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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Interview with Jenna Weinberg

Jenna Weinberg is a native of Brooklyn, New York, where she acts in and produces theater of all shapes and sizes. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of Mainspring Collective, a Brooklyn based theater company that seeks to provide a home and support for collaboration and multidisciplinary work. To date, Jenna has performed in and produced more than six productions and workshops with Mainspring (including a multimedia piece entitled 'Dream of Me' which celebrated a sold out 3 week run at the cell in Chelsea). She currently serves as managing producer and a lead performer in Mainspring's ongoing original children's series, Monster Literature (www.monsterliterature.com). Jenna also currently works in administration at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, throws fantastic fundraisers, and rarely sleeps.

When I ring the doorbell of Jenna's Brooklyn apartment - she has insisted that we conduct the interview there, over dinner - she descends the stairs dressed in a terrycloth bathrobe. "Look at me, I just got out of the shower," she purrs self-effacingly as we embrace. Within minutes I'm upstairs with a bowl of soup in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, listening as Jenna curls her bare feet under her on the couch and regales me with a story of a bizarre audition she recently went on. "Oh, Leigh, take a look at this," she says, pulling up the audition notice on her computer. "I think you'll appreciate this."

There's an effortless and genuine warmth to Jenna, an inviting, conspiratorial, sort of we're-already-best-friends energy that she emanates. She knows how to put people at ease. Case in point: I'm hardly in the door myself before she's helping me sort out a finicky social situation of my own, dispensing her indispensable wisdom. "Trust me, cannot stop fucking talking about themselves," she laughs. