YBY ep 244: Jessica Thonen and the magical flow of possibility.
This week on Yes But Why, we chat with Jessica Thonen, theatrical design and technology professor at Eckerd College.
Jessica Thonen is a passionate community builder. At Eckerd College, she supports the BA and BFA degree programs for the Theatre Dept. And they are truly lucky to have her.
With a BA in drama from University of Dallas and an MFA from West Virginia University, Jessica Thonen has designed scenery and costumes in Europe, Off-Broadway, and throughout the United States. She has extensive touring experience, working at venues such as Radio City Music Hall and the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles as well as Norwegian Creative Studios, the entertainment arm of Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings.
Jessica and I are friends from way back, as you can hear in our chat. She is the reason I first moved to New York City; she got me my first BIG DEAL THEATER job right out of college. We both worked as stage managers for the NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate acting program. It was an amazing experience and yet, in this chat, we talk mostly about our insane living situation at the time!
In our conversation, we discuss her work in the props department at Texas Shakespeare Festival and how that got her started on her path. She tells me about her graduate work in scenery and costumes as well as the extensive touring experience she has done during her career. We talk about the community building and mentoring she has gotten to do since joining the theater academia world.
Jessica is constantly making new theatrical pieces with her students. Check out THIS interview about a recent project, “Into the Wind,” that Jessica co-created with Jenn Rapp during the pandemic!
Yes But Why Podcast is a proud member of the HC Universal Network family of podcasts. Visit us at HCUniversalNetwork.com to join in on the fun.
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(production notes: recorded phone call with Rodecaster on 12/13/2020)
TRANSCRIPT by Otter.ai
Hello, Yes But Why listeners, this is your host, Amy Jordan. Welcome to Yes But Why episode 244 – my chat with Jessica Thonen! But first, let’s chat about our sponsors. Today’s episode is sponsored by audible. Get your FREE audiobook download and your 30 day free trial at audibletrial.com/YESBUTWHY. You know, Signing up for audible has honestly been one of the best things I have done for myself during this whole pandemic. With the kiddo constantly in tow, I don’t get much time to myself. Even when I do, I’m usually exhausted. Audible gives me refuge. For a moment. To be transported to another world. Audible is available on most of the devices you already own. Go now to audibletrial.com/YESBUTWHY to download the app and sign up to get your free audiobook today. You deserve it. Another sponsor for today’s episode is PodcastCadet.com. Podcast Cadet is a community of educators ready and waiting to answer your podcasting questions! Whatever podcasting question you might have, PodcastCadet.com can help you out! Use code YBY20 to get 20% off the first service or workshop you buy! This week on Yes But Why, we chat with theatrical design and technology professor, Jessica Thonen. Jessica and I are friends from way back; she got me my first big deal theater gig after college. In our conversation, we chat about building props for summer stock, touring the world with Dora the Explorer, and building community at Eckerd College. Tune in as we reminisce about our NYC apartment and all the glittery resumes we’ve sent out over the years! I now present to you: yes but why episode 244: Jessica Thonen and the magical flow of possibility Enjoy! I’m Amy Jordan. And this is Yes But Why Podcast. yeah.
So it was the spring of my sophomore year, and sort of the the famous story, but now I go I cannot believe my sort of advisers at the time told the story this way. But the way that they told a story with this is I guess I met Jessica on her boss’s bed at a party. Like that’s inappropriate. Can we just call that out? inappropriate because it was intentionally fallacious. When I on my head. I had no idea. I was like, yeah, it’s funny. But nonetheless, I met someone from a summer sock company, a like cast party after a show at Mississippi University for women, where I was at the time and I ended up going to work that summer at like, my first summer sock. And for me, a girl who grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, in a fairly conservative background, and then moved to Mississippi, another fairly conservative background, and then went to school in Mississippi. I was delightedly shocked when I got to summer stock. I was like, Oh my gosh, I had no idea until that moment. What I had been feeling my whole life was that there was no one else like me. Right? Like I just felt like, I guess this is just what it feels like to be a human on the planet to have no one else feels like they have a similar kind of point of view on life. I guess I’ll just keep it down. But then I went to summer stack. And it was like, it was like, everything was wild and out. But compared to what I had heard before. I felt really majorly wild and out. And I loved it. And I don’t mean like behavior wise, right? I mean, just this invitation to play all the time. Like we could make funny noises all the time and nobody was going Why are you doing? You know, when we could just have crazy little ideas about fantasies about the day, and I loved it. And I went to a payphone and called my dad and I’m like Dad, I’ve got two things to tell you. One is I know it’s a lot to take but I don’t want to go back to school in the fall. And I really did here can swallow over the summer. And then. And then I said errand. I don’t think I want to be a teacher Joke’s on me. But at the time, I thought, I didn’t want to teach everything I ever knew. And then I came home from after the summer. I think it was actually later it was might have been Christmas break. And my brother was home who was, you know, was a theater major at University of Dallas. And he and I were talking about like, it just sucks, because everyone wants us to pick a lane. Everybody wants us to just pick one thing to be. And he was being really heavily pushed to be a doctor, right when he first entered college. And for me, it was definitely to be me being pushed to be teacher, but like personally pick something you’re going to do. And let’s study up and do it. And we got to pick now pick a lane. And we were just lamenting, like, why can’t we get into this idea of the Renaissance? Man again? What’s wrong with being good at a lot of things? And why do we have to just specialize so much. And and then we sort of landed on this idea that maybe movie theater is one of those places where you actually can be a renaissance person where it will requires you to have a little bit of a lot of different skills, right? It requires you to be able to manage and be sometimes administrative. And it requires you to have that organizational fiber also asked you to be wild and free and creative, to use your hands to build things and to pay to like go hunting for things that are so hard to find. And all of that was so attractive to me. And then so on research with clinical research and aesthetic research and our slide on if I was to pick a lane I’m in. And I was sort of just like, sold on that as sort of a career choice early on the flexibility of it. I mean, as I said, Joke’s on me, because I did end up kind of teaching. I mean, I think always at the end of the day, I was going to be a teacher. In fact, when I was on my national tour, and my boss was like, at one point, I’m like, Can you just like tone it down with these guys? I think we’re in Chicago. Philadelphia. doing so. Okay, now you’re like always kind of trying to teach somebody every city we go to you want to teach somebody something? I’m like, No girl. You do you do you do it every time. But these guys, they’re not gonna take too well to that. I really not like I didn’t realize I was doing it. But I just I do I do enjoy teaching. So those were like my first two moments.
