Introducing Jenna Worsham, director of ‘The Theatrical’: Inhabit the American Voice at this year’s Salon!

Next up in our interview series is emerging director Jenna Worsham, whose piece ‘The Theatrical’: Inhabit the American Voice will be presented as part of our Night of Director Driven work on Saturday, April 21st.  ‘The Theatrical’ is an experiment with music and poetry in performance, encompassing a series of staged poems performed as monologues set subtly to live, devised music. Inhabiting important American controversies and history, the poetic voices of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Yusef Komunyakaa are explored in a theatrical setting.
Co-Curator Luke sits down with Jenna to discuss ‘The Theatrical,’ what it means to drive a piece of theatre as a director, a bad experience at her restaurant job, and the Occupy movement.
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Luke: Tell me about the project you are developing at the Directors Salon.

Jenna: It’s an experiment with music and poetry in performance. I wrote my undergrad English thesis three years ago on the historically and racially controversial poetry of Sylvia Plath; how only within a theatrical framework would the art and deeper ideas of female self-hood within the poems emerge above taboo. A year ago, I decided to put the idea of my thesis into practice and see if it worked: I staged a series of more “offensive” poems as monologues and scenes, set to original devised music (to heighten the theatricality). What I found fascinated me, as the poems did work well as monologues/scenes, and the revelation of meanings within the poet’s words on stage leapt past the controversies one finds when confronted with them on the page. In short, they were more accessible, and I decided to apply this idea to the American poets I admire, including Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and most recently to Yusef Komunyakaa; my interest still to see how the controversial elements were more accepted in a theatrical setting– race, class, religion, gender realized on the stage versus the page. The monologues are done as pieces fully imagined by the actor, not recitations. It’s a developing aesthetic and something I really enjoy as a director– marrying poems, music, and theater make for a fun, ekphrastic evening.

LH: You, as the director, are at the helm of the development of this piece. How is this different than, say, working with a playwright? Or on a pre-existing text? Is it different?

JW: I think it’s very different in the way the actors, musicians, and I approach the text, which is less directly. Yet, interestingly I think the collaboration that takes place between our team and the text is very similar to working with a playwright. My piece is director driven in the sense that I am taking the writing of American poets and not re-interpreting (my desire is to bring out the poet’s intentions, not dissolve them) but re-inventing the audience’s experience with poetry in performance. We’re making it accessible by putting Whitman in your kitchen, Robert Frost on a subway platform– we’re  imagining the meaning in new ways. As a director, I can take a brilliantly crafted poem, and carve the ideas within the form out onto the stage— I can take the ideas and turn them into infinite, impressionable shapes, ones that move everyday people. I can work with an actor and develop an internal background for a character we create together, all stemming from the text like they would with a playwright, but all original. I can then layer in the element of music, again not to turn the poem into something it’s not, but instead bring it more fully, and theatrically, into its own; I can mirror the music and the rhythm of that which already possesses both.

LH: Switching gears: The theme for this years Salon is “Work For Change”.
As artists, we often have to work day-jobs outside of our career to support our work. Do you have a story about a day-job?

JW: Many. I work two other jobs part-time in addition to directing.
I think one that stands out is from the restaurant I work in, on the Upper East Side. The clientele can be quite demanding up there at times, and one time I was called a lot of bad names on the phone by a young person who wanted a reservation I could not accommodate. I remember thinking it was so amazing the way people behave when they don’t get what they want, particularly when they have a lot of money and nothing to lose. The person asked me (after a few more profane words), “Are you a loser?” I was quiet for a moment, wanting so badly to give this person a lecture or two on class and human value, but I also did not want to get fired for talking back to a customer. We have a saying as reservationists: “Always kill them with kindness.” I finally replied to the caller saying, “No. I’m not a loser, sir. May I place you on the waiting list for this evening?” There was a silence, and then they hung up. As hard as it is, I think I learned a valuable day-job/life lesson: dignity always goes a lot further than rage when dealing with ignorance.

LH: There is a lot of talk right now about the Occupy movement and what it means for those of us who work in the theater and in the arts. What are your thoughts on this?

JW: I think we have a responsibility as artists to be brave, and to be inspired by bravery in others. Occupy is a brave movement, and it’s certainly not alone– I think the voices we’re hearing are a world phenomenon, slow moving but powerful in their resilience. As artists, I think we need to be equally as brave in how we incorporate this voice into our work.

LH: Thank you! Why should people come see your piece in the Salon?

JW: I’m taking away the imposed class lines often associated with poetry. Like theater, I believe poetry, should not be art limited to the upper class. Like so many of us today, Whitman, Frost, and Komunyakaa are Americans who wrote with bravery about that which applies to us all: class, family, sex, justice, identity, community, war, art, and of course, a complicated relationship with our country.

Jenna Worsham recently directed Home by Lucy Thurber at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (Theaterjam 3), and assistant directed the revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre (Dir. Kate Whoriskey). Last December she directed the workshop production of Derivations by Lucy Thurber for Houses on the Moon theater company at the Del E. Webb Center in Wickenburg, AZ. Other NY Credits include: What the Sparrow Said by Danny Mitarotondo (FringeNYC); Daniel by Julissa Contreras at Intar Theatre, as part of the annual Maria Irene Fornes Hispanic Playwrights Residency Lab; the world premier of Lucy Thurber’s Named at Rising Phoenix Repertory (Cino Nights series); The Nebraska Dispatches at the Jerry H. Labowitz Theater (written & perf. by Christopher Cartmill); Assistant Director for Bottom of the World at the Atlantic Theater Company (Dir. Caitriona McLaughlin); The Game (Contreras) at Rattlestick Theater (Theatrejam 2). Last summer she assistant directed The Insurgents by Lucy Thurber at CATF (dir. Lear deBessonet); She is the recipient of a 2012 SDC Foundation Observership at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, MA, where she will assist Maria Aitken on Noel Coward’s Private Lives. A graduate of Washington and Lee University, she directed The Fantasticks at Lime Kiln Theater in Lexington, VA in May of 2010. She has served as a director for MCC Theatre’s Freshplay Festival the past two years and is a member of Intar Theatre’s Young Artist Lab.

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