Jeff Whiting is one of Broadway's most prominent rising directors/choreographers whose talents have been seen in The Scottsboro Boys, Hair, Young Frankenstein, and Wicked (5th Anniversary). This season Jeff will be represented with two Broadway productions: Big Fish and Bullets Over Broadway, both directed by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman.
Jeff is also the founder of the Open Jar Institute, a musical theatre training program founded in 2003 for the development of music theatre artists of all ages. Celebrating their 10th Anniversary, Open Jar Institute will be celebrating on August 2nd with a Special Master Class Press Event At The Pearl Theatre In NYC with Susan Stroman. In addition to Jeff and Susan, other Broadway professionals featured this season will be legendary composer John Kander, Tony Award winners Joanna Gleason and Karen Ziemba, Tony nominee David Thompson, casting associates from Tara Rubin Casting, casting director Bob Cline, director/choreographer James Gray, Stacia Fernandez, Thayne Jasperson, Robert Hartwell, Andrew Fitch, Joshua Buscher, Tina Marie Casamento, Michael Goddard, Joseph Mitchell Parks, Jay Rhoderick, Eric Santagata, Scott Taylor, and many others.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a director/choreographer? When I was twelve I worked with a director named Xan Johnson in Lanford Wilson's HOME FREE. I played "Lawrence" who was a young man battling extreme agoraphobia in the show and I was having trouble really finding the truth in that fear. Through rehearsals this director found some amazing ways to help me discover this fear that gripped my character. When I finally made the connection (thanks to the director) I remember thinking "I want to do what he does" - he somehow found a way to help me connect to the piece. From that day forward I always had my eye on the director - watching and observing - taking mental notes about what qualities or skills I would incorporate or NOT incorporate into my own directing style. I love working with people and helping each performer become the best they can.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? I'd really love to work with two master storytellers of our day - Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz.
3. You founded The Open Jar Institute in 2003. What made you want to start this venture? When I first arrived in the city as an actor there were so many lessons I had to learn the 'hard way'. I had good training but there were so many things about auditioning and marketing myself that I just didn't know. In the end, I'm very grateful to have learned those lessons but always said if I had the chance I would want to share with other up and coming actors some of the realities of the business so they wouldn't have to make some of the mistakes I made.
About that time, I had read a study about fleas. A group of scientists took a group of fleas, who have an amazing capacity to jump, and placed them in an open jar. With the lid closed, the fleas tried to jump but quickly discovered they wouldn't be able to jump as high as they had intended. After a week went by, the scientists took the lid off of the jar and the fleas, who had adjusted to the new height, didn't jump out of the jar, and never jumped out to their freedom.
As artists, we often fall into the same trap that the fleas did. There are a lot of 'no's in this business and it's very easy to adjust to those perceived limitations. All too often we, the artist, stop jumping, or auditioning, performing, with our entire potential. At The Open Jar Institute we believe that you must approach every performance, audition with all of your might - approach it as if the jar is open - the possibilities endless. That is the Open Jar Philosophy and became the name of the Institute - The Open Jar Institute.
4. Now The Open Jar Institute is celebrating it's 10th Anniversary. What does this milestone mean to you? It's hard to believe it's really been 10 years - they've really flown by - but it's been amazing to see how many young artists I've seen come through the program and who have already started incredible careers in the business. I think the significance of our 10th Anniversary is to see that we've really built a solid team of teaching artists as well as our 'dream team' staff at open jar. I think another wonderful byproduct of our 10th Anniversary is the wonderful reputation for excellence in education we have been able to attain and to attract the very best Broadway professionals to work with our students.
4a. Did you imagine 10 years ago, the institute would become what it is today? I'm thrilled to see how the institute has really grown and yet we are still able to provide intensive one-on-one training with Broadway's best professionals. Yes, I think if you told me 10 years ago that theatre legends Susan Stroman, Joanna Gleason, and John Kander would be teaching artists for The Open Jar Institute, well, it still blows my mind to have them as a part of The Open Jar Institute.
5. How do you decide which professionals you are going to ask each year to participate in The Open Jar Institute? It's important to me that every student who attends the institute works exclusively with Broadway professionals that are currently IN the business. The industry changes so much that it's important that they are learning from those who have found success in the business and who also bring a positive and encouraging spirit with them to teach the students.
6. What do get from teaching these students who attend the institute? I am always so overwhelmed to see how much these students grow in our time together - not just professionally and in their craft as they work in their classes, but even more importantly, to see them finding themselves as artists and to find comfort in being who they are, whatever that is.
7. What has been the most rewarding part about being the owner and artistic director of The Open Jar Institute? I'd say the most rewarding part of being a part of The Open Jar Institute would be to know that so many talented students are getting the opportunity to learn more about their dreams - to work one-on-one with Broadway professionals who are doing what they want to be doing - and to see the student learn and be inspired by the guest artist - and, most importantly, to see the student learn that they are completely capable of finding the same kind of success with hard work and determination.
7a. What challenges have you faced? One of the biggest challenges we face as the Institute is when we go on our audition tour to schools around the country. Sometimes folks have a hard time believing that they will actually have the opportunity to work with the kind of professionals that are on our Guest Artist List (Susan Stroman, John Kander, Joanna Gleason, etc.). I suppose there are a number of scams out in the world today and it's natural for people to be on the watch for another one and it's always my thrill to see the students who come from around the country to learn one-on-one with these amazing guest artists from the Broadway community.