I think that I think that teaching is actually the only theatrical pursuit you can go for where in the end, you do actually get to do a little bit of everything, though. Like, you know, even in theater, you have to pick a lane, even in, you know, if you decide to be I mean, literally even the idea of theater versus film, like you have to pick theater or film, you have to learn something about one or the other thing, are you in front of the camera or behind the camera, then then, you know, if you’re behind the camera, then it’s divided into a million more other options, right? And if you do sound, most of your life, they’re not going to just be like, great, you’re the lighting guy now, right? So,
so but rarely true. Look at the field that I was really starting in, which was props. And that that’s what drew me to it because Prop, you can be one to doing a little bit of very small wiring onto the electricians don’t touch you. And you’re doing some painting and you’re doing some research and you’re doing some furniture, construction or repair you’re doing you know, I mean, so I think that that’s what ended up ended up working well for me with starting profit. That’s where I thought that I do about but you’re absolutely right. Being in education and academia really lends itself nicely to kind of constantly return reins and and I think even within academia, because some days you’re you feel like an academic, and you’re doing research and to have new journals and assessing your colleagues files and then the next day, you know, just trying to get paint tonight like you’re trying to find the right goal. You know, crazy.
Yeah, you’re calling three places in Long Island. Going Why? Don’t you still carry this gold leaf?
Oh, man. Hey, couple
of questions. You in your story you referred to your first summer stock. Where was that?
So I was at Texas Shakespeare Festival, which I love Kilgore college is sort of at home of the Texas Shakespeare Festival. They were actually just on snap judgment a couple weeks ago with Raymond Caldwell, their original artistic director who since retired, but it was on their campus, little home of the original drill team. Just in case you weren’t here.
Meaning it was the first place that ever had a drill team.
Like a kickline drill team. Yeah. Seems to be a pipeline for the rockets to I don’t know.
Texas to New York. very direct.
Yeah. I mean, come on. Sure.
And then you mentioned you went on a national tour? Where did Where did you go on a national tour of
it was Dora the Explorer live pirate adventure. It was a heartbeat contract, which I did not realize at the time was like sort of the penultimate, like a very high standard of contract, I just, it was my first tour, it was my last tour, it was the best, we had a great time. And I mean, it was it was crazy with five trucks for the tour. And we have this massive boat, that of course boots has to like do a somersault on the front of the bow and has to have all these tricks things and it would ride itself out onto the stage and rock back and forth while it getting there, but I loved it. It had like, puppetry that process through and these crazy different tears crop with big rock and roll rock had to be brought on stage and you’re completely blind kind of surfing on the singlets. You just like, push it out on the stage, jump on it hit the mark, and you can see where you’re going. So it was like, complete muscle memory in different venue after different venue. So it was great. And those friends from that tour are like, family and friends to this day.
Did you work props on that tour?
Or were you performing in it? I worked class on that tour. And it was really interesting to me because there were some puppets that the answer that and there was some puppets that props operated. And you could tell that there had been like an extensive, huge discussion about who would operate which Oh, yeah. And yeah, and but I mean, it was so much fun. We did Sr. My first. So I came on as the props assistant, to the tour. And it was one of these crazy like, one of these crazy situations where had I not worked this job, I wouldn’t have met the guy who put me on this job. But it only gave because he begged me to do because they needed someone there. And if I hadn’t done that, this person wouldn’t know me so that when someone else fell out, I couldn’t have gone to replace this person. You know, like all these just sort of missed connections of someone else’s have paid off well for me, and have me end up on this show as a participant in our weed pops person last for a summer. And I stepped up into her role and always laughed as one of the first times I did the lead pop track without a small venue called the City Music Hall. What is this life that we’re living?
For you? Or like was this before or after you personally lived in New York City?
This was after I had lived in New York a union when you and I lived in the frozen Mexican food factory.
That would you tell me about your memory of this place where we lived because I have all sorts of recently I had a conversation on Facebook with some old roommates about a place where we lived and they were like, I remember the place like this. And I was like, Oh, I remember it like this. And so it’s fascinating to me, like the different things like so, to your point where you’re like, I got all these jobs from this random person who knew this random person. You and I met when we were at University of Dallas together. And then right after college, you got a job at NYU and just cuz you’re the kindest person in the world called me and we’re like, hey, they’re hiring, get in your car and drive and I did drive up from Dallas to New York City directly to move into a crazy warehouse. with you.
