As far as Madisonians go, Sam D. White is a lifer. He grew up here, left for a brief time but ultimately came back to the city that has always been his home.
“I’m a Madison boy,” he said. “I’m a product for better or worse.”
He grew up in the diverse restaurant industry and spent part of his young life working in several beloved Madison restaurants such as Peppino’s, White Horse Inn and Porta Bella. White even stayed close to home when it was time to go to college — he graduated from Edgewood College with a degree in theater in 1982.
After college White left Madison to join the military. He spent 20 years in the military serving with the National Guard.
White joined the Army to become an interrogator and learned Farsi, but the Army ended up not needing that and any gave him three choices — become a counter intelligence agent, a psychological operations specialist or a journalist.
During his time as an Army journalist, White even reviewed theater and film, and got the chance to attend the Humana Festival of New American Plays twice in Louisville, Kentucky, while stationed at Fort Knox.
“It was amazing,” he said of the festivals. “I drank a beer five feet from Ken Kesey! Ken Kesey!”
Ultimately it was proximity to family and a desire to work with the Madison Repertory Theatre that brought White, wife Celia A. Klehr and their family back to the city in 1989.
After leaving the military he spent nearly 10 years with AAA Wisconsin. First he sold insurance and then created a driver’s education program. White has a passion for helping others as well as teaching, so it was a perfect fit. But when the job made it too difficult to be as active in the theater as he wanted to be, he became a program support supervisor for the Wisconsin Sex Offender Registry.
“I always want to make a difference,” he said. “Somehow I want to help somebody. I’ve been doing that my whole life. Somehow what I do makes an impression on somebody. It helps them or makes them happier or makes them laugh.“
White has cemented himself as a mainstay in Madison’s theater scene — a fitting role for someone who has devoted over 40 years to the craft through playwriting, acting and directing.
His plays “Oatesland” and “Coyote Moon” won the Wisconsin Wrights New Play awards in 2011 and 2013, respectively, and his monologues have been featured in several Forward Theater Company monologue festivals. He is on the advisory company of Forward Theater, is the former artistic director of Madison Theatre Guild as well as the former president of Playwrights Ink and has worked with nearly every community theater organization in Madison.
White is currently playing Falstaff in the Madison Shakespeare Company’s production of “Henry the Fourth,” Feb. 9-17 at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St.
Were you always interested in the arts?
From a very early age. My wife calls me a “Soldier Poet” — I like that.
I think of myself first and foremost as a local Madison artist. I’m not painting pictures or making murals or sculpting, I do theater. But I like to be lumped in with those artists. I have so much respect for them because I grew up with them.
When I was 3 or 4 years old, my mom gave me some paper to draw on. I looked up at my mom and drew a contour drawing of her standing at the kitchen sink. Ever since then my mother focused me on the arts. She always had me in ceramics classes or drawing and painting classes. She channeled me that way.
Why did you join the Army?
Basic reasons — to pay back my college loans.
I also significantly did it to get out of Madison. To get away from here. Too bad I didn’t grow up somewhere else and come to Madison to realize how awesome it is. I’m always taking it for granted. I love this city. So many aspects of this city are important to me.
Did you do a lot of journalism while you were in the army?
Not long enough, but long enough to learn. It taught me how to write.
It was a pretty rough regiment there at the school. They were tough on you. If you made mistakes they wouldn’t hesitate in kicking you out for the infantry.
At what point did you start writing plays?
I always dabbled. I called it “seriously dabbling” in playwriting since college. The first piece was “Watermelon Seed Spitting, Stupid.” I wrote it based on “This Property is Condemned” by Tennessee Williams.
There are two kids on the railroad tracks. The little girl was practicing for the watermelon seed spitting contest at the county fair. The little boy was a wayward soul. They just meet and it comes down to the little boy wanting a bite of the watermelon and the little girl won’t give him any.
It got accepted and read at one of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festivals. That encouraged me to keep doing it.
What is it like to be on Forward Theater’s advisory company?
I’m so honored and really, really, really, really lucky to be part of it. ... Sitting around with these people discussing plays is like a master class. Every month I get a little master class in theater. I hope it has some kind of effect, like I’ll get smarter somehow. It’s been an amazing trip and it just gets better.
You plan on retiring from your day job in January 2019. Does that mean you’ll spend more time writing plays?
Oh yeah — I’ve already got one in the hopper.
I could spend eight hours a day writing. I could do it and I might — we’ll see.
— Interview by Amanda Finn