I remember pretty vividly how it happened; in 2001, I was living in NYC with a successful career in professional theatre as a union actor/stage manager (and from time-to-time) stage director. I was working at the Paper Mill Playhouse when the desire to retire from acting and focus more on directing had hit me but I wasn’t exactly sure how to make that career change as smooth as possible. I also wanted to work more in film but felt I needed to consider how to make that transition as well.
I was fortunate that at that time I had a lot of support in making this a reality, most notable with this was Robert Johanson (then Artistic Director of the Paper Mill) and writer Mary Karr (The Liars Club) both really helped support my decision. Robert really understood the difficult transition ahead and offered me a position as Assistant Director of Noises Off (with original cast member Brian Murray) and I started directing numerous off-off broadway shows. I would do whatever show I could get and build my directing skills to the fullest.
At that time I had a short one-act play, Blind that I had written and I was also writing a screenplay (for a spec deal) when the producers of that company saw Blind (in New York) and felt that it would make a good feature film but I wasn't so sure. I had spoken with Mary and she suggested that I adapt it into a screenplay but instead of a feature make it a short film and stick to what you felt was best for you (always great advice) so after some back and forth, we all agreed to make it a short film (on 8mm).
Then 9/11 happened. Living in New York at that time was both difficult and inspiring. The city that I called home and thought was seemingly invincible became vulnerable (as did I) and I started to question a lot about my place in the world and what would remain. So, I continued to work in theatre and supported my fellow union members both on Broadway and Regionally. It took awhile to get the “lights back on” as they say but eventually it happened however, the city was different and I felt I needed a new home to start my film career.
I had always loved New Haven and lived there when I was younger, so when most of my friends/colleagues moved to Los Angeles (a sensible place to go to work in the movies), I moved here…perhaps one of the best decisions I have ever made. My now completed short film version of Blind was accepted to Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and was subsequently sold. The “spec script” I was writing in NYC eventually became the award winning My Brother Jack (2013), now available on most VOD platforms and my latest film (a documentary) I Am Shakespeare: The Henry Green Story (2018) is currently receiving high praise both publicly and critically as it screens internationally.
I feel without question that New Haven, CT has been instrumental in all of this. The vibrant community of artist, entrepreneurs and academics has fostered an incredible environment to make films in and while my heart will always be in NYC, my home is here along with my film career. I’m currently in pre-production on my latest film Grace and with this film I feel it’s very important for me to highlight a city that has welcomed me and my work, well…so graciously.
- Stephen "Phen" Dest
Stephen Dest is a director, known for his work on My Brother Jack (2013) and I Am Shakespeare: The Henry Green Story. In 2012, Dest was the New Haven Artist of the Year recipient. He is currently a professor of Film and Theatre at the University of Connecticut and the Founder of the Drama department at the Neighborhood Music School.