But tell me
what your experience of living there was
because mine is, you know, wild, but I want to know what you know, we have really different I think we had really different experiences. And I think part of it had to do with the way that we arrived. Even like I was racking my brain, my brain because a student was asking me about this space. Exactly. Like How did I end up finding a place in New York? Like, I don’t remember. And I look back on it, my God, I really must have outstayed my welcome on so many couches. And it didn’t even occur to me that it will be a problem. People said, come stay with me anytime. And I took them to their word. And I’ll stay for two months now. I look back I’m like, Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did this to people. But nonetheless, at some point, I realized it was time for me this time, my own place. And I and I don’t know how I ended up someone knew someone who knew someone, right? And then they realize this friend of ours is trying to sublet a room at this larger place. And she was about to rent it to someone else. But if you want it to meet each other, because like, I go out there and she shows me until like your memory you go, there’s like no markings that I recall on the wall of this massive building at mall door door. And I don’t even think there was a blue box. Remember, across the street there was like, What do you call it the mailbox that belongs to the US Postal Service that’s blue with a hump over the top, actually laid on it die. Remember that I’ll never forget, it’s like etched on my brain, the guy who would come and check it once it was a week. Old open it up because it was laying on its side. And you go up the stairs, which by that time after living in New York going up multiple sets of winding stairs, it seemed odd. What seemed odd is when you look to the left, and there’s like a window to an open shaft with a potted plant. And then you open with a fiver and everybody here is really creative and inventive, like a very nice way to keep their toilet paper and he was off. And there’s just this massive pallet, which now has massive pallets of fluid paper suspended above the entrance at the top of the stairs. And my witness just to the right, she showed me that. And I was surprised there was she I don’t know what I expected. I had like, the most naive understanding of what it meant to like, half pay for my own house. And so we opened the door. And then there’s like a little fold down that and a couple of, you know, bare shell, like attached to the wall and unlock above me that had a mattress, I think I think it had a mattress. And that was the whole room. I don’t remember what we paid for it. But it wasn’t a lot. She’s like, yeah, this is how much it is. And I thought that’s literally how much it was. So then when, like I lived there for a couple weeks to a month. And when when you came along, and I think a couple of weeks after that. You were like, hey, Sir Tim, one of them had said something to me about putting money on the water bill or the electric bill? Oh, no, no, I already paid my rent. And they just like I think we’re so shocked by my absolute opinion on the fact that I had already paid that they just kind of walked away. And then you came up to me like you are water and power. Like that’s part of the thing. And I’m like, Yeah, you do whatever.
You know, in different places, though, sometimes it is one and done, you know, and realistically, from the standpoint of the guy who was the leader of that apartment, he should have one and done everybody. He should have been like, okay, you need to pay what your rent is plus 150 and then just use that to pay for all the random bills because there were so many random tiny little and it was like, What do you need? 20 bucks now Okay, here you go. Oh, man, you know,
it’s funny. You
talk about your room like it was barren, insane. But realistically, I think your room had the most organization of any bedroom other than like, that’s right. The one guy who lived right off the entrance who had been living in the place as long as Josh who owned the whole thing.
Yeah, well, I never met I don’t know what that is. What do you Yeah. I know Josh is gonna read the room off the entrance downstairs. Oh, no, no, no, no
upstairs when you went up the stairs. Oh, yeah, guys see the big mural, right? And then there’s the three bedrooms off of like the living room and then there was one more bedroom sort of in the hallway before you get to our kitchen, right? Yeah. And it was you and me and a guy whose name I can’t remember right now I’m really sorry, who was a set designer who lived off the
part of the living room? Yes. And for some reason was interesting, William it wrong at the time, right?
He’s definitely working on some serious high profile stuff. While we were just sort of like schmoes working for NYU. That being said, Not a bad gig. Looking back on that gig, it was like, man, why did I not just stay and continue to work for NYU, though? Very good job
was amazing lesson and how funny now, like I was teaching, like my students do this distinguished designer presentation as part of their coursework, and then one of my introduction to design classes, and a couple of them had come in, they’re like, we really want to put that on this person. I’m like, really? Okay. And I say, really, because I recognize the name from when we were at NYU. And then they do the presentation, like, Oh, I didn’t, I didn’t realize I was working with at the time. This is like, the theme of my career. I didn’t know who I was working with at the time. And it’s probably better off that way. You know, I
feel like that too. There’s been a lot of people who, you know, either were famous when I met them, or became famous later. And I was like, Oh, yeah, I know that guy. And then you’re like, What? He’s on a hit television show.
You know what I mean? Like, or, or like, or, like, wait, he was a Broadway director, like Broadway Broadway,
that’s what that guy was, like, me, I talked to him for like, three months, I had no idea like, you know, like, just crazy things. And, but it’s, I think it’s, it’s good. For my point of view, I like dealing with the everyday humans that are going to do theater projects, you know, like their everyday humans, because they are, and because, realistically, like we’re all just trying to put together something beautiful, right? And so why muck it up by making this person feel either uncomfortable. And also, like a certainly in NYU. And most of I think are, the jobs that you and I have had going forward is, you know, our job has a lot to do with making the people that we work with feel comfortable. And once they’re comfortable, they’re able to do their work. Like I feel like that for a stage manager. Like my job was to make sure all the crazy stuff that people were like I how do you even do that gets done. And so that they can just quietly work on the script and make sure that the characters that they build are exactly right. And then that way they do their thing. I do my thing. I make sure everybody feels good Mormon side. And then and that’s how I feel about improv to like, since I started teaching improv, like, my whole job is like to make everyone feel comfortable so that they can do the art. Right?