8. What plans do you have for the future of The Open Jar Institute? We will soon be launching a semester program for college students who can spend a semester abroad (in New York City). We will offer this semester to college students for the Fall, Winter and Summer Semesters from schools around the globe who want to learn from Broadway's best professionals, to make valuable connections in the city, and to better prepare themselves for a career in New York.
8a. Where would you like to see it go? We're also working towards having a year-round accredited program, complete with housing, studios and a theatre for students who want to study in New York City full-time with Broadway teaching artists.
9. How did you and Susan Stroman first come to work together? I was first hired by Susan to work as her Assistant Choreographer on the Broadway production of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN in 2007. It's been my honor to work with her on that production and the national tour as well as HAPPINESS at Lincoln Center, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS on Broadway, and now on BIG FISH (Andrew Lippa) and BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (Woody Allen) both opening this season and THE LITTLE DANCER (Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty) next year.
9a. What has been the best part about working with her and what have you learned from her? I'd say the greatest thing about being in the room with Susan is knowing that you are safe to explore and encouraged to try the impossible. She is incredibly collaborative and it's an amazing environment of creative juices where we get to play together to find the best way to tell each story. It's been one of the the greatest blessings in my life to be at her side in creating some wonderful projects over the past few years.
10. What do you enjoy about working on Broadway and getting the opportunities to work around the country and overseas? I love creating, no matter where it is, but being able to be a story-teller on Broadway is an incredible dream come true for me. I first came to New York at age 12 and the moment the lights came up on Bernadette Peters while watching my first Broadway show (SONG & DANCE) I absolutely KNEW that this environment was my home. I wanted to be able to create the kind of magic that can only be created in the theatre.
10a. What differences do you see between working in the states and overseas? Yes, I've also been lucky enough to direct and choreograph around the world - Brazil, India, Mexico, London, China. Each place has it's own blessings and challenges. The biggest difference in working outside the states is the process by which the production is built and the rehearsal schedules are run. My favorite thing about rehearsing in Brazil is that rehearsals don't begin until 1pm. You rehearse from 1pm to 9pm because everyone goes to the beach in the morning. I love that! I'm determined to bring that practice of rehearsal times to the states. I loved having the mornings free to do errands, etc. before starting rehearsals. But, although there are many different challenges and delights in creating theatrical magic in each different country, in the end the audiences always show up at the curtain time ready to be taken on a journey of some kind. I love it!
11. What do get from being the Artistic Director of The Open Jar Institute that you do not get from being a director/choreographer? I love to teach. Although you do do a lot of teaching as a director or choreographer. You don't often talk too much about technique in the rehearsal process and I love really digging into the technique of acting and communicating when I do classes at the Open Jar Institute. The other thing that I love about teaching is to see the incredible growth, both personal and professional, that the students experience at the Open Jar Institute.
12. What's the best advice you've ever received? The best advice I ever got was this: YOU ARE ENOUGH. Actors are always trying to guess 'what they want' and trying to fit the mold. The truth is, I want you - whatever that is. Sometimes you are the right 'fit' for the show - sometimes not. But an inauthentic self is NEVER the right fit. No matter what, you need to find confidence in who you are - whatever it is - and bring that confidence in any room you enter. The people that I'm drawn to as a creator are those who are well-rounded and comfortable in their own skin and who are willing to explore without any fear.
13. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? The power to fly. I'm constantly flying in my dreams and would love to live out that dream and not be bound by gravity.
More on Jeff: Recently acclaimed as a 'director with a joyous touch' by the New York Times, Jeff Whiting is a director and choreographer for theater, opera, television, special events and concerts around the world. National Tour credits include Young Frankenstein (director), Hairspray (assoc. director), The Producers (assoc. director). Having been praised on THE VIEW as 'a truly remarkable talent', Jeff's theatrical direction and choreography includes The Scottsboro Boys (Philadelphia Theatre Company), Hairspray (Brazilian production), Young Frankenstein (National Tour), Kiss Me Kate (Glimmerglass), Tarantella: Spider Dance (Theater for a New City), Bye Bye Birdie (Cortland Rep), Thrill Me: Leopold & Loeb (Southeastern Premiere), Fashion 47 (Minneapolis CTC), All Night Strut (Cortland Rep), My Way (Corland Rep), I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (Arkansas Rep), The Donkey Show. Opera direction and choreography includes We Open In Paris (Glimmerglass Opera). Television direction includes Disney's Magical Moments Parade, which premiered in Rio De Janiero, Brazil and is continuing on a 15-city national tour. Special Event direction and choreography includes James Taylor Live (Carnegie Hall, co-starring Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Sting, Tony Bennett, Barbara Cook, Dianne Reeves), Stro! Gala Honoring Susan Stroman (Hudson Theater, co-starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Rebecca Luker, Boyd Gaines, Veanne Cox), T-Mobile's Annual Event (Kodak Theater, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones), MAIR! (Inner Circle, Starring Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the Broadway company of HAIR!), Film Premiere of Chronicles of Narnia (Southeastern Premiere). As a member of Disney's Creative Team, Jeff has directed and choreographed over 50 shows and events, including Disney's Mickey Mouse Club (India), Disney's Dream and Fantasy (Brazil), Power Rangers, Disney's Very Merry Christmas, Disney's Enchanted Princess, Disney's 100 Years of Magic, Disney's Magic Mirror.
Upcoming projects include Dangerous, Faustus, and Hope For The Flowers.
Stage Write Software, designed and developed by Jeff, marks the worlds first digital method for documenting staging and choreography and is already in use for many of Broadway shows and tours, including NEWSIES, GHOST, THE PRODUCERS, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, HAIR, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.