Theater News

From South High’s stage to Broadway

Valley Stream native is Tony-nominated director


Sheryl Kaller may be walking the red carpet at the Tony Awards on June 13 to celebrate her Best Director nomination for “Next Fall,” but she has never forgotten her Valley Stream roots and the strong morals her parents instilled in her.

Kaller remembers her parents being a part of community theater ever since she was in the first grade at Forest Road School, and showing her all there was to love about the arts. “I realized that I wanted to do theater for real around my junior year at Valley Stream South High School,” she says of her “ah-ha” moment. “I realized I was uninspired by school, and the only thing that inspired me was the arts.”

A Mill Brook native — Jasmine Lane, to be exact — Kaller attended college in Boston, and then lived in Manhattan for a number of years before returning to her childhood home when her parents passed away. Now she divides her time between home in Upper Saddle River, N.J. and the Big Apple, where in February, due to positive reviews and its powerful story, “Next Fall” moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway.

“I’ve been fortunate since I graduated from college,” Kaller says of making it to Broadway. “I think I’ve only directed one play that’s been previously produced before. As for the rest, I shepherd as a dramaturge and director from the play’s inception to its production. ‘Next Fall’ is one of those plays. I directed a reading of it. I directed [playwright] Geoffrey Naufft’s first draft of it, almost four years ago. Geoffrey and I worked on it from the get-go together.”

When Kaller remembers her first credit as a director, it brings a smile to her face. South students witnessed a Tony nominee in the making when she co-directed a one-act play with a friend who remains close to her. “It’s Your Bet” was a take-off on game shows. Her work in theater in high school wasn’t all she loved about Valley Stream. “Number one, the proximity to the city was great, and number two, because when I grew up there we had a very small town kind of feeling,” she said. “It was almost like Cheers — everyone knew your name!”

Going to the same school seventh through 12th grade was not the greatest thing for everyone, Kaller said, but she loved it. “Getting teachers twice was very good for me particularly,” she said, “because I was not very good in high school, so being familiar and teachers getting to know me was a good thing.”

Kaller also spent much of her time at Tarantino’s Pizza on Mill Road and the Green Acres Mall — when she was behaving herself, that is. “There was a bar called Terry’s, and all of our parents thought that Terry was a friend of ours, so we didn’t even have to lie to our parents!” she recalled. “The drinking age did not go up to 21 until the month that I turned 18 by the way, but the drinking age was only 18 then. I think it was a bar and a pinball machine, that’s where we got into trouble.”

Kaller’s own teenagers, Toby, 18, and Tess, 16, are excited to attend the Tony Awards with their mother this week. Although they love theater, they’re both pursuing outside interests when it comes to careers — and mom is thrilled with their choices. “My parents were both very evolved people,” she remembers. “We also went to museums, we went to theater, and we read the newspaper together.” Kaller even got to take one Wednesday off from school each month to attend a matinee with her mom. “Those were our Wednesday mental health days!” she said with a laugh.

With “Next Fall,” Kaller gets to call the shots on her Broadway experience. It focuses on the five-year relationship between Adam and Luke, but it goes beyond a typical love story. The compelling play examines questions of faith in an intriguing, modern romance. “Everything in the play comes from a real place,” she says. “I feel like ‘Next Fall’ speaks to everyone. I think there’s room for everyone on Broadway, and we’re the play with no celebrities that tells an honest, true, compelling, universal story.” She added that she gets numerous e-mails every week from people whose lives the play has touched. “It has changed my life in a very deep way.”

The past few months have brought Kaller invites to a number of star-studded awards show events, but her favorite part of the experience has not been meeting the likes of Denzel Washington and Catherine Zeta Jones. “The best part of it is the community,” she says. “You feel that everybody is rooting for everyone, even though you all want to win, of course.”

Kaller does admit to having at least one pinch-me moment. “When I went to the Tony Awards press reception I went to talk to Barbara Cook to tell her how honored I was to be a fellow nominee, and I started crying,” Kaller said. “I didn’t expect to cry. Usually I can feel tears coming.”

From the age of 4, Kaller would watch the Tony Awards with her mother. “My mother used to judge if my boyfriends were worthy if they would stay and watch the Tony Awards with me, or want to go out,” she said. “So I feel like my parents’ death really affected me, and I feel like this is a big tribute to what they gave me. They really raised me to follow my passion. That’s the best part of this.”

Whether or not she wins the Tony this week, Kaller is very happy with where she is in her life. “I feel like I’m glowing because I made choices that had to involve patience, and I really feel like I made the right choices, meaning staying home with my kids and picking the right plays,” she reflects. “I feel like this coming at this time in my life, when one kid is out of the house already, and now I get to go on this whole next journey, it just feels like the universe is taking really good care of me.”