EW Staff
June 29, 2001 AT 04:00 AM EDT

IT STORYTELLER Pamela Gien

AGE 44 WHY HER? The native South African’s gut-wrenching semiautobiographical show, The Syringa Tree — in which she acts out two dozen characters (including a Jewish man, a Zulu servant, and a 6-year-old South African girl) living through 40 years of apartheid — has earned Gien Drama Desk and Obie awards. And fanatical word of mouth has made Tree an Off Broadway hit. CAREER HIGH ”The night Oprah saw the show. She sent me flowers with an extraordinarily heartfelt note.” CHRISTOPHER WALKEN’S WORDS OF WISDOM ”He told me to trust my instincts. I love that.” WORST ADVICE ”To network. I tried it for half an hour and was hopeless. Many say it’s the only way to get ahead, but I find it a hollow pursuit.” NEXT Finishing the screenplay adaptation of Syringa, in which she’ll also star.

IT ODDBALLS David RAKOFF Amy SEDARIS

AGES 36, 40 WHY THEM? His collection of hilarious essays, Fraud, was published in May. She’s the star of Comedy Central’s mondo-bizarro cult hit Strangers With Candy. Friends for eight years, the two starred in their fourth Talent Family production together, the oddly sentimental Off Broadway play The Book of Liz. ”Only Amy and David [her brother, Me Talk Pretty One Day author David Sedaris] are in the Talent Family,” says Rakoff. ”I like to think of myself as a cousin.” EXTRA CREDIT Sedaris bakes cupcakes each night to sell in the theater lobby. BEST ADVICE Sedaris: ”Double the vanilla in your cupcakes.” Rakoff: ”And never forget the salt when you’re making something sweet.” Sedaris: ”Also the perfect recipe for humor.” WORST ADVICE Rakoff: ”Just do it for the money.” Sedaris: ”Get a colonic.” CAREER LOW Rakoff: ”My life has been a stew of regrets and a parade of bad career moments, but it’s made what I get to do now much more fun.” DREAM COLLABORATORS Sedaris: ”Johnny Depp between the sheets.” Rakoff: ”Comic-book artist Chris Ware [Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth] — though I can’t think what I’d bring to it beyond spectatorship.” FASHION DON’TS Rakoff: ”I don’t wear shorts in public.” Sedaris: ”But he wears hot pants around the house, with pepperonis on his nipples.” NEXT Sedaris: A photography book with designer Todd Oldham; a possible Strangers movie. Rakoff: Fraud’s book tour.

IT COMPOSER David Yazbek

AGE 40 WHY HIM? The composer-lyricist’s first stab at Broadway — scoring the hit musical The Full Monty — earned him a Drama Desk award and Tony nod for best score. WHY SLEEPING’S NOT AN OPTION In addition to writing, producing, and playing everything from the piano to clavinette for his eponymous band, Yazbek, he wrote the catchy theme to Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and was a staff writer for NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman: ”It wasn’t for me.” Maybe not, but the yearlong stint got him an Emmy. INFLUENCES ”Thelonious Monk, the Beatles, XTC. Also, Frank Loesser — my ideal of musical theater.” DREAM COLLABORATORS Martin Scorsese or Ang Lee. ”Or some nut who’s brilliant — like Beck.” PERSONAL MANTRA ”Music is nourishment, and you are what you eat.” NEXT Damascus, the band Yazbek’s third album of ”eclectic, challenging” music, hits stores in July.

IT REALIST Richard Maxwell

AGE 33 WHY HIM? Already compared to David Mamet, this Obie-winning writer-director from Fargo, N.D., had Off Off Broadway buzzing with his sometimes hilarious, strangely affecting plays, House, Boxing 2000, and now Caveman. ”If I had to pin my style down, I’d call it realism,” says Maxwell, who also happens to be modest. ”I keep expecting you to say ‘S — – List.”’ WORST ADVICE From a supermarket coworker: ”That I would make an excellent frozen-food buyer.” INSPIRATION ”My dad. He’s an honorable guy. Literally — he’s a judge. The Honorable Ralph Maxwell.” DREAM COLLABORATOR Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra. ON SIBLING RIVALRY (Older sis Jan is on Broadway in The Dinner Party.) ”We talk about generating a feud for publicity. [But] I am really happy for her.” NEXT Drummer Wanted, opening November, about a personal-injury case. ”It’s that old genre — the personal-injury-case musical.”

IT LATE BLOOMER Nicholas Martin

AGE 62 WHY HIM? Directing a scant nine years, the former actor wasted no time rising to the top: After helming such Off Broadway hits as Fully Committed, he single-handedly revitalized Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, where he’ll soon direct Ethan Hawke in Camino Real. DECONSTRUCTING THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR ”It’s like a costume-designer friend said: ‘We’re always waiting for some a — hole to tell us if we can do our plays. Now you can be one of those a — holes.”’ SECRET ASPIRATION ”For 35 years I did classical theater. But I wanted to be Ethel Merman.” PRE-CAREER LOW ”For my bar mitzvah, my parents took me to see Mae West in Diamond Lil. My mother made bread-and-butter pickles for her. I went backstage, and when I got to her [I dropped] the pickles. She said, ‘Do you want me to eat ’em here, kid?”’ NEXT His much-hyped Hedda Gabler (with Kate Burton) hits Broadway this fall.