I don’t know. Yeah, absolutely. No, I think absolutely. Something that that. Kevin, my brother, who we both know, and I talked about for a long time, which is that at the core that it’s just everyone already has, what their job is going to be in life. But then they’ve got to go and have a career. Right? And so like, to your point, yes. I think both of us have this job, that we that for my car, I love. It’s my favorite thing, setting capability, being able to just sort of turn to those ebbs and flows. And I always, no matter what I do, right, but it happens to fit what I do really well. That doesn’t mean that I do this job or that job. I’ll always do it. But then the career I chose a twist and I work there, but you know what I mean? It’s like there’s time seeing about like, it’s nicer this transitional, like, it’s hard to put on a resume though, I think. Yeah. Well, you know,
here’s the other thing between the idea of I know what you mean now when you say everyone’s got a job that they are good at and then they have to find a career like, like I get what you’re saying like my in that scenario and that example, my job would be like, taking care and making everyone feel calm. Like I said, that’s what I like to do. But I do it in lots of different capacities, you know, depending on whatever the job that somebody wants to pay me to do. But what I was thinking when, before you explained yourself was the idea that, you know, just because society has decided these jobs are the ones that make a lot of money. And these are the ones that don’t, doesn’t mean that you have to choose something that makes money to like, have or or if you’d like to great, but that doesn’t take away who you are, and what you’re, like, internal, like who you are, job is like, I have this theory, especially because of improv. Because like, so, improv is a thing that you have to teach adults, because when they were kids, they knew how to play but then all the hormones and like realization that like someone’s gonna judge you appears in your life, and then you live through that for a bunch, and then you’re an adult. And you have to deal with all that plus, like paying for things and making sure that you don’t die. And so there’s a lot of pressure, and you have to be like, hey, let’s forget, like how life is terrible. And like, just be like, ooh, fun times, you know? And yeah, and so I want to bring people back to their childhood selves, because I believe that your childhood self is, is a clue into who you need to be as an adult. And if you’re ever like, Ah, man, I just don’t know
what I want to do. I
just what’s my, what’s the right path. Think about yourself as a child. And if you can’t remember what you do, as a child, ask the people that were around you, they’ll tell you, what you liked, what you wanted to do, how you wanted to spend your time. And those clues are things that you can use to build toward any job that you get, right. So if it’s like, oh, man, you were always playing with Legos, like you would take those things apart and put them together. Great. Have you ever thought about working at a at a job in a warehouse? Maybe where you put things together? Like something where or like, have you thought about making jewelry that puts things together? You know, like little things that you can give yourself a clue of, to lead to who you are. So I’m totally down with this idea of like, we are who we naturally are and like that leading to prayer, but I also think like as children, we are clues to ourselves. That’s the other reason to why like parents are always trying to control their children when they get older, because they’re like,
I know what you want. But the terrible
part is the parents who are the ones who have literally witnessed it the whole time. Who could probably tell that person Hey, by the way you love this the most. They’re never going to hear it from them. Right? They have to remember or hear it from somebody else, like a cousin who’s like, Oh, yeah, you were always into puppets. And you’re like,
I like puppets. Maybe
I do like, and then they’re like, yeah, Jimmy
out there. You
know, whatever it might be. People you know you to find who you are. Sometimes you have to mine the experiences that you’ve had. To that end, I’d love to hear more about so like you tell me more about your interest in props. This is definitely where I met you is definitely jobs that I’ve seen you have. And I love it. I love how you can create these things. I do not have this skill. So whenever I see people make things and props. I’m always like, oh
my god. How did
you get into creating these little treasures and like, making them for plays?
Well, I met this person on my bosses that right at a party. And so they
just say this story, goodness.
We wait. I think that I don’t know if it’s still true. But at the time, it was always hard to build a prop shop. And they needed one more person for their prop shop. I mean, it was like, Look, it was we all know how this sort of hiring season goes for somersaults April, and they hadn’t hired yet. And they were kidding. He was just sending resume on Monday. And like really? Okay, I’m gonna write a resume tonight. So I like real quick tried to write up a resume. I wish I still had that. I think I had it on read paper. You know, going to Texas and so I wanted to be either a red once too boring or blue and red red. This is a poor choice. anyone listening read is not good. Your resume paper. But I sent that out and and they hired they hired me and I had no idea what I was getting into. I remember there was this one person at our school had worked professionally and I just was constantly asking like, what do you Sometimes going to have to do, what am I going to do? Why do they think I can do this? I experienced in this and then getting there and realizing it was literally in some ways doing the proper level. But nonetheless, arts and crafts all day. Yeah. And so, and I loved it. And I didn’t know how to use one power tool before I went, which I’m not sure they were aware of, and a friend who would like who I like, confessed on a break, like, I don’t know how to use these power tools. And I don’t want anyone to find out, because I think that they’ll fire me is I know where I’ll find a way to show you each of them. And no one knows what’s happening. And it was like insane because what’s the next project that I get is to cut out the weeds growing? Like, like keyhole work with the jigsaw. team called candelabra. Can you go on break, and like I will come show me how to use a jigsaw announcer to do the thing that is like, challenging to do for an experienced Excel person. But it turned out great anyway, so the answer the fear and just loving it, because like what was your take turns putting perspective in the stereo and laughing when my signs went up a whole foot in a gallon of paint by accident. And just like, I don’t know, what’s like the most delicious Lord of the Flies from a prop shop. And we live with a little bit with moves from everyone. And then we got to just make beautiful things and then watch them get paraded across the stage. And, you know, it was just I immediately fell in love with props, partly because of that variety. Right? But also because it just seems like he was a perfect balance of being kind of taking some of the attention, but also none of the responsibility of the attention. You know what I mean? Like it wasn’t standing on stage and giving a monologue, but it was definitely feeling appreciated for the craft you were doing. And I worked for them, I think three different summers not consecutively and, and I loved it each summer, and every summer was always something different. That’s the other thing with props, like, sure, you’re gonna make a lot of a couple of typical things. But there’s only something surprising that you can kind of throw yourself into and just get into that zone. And I loved it. absolutely loved it. And then from there, I felt like, Okay, well, what’s the next step? I wanted to go to graduate school. I couldn’t really tell anyone at the time why I wanted to go to graduate school.
