Stepping Out

Her theatre life

Tony Award nominee Sheryl Kaller directs Off-Broadway’s ‘The White Chip,’ a play about alcoholism and recovery


When Valley Stream native Sheryl Kaller was 12, she knew she wanted to be a director. It was 1973. She went to a Sunday matinee of “Pippin,” and Ben Vereen sang “Magic to Do,” immediately clinching her dream.

“I always knew theatre was the only place where we can authentically use our imaginations,” she says. “I had the Spidey sense of knowing that it was a collaborative art.”

It was the start to a journey that would lead her to a Tony nomination as she directed Broadway (“Next Fall,” “Mothers and Sons”) and Off-Broadway plays, including “The White Chip,” which follows a theatre director who finds himself spinning out of control with an addiction to alcohol. The play, exploring his journey to recovery, runs through March 9, at MCC Theater.

“Broadway and Off-Broadway always felt like my community,” Kaller says. “My parents were very vigilant about getting me in to see theatre all the time. It informed my exposure to the art and my love of New York City.”

As Kaller grew up in the Green Acres community of Valley Stream, she performed in community theatre with her mother, while her father — who repaired car seat covers for a living — would use his knowledge of sewing to design costumes for the shows. (“They were horrible actually,” Kaller says, laughing at the fond memories.)

In her senior year at Valley Stream South High School, Kaller got her first taste of directing. After landing the role of Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie,” she realized a big number — “The Telephone Hour” — could use some major help.

“I said to the director, who was great, ‘With all due respect, may I redo (the number)?’ So I redid the whole ‘Telephone Hour.’ That’s when I knew I was much better at directing than acting, and it led me to go to Emerson College — as a director, not as an actor.”

In 2019, Kaller directed “The White Chip” at Off-Broadway’s 59E59 with the support of acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally, who, much like the play’s narrator, was a recovered alcoholic. When McNally died during the pandemic, Kaller knew she had to bring the play back to the New York theatre community.

“In the world of Covid and in the world of losing community, we felt it was really important to bring it back because ‘The White Chip’ is a hopeful sobriety story, and a serio-comedy. There’s a lot of fun things in it,” she says of the play, which found its new home at the MCC Theater. “We are building community and doing service with this show, while entertaining at the same time.”

According to Kaller, after the pandemic, alcoholism in women doubled, while in men it was up a third.

“AA and addiction meetings were all on Zoom, and everybody kind of fractured,” she says. “This is a story that makes you laugh and cry. It also talks about how there’s no shame in being an addict. Shame touches everybody’s lives in one way or another.”

In deciding to take the piece on again, it didn’t hurt that Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford was at the show’s helm as producer.

“She’s very magical,” says Kaller of Ashford, who recently starred in Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd” opposite Josh Groban.

“The White Chip” has such an important message that it also boasts celebrity supporters and producers Jason Biggs, John Larroquette, Edie Falco and Hank Azaria. The pandemic even inspired playwright Sean Daniels to create The Recovery Project, an initiative working to heal the stigma of addiction and recovery through the development of new plays, theatre education programs, and outreach.

“All of our fancy producers are sober people,” says Kaller, of the importance of the play and the initiative. “Every producer who came on board financially was incredibly gracious. They don’t have the best deal in the world because a lot of the money is going into The Recovery Project. If you’re an actor, a designer, in the PR department, if you’re cleaning the toilets, you need resources. At all of our performances so far, at least one person has asked us for help. We have a QR code that gives them resources whether or not they have health insurance.”

The play continues to remind Kaller of the importance of community, a lesson that harkens back to her roots on Long Island.

“One thousand Long Islanders showed up to my dad’s funeral,” she recalls. “I grew up in such a beautiful community there. My heart will always be on the ‘Guyland.’ I got the wonderful suburban, great education at Valley Stream South, and yet I got to go into the city all the time. But I will always remember all of these people who showed up for my family.

“I wish Long Islanders would start coming back to New York theatre because we really do build a lot of beautiful community in the city and it’s worth it. It is apparent with ‘The White Chip’ and with so much more.”