Nathaniel Shaw (Photo by Aaron Sutten)
Nathaniel Shaw’s summer activities included directing old and new plays in different cities, becoming a father for the second time, and planning to move his family from New Jersey to Richmond as he assumes the role of artistic director for the Virginia Repertory Theatre.
“It’s a whirlwind adventure of all very good things,” says Shaw.
He assumes the post vacated by Virginia Rep’s founding artistic director, Bruce Miller, who retired in May after 41 years at the helm. Shaw, in recent months, directed productions of “West Side Story” and “A Chorus Line” at upstate New York’s Cortland Repertory Theatre. He also led an August opening in New York City for the Libra Theater’s production of “Touch” by Toni Press-Coffman.
Shaw grew up in Phoenix, the son of two modern dancers. He was at first involved in sports — basketball and soccer. He told his father, “Dad, I want to be just like you — except I don’t want to be a dancer.” Shaw says his interest in musical theater, though, spurred him toward the discipline that led to a 2004-to-2006 stint in the Paul Taylor Dance Co. He met Lisa Rumbauskas, who became his wife, during a 2007 production of “West Side Story.” He says, “I was Riff, and she was the girl who wanted so badly to be a Jet.”
Amid the fertile theatrical strata of New York City, Shaw founded The Active Theater, which developed new scripts for full production. “There’s a ridiculous amount of talent in New York, and they all want to work,” he says. Building financial support for a fledgling company is a process that involves what Shaw used to think of as a dirty word: networking. The challenge the theater faced was the evolution from independent theater into a legitimate Off-Broadway company. The Active Theater presented the world premieres of Matthew Keuter’s “Bridgeboy” (2011) and “Body Language” (2012) by Jennie Contuzzi.
Shaw in 2013 became an associate choreographer for the Tony Award-winning production of “Once.” His duties included keeping the production’s moves running smoothly on Broadway and during the first national tour. He also traveled to casting productions of “Once” in South Korea and Australia.
Through Austin, Texas’ Glass Half Full Theatre, Shaw is presently developing a Keuter play, “River Ditty,” that’s set in 1890 and features a young man and a woman fleeing their separate pasts on a box car.
His introduction to Virginia came through his application as a freelance director for Virginia Rep’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
“Bruce happens to be a big fan of ‘Once,’ ” Shaw says. “Very quickly, we hit it off very well and moved on from there.”
Shaw was selected as artistic director from a group of 52 candidates.
Phil Whiteway, managing director at Virginia Rep, says that what set Shaw ahead of the others was his energy and skills not just as a director, but as a shepherd of new work in larger fields. “And that’s very appealing to us,” he says.
Making contemporary plays happen is a balancing act between the current and the traditional. Shaw says, “The question becomes: How do we present the new work that gets people talking and excites them about being part of something for the first time?”
To that end, Shaw sees a continuation of Virginia Rep’s affiliation with the Cadence Theatre Co. “Cadence is a very, very valuable partnership and allows Virginia Rep to co-produce challenging and thought-provoking work.”
The 2003 demise of the half-century-old TheatreVirginia deprived the Richmond region of its single member in the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). The theater association administers collective bargaining agreements for member theaters’ stage and technical staffs and provides a forum for information between more than 70 member theaters throughout the country.
Could that connection be reestablished? Shaw doesn’t rule out joining LORT, saying part of that decision means that those involved either on the stage or behind it would be considered full-time professionals not just by the theater, but by the audience and supporters. “That step is a collaborative one,” Shaw explains, “and means supporting actors who otherwise often hold down a 9-to-5 job to make their theater life viable.”
Shaw and his family are planning to relocate from New Jersey this fall. Since Virginia Rep’s 2016-2017 season is already planned, he can take a year to gain greater acquaintance with the company’s staff and with the Richmond region.
“He’s got this runway, this year, to absorb what he’s now taken on,” says Whiteway. “I want him to have time to see and feel it and view our successes and where there may be challenges.”
Shaw views Virginia Rep as a compelling stage in his career and he believes that Richmond and its environs have much to offer families while remaining affordable. “I want to raise my children here,” he says.