When Jenna Place moved to DC for college, she didn’t know it was going to become her theatrical home. Now as the Casting Director for Theater J, Jenna spends her day thinking about the intricacies of portraying Jewish life on stage. This week, we chatted with Jenna to learn more about what a casting job entails, her incredible friends and family, and her brief stint as Dracula.
GatherDC: What brought you to DC and what made you stay?
Jenna: I came to college here for a mix of reasons. I’m from Vermont so I often joke when people ask me what brought me here: “I was cold.” That may not be completely untrue…but really I came because I was interested in journalism and wanted to study that at GW. It only took about a year for me to realize that it was looking more and more like that field was about as rife for employment as theater was, so I switched majors to what I wanted to do in my heart of hearts. Luckily, it ended up employing me, too. The theater scene here in DC is really special, and I made my home in it quickly. That’s why I stayed.
GatherDC: Can you describe your dream day in the DMV?
Jenna: My dream day in the DMV probably adjusts with the weather! In warm weather I’d vote for a morning hike followed by some brewery time in the afternoon and a Nats game at night, but in the winter I’d vote for a two-show day of DC theater (with some delicious food in between and after!).
GatherDC: We know theater is a pretty big part of your life—how did you first get involved with Theater J?
When Adam Immerwahr became Artistic Director of Theater J and was hiring for the Associate Producer position, my mentor connected us because the job felt right up my alley. I had breakfast with Adam to talk a bit about it. I only got one interview in before I pulled my application, but ultimately we stayed connected and he ended up circling back when he was looking for someone to do their casting, so it all worked out. (Also, my now-husband took that job a few years later which is how we met, so I’m awfully glad I didn’t end up getting it!)
GatherDC: It sounds like it all worked out! How do you connect with your Jewish identity through your work?
Jenna: Since starting as Casting Director at Theater J, I definitely connect to it through my theater work in ways I never thought I would. When you cast this many Jewish roles one after the other, you start to get very self aware of the everyday-life part of being Jewish. What are the nuances, family dynamics, ways we love, ways we hurt, reactions to things that are consistent across the spectrum of Jews? I think there are a lot of intricacies we share, and observing that amount of particularly Jewish human behavior so often in characters on the page and the stage at Theater J has made me feel seen and connected to others who often live their lives with these little personality quirks I think are uniquely and wonderfully Jewish.
GatherDC: That’s such a special and unique connection to Judaism. When did you first get interested in casting and directing?
Jenna: I was in a musical in high school and the director had to leave the rehearsal to deal with something else. He asked me to be in charge of continuing to stage the scene. I remember thinking “well I didn’t know THIS was an option!”
GatherDC: And we’ve heard Theater J has a new show premiering this week! Tell us a little bit about the upcoming performance.
Jenna: Compulsion or the House Behind! Compulsion or the House Behind is a fascinating play about the ownership of Anne Frank’s story. I had read the Diary and was part of multiple productions of the play adaptation before reading Compulsion, and one of my favorite things about this play is that it made me ask questions I had never even thought about in all the times I had interacted with the original story. The characters are deeply compelling and the production features incredible DC-based actors (one of my favorite parts about working for Theater J is how consistently we cast local! This city is boiling over with superb actors.) Beyond that, though, it also features hauntingly beautiful puppets designed by Matt Acheson (who with our director Johanna Gruenhut worked on the original production of this play). In our auditions for this, Matt had actors make puppets out of pieces of butcher paper crumbled to form limbs and heads. I couldn’t believe the spectrum of emotions he was able to endow them with. I knew immediately this play was going to feature something really special.
GatherDC: What was the first performance you were ever cast in?
Jenna: In fifth grade, my teacher Mr. Stuart pulled me out of math class and asked me to read a side to audition for The Haunted Theater which was the play he wrote that we did every Halloween. I read for Dracula. I remember him coaching me on the accent in the hallway. I was cast and I remember three main things: 1.) I had to spend pre-show inside of a coffin. 2.) At the end of the show I ran through the audience singing “sweet dreams are made of these…” (you know that song). 3.) Bless Mr. Stuart because I LOVED IT. [Editor’s note: Shout out to all the teachers out there who inspire and believe in their students every day!]
GatherDC: Switching gears—what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
One of my best friends (and brilliant Jewish playwright Dani Stoller) often says “vulnerability is a superpower.” I love that phrase. It makes me remember that despite what society has tried to tell me for so long, it’s okay to find strength in the soft parts of you.
GatherDC: Who is your Jewish role model?
Everyone says their parents are their role models…but I can’t not say my mom. She had cancer my entire life. She fought it for 16 years. She watched my races between chemo treatments. She came to my school play multiple times within the year before her death even though she had to use a walker. The list goes on and on. People always say she was a “fighter,” but I think it was loving rather than fighting that kept her going for so long. Things were incredibly difficult and I’m sure she complained and wept and was angry far more than she let me see, but when we were together she forced that not to matter. I think that informs so much of how I try to lead and live. Love first. No matter what the given circumstances are, love out front of all other things.
GatherDC: When Jews of DC Gather…
Jenna: we storytell (on and off stage!)
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Compulsion or the House Behind by Rinne B. Groff runs January 26 – February 20, 2022 at Theater J. The play is directed by Johanna Gruenhut and stars Paul Morella, Kimberly Gilbert, Marcus Kyd, Matt Acheson, and Eirin Stevenson. The play has a run time of 2 hours and 5 minutes including one 15 minute intermission.
To purchase tickets, please visit www.theaterj.org or call the ticket office at (202) 777-3210. Single ticket prices for regular tickets range from $35-$70. Discount ticket packages are available for three or more plays in Theater J’s 2021-22 season, in addition to flex passes.
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