In the early 2000s, it was clear that there were two new things worth watching on the Fort Worth theater scene. One was the ambitious Amphibian Stage Productions, which sprang from a group of Texas Christian University students. And then there was another product of TCU, director Jaime Castañeda, who had worked with Amphibian and founded his own company, FireStarter Productions.
To say that they are the biggest theater success stories to have emerged from Fort Worth in the aughts is no overstatement. In 2012, Amphibian proved that patience and serious commitment to the art pay off, as it moved into a new home that it renovated and purchased -- rare in these parts -- on the near south side. And Castañeda, who left North Texas in the mid- to late 2000s and is now an artistic associate at New York's famed Atlantic Theater Company, is racking up an even more impressive résumé.
Now, he and Amphibian are reunited, as he's directing the group's second main-stage production of its 2013 season, Mike Daisey's monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which opened Thursday. This comes on the heels of Castañeda's triumphant return to working in North Texas in 2012, when he directed the Dallas Theater Center's October production of Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
"FireStarter started a year or two after Amphibian, and we were producing in the TCU Studio Theatre," Castañeda says. "We were rehearsing in [Amphibian artistic director] Kathleen [Culebro]'s living room for Burn This [ASP's first production, in 1999].... Fort Worth itself has grown so much. Even along Rosedale and the [TCU] campus and the area where the Amphibian space is; it's exciting that the organization continues to grow and that Fort Worth is supporting it."
Castañeda, a San Antonio native from a Mexican-American family, became interested in theater in high school and came to TCU to study drama. He showed early promise as a director with ideas. After graduating in 2003, he was accepted into the acclaimed master's program in directing at the University of Texas in Austin, and received a Drama League fellowship in New York, during which he was an assistant director for several Big Apple productions, including the 2008 Broadway revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow.
In between UT and New York, he tried to make a go as a director here, at Amphibian (2007's This Is How It Goes by Neil LaBute) and Circle Theatre (2007's Lincolnesque). His own FireStarter had given acclaimed productions of shows like Patrick Marber's Close r , Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange and, most memorably, Jose Rivera's Sonnets for an Old Century.
Word about his talents spread; in 2008, Kevin Moriarty, the new artistic director of Dallas Theater Center who had recently moved to North Texas, was already inquiring about Castañeda, and saw his production of Sonnets when it was revived at Circle Theatre (it was previously produced at TCU). The interest paid off, as Moriarty kept up with Castañeda's progress and was finally able to work with him when Chad Deity came around. Castañeda says he and Moriarty are talking about future projects at DTC.
"It is such a good place to work at because you can dream up what you want to dream up," Castañeda says about the flexible Wyly Theatre. "Kevin really likes leaning into the gas and pushing full throttle."
Castañeda lives in Brooklyn with his wife, just two train stops from Diaz, whom he has known for about a decade (Castañeda had given North Texas its first taste of Diaz's work when he produced his short play The Gay Sweater as part of an evening of works, called Tapas, presented by FireStarter at Circle Theatre).
Among other duties at the Atlantic, he's in charge of new play development and curates the group's Latino MixFest each summer, in which new works by Latino writers are given staged readings.
New plays are what excite him -- although he laughs when he thinks about his big directing project in the Drama League fellowship, which was a revival of Harold Pinter's 1984 play One for the Road. So, directing Steve Jobs for Amphibian falls right in line with that.
Daisey, who is America's most important monologist since Spalding Gray and certainly the most prolific (he did nine new works in the most recent season), debuted The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in 2010, before the iconic Apple co-founder died. It chronicles Daisey's own journey to the Foxconn factory in China, where most Apple products are made.
The work received extra attention in 2012 when he presented it on NPR's This American Life and it was revealed that some of the facts were embellished. Daisey later apologized and changed the show to reflect the This American Life experience.
He also made the text available for theaters to present at no charge, and Amphibian is one of about 50 companies that have produced it since. In Amphibian's show, Texas Woman's University faculty member Steven Young plays the role. Castañeda has also chosen to make some edits and cuts and leave out the This American Life references.
"I didn't want to confuse the issue with a different performer and a different production a year and a half later," he says. "I rearranged and cut and made my own adjustments. It keeps the facts straight, and the central architecture of the play is the same."
Many of Daisey's monologues involve just him sitting at a desk, with his notes in front of him; this production will largely stick with that format, although Castañeda moves Young around some on the stage.
"It's like a conversation in a living room," he says, "that sometimes physically engages us in different ways and puts us in different situations."
The show follows two storylines. One is of the author's journey to China and investigation of working conditions at Foxconn, and the other is the story of Jobs, the innovator who started his vision working in his garage with Steve Wozniak.
"My sense is that Mike Daisey was trying to convince [Apple] to change the way they work with Foxconn and the conditions in China," Castañeda says. "But it's wider than that. This is an issue that happens in countries all over the world. We see it happening south of the border here in Texas. That has been happening for decades.
"It's interesting to me that in many parts of the country, people are into eating local and going to farmers markets and such," he adds, "but they never talk about the iPhone in their pockets. We don't think about the television in our living room, the shoes that we wear and how those were made.... There's more of a complicated conversation [about] gentrification, the labor unions and labor abuses and globalization."