IT ‘SUCCESS’ STORY Brian d’Arcy JAMES

AGE 33 WHY HIM? The actor-singer just snagged an Obie for his turn as an Irish hoodlum in the one-man show The Good Thief and will share top billing with John Lithgow in next spring’s stage version of the caustic movie classic Sweet Smell of Success. ON TRYING TO TOP TONY CURTIS IN SUCCESS ”Curtis did extraordinary work. You can’t really touch it,” he says. ”There are definitely three or four things I completely cop from him.” WORST ADVICE (AND AN ODD FLIPPER CONNECTION) ”My uncle Brian Kelly was in Flipper — remember that show? He was the star. He said, ‘Don’t [act]. Don’t get in the water.”’ CAREER HE’D MOST LIKE TO HAVE ”Someone like Kevin Spacey. He’s proven himself in motion pictures — which I would love to do — but he’s also undeniably a theater actor.” ULTIMATE AMBITION ”To make my living as an actor,” says d’Arcy James, who’s married to actress Jennifer Prescott. ”To be able to send my kids through college.”

IT OPERA DIVA Baz Luhrmann

AGE 38 WHY HIM? Before rejuvenating the dance flick (Strictly Ballroom), making Shakespeare MTV-relevant (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet), and reinventing the movie musical (Moulin Rouge) with his hyperactive, hyper-pop aesthetic, Luhrmann was the bohemian rogue of Australian theater. Next year, he’ll revamp his youthful, po-mo staging of Puccini’s opera La Boheme (a love/hate sensation Down Under in 1991) for Broadway. ”It will be about Broadway,” he says, ”at this moment in time.” WHY HE’S A POPULIST A fan of musical theater since his teens, Luhrmann is determined to rip opera from its rarefied strata — a mission borne of his own artistic humbling. ”To make myself seem serious and complex, I used to surround myself with apparently ‘distant’ or ‘obscure’ art, like Shakespeare or opera. The irony, I learned, was both were like TV — the popular entertainment forms of their time.” BACKGROUND MUSIC Dr. Dre and Missy Elliott. ”Hip-hop in general, actually. It’s minting culture anew.” CAREER LOW The utter failure of Haircut, his trippy 1988 stage adaptation of the musical Hair, set in a beauty salon. NEXT Luhrmann’s planning stage versions of all his movies.

IT REBOUNDER David Auburn

AGE 31 WHY HIM? Critics hated his first play, Skyscraper, which quickly closed in 1997. Undeterred, Auburn started scribbling a family drama in which two sisters war in the wake of their father’s death, against the unlikely backdrop of mathematics. Armed with the acting chops of the slouchy, sexy Mary-Louise Parker, Proof opened to raves. And Auburn’s sophomore swing earned him a Pulitzer and Tony for best play. TOUGHEST TEST ”We had a symposium of the play when it opened on Broadway, with dozens of mathematicians flying in. I felt like I was walking into a final exam.” CAREER HIGH ”The first time I saw Proof performed in front of an audience was more exciting than winning any award. You could hear people listening and wanting to know what was going to happen next.” CAREER LOW ”The summer I wrote labels for chemical products like carpet shampoos: ‘If swallowed, do not induce vomiting.”’ DREAM COLLABORATOR ”I’d love to write a musical with Elvis Costello.” ROLE MODEL ”I look to the great American dramatist, Samson Raphaelson (The Jazz Singer), a real theatrical craftsman.” BEST ADVICE ”Give it a decade.” NEXT A movie adaptation for Sydney Pollack of Scott Anderson’s 1998 novel, Triage.

IT UNDERDOG Suzan-Lori Parks

AGE 37 WHY HER? Parks’ dense, brilliant plays (including In the Blood) have earned her the respect of critics and actors alike (The New York Times compared her to James Joyce). Fighting the Black Female Playwright pigeonhole, she’ll hit the stage again July 10 with Topdog/Underdog, which stars Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright as squabbling brothers Lincoln and Booth. CAREER LOW ”There’s that saying, ‘It can’t be the worst if you can say: This is the worst.’ I don’t think I’ve had it yet.” BACKGROUND MUSIC ”Parliament Funkadelic, Bach, Coltrane, Hank Williams.” DREAM COLLABORATOR ”It’s happening now with director [and Public Theater honcho] George C. Wolfe. Just to hear him talk about my play, the things he finds in it, it’s like, Omigod!” HOW TO TREAT YOUR PIT BULL WHEN HE BARKS DURING AN INTERVIEW ”With a certain respect.” MENTOR James Baldwin. ”I took his class [at Mount Holyoke College] in 1982 and he said, ‘Why don’t you try playwriting?’ I didn’t like theater, but the idea was coming from someone who, well…wow.”

IT SHOW Urinetown, the musical

CREATORS Greg Kotis, 35; Mark Hollmann, 37 WHY IT? Name another latrine-themed Off Broadway musical that has nine Drama Desk nods, two Obies, and almost universal raves. BUT WHY… URINETOWN? ”We figured, as long as we’re writing a bad show, we might as well write it on purpose,” says Kotis. ”It’s kamikaze theater. But then you grow attached to it.” Still, it took almost four years for other people to grow attached. Kotis’ sewer generis romp (about a water-starved metropolis where citizens pay steep fees to use corporately owned toilets) had been fermenting since 1995. Former college classmate Hollmann came aboard in ’96, and in ’99 Urinetown was admitted to the New York International Fringe Festival. NEXT After a successful Off Broadway run, Urinetown hits Broadway in August. As for future projects, the pair continue to hold day jobs (Hollmann is a word processor for UBS PaineWebber, Kotis a location scout for Law & Order), while kicking around ideas for a new play. ”All I can tell you is, it takes place underwater,” says Kotis. Um…what sort of water?

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