Her world’s the stage

Melissa Crespo isn’t a year out of U.Va., and she’s already working behind the scenes at a major theater.

By Chris Wilson (English '05)
Crespo.

Crespo.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Crespo.

The staff at Arena Stage in Southwest Washington calls Melissa Crespo (Drama ’05) and her peers “the future of American Theater.” And for good reason.

Less than six months after walking the Lawn, Crespo already has two performances under her belt at Arena and is working on several more. As the recipient of the theater company’s prestigious Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship for directing, she is doing a little bit of everything.

“My fellowship has no boundaries,” Crespo says. “I’m collecting lots of different things along the way.”

In addition to assisting the director for most of the shows at Arena, Crespo has a hand in a lot of different aspects of production. For “Damn Yankees,” she has the daunting task of organizing for more than 400 local schoolchildren to come perform a song in the show on various nights as part of Arena’s community outreach program. If a school does not have a music program, Crespo goes there and teaches the children the song herself.

The Arena Stage produces a broad range of shows, from standards like “Damn Yankees” to world premieres of new productions such as Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play, A Cycle,” which debuted at Arena this fall. Arena’s Allen Lee Hughes fellowships are designed specifically to “increase participation of people of color in professional theater.”

For Charles Randolph-Wright’s “Cuttin’ Up,” the stage’s next production, Crespo is doing sound tech work, something she did not have much experience in beforehand. Randolph-Wright, who is also directing the new play, often polls Crespo for her opinion on scenes he is having trouble with.

Crespo says it is particularly satisfying to see when such suggestions or other projects become a reality on stage.

“I have my moments on stage where I can say, ‘That’s mine,’” she says.

Crespo was an actress for many years before, at a close friend’s suggestion, she tried her hand at directing. After transferring to the University from Ithaca College, Crespo quickly established herself in the drama community as a creative and visionary director with an ability to attract standing-room-only audiences.

“Melissa attracts bright, energetic and creative minds to her projects,” says Tom Bloom, chair of the University’s drama department. “She’s an artist who actors and designers want to work for.”

Before receiving the competitive Arena fellowship, Crespo already had an offer on the table from Bloom to direct the department’s fall production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Women Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf” — the first time in recent memory that a graduating fourth-year has been immediately invited back to direct a main stage production.

While Crespo says she will always act in some capacity, she doesn’t regret the switch to directing.

“I’m a control freak,” she says. “I see plays better when I’m not in them. I’m enthralled by watching actors act.”

Among those actors at Arena is fellow alumnus Howard Overshown (Drama ’91), who played the lead role in “Passion.” Nor is Crespo the first alumna to hold the Hughes fellowship. Amber Dickerson (Drama ’99) received the fellowship for stage management several years ago and is now a permanent member of the staff.

This is not uncommon, according to Anita Maynard-Losh, the stage’s director of community engagement: “Many fellows have gone on to be hired by Arena.”

Before she considers her next career move, however, Crespo says she’ll probably head back to school for a Master of Fine Arts in directing. But no one at Arena seems to think she’ll be wanting for work when the time comes. When asked what moment, if any, stands out in her mind, Crespo mentions the words of director Molly Smith over a dinner during the production of “Passion.” Regarding Crespo’s future, Smith said, “I don’t think you’ll have any problem.”