In the Spotlight — Jennifer Kirkeby, actor, director, writer
October 21, 2014
Today I’m welcoming Jennifer Kirkeby to The Starborn Revue.
Jennifer has acted, directed, written, choreographed, and taught at Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins, Minnesota since 1997. ZEN TIES is her nineteenth show at STC. (Note from The Starborn Revue: I mentioned ZEN TIES in my WHAT’S ON post at the end of September.) Favorite roles include Miss Hannigan in Annie Jr., Mrs. in Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business at STC, Ouiser in Steel Magnolias at Yellow Tree Theater, and Myrtle in Morning’s at Seven at Park Square Theater. This year marks the seventeenth play that she has adapted for STC, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. (Note from The Starborn Revue: photos from some of these productions are scattered throughout the interview. Thanks, Jennifer, for sharing so generously!) Visit Jennifer’s blog: jenniferkirkeby.blogspot.com
LATE BREAKING NEWS! Stages Theatre Company is following Jennifer’s day as an actor on Instagram today! “Zen Ties actress Jennifer Kirkeby is taking over our Instagram today. Check out the behind the scenes fun: http://instagram.com/stagestheatreco #MissWhitakerTO #StagesZenTies ”
And now, the interview:
Elizabeth Starborn: To give my readers a little background about the productions currently on stage at Stages Theatre Company, could you tell us just a bit about each of them?
Jennifer Kirkeby: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is an adventure story of a resourceful boy who uses his imagination to create a wonderful world filled with friends who just happen to be insects…Our production has live music, created by the actors on stage, and is very interactive with our audience making it a truly unique experience.
“The beauty of ZEN TIES is the opportunity to just be present, to be in this space, at this time and be a part of a simple story about friendship and neighborhood life that is magically unfolding. In this story, we are introduced to Stillwater’s nephew, Koo. He doesn’t speak often, but when he does his words are always in the form of haiku, a poetic form designed to float on the air and brings us back to a connection with nature and our humanity.” Jeannine Coulombe, Co-Director and Playwright
Elizabeth Starborn: Jennifer, I know you have been involved in several productions at Stages, some of which you’ve written as well as performed in. What keeps bringing you back?
Jennifer Kirkeby: I began working at Stages Theatre Company in 1997. I felt like I had finally found an artistic home. Prior to that, I was driving to one theater to choreograph a show, another to teach, and yet another to perform. With two young girls, it was tricky and exhausting. This way, I got to do all those things in one beautiful space!
Elizabeth Starborn: What do you hope kids will get out of their time watching a live stage performance?
Jennifer Kirkeby: It is always my hope that the kids in the audience will find at least one character that they can really relate to. Someone they can watch and think, “That’s exactly how I feel,” or “I could do that!” It allows them to become intimately connected to the theatrical experience, to see a story literally come to life in a fresh way, and at its best, to develop a lifelong love for theater.
Elizabeth Starborn: Are there different benefits to seeing a play live rather than seeing it on TV?
Jennifer Kirkeby: I sure hope so! Live theater is just that. Live. Mistakes happen. The actors must continue. No one says “Hold! We need to go back and try that again!” We go out on a wire every night, never being certain of what might happen onstage or off. We support each other, cover for each other, learn the importance of improvisation when something like a wig falls off, (yes, this happened to me), or a prop doesn’t work, or an actor has the flu. Live theater is so vital, immediate, fresh, and exciting. Of course, TV can be as well, but it’s been filmed to perfection. You don’t get to see the wigs falling off.
Elizabeth Starborn: What do you, as an actor, get from the experience of performing?
Jennifer Kirkeby: Some people get a high from climbing mountains, parachuting out of a plane, or doing a multitude of things. We all have that sweet spot where we feel connected to the world, when we’re doing something that matters. It’s that immediate connection with the audience that gets me.
Last week, a man came up to me in receiving line and expressed how much he liked a certain scene I had done because he had been a teacher for years, and he told me how “important it is for all of us to be valued.” He had tears in his eyes, and I knew that the scene had been very personal for him. It was wonderful. Being an actor is an honor and a privilege. And I love seeing the families and young children in our audiences seeing a good book come to life.
Elizabeth Starborn: Is there a difference in performing for kids rather than adults?
Jennifer Kirkeby: As an actor, I do the same homework for both. I create a backstory, discover my character’s likes and dislikes, her voice, what she wants in each scene, her arc, what her relationship is with the other cast members. It’s a lot like writing! The main difference in performing for young people, is their reaction to the show. It is so honest and immediate. And believe me, you have to be ready for anything!
Sometimes young kids just want to ask a question so badly, they just blurt it out. And it can be pretty hysterical. A year ago, I saw a child crying in the lobby after a show. I went up to her and her mom and asked what was wrong. The mom told me that her daughter wanted to see the play again, and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t. The little girl thought plays were like the videos she watched at home, and she just wanted to press “play”. I explained that we are real people, and needed to rest and eat. She finally understood, and I got a big smile. Teaching moment!
Elizabeth Starborn: I know some of the productions at Stages have kids in the cast. How do young performers benefit from being part of a play or musical?
Jennifer Kirkeby: They benefit by being able to perform for over 700 people if it’s a full house. They are mentored by adult professional actors. Our young people learn commitment, how to handle themselves in a receiving line, and the importance of showing up no matter what’s going on in their lives. We have found that theater kids do better in school. They have to get written consent from their school and each of their teachers to commit to a show. They learn time management because we rehearse five nights a week for four weeks, then do 10-12 shows a week for four to six weeks, depending on the show.
Elizabeth Starborn: The theme for my blog this year is “Empowerment through the Arts and through Words.” Do you see what you do at Stages as empowering? In what ways?
Jennifer Kirkeby: Here’s Stages mission statement: Stages Theatre Company is committed to the enrichment and education of children and youth in a professional theatre environment that stimulates artistic excellence and personal growth.
We were voted BEST CHILDREN’S THEATRE by the readers of Family Times Magazine this fall. We have a program called CAST (Creative-Accepting-Sensory-Friendly-Theatre) which is dedicated to creating safe, welcoming and comfortable classes for children affected by autism.
Stages Theatre Company custom designs residencies or in-classroom experiences based on the curriculum needs of schools.
So it isn’t just the performing aspect that is empowering. There are many facets to the company. In our classes (which serve students from 2-1/2 to 18), our students learn confidence in talking in front of a group, physical discipline in creating a character, good vocal techniques, and teamwork. They learn how many gears there are to the machine of theater, and have the opportunity to run sound and lights for our productions.
Elizabeth Starborn: What would you say to kids who’d like to get involved in theatre?
Jennifer Kirkeby: Go for it! Try some classes. You will use the skills from theatre in a multitude of areas.
Elizabeth Starborn: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Jennifer Kirkeby: Thank you for your commitment to the arts, Beth! I can’t imagine a world without them!
Link to a video montage of ZEN TIES:
Stages Theatre Company’s website: www.stagestheatre.org
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