PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In a plot worthy of Horatio Alger, a hardworking lass from a little town on the Illinois prairie has made it big on the East Coast theater scene. Amanda Dehnert started as a student in Trinity Repertory Theater's conservatory program in 1994. Five years later, she became associate artistic director, a feat practically unheard of in the competitive world of regional theater, especially for a woman. Now Ms. Dehnert is poised to step into the leadership role vacated by Oscar Eustis, who begins as artistic director at New York's Public Theater in June.
Dehnert is busy this spring with staging the new musical, "You Never Know," by Charles Strouse, who created "Annie." The musical opens tonight at Trinity Rep's home on Washington Street and promises to spread Dehnert's reputation well beyond Providence. Landing a world première by a composer as celebrated as Mr. Strouse is quite a coup for a director little known outside of New England. Strouse became a fan of her work when he came to Providence several years ago to see her production of "Annie." Recognizing her imaginative rethinking of his classic, he decided to entrust her with his latest endeavor.
Strouse has taken up residence in Providence for the rehearsal period to provide rewrites as necessary. No one is talking out loud, but there are hopes of the work going on. "It's not a pre-Broadway tryout," says Dehnert. "We love this piece and we love Charles. The business of musicals is fascinating, intriguing, and addictive. I don't have children but it's like having them. You want them to be out in the world."
No one is better armed than Dehnert to guide a musical from words and notes to the stage. Trained from childhood as a concert pianist, she decided at age 12 that the concert stage would be too lonely for her and learned to play the French horn, flute, trumpet, harpsichord, and percussion before discovering theater in college. Although she waves off her background as something that "helps you appear useful," when she arrived in Providence at age 21 with a college degree in music theater from Illinois Wesleyan University, she was snapped up by Trinity. She performed first as musician and then progressed to musical director and eventually was put in charge of a production.
"I was pretty quickly directing a couple of shows a year - and poof! I feel really fortunate. So many people took a chance on me," she says. She's directed plays as varied as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "My Fair Lady," among others that have twice brought her Elliot Norton awards for excellence from the Boston Theater Critics Association.
Mr. Eustis considers Dehnert his protégée. She's a prominent candidate to replace him permanently (as acting artistic director, she has inside knowledge of the company and Eustis's blessing). At the same time, a search committee appointed by Trinity's board will build a list of additional candidates.
Eustis, a large, gregarious man with a generous, ebullient manner to match his outsized abilities, says he has no doubts about Dehnert's qualifications. "She's a terrific director," he says during an interview in his tiny office in a corner of the 100-year-old former vaudeville theater and movie palace. "She's able to convince an audience with her imagination, knack for storytelling, and ability to reinvent the playwright's intentions for current viewers. When I watch one of her productions, I feel I'm getting direct access to the play. She's totally honest; she has integrity; she's able to inspire a wide variety of people and command respect."
While women lead theaters throughout the United States - Emily Mann in her 15th season at McCarter Theatre, Princeton, N.J., Barbara Gaines of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and Libby Appel at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, among them - Dehnert, now in her early thirties, might be considered a dark horse compared with theater professionals with more years of experience - except for her impressive record.
Audiences have applauded her ingenuity in setting George Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan" in a neighborhood garage and the entire "West Side Story" in the high school gym, mixing up the Jets and the Sharks to emphasize their commonalities.
Both Trinity Rep and The Public are leaders in the regional theater off-Broadway movement, an increasingly important launch pad for fresh work. (The costs of producing new plays and musicals in the commercial theaters have made those theaters inhospitable to any but the most established talents.)
But Dehnert is not in the least intimidated by the prospect of heading a theater that's considered a leader among the resident companies of New England. She'll be managing an $8.5 million annual budget, along with an educational outreach that includes a training consortium with Brown University and a program that brings more than 30,000 middle and high school students to special performances. "We care about education because we care about people who will make theater in the future," she says.
Right now, she's thinking beyond tonight's opening to the future. "We want people to gather in a room for an experience that they all have together at the same time," she says. "We want to work as hard as we can to earn the right to make theater for as many people as we can. It's really just about the audience. We only exist for the people in our community to come see our work."