By Bruce Tomaso
When Travis LeMont Ballenger graduated from Meadows in 2008 with his B.F.A. in theatre, he had a plan.
“I was going to sign up for the Peace Corps,” he says. “I wanted to see the world, and I wanted to give something back.”
Then an unexpected phone call launched him in a different direction.
A friend who was interning in Washington, D.C., called to tell him about a fellowship opportunity at Arena Stage, a nonprofit theater that was at the forefront of the Regional Theatre Movement in the 1950s (a movement pioneered, coincidentally, by director and producer Margo Jones, for whom Meadows’ intimate, experimental theater is named). Ballenger set aside the Peace Corps application, applied instead for the D.C. fellowship, and got it.
Today, Ballenger, 33, is associate producer for The Drama League in New York City, a venerable 103-year-old organization dedicated to nurturing stage directors. The league’s goals include encouraging artistic risk-taking and fostering an equitable, inclusive and diverse environment in its programs. Ballenger’s responsibilities include producing the league’s three signature yearly events: the Drama League Awards, the oldest theatrical awards in the country; a benefit gala; and a directors’ festival known as DirectorFest.
In its 35 years, DirectorFest – billed as “the only festival in the United States exploring the art of contemporary stage directing” – has introduced New York audiences to young directors who would go on to stellar Broadway careers, including a half-dozen future Tony Award winners. This year’s festival, held in January, featured five fully staged productions, an international play, a re-imagined musical, a concert, discussion forums and more in multiple Manhattan venues.
“The festival is an enormous opportunity for early-career directors,” Ballenger says. “We tried to make this year’s version a real opportunity for audiences as well, a chance for them to experience full-length productions celebrating some exceptionally creative young artists.”
In November 2018 – while planning DirectorFest – Ballenger also produced the Drama League’s annual gala, a fundraiser that benefits aspiring theatrical directors. The event, at the Plaza Hotel, honored Broadway luminary Nathan Lane. The master of ceremonies was Matthew Broderick, Lane’s co-star in the Broadway production of The Producers, which earned a record 12 Tony Awards in 2001.
“We wanted to make the evening truly special for Nathan, and I think we succeeded,” he says. “Matthew Broderick couldn’t have been nicer. Working with him was a joy.”
Ballenger says his Meadows education prepared him well for his position.
“I’m very interested in international, multidisciplinary, multicultural art in all its forms,” he says. “My time at the Meadows School helped open my eyes to ways of expressing ourselves artistically outside what may seem like our normal, easily defined boundaries.”
He came to Meadows by way of South Carolina, where he attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a boarding school for artistically gifted teens. Ballenger then chose Meadows over a conservatory because SMU “gave me the chance to learn about other things outside the theater.”
“Learning about the African diaspora, for example, completely changed the way I contextualized myself and my role in the world,” he says. “It helped shape my ideas and my views of art.”
That ability to offer students both highly specialized training and a wide-ranging liberal arts education is one of the acknowledged strengths of the Meadows School, says Stan Wojewodski Jr., Meadows’ distinguished professor of directing.
“We are fortunate to be, at the same time, a conservatory-quality arts program and one that’s embedded in a broader educational community,” he says. “That’s a rare combination for any arts school.”
Ballenger says Wojewodski remains a mentor. “It means a lot to know that even after 10 years, I can pick up the phone and ask Stan for his guidance,” he says.
“Travis is terrific,” the professor says. “As a producer, he knows how to create an artistic and professional environment in which creative people with a variety of talents can come together on a project, feel good about being there and perform at their absolute best.”
After graduating from Meadows and working at Arena Stage, Ballenger served as associate producer for both the Hip-Hop Theater Festival and Market Road Films in New York, where he worked with Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. He then spent two years at the Tony-winning Dallas Theater Center before joining The Drama League.
Kamilah Forbes, the executive producer at Harlem’s storied Apollo Theater, got to know Ballenger while working with him on the Hip-Hop Festival eight years ago. She says one of his strengths as a producer is his willingness to take chances.
“Arts professionals like Travis make me feel excited about the future of our field,” she says. “He is always interested in pushing the boundaries of innovation and exploration. He is passionate about art and artists, and he is committed to social transformation through art.”
Dallas to D.C. to New York, back to Dallas, then back to New York …What’s next for the young producer?
“I have no idea,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I’ve always just done what felt right at the moment. Who knows where that will lead me?”