But I wanted to go to graduate school. And there was only one graduate school at the time that had props. As a graduate degree. I was like, Well, that doesn’t seem like a good bet. You know, to so I should probably open up my options. And so scenery seemed like the best thing to do. And actually, I ended up going to West Virginia University, because of my relationship with Peggy McMullen. at Texas Shakespeare Festival prior, I looked at a few different places. I loved Brandeis and almost went there and talked to Purdue and almost went there. But West Virginia University and already knowing Peggy felt like home already. And so I ended up there. And as we were talking, she’s like so I don’t understand really why I’m, you know, she’s habit as a foreigner. But she was like, why are you doing scenery, I know you have this background, but you also have like, all of this. So in school, and I know you’ve been costume design, I was like, Oh, I don’t want to sell. Again, Joke’s on me, because I actually do like to sell. But at the time, I was like, I don’t want to sell and she’s like, Oh, well, good news. You don’t necessarily have to sell with your costume provider, but I hadn’t ever experienced that. Right? Like I thought my experience with theater had been if you’re a designer, you better be able to make the thing you’re designing or it’s not. And so I just felt that and so she was so kind and supportive and allowed me to sort of pursue both while I was there, which is really great. Yeah, and then I always forget this. And I was just telling my husband about it the other night, because he had assumed that I just jumped from success to success to success, but I forgot that after I finished grad school to the summer after grad school. I did a show in Germany and then The assistant designed in Germany and then came back to Texas Shakespeare Festival another summer, and and then went back to my place in West Virginia ended up. I thought it was done for the summer, but my friend was like, No, we need someone to help us out with props at West Virginia Public Theater. And so like, really could have been done for the summer. And then we really need someone Okay, great. I’m here. Let’s do it. So did another spin of summer stock there unexpectedly. And which is where I met Danny Tonello, who then sort of held on, I got to know him. And he’s like, what do you want to do next? And I just like, always, and you know how it is you make up these sort of plans? I really want to go on tour, I think that would be great. And, but I don’t know how to do that. I had no idea how you get on a tour. Well, turns out that conversation was how you got on a tour. So I leave that, that summer sock, and it’s now fall, and it’s Christmas, and all of that. And I didn’t work in theater that whole time, I was working at Bank of America call center, or I was working at the survey call center. Because to me, I was just like, I’ve got to pay my bills. And the theater will happen when it’s time. But for now, this is what I’m doing. Which dad was like, wait a minute. So you had a period when you weren’t doing fear or college like, Yeah, everybody has that. Everybody has that. Like the theater requires so much luck. I mean, every talent matters. But luck sort of rules the day, in my opinion, well, and being kind and thoughtful to people, because if you’re not that, forget it. No one’s gonna call you back. There’s too many other people in line behind you with talent.
Also, there’s like, just sometimes there isn’t anything to do. You know, like, occasionally, all the jobs have been given up. It’s not like an endless amount of jobs available for all people who are interested all the time, like, and also we’re living our regular lives as well, right. It’s not like, all everything is all theater. Like, we’re probably like dating and dealing with roommates. And then like, there’s other things that we have to deal with in just our personal lives with friends that like, changes this vibe. And that makes you move out and Oh, now I have to move to another city. And well, I don’t know anyone in the theatre scene there. So like, when people act like, it’s even possible to consistently work all the time. It’s like, yeah, you could, but you’d really have to be full time into just focusing on your work, and have the ability to just go wherever, anytime, like, and if you don’t have that freedom, well, then you’re gonna have some downtime, because that’s life, you know?
Yeah. Yes. Like when you call your friend and say there’s a statement, that job and I’ve got a place for you to live, but you have to be here by Monday. Oh, my God, I still feel like I can’t believe I did that, too. When I look back, I’m like, what was I doing? Today? We’re at who just like, packed up our whole life. thing ever though. Are
you kidding me? I mean, so many things in my life wouldn’t have happened had I not made that first decision. Even like my dad, fully accepting that I was an adult, happened when we got to that blank door on the side of the warehouse. And he was, wait, what? This is where you live? And I was like, yep, this is it. He was like, I’m not leaving you here. And I was like, No, no, it’ll be fine. And like, he walks in, and like you said, you go off the rickety stairs, and you’re like, and he’s like, Are you about to be murdered? And I was like, maybe, but it’ll be fun. And then we get in there. And it’s like, and it’s like, friends were like, you walk through this door, and you’re like, surely this apartment is tiny. And then you’re like, how are there? 47 rooms and also 47
roommates like, unbelievable. Yeah, I mean, it was the coolest play. It was great.
