Women of the Arts 2019: Jessica Jennings: Continuing a Theatrical Legacy

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On West 54th Street, there stands a theatre next to a bustling police station. A simple colored banner waves at ongoing traffic. Not an unusual thing in New York? Well, this one is. It’s the legendary American Theatre of Actors. The “ATA” is one of the last standing theatres that ushered in the off-off Broadway movement of the 60s and 70s (reaching a pinnacle in the 1980s). The theatre is still run by its founder, James Jennings. Standing with him is his daughter, Jessica Lynn Jennings, a theatrical luminary in her own right as a director, producer, and founder of numerous arts organizations, including the world-philanthropic Ripple Effect Artists.

The ATA will serve as host for another milestone. The Green Room, a new musical that will have its East Coast premiere in September at the historic space. Intimate in nature (four characters), but powerful in scope, this paradigm shift in American musical theatre will feature Jessica Jennings at the helm as director.

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Ms. Jennings with ATA founder … and her father … James Jennings

Opening the fall 2019 season, this anticipated musical journey has been compared to Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” but with the sense and sensibilities of the 21st century millennial artist. THE GREEN ROOM is the story of four friends who want to NOT be on Broadway – but want to take the more intellectual OFF-Broadway by storm.

It takes someone who understands the heart of the artist and the power that Off-Broadway now has … even over Broadway. Ms. Jennings has that in her DNA!

Tell us about yourself. 

I have a diverse background in dance and theatre. I pull on my full range of experiences and skills when I take on directing. Each script calls for it’s own set of needs, so drawing from different techniques is useful.  I like to ask myself: what are the rules of this world? Are we in reality? Are we in a metaphysical landscape? Is there an era or culture that we must pull from?  These kinds of questions help me determine how I proceed.  But ultimately the actors are creating characters and they must be fully physically involved.

Your own story reads like that of the great vaudevillians. 

I was raised in the theatre by theatre parents right here in Hell’s Kitchen. I was put on stage before I could walk.  I did a lot of theatre and commercials.  My earliest stage memory was being in a production of “King John” at age 4 and calling for line during a performance. 

I really gravitated toward dance.  I spent my childhood investing most of my time in that arena. I danced with Neubert Ballet at Carnegie Hall; a production of “Cinderella” at City Center with Ft. Worth Ballet; traveled to a The Edinburgh Festival with Cumberland Ballet; at 12 I danced for Sean Curran.  Then, as a teenager, I really got into modern dance.  Training at the Martha Graham School and then at University of the Arts (UArts, BFA).  I went on to form a dance company from 2005-2006 before I decided my body needed to retire.

My background in dance was really very saturated and high level.  I received some lovely accolades for my choreography, and a Dominic  DiPaolo Award from UArts for my Senior Thesis choreographic work “Plunging for Acquiescence.”  During college I kept returning to stage every summer.  I’ve done over 20 Shakespearean productions.  It wasn’t until 2010 that I put all my skills together and started directing.  It was really a very natural and obvious transition.  I enjoy it immensely and I think my skills in dance are very telling with my work.  I love moving actors on stage.  Martha Graham said “the body never lies” and that’s become my litmus test as I direct. I have a knack of physically spoting where the actors’ bodies are in or out of character.  It could be as simple as the way they hold a cup, or how they hold their head.

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From L to R: Creators, Chuck Pelletier and Stephen Foster with Jessica and Miller-Coffman Prods. artistic director, Stephen Miller.

What inspires you about GREEN ROOM? 

This is such a fun fun fun piece. I had a smile plastered on my face when I first listened to the music.  The music is inspiring and uplifting and witty.  I think all theatre people will have a fondness for this musical.  It portrays our story; it’s a glimpse into our world.  That inspires me. 

Share with us, your creative process. How you work with living composers/writers possibly sitting right next you you! Not to mention, building your staging, working with singers, etc. 

When you have living writers you have to respect their vision and their words more than with public domain works.  The creativity I bring as a director MUST be collaborative.  So I simply ask questions about the work, about the background.  In this case we have a tried and true musical that’s been successful around the country and also in Ireland.  Minor changes to update the text and lyrics were discussed, and agreed upon: for example, the political commentary has been updated over various versions to address the Clintons, then the Obamas.  Our version will mention the Trumps.  It has to or else we are dated.  

Chuck and Stephen have been more than generous with their time and collaboration.     I met them first through a conference call.  I asked questions about their expectations and their vision.  I needed to know if there was any nuance from past versions that should be adhered to or if I’d have the reigns completely.  (I have the reigns!)  I mentioned I would like to have some diversity in the casting when we bring it to NYC.  We worked together to agree on how to achieve that, on where there was freedom and where there was limitation.  Our producer also had a very clear vision that the character ‘Divonne’ should be ‘of weight’; he wants to show body diversity and it was very easy for all of us to get on-board with that.  

Casting?  

Casting is the tricky part.  When there are four creatives who have a say we each deserve to be heard.  I think we achieved that by the end of the process – everyone getting a say in why X actor will not work, why Y actor has a chance.  I came to the process very wide-eyed, knowing there were certain parameters, and also knowing that we’d have to make tough decisions.  We had brilliant talent in the room, but, for example, when our top-choice actor looks 35 years old and you’re casting for 18-22 yrs, you have to make a choice to either cast everyone up in age or everyone down in age.  

Working with singers?

I have a musical director, David Fletcher, who is working with them a week before I begin.  I am jazzed to have them put their own spin on the songs and I look forward to digging in to that work.  These actors will need more vocal warm-up, but ultimately the soul of the work is always the emotional work. 

You’re doing double-duty as the set designer?

Here we have a tried and true piece and many past-production designs that are all very similar to one another.  Our physical stage plays a role in how the set can be.  For example, we do not have a thrust or proscenium and so we have come up with two solutions that will work for the play-within-the play.  I can work with either final concept as long as the couch on stage is set at an angle and not squared off to the front.   

Give us your take on your characters – what does it mean to be a 20 something in the 21st Century. 

I’m a little older than that.  Being 20 something has always been a proving ground.  A time you start adult-ing, making tough and life decisions, sometimes messing it up.  Trying to prove your worth and separate yourself from being a kid.  I ‘think’ being 20’s nowadays means you are also proving to older adults that you have depth.  For better or worse everyone older is judging them for growing up around so much technology and want to know that they can be detached from a phone and social media.

Personally, what does the show mean to you?

“The Green Room” is like a walk down memory lane.  An homage to my youth and my days in college.  It’s cathartic. 

What’s next? 

Next… I won a Puffin Grant for the American Theatre of Actors to bring Phil Paradis’ plays on climate change to stage.  The project, “Cloudy with a Chance of Dystopia,” will rehearse in October and run in November.   The main event is his play “Footprints of the Polar Bear,” together with a few of his short plays that include “Natural Rarities Up for Bid,”  “The Perfect Place,” and a few others.  I will direct one or two of these works.

THE GREEN ROOM make its New York Premiere SEPTEMBER 25th – OCTOBER 26th at one of the original theaters that brought about the storied off-off Broadway movement, THE AMERICAN THEATRE OF ACTORS (314 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019).

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