DREAM BIG blog series: JEFF WHITING, Choreographer

In BIG, THE MUSICAL 12- year-old Josh Baskin makes a wish to become "big" and wakes up to find his wish has been granted! Big Josh then lands a "dream job" at MacMillian Toys.

Throughout the month of October First Stage's DREAM BIG blog series will highlight people who have acheived success and have their "dream job." How did they get where they are? What did it take? Find out as we inspire our audiences to DREAM BIG!

DREAM BIG blog series: 


Jeff Whiting, a little younger than 12
What is your official job/job title?
I suppose my official title depends on the day and the project:
Choreographer (BIG, THE MUSICAL), Associate Director/Choreographer (Broadway), Artistic Director (The Open Jar Institute) and President/Founder (Stage Write Software).

What do you like most about your job?
I love to bring magic to life.  I love to dream of an idea or an image and to work and see it come to life on the stage.  It almost always goes through some kind of change from the way it existed in my crazy imagination, but the collaboration with other artists - actors, designers, and others - make it even better than I could have imagined. 

What do you like least about it?
I LOVE the rehearsal process and when the show opens, I'm always a bit sad because it means no more 'playtime'.   I could play the 'What If" game forever:  What if the leading man does this?  What if the scene ended differently?  What if he said this instead?  I love it!  When the show opens, those decisions will have all been made and playtime is over.  It's a great time for the cast - they love it and they can continue to develop their role and their interactions, but as a creator, it always makes me a little sad.

Did you always want to be a choreographer?
I actually never dreamed I'd be a choreographer.  My sister was the dancer in my family.  I was the "actor" and I always knew I would grow up to be a director.  But after studying a lot of dance, and working so much as a dancer, I've found myself being asked to be the choreographer.  I'm thrilled about it - I love dance and I love to be a storyteller.   Dance is simply another way of telling a story.  In my mind, the dance should support the story at all times.

What was your dream job when you were 12 years old?

I wanted to perform with Bernadette Peters on Broadway.

If you could do any other job in the world, what would it be?

That's very difficult, because I have my dream job and would never want to change it.  BUT, if I were FORCED to choose something else, I think I might choose to be an architect.  I love putting things together and finding creative solutions.  I think that field might be a lot of fun, too.

Jeff at a recent rehearsal of BIG, THE MUSICAL

How long did it take to become a choreographer and what did you have to do?
I started as a dancer.  Although I did some dance in High School shows, I didn't really begin to study dance until I got to University.  I loved it.  I took every style I could - jazz, tap, ballet, modern, ballroom - immersing myself into each one.  As an actor in New York, I would often be cast into roles that used my dance technique.  I was cast as Action in a production of West Side Story.  It was while I was in choreographic rehearsals for that show that a director saw me and asked me to choreograph a few numbers in his next show.  From that one gig, I began getting recommended as a choreographer to other shows, working regionally, then at Walt Disney Entertainment, National Tours and Broadway.  I have enjoyed 'riding the wave' - each job leads to connections with other people and I love to create and collaborate with other people.  You never know where the 'wave' will take you next, but I have always been up for an adventure.

What was the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to achieve your dream?
As a young performer, I was always in pursuit of being perfect - trying to be better than the others. It's such a competitive business and it's human nature to want to be the best.  "If you want the job, you have to be better than the others," I had always felt.  And, therefore, I always tried to 'out-dance' everyone, 'out-sing' the others, 'out-act' the other guy.  It was exhausting.  

And one day someone gave me the greatest advice of all.  He said to me, "YOU ARE ENOUGH".  You don't have to pretend to be anything other than what you are.  You don't have to try to be what you think the director wants.  You should just be you - your authentic self - and THAT is what makes you desirable.  

He was absolutely right.  Now that I sit on the other side of the casting table I see more clearly that it's the individual that I'm drawn to.  Not their abilities.  It's the 'heart' that they bring to their dance, to their song, that makes them ideal for the role.  An audience is drawn to the authentic - not the lie.  I am so grateful for that advice:  YOU ARE ENOUGH.

Was there ever a time that you almost gave up on your dream?  What kept you going?
I remember very clearly being in the final callbacks for a leading role in a Broadway show.  The night before the final callback I went to the Broadway theatre where the show was going to open and I stood across the street, staring at that stage door, almost willing myself to work there.  I wanted it so much!  That night - staring at that stage door - I was overcome with the feeling that I WOULD work there - and I went to the audition with this 'knowledge'.  I had a great audition.  I didn't get the job and I was so disappointed.  I felt I had been 'duped' into the feeling I WOULD work in that theatre and it always bothered me because I had always trusted my 'gut feelings'.  I wanted to give up.
Fast forward FIVE YEARS later.  I had just been hired to work as the Assistant Director for the National Tour of HAIRSPRAY.  The director of the tour asked me to meet him at the stage door of the Broadway show and he would walk me in, introduce me to the cast, and we would watch the show together in preparation for my work on the tour.
It wasn't until I was five steps away from meeting him at the stage door that I realized that THIS was the very door I had willed myself into five years earlier.  I KNEW I would work in that theatre - I just didn't know it would be five years later than I had originally planned on.  My gut WAS right, but my timing was just off.

Persistence.  I'm glad I didn't give up after not getting that job.  If I had given up, I might never have seen the fulfillment of that dream five years later.

What advice would you give to someone considering this career path?
Follow your gut.  Each of us has our own journey in this business and I believe your heart knows your journey.  As opportunities rise, your heart (your gut) will help to guide you.  I have always trusted my gut - sometimes making choices that others thought I was crazy for making, but now as I look backwards I can see that those were the decisions that led to this, and then to that, and on and on, bringing me to where I am.  Who knows if I would have gotten here another way, but I'm so happy that I followed my gut and my instincts.

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