It was a great opportunity to like first place to live in New York City. It was very out of the way and forced you to take a bus and a train to get anywhere near Manhattan. But I feel like that’s a learning experience to have to do that. And there were enough of us like, there were so many people in that house at all times. Like we were never alone. You’re never alone. You know what I mean? Like you were safe, because down the hall there were like seven people doing a monologue class and like, and like a Japanese director in residence in the basement and like a bowling league and you’re like, does this room still belong to us and they’re like, should be quiet there. They’re putting Watching 2001 for a class, you’re like, why? Like, everything was insane. You know, like, every day I’d wake up and my bagels would be being eaten by the actors that had arrived for rehearsal. And they’re like, in their kitchen like, Oh, hey, I’m like, Why are you eating this stuff? But that’s just the way it was. It was an active space, right? Yeah, yeah. Great, great, great first apartment, but you know, you take those chances. And if you don’t have That’s why, when you get older, there are more times when you’re not doing it. Because you can’t take those huge chances, like you did when you were younger. Like if somebody called me right now and said, Hey, come do this job. I’d be like, Okay, well, thanks.
That’s nice to know.
I’m doing this now. Right? Like, yeah, and it’s, I just happened to be able to do it, you know, right at that moment. And I, thankfully had a really nice roommate, who was very okay with the fact that I took off. And, yeah, and what an amazing experience. So you so you were doing all sorts of stuff, doing all sorts of tours and stuff, but seeing mostly with costumes and props. How did you get to academia?
Well, I was in Los Angeles with Dora kicking out the number line. I don’t know why. But it’s like cinematic in my head, like I was literally we had just late the Marley was always late, pretty much right before lunch, the cars will go to lunch. So we’ve had before, and we lay off the Marley get it all down. And then we had to set up the number line, right. And I’m taking up a number line to tape it down. And in my head, I’m going, I’m not sure how many more times I can kick this number line out. Now, after some time, I’m having a time of my life in LA, like we are rolling it up on podium, loving, just sort of rolling around LA, wherever we want to we’re at the Kodak theatre. I mean, nothing was wrong, except that it was always the same. You know what I mean? Yeah. And so rather than kicking them out, pegging the colon coffee, or taking the calendar thing to notice, just when I’m realizing I’m taking up in the wrong account calls and says, Hey, by the way, I know that when you’re in grad school, if one day you wanted to teach at a college or university, and the university right now needs to hire someone right away. So this might be your way in, and they’re looking for a set design, Professor, and I think you’d have a really good chance here. And so I call up the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I don’t remember how it happened. But this was like, it was the beginning of the school year already, when they called me. And they needed someone like the next day, or the two weeks notice. Like that’s going to be a required thing. For me, no matter how we feel about each other, you know, but they were like, We need you at work. So I don’t know how I mean, now that I’m in academia, I’m going, how does that happen? That you lose your faculty member, or classes, you’re already enrolled. And, like, right at the start of the year, but it had happened. I mean, there’s lots of reasons. So she called in, and it just was perfect timing that I just had that thought like, I don’t know how many more times I can do this. And it felt like, Oh, this seems like exactly what I’m supposed to do now. And only thing I had done in grad school, a little bit of math to realize, not financial math, but just sort of life math to go, you know, it is still important to me to one day, find someone that I can have kids with, and settle down in one place. I mean, I love this theater thing and traveling all the time. That also it’s going to be important to me, and I always kind of learned by watching the people around me. And what I saw was that my faculty who were still active with their careers are able to have these settled lives. And kids and families. Oh, that might be the perfect mix. When I remember that I didn’t want to be a teacher. And it seems like even though I forgot about the fact that it said I don’t want to be a teacher. And so it just felt like the perfect marriage of all the things I was interested in. And then that call came at the right moment. I sent my information out there and it was enough for them. hired me as a visiting professor. And at the time, that sounded great to me that’s already needed was like a foot in the door, which has always been like sort of my approach army is the foot in the door, and then I’ll figure out what to do after that. I had no sort of attachment, you know, had a cat, who was pretty amenable to moving wherever. And so I basically went into my company manager’s office. Like, I think two days later, I mean, it all happened over a series of phone calls in a couple of days are changing. And this is, I hate to do this to you, but I’m gonna have to leave the tour in two weeks. I think I know someone who can replace me so often.
But yeah, I’ve had a girl. And they were shocked. None of them knew I had a graduate degree. Now, most of them had bachelors. And they were like, wait a minute, we didn’t know what. And so they were just all shocked at this, what seemed to them, this abrupt last term that to me just seemed like, they were yielding to traffic now, you know, and, and so I left tour, last minute, Virginia, packed up all of my belongings, and moved to Wilmington into an apartment, I had rented them on and moved everything in. And the next day, I was like writing survive while I was on the bus. On Tour, in anticipation of landing, I got there, I think on like, Labor Day, wish they had happened. So someone met me at the campus on Labor Day and showed me the building, so I knew where to go for classes next. And then I just like, landed and started and I left it immediately, because I could design and teach at the same time and, and close in there for a year with a business position was a permanent position. And in that time, I just started a rule quickly in cable that you’ve always, always have to have a mind toward what’s coming after, right, like what’s after curtain call, watch after. And so I got there started teaching my first set of classes, and then a month later was already applied for what I would do the following year, and ended up finding the listing record, and went through their extensive interview process, which is just so wonderful for helping you understand the community here. And also for them to really understand who you are. Right? And. And remember, once I had arrived, thinking, oh, whoa, they are going to think that I copied their mission statement and my teaching philosophy because our, my approach to my thoughts about teaching and experiential learning and sort of embracing every individual learning and meeting them where they are, is what I was all about, until I was so worried they would just sort of like, reject me thinking that I was not being authentic. But I mean, 14 years later, it’s worked out. Come, like the perfect home for me. Because again, I get all these different types of things. And the people in those situations change every year. So it’s almost like touring without leaving home. You know? Yeah.
