Interview, Spring 2016, looking back at the inaugural 2011 production of JAMS Theatre.
How did you become involved with JAMS Theatre Company?
The Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation (SMMEF) put out an RFP for a grant that they wanted to use to create a drama program at both JAMS and Lincoln. There were several JAMS parents that I knew from working with deeLightful Productions in Culver City, and even though I was fresh out of undergrad, they encouraged me to apply. I am a JAMS alumna, and always wished there had been a theatre program, there so I was very excited about the idea of being a part of making that happen. I worked so hard to create my proposal, and got recommendations from many generous students and parents (all from the generation that is now graduating from HS! Crazy! Benny Ross, Sophie Schwarz, Romie Drorie, etc.). I got to the final rounds of interviews, but didn't end up getting the position. But eventually the program directors realized that for the first year, the scheduling conflicts were too challenging to be able to have the same person at both Lincoln and JAMS, so when they needed someone else for JAMS, I got the call and the rest is history!
What was it like that first year doing 'Into The Woods'?
The first year was incredibly rewarding, because it was so difficult to get started. We had a really strong small cast and the rehearsals were a blast, but getting all of the logistics in place was such a challenge because we spent so much time just explaining to people who we are and why we exist. It is so hard to show the value of a theatre program until people get to see the finished product. It took a while for it to become a program that the school was used to and proud of.
Why did you choose 'Into the Woods'?
To me, it seemed like the perfect show to be doing for our first year. "Into the Woods" is so much about facing your fears and leaping into the unknown to pursue what you really want and it felt like that is what we were doing by starting this program. I also tend to lean more toward the darker, more challenging, and more intelligent end of musical theatre in terms of personal taste (Sondheim, Flaherty & Ahrens, etc) so it has always been one of my favorites (even though in the Jr. version you stop before it gets too dark!) Patti and I were also passionate about picking a show that had a lot of great roles for lots of students to get the opportunity to play, instead of a show that has one or two leads.
Who were early supporters?
The entire staff of SMMEF (Linda, Rachel, and Yolanda) were all amazing supporters of the program. They were such eager collaborators and sounding boards for our ideas and they were such fantastic cheerleaders every step of the way. JAMS Principal Eva Mayoral was incredibly supportive. She really loved seeing the students shine and take pride in their work and she was such a champion for the program administratively. Chris Regan (the assitant principal at the time) was also super helpful to us as our program liaison. The SMMUSD tech staff was great to us too. Cary and Lucas. Daryl Hovis at SAMOHI was also a great supporter at the start. He was my theatre teacher in high school at Culver High with the AVPA and he lent us lights and started the high school mentor program with me. It was amazing because I was getting to work with all of these former teachers of mine. I had been in choir with Ms. Blanchard as well and her and Ms. Woo were very kind and accomodating that first year with sharing the auditorium and resources. The true heroes to me are always the parent volunteers though. It always blows my mind how much work they are willing to pour into our crazy ideas. We had a great core group of people who worked countless hours to create sets, costumes, props, sell tickets, create the program, etc.
How many kids that first year?
24 in the cast and then we had about 5 tech crew students.
How did program grow by your 3rd year?
By our third year, we had more than doubled the size of the program. I think the cast was around 51 students for Seussical and the tech crew was around 10. We also had grown immensely in terms of production value, adding more extensive sets, projections, and mics to the production. It also felt as though the program had really established itself as an important part of the JAMS community. The shows and the experience that the students walked away with had really proved it's worth. It was important to Patti and I that we left the program in a really strong place and left it in super capable hands (which I think we definitely did with you and Chad!!)
Your fondest memories of serving as founding director?
My fondest memories of JAMS Theatre will always be the moments of watching a group of young artists discover their immense power onstage. There are always many moments throughout a theatre process where you watch a performer discover their worth and walk offstage with their head held higher and their imagination tripled in size. Those are the magical moments for me. Especially when they happen with kids who struggle in the academic or social areas of regular school. When everyone walks away from the process with an artistic home and a new family.
Relationship with Patti?
Patti pours SO MUCH heart into everything she does. That's what I always admire so much about her. Not only that she is smart, incredible at logistics and gets things DONE like no one else, but that there is also so much LOVE and artistic passion behind it! She truly loves the kids and she is such a powerful force for arts education. She became much more than a producer to me. She became a collaborator, a friend, and a mentor.
What does theatre give kids?
I think that theatre shows young people the immense power of their own minds, bodies, and voices. For me, middle school was a time full of uncertainty, insecurity, and self doubt. Those emotions can be all-consuming and they can make you feel as though you are never enough. Theatre says to young people YOU ARE ENOUGH. It tells them that their ideas are valid & brilliant, that their imaginations are exciting & valuable, that their bodies are capable & beautiful, and that their voices are powerful & worthy of being heard. I can't think of anything better to say to someone who is just discovering who they are in the world.
Tell us about what you've been up to the last 3 years? Teaching? Acting? Personally?
Oh, so many things! Not a day goes by when I don't miss JAMS Theatre, but my life in Chicago has been pretty fantastic as well.
I am the Education Coordinator for Raven Theatre Company, which means that I run their field trip program, classroom residencies, summer camps, and weekend classes. I also co-directed their TYA show this year. I am still teaching theatre every chance I get. This year I worked with 1st graders, 3rd graders, 6th-8th graders, and highschoolers in schools all over Chicago. I am also the Associate Artistic Director of a new theatre company in Chicago called The Yard, which is a youth-run theatre company comprised almost entirely of high school students. I directed Lauren Gunderson's I & You with two high school seniors this spring for The Yard and it was just asked to be remounted this summer as part of Chicago's Theatre on the Lake series, commissioned by the city.
I am also part of a theatre company here called Walkabout Theater that creates site-specific experimental physical theatre with music and dance influences. This summer we will be performing our spectacles in a huge art gallery in downtown Chicago, a newly re-designed bike path, and a park. We will also be touring to Poland and upstate New York next year.
I am also getting married next year to Patrick Riley, the greatest man in the world!
Do you keep in touch with JAMS students?
Yes, somewhat! Facebook is an incredible thing! I love being able to watch my students as they grow up and accomplish such incredible things. I still get messages every once in a while for letters of recommendation, or monologue help, etc. All of which I am more than happy the help with.
What is a typical day like for you these days?
Wake up, drink coffee and hang out with Patrick and my cat Boss; head to teach an early morning class at a middle school, where we are devising an original theatre piece about identity; head to Raven to do some education administrative work; head to an afternoon class at an elementary school where we are exploring Aesop's Fables through theatre exercises; head to an afterschool rehearsal with high school students for The Yard to do some guest choreography work for their newest show; head to an evening rehearsal with Walkabout, and probably do some partner acrobatic training, singing, and maybe text/poetry work; get home around 11 p.m. and fall asleep exhausted but happy to be making art and doing the things that I love.