Quick Chat: Sam D. White

Posted July 9, 2024

Sam White Quick Chat Banner

Sam D. White, Much Ado About Nothing, 2024. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Sam White is a paragon of Wisconsin theater. A performer, a playwright and a lifelong Madisonian, Sam has a passion for not only creating good theater but creating a good life through theater. He joins us for this Quick Chat interview where we talk all about his first summer up the Hill and why it's been a bow 45 years in the making. Catch him as Verges in Much Ado About Nothing this summer.

APT: Hi, Sam! Welcome to Quick Chats! You've just finished up one of your final rehearsals for Much Ado! How are you feeling?
White: I’m tremendously excited! I think it’s going to be an absolutely beautiful production. Robert [Ramirez] has just worked the hell out of it and the details feel solid. As a young man growing up around here, you always loved to come to APT to see one of the Shakespeares, because they do it very well and they do it right. Much Ado About Nothing is one of those.

APT: That's great! Would you be able to give me some highlights of your introduction to theater and Shakespeare?
Theatre came from being in my environment. I grew up in the west side of Madison, kind of sheltered, but I had a really large group of friends with a large range of interests. Many of them were jocks (I was a jock, too – playing football and rugby and things like that), and the others were a little more culturally-oriented. I went and saw my neighbors playing small roles in Madison Savoyards' production of The Mikado. There was this palpable feeling of me saying “Oh, I could do that. I want to do that.” I didn't follow up on that until much later in my life, but I knew that I hit on something.

My first exposure to Shakespeare was I saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in English class, and it just leveled me. I was the captain of the football team and was weeping while watching it. (Plus, I developed a huge crush on Olivia Hussey.) That’s where Shakespeare first happened for me.

I didn’t experience Shakespeare and do it until college. I was in a production of Romeo and Juliet at Edgewood College, and Randy [Duk Kim] and Annie [Occhiogrosso] came to see that. The other thing that got me into acting was – and this is shameful – girls. In high school, there was a young lady who convinced me to do a school play she was directing so we “could spend more time together.” She’s still a very good friend of mine.

Back in my day, especially in high school, we were just hammered over the head with “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think that’s an unfair question for young people, and I was struggling with that. But in theater I just felt like I had found it and I knew it was something I wanted to do, in spite of everyone else’s hesitations.

I’ve done professional theater my whole career, but most of career has been in community or academic settings. The thing is, though, there’s a difference between making a living in the theater and making life in the theater. While the professional opportunities in Madison were not always there, and I made the choice to live in Madison to raise my family, I’m not going to not do theater just because I’m not being paid. I have passion for it, I need to do it. I need to do everything!

I was in the military for 20 years, and while I did most of my career in Madison, when I was stationed away I was still doing theater all the time. Every post had a theater. I was always asked “you’re in the army and you do theater?” And I’d say, "yes of course." There’s not a lot of difference: it’s all about team. There’s a mission, there’s training, and it isn’t necessarily a democracy – there’s a commander or director. I’ve been involved with an organization over the years called Feast of Crispian. They use Shakespeare to work with veterans who are suffering from PTSD. It was amazing for the vets because it was safe to feel emotions that way – it was a chance to live through the metaphors of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s still my number one playwright. I’m a classics guy, but I really enjoy Shaw as well, and certainly Wilde. I am a massive Thornton Wilder fan. I mean, what American playwrights were writing like that then?

One of the things I feel very much here at APT is that I’m representing my community. I feel like I’m a product of the Madison theater community, and I’m very proud of that, and I hope I represent my friends and collaborators across our whole Wisconsin community.

Being an actor is an audacious responsibility. To the audience, to the crew, to the board members, to the playwright – it’s a huge responsibility.

APT: You called working at APT "the dream come true" at the start of rehearsals. How do you feel about your first summer at APT now?
The way this company runs astounds me. The work ethic here – every single person involved – the work ethic is highly professional and super dedicated. I found that working up the Hill takes a special stamina physically. Especially for an older actor, all though I’m in good shape.

The environment just takes stamina, both physical and mental stamina. Dealing with the space itself. It’s a big, wide space, outside, in the elements with the bugs. Accounting for the vocal requirements. It just takes immense stamina. And I’ve already lost about five pounds.

This is what I wanted to be when I grew up. This is it. This is what I always dreamed of being. When I first realized that theater was my thing, APT was starting when I was just a kid, and since then it’s what I’ve always wanted. To be a professional actor. I feel like I’ve been called up from the farm league: put me in coach, I’m ready. And I’m going to give it everything I have.

APT: What's been your favorite part of the summer so far?
The people. They’re so nice, and so committed. Especially the apprentices. My biggest scenes are with the apprentices, and they are so talented and nice. It’s like I’m seeing myself 40 years ago. And it makes me cry.

I’ve been walking up the Hill and seeing these actors work for years. It’s been my workshop. To watch Marcus Truschinski turn a phrase. To watch Mr. [James] Ridge do a facial expression that just says it all. Tracy [Michelle Arnold] and her commitment and intensity that she has. This is my favorite thing to talk about.

APT: When not working or rehearsing for your next project, what do you like to do in your free time?
I have too many hobbies! Right now, I love gardening. I’m excited for tomatoes. I love golfing and fishing. And I am a fanatic board game player. I even participated last year in the World Series of Board Gaming in Las Vegas! I’m also currently working on writing a play. I like to say I’m serious dabbler. I’m busy!

APT: Wild Card Question for you! How many Shakespeare characters that you’ve played in your life can you list in 60 seconds? Timer starts now!
White: Tybalt, Oswald, Lysander, The Gold Merchant in Comedy of Errors, Prospero (twice!), Falstaff (twice!), Stephano in The Tempest, the Ghost in Hamlet, the Gravedigger in Hamlet, the First Player in Hamlet. I think that kind of covers it - unless we’re talking about scenes. I wonder if I forgot anything? OH, Verges in Much Ado About Nothing!

APT: Pretty impressive! Is there anything else you'd like to share, Sam?
I just can’t thank everyone at APT enough for being so kind and so open to me, and accepting. Hopefully I’ll be worthy.