I love that you were able to find a place to do all the different fun theater jobs that you like doing and that you’re good at doing. But you also got to have the settled life with partner and kids that, you know, you were craving at the time, I find that, you know, like you said, a lot of times if you’re in theater, that’s the thing you’re not going to get, you know, if you want to if you want to focus on this making this your career, you’re on the road constantly and you’re just going everywhere. And you know, maybe some people listening to this are like that sounds great. Great. Do it because at a certain point, some people who are doing it are gonna be like, yeah, I need to settle down. So get in there, get those jobs like, if you like it, do it because there’s plenty of it. Maybe not today, but but there will be and forever more. There’s always tours and and traveling and whatnot. It’s just, I feel like right now everybody who’s got had to go through code And now knows what side of the fence they’re on whether they’re like, I want to be on tour in person, or I want to be settled in at home, like some people who are never settled. They’re like, Wow, I’ve never been in my apartment so long. It’s nice. Let’s do it. And some people are like, get me out of this apartment. I’m getting everything I own in a storage unit and getting in an RV. And that’s it. Yeah.
You know? Yeah.
It’s great that you found a good spot. And I love the idea that you were like, afraid they weren’t gonna hire you. Because you guys were so similar. They were probably like, Oh my God, we hit the jackpot we think. Plus, I mean, I don’t know that I’ve known a single person ever that didn’t enjoy you. Like everywhere I’ve ever worked with you. Everyone’s always like, oh, Jessica, so good. It’s so wonderful. I mean, I don’t think I ever heard a negative word about you. And amongst the 4000, roommates of our,
of our Brooklyn apartment. So you know, even shocking, since I told them, I wasn’t gonna pay Water and Power, right? Well, yeah.
They just found somebody else. One of the other randos to do it. Oh, hey, Joe, you owe an extra 50 bucks a month. And he’s like, Okay, you go.
I mean, who knows? Who knows what anybody was, we could have been in there with like Paris Hilton and a bunch of millionaires, we wouldn’t have known.
I mean, I mean, it is not lost on me how lucky I am to have found this institution, this sort of part of the country, and my friends and my spouses, you know, all of the things that have happened and moved to St. Petersburg, I mean, because I have my position after that. It’s sort of like this ethos towards the students to say, what do you want to do? And what’s your plan? We support you, right? Like, even if it’s some crazy harebrained idea, it’s like, oh, I imagined doing great, let’s try it. And I feel like there’s that same support with faculty. And so like, it’s always my personal research, I can, you know, for a while was all completely into doing puppets and learning about the theory, tiny little river puppet history, like in depth, and just doing so deep on Turkish care, gosh, shadow puppetry, and trying to sort of modernize a process for creating that without animal high. And the college was interesting, Brian was that, how amazing is that, and he did teach courses that you just feel so passionate about, is amazing. It also means that now because I feel like I’ve been doing so much, we should have been able to do similar things. And now I’m going wonder what’s next? What is next? And I’m like, literally, at this point in my career, where I’m going at, I’m not sure what the next step is, I’m really happy where I can look back on what I’m hearing for forever. But I know that I like to keep sort of moving as far as my interests go. But I’m between things right now. Do you know what I’m saying? Like, you’re for that little extra bit of outside of designing and teaching? What’s that going to be? Or maybe I just do my job and nothing else? I don’t know.
Well, you know, what’s interesting, and you know, I was going to ask you about your artistic jam was and it seems like this is it. So the, the idea of looking for the next thing is not crazy, and especially right now, I feel like art and theater. And the way that we’re performing stuff is it’s in a Renaissance, where the way that we do it, and the way that we look at it is going to be different. You know, I mean, we’ve both realized that we have so many other possible ways of performing that are not just either on stage or on film, like now there’s so many other possibilities to do it and to connect with people. And the idea of it doesn’t have to be like you’re on stage at this major event with all these highfalutin people, you do a zoom play reading, and maybe you get 100 people but you get this super tight connection between these 100 people and you get this amazing experience. You know, like, there’s a lot of different ways to go about it. Like my thought, like as a only vague means of advice would be to like, hang out and see what of the New World interests you because the way that it works is going to be different and the way that like when Broadway comes back, there’s got to be something about the business. model that’s got to run differently, because of what happened because of the money lost because of because of like, how it works now. So all sorts of theater business models are going to have to change, different ways we consume, things are going to change, you know, like, we’re all a lot more used to watching full length plays on our laptop than we used to be. And like, you know, the opportunities for people are everywhere, you know, it doesn’t have to be the guy who happened to audition best, who lives in the town, know, if it’s an online play, you can have one guy from Canada and another guy from India, and another guy from New Zealand, all in the same show working together, as long as they get up at the same time, you know, they they can do this project. And the idea of that is like, wow, these people can work together can connect in ways that they could not before. So between that and the new way that every sort of like big industry has to reinvent themselves, like Hollywood has to reinvent themselves. Film across the country is going to reinvent itself. And then theater, like just how theater runs the business of it and how it attracts audience and does it connect with them? Both on stage and online? Maybe yes, all the things, right? We’re in a renaissance of the way art. We’ve also spent all this time at home. So now we know how much art means to us. How many things we care about how many more books has everyone read? How many more TV shows have we consumed? How many more like movies have we watched and now it’s like, because of all this stuff that I’ve looked at now. I really know what I like. And now I am I know more closely what I’d be interested in working on. And I don’t know all the changes, I think open up many doors, but those doors might be you know, a little further in the future.
