An especially lively amount of activity coursed through the halls of Lincoln Center Theater early one afternoon this week: a new musical, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, was in workshop mode; LCT3's What Once We Felt was rehearsing; the Newhouse's winter tenant, When the Rain Stops Falling, was casting; and the performers and crew of South Pacific andBroke-ology were readying themselves for matinees.

Away from this hive-like hum Crystal A. Dickinson and I carved a cocoon for ourselves in the theater's downstairs green room. In Broke-ology, Dickinson plays Sonya, a character who is seen interacting with her husband, William, discussing their marriage, her dreams of being a painter, and the joys and frustrations of raising two rowdy boys.

But what of Dickinson's own childhood? "I grew up in Irvington, New Jersey," she explained. "It was a small town, but the city - New York - was always right there." Her first visit to Manhattan came courtesy of an older sister. "She took me to Fashion Avenue, because we were both interested in fashion. It was the first time I ever saw someone take food from a trash can. I didn't understand why there was no one helping that person; I hadn't developed my urban armor yet."

After graduating from an all-girls' high school in Connecticut, where her theater experience was mostly in musicals at a nearby boys' academy, Dickinson attended Seton Hall University, which doesn't have a theater department per se but where she got a part in a production of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. That show -- "which was sold out every performance," Dickinson says proudly - led to many more undergraduate acting jobs. But she was still, she admits, pretty green when she enrolled in an M.F.A. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. "I didn't even know where 'stage left' was."

Dickinson credits graduate school with helping her learn the difference between being an entertainer ("someone who primarily wants to please an audience") and being an actor ("someone who wants to help tell a story which may or may not be pleasing"). Graduate school also prepared her for five subsequent years living in Atlanta, where she taught at Spelman College and had acting opportunities - Olivia in Twelfth Night, Cherie in Bus Stop - that she says probably wouldn't have been open to her in New York. (She and her husband now live in Brooklyn.)

Illinois also brought Dickinson a little closer to the Kansas City setting ofBroke-ology -- if only geographically. "The play's neighborhood in Broke-ology Kansas City is urban," Dickinson said. "Champaign/Urbana is a pretty diverse place but it's surrounded by cornfields."

BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of