, or music store. The city was like this in January of ’98, when I flew down from my hometown of Portland, Oregon to audition for Juilliard. It was at those auditions, in a rented rehearsal studio at Symphony Hall, where I met my friend Daniel Talbott for the first time. The Bay Area and Northern California are important touchstones in Daniel’s life. It is a place that he and his family return to time and time again to find rest, relaxation, perspective, and inspiration on the beaches of Carmel, Mendocino, and throughout Oakland and San Francisco. He discovered his life’s passion here, the theater, acted in his first production and, in 1999, gave birth to his theater company Rising Phoenix Repertory.

In a culture that constantly categorizes and boxes artists into specific roles, Daniel nimbly moves between actor, playwright, director, producer, teacher, literary manager, and artistic director to defy this trend. He is a renaissance man of the theater and a champion of artists of all genres.  With a downright dirty sense of humor, a passion deep, joyful, and infectious, he successfully reinvents himself with an artistry that is astonishing. If you know him, you know that his dedication, talent, and multi-disciplinary skill-set are all an extension of his huge, generous heart. For him there is no difference how his passion manifests—and no end to his inspiration—as long as it involves an empty space and the courage to tell a good story. He’ll hang clip lights, learn text, direct actors, and write words, anything as long as we can be a part of the theater. He does it all with a mastery of every skill he attempts, humility that translates into hard work, and an amazing attitude. If you look at it from his perspective, you realize very quickly that we are all connected and, really, being a theater artist is simply about having a full, honest, flawed, and loving life as a human being.

We ended up studying together at Juilliard, where I witnessed Daniel portray countless roles with a chameleon-like ability to transform completely while never losing his unique energy as an actor. Since graduation, he has garnered awards and critical praise by performing on stage and screen, here in New York City, and all over the country. For me, there is one role that embodies Daniel’s belief in the theater and his commitment as an actor. In 2007 he played the role of Valere in Daniel Fish’s production of Moliere’s Tartuffe that was presented at the McCarter Theater and Yale Rep. In his first scene, when he learns that he will lose the woman he loves to Tartuffe, Daniel’s Valere ceremoniously stripped off his clothes, down to his underwear, to expose his true feelings.  He became, before our eyes, a man willing to give up everything in the name of love. Daniel does this every day in the theater, exposing his fearless vulnerability, humor, and indelible life force with grace and skill. His passion and love for the theater is what defines him as an artist. By example, he teaches us all how to go after what we want and believe in ourselves as fellow indie theatre artists. The result is a commitment to the work that is justified by the truth in his core, and his support of this large and ever growing New York indie theater community.

Jimmy’s changed everything. Since Daniel founded Rising Phoenix in ’99 it had been, like many indie off-off Broadway theater companies, itinerant. We were like a roaming band of theater freaks, eking out our existence by scraping together the rent for this performance or that rehearsal space. Building our esthetic and work ethic by how fast we could turn things around from nothing to something, with our friends and our bare hands. Then, there was an ad in Playbill.com seeking “resident theater companies for the Seventh Street Small Stage.” When Daniel and I walked into the dark back room at Jimmy’s #43 we knew we had found something special.  Now, five years later, Rising Phoenix has produced 11 world premiere productions and embarked on our biggest, most rewarding project yet, the Cino Nights Series in this back room. This place is our home and it has allowed us to stretch and develop in ways we never thought possible. Daniel is often the first person there and the last to leave, sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathroom, and fixing any problem that might arise in this unique environment. It is here that his vision came into sharp relief and we began commissioning playwrights, winning awards and building a dedicated audience that fills our small house time and time again. It gave us the opportunity to branch out and present work off-Broadway and team up with some of our theatrical heroes, further inspiring and moving us forward into the future. His directing work quickly caught fire, culminating in a 2007 NYIT Award for Outstanding Director for Daniel Reitz’s production of Rules of the Universe. That same year we won the Caffe Cino Fellowship, planting the seed that would become our 20 month long project, the Cino Nights Series.

His work as a playwright is the ultimate expression of his artistry, for it’s here that he taps into everything that inspires him and distills it into a simple form at once complicated and unique. If you had the chance to catch the sold-out production of his play Slipping at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, then you know his dialogue is fresh, evocative and active. His characters are alive, not only because many are ripped from his life and morphed by his imagination, but also because he has a deep sensitivity to actors and how they work.  He ties this together with plot and themes that surprise you with their immediacy, truth, and sense of humor. All of this at the hands of someone who truly loves the magic of theater and knows from experience how to use its many forms.

He has a keen eye for observation, and a taste for the finer things in life. If you have ever spent a day with Daniel, invariably you have crisscrossed the streets of Manhattan on foot. Ducking into any number of Starbucks—for a Chi Latte —or boutiques—any Marc Jacobs, Paul Smith, Lanvin, you pick—or theaters—again, any one, you pick: could be movie, or stage. I often walk away from an outing with Daniel having learned about a new style or trend in fashion, music, art, or theatre. He is a role model, who delights in discovery, one who can identify quality in many forms and bring it into the spotlight for everyone to appreciate. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

posted March 5, 2011