Yeah, it’s gonna be interesting to see what happens. I mean, we did a virtual theater piece. In a very we had, everyone had an unusual term this fall, right. And our approach to it, the way that the campus tried to stay safe was to have students return in a nice return, which meant they completely sort of chunked our traditional academic calendar. And instead of students taking four classes, over the span of 14 weeks, they took one class for three and a half weeks, a second class for three and a half weeks, and then two classes for seven weeks. So they could bring back just the first year, then the sophomores, and then the juniors and seniors just to try to help keep campus safe. And work. You know, it was a really successful measure that they did. It meant though, though, that I was teaching theatre production in a three and a half week block without being able, with everyone remote. Because I had no first years in my class. And no, usually theater production is supporting a live performance on stage. It’s all the design and tech element. It’s the experience. It’s almost like, you know, theater lab, right? Where you’re doing all experience, experiential elements of the cruise and things like that. And so how do you teach that remotely? Well, my friend Jen Rath and I created a play over the summer, because I was like, Alright, nothing I’m seeing here feels like something that I can survive for three and a half, intensely doing. So let’s just throw it all out. And I called up Jen Rapp, who is a miracle on this planet, amazing director and choreographer. And aside from the talent, what makes her amazing, it’s just her vulnerable human soul that she shares with everyone so selflessly, and I just called her. And I said, I want to just try something completely outside the box, do a virtual show, but just created ourselves, figure out what we love, and what the story is, and then just try it. And if it’s completely weird and horrible, I don’t care, because it will have been the experience of creating something and that’s what the class will be. And without hesitation to go, yeah, I want to do that. And so we like started sort of sharing what we were reading what we were interested in, and we ended up creating a really loose adaptation of this book that I just adored. I actually went outside during a tornado to go get it from the front porch. It’s by Erin Morgenstern. And it’s called the starless seat. so fantastic. The whole text. And so there’s one. There’s like three or four different threads of stories in there. We pulled in One of the stories and credited and told and retold
her real love affair to storytelling through the voices of this parliament of owls. And we just had this fantastic time creating this adaptation for a script, and then figuring out how to do that virtually and then bringing the students in. And everything had to be this gut instinct reaction, because there was no time to really spend too much deliberation, because three and a half weeks, and we had to send things over to be edited all the recordings to be edited in two and a half weeks. And you know, you lose a couple days, just the class administration. So we had two weeks to create this piece, right. And we had people from Spain to Alaska. I mean, to your point, people could be anywhere. And it was intense, and hard. And one of my favorite things I’ve done in my whole life, the creation process was intimate, because we’re in each other’s faces all day over zoom. And we needed each other desperately, not just emotionally because of what we were going through. He was always there in the room with us, but we never spoke about it, we need each other to do the show, you know, and so it’s highly collective and, and then we put it on and, and it was so exciting to have people come and see. But as I was doing press the question kept coming up, like, you know, did you think this will last past the pandemic? And I kept saying, well, I really hope so. Because this is, you know, some people will never see live theater, some people can’t afford a babysitter, let alone the ticket. And so we have hit upon a way to sort of democratize the delivery of this very special thing that we do. Why don’t we leave that behind? I mean, I really hope we hold on to it in some way. And I also want a little bit of our traditional theater back as well. I want it all. I’ll actually have it all, I think. I think I definitely can. Yeah. All right, final
question for you. What advice do you have for you know, theater artists, like yourself who have so many interests and want to do it all? But, you know, like, how do you navigate your path? what’s the what’s the move?
I think there’s a danger in trying to manage the past too much. I think just being open to possibility is really like a wonderful place to sort of live, like just riding the crest of the wave and seeing where it takes you. And then I mean, obviously, you have to work hard, and be kind to everyone, every single person, not just the people in charge, not just because you might need someone one day, but because the process is so much better when you do that. And your life becomes so much better when you do that. But I think, as we talked about just being willing to jump and, and letting go of that worry that you might not be good enough or might not have the skills or might not have whatever it is you think that you’re lacking in. Why don’t you just let someone else make that decision and jump for it? Because you might only get that chance once? You know. I mean, certainly you can live without that worry that if you miss out, you know, I don’t want to build this word that if you miss out on a chance, that’s the last one, it’s never coming around. Again, I think there are multiple chances and not just one. But take advantage of everything. And especially if you are in a situation where you can jump and just take any opportunity no matter where it is. Then do that while you can because life does change. And there may come a point where you can’t jump as easily.
good thoughts. Thank you so much, Jessica, for being on the podcast. I’m really glad that I got to talk to you and to reflect upon your amazing and lovely creative career.
Thanks for having me. This is you know, I would just spend hours with you anytime chatting, but I’m honored to be on your podcast. And I can’t wait to hear it come out. Yay.
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