When Jeremy Whittington started his job two years ago as managing director for Stage Left Theater, he had big plans. He wanted to present fresh stories and promote marginalized voices. Then COVID-19 hit, and the world’s stages went dark overnight. When it seemed as though the show literally could not go on, Whittington pivoted as only a true artist can.
Whittington, 50, cobbled together a team of fellow artists and community partners willing to push the limitations of theater past its traditional physical space and into the new world of virtual production. Stage Left lit up once again, only with seats emptied and with masks and cameras on.
For the past year and a half, skeleton crews and socially distanced casts at Stage Left have presented livestreaming of one-man shows, monologues and virtual festivals. Stage Left’s general manager and grant writer Joy Wood has been able to parlay that vitality into a record number of cash awards for the theater.
The funds turned a potentially disastrous 21 months with no live shows into one of the most robust periods ever at the nonprofit. Consequently, Stage Left has become one of the few area community theaters that not only pays a modest amount to its directors and staff, but also gives small cash stipends to actors and working volunteers.
“Jeremy’s ability and enthusiasm kept us alive for two years,” said Robert Nelson, Stage Left founder and former board president. “I don’t know how many other people could have done it.” Others have taken notice. Last month, Whittington’s contributions to the state’s overall creative vitality earned him a 2021 Heritage Luminary Award from Gov. Jay Inslee.
The honor singled him out as a cultural leader in Eastern Washington who “stood as a shining light for his community during the pandemic.” Another accolade came last April, when Stage Left was chosen among only a dozen community theaters across the country to present a virtual play (“Lonely Planet”) at the American Association of Community Theatre’s AACTFest 2021.
The biggest hurdle in switching to virtual for Whittington and his team, which included John Bongard, Robert Tombari, Paul Watts, Michael Schmidt and Elizabeth Kitzig, was learning how to use new technologies.
“We are all stage actors and directors and lighting technicians, so transferring that to a digital format that’s going to read on people’s televisions and laptops and even phones was challenging,” Whittington said. “But we continue to evolve this art form we call theater ever since we lived in caves and painted on walls.
“This is just one more step in that evolution, I think.” Evolving and overcoming challenges is nothing to new to Whittington. His personal story is rife with missteps. But past poor choices make the triumph of current accomplishments that much sweeter, and downright inspiring, to those seeking another chance.
As a child, Whittington’s family struggled financially. He moved often as his father took various posts in pursuit of a job as a minister. When Whittington was in middle school, the family relocated to rural Alabama just as he was figuring out he was gay.
There were no theaters or arts communities to join, and his own Baptist religion preached that homosexuality was a sin. Whittington became isolated and depressed. He was prescribed lithium despite his youth. Academics, at least, came easy for Whittington.
After the family moved to his father’s small hometown in Ohio, he did so well in high school that he won a full-ride scholarship to Ohio University in Athens. College is where Whittington met the boyfriend that would introduce him to theater. By the end of freshman year, he had switched his major from English to theater.
During his junior year, Whittington was introduced to drugs and alcohol, two passions that would nearly destroy his life. He stopped attending class, lost his scholarship and dropped out of school. “I started a downward spiral that lasted decades,” Whittington said. “I got really wrapped up in cocaine from ’89 to ’96. Lots of partying, lots of dance clubs, lots of blackouts.”
Eventually, Whittington moved from Ohio to Spokane near where his father had secured a ministry in Republic. Whittington waited tables and bartended in Coeur d’Alene, working his way up to a managerial position and making good money.
“After work, I’d party with friends and pass out on the streets and get taken home by cabs and not remember any of it,” Whittington said. “Just all the stuff that is late-stage chronic alcoholism, but I wasn’t aware of it because I still had a job and was high-functioning.”
After a failed try at rehab, Whittington finally vowed to quit drinking and drugging altogether in 2009. But then came St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday dedicated to overindulging. Whittington, clad all in green, was finishing up an 11-hour work shift at Cyrus O’Leary’s in Spokane when his friends beckoned him to the bar.
Instead, Whittington walked out into the street and broke down crying. He blindly walked to a nearby church where he had once dropped off a friend eight years before at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“I walked in looking like a giant gay leprechaun,” Whittington laughed. “I had shimmering green glitter and makeup running down my face from crying, my hair just a green matted mess.”
“I just said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ and people said, ‘You are in the right place,’ ” Whittington recalled. “An 80-year-old guy leans over and puts his hand on my knee and said, ‘You are going to be OK, kid.’ ”
Rather than hide his painful past, Whittington embraces telling his story of more than a decade of sobriety. He has sponsored countless others through AA over the years and checks in daily with several people he is helping to stay sober.
“When the gift of recovery is laid at your feet, you then have to give others a hand up,” Whittington said. “Look at this life I get to live now. I didn’t have a house; I was losing teeth. I lost jobs, I ruined relationships with my friends, my family. And now I am getting governor’s awards? It is all about gratitude.”
After getting sober in 2009, Whittington worked his way up in the restaurant business, managing large establishments. He earned a degree in graphic design and worked freelance, expressing his artistic side by drawing comic books.
In 2013, Whittington walked into a theater again after more than a decade away and bought a ticket to “Sweeney Todd” at Lake City Playhouse. He happened to get on a mailing list and received an audition notice for “Les Misérables,” one of his all-time favorite shows.
Whittington gave it a shot. He was cast in eight small parts of the ensemble and was the first prisoner who walks onstage. He used the date of his sobriety for the prison numbers sewn onto his costume. “It was cool because I was coming full circle,” Whittington said.
In the middle of the show’s run, Lake City Playhouse’s then-executive director George Green hired Whittington to help paint a set for him at the Modern Theater in Spokane. Impressed by the work, Green hired Whittington full time as resident designer and later convinced him to move to San Antonio when he later took an executive director job at a theater there.
Whittington returned to Spokane from Texas in 2019 just as Stage Left launched its search for a new managing director. The theater wanted a conscientious manager who would present shows expressing progressive political viewpoints.
Stage Left does not tell people what to think but tries hard to make them think, Whittington said. He also said that diversifying the board, casts and audiences was a top priority.
“We want to bring in people of color, people of different gender identities, people of different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Whittington said. “It was also important to me that everyone felt that this was a safe place of inclusion, so we made our bathrooms gender neutral and had stickers made up with the pronouns of all of our cast members.”
“We started working on shows bringing stories to life with specific points-of-view that speak to marginalized communities or brutalized communities or excluded communities,” Whittington said.
“Stage Left’s current show, ‘Corpus Christi,’ for example, is likely the most diverse cast that has ever performed in Spokane,” Whittington said. “We run the gamut of male, female, nonbinary, trans, Black, Filipino, Latino, white cast members. It’s a Benetton ad of a cast.”
Whittington was nominated for a Spokane Arts Inclusion Award in 2020, and Stage Left, as an organization, won the Inclusion Award in 2021 under his stewardship. While Stage Left’s play festivals have been a reliable avenue for new writers to be heard, Whittington’s other goal is to expand on that concept and transform the organization into a new works theater entirely.
The 2022 season, which launched this weekend, will include two staged productions of local playwright Molly Allen’s one-act shows, “Spaceman” and “Broadway.” A new work by Tristen Canfield, “An Aviary for Birds of Sadness” that was workshopped last year by Spokane Playwrights Laboratory, has already been secured for the 2023 season.
“Jeremy’s ability to fill many roles, his enthusiasm, his ability to interact with the community, are wonderful to watch,” Stage Left founder Nelson said. “And he’s a nice guy to boot.”
“One of the things that is a driver in my life is making people feel OK with who they are,” Whittington said. “A lot of times that presents itself in recovery where I help people escape past trauma or get out of a life of drugs and alcohol.”
“Theater can help people, too,” Whittington added. “Just being present for someone is so important … and transporting ourselves into a different perspective. That is what good theater does, whether it’s ‘Annie’ or ‘Corpus Christi.’ ”
Arts and entertainment correspondent Audrey Overstreet is vice president of the board of directors for Stage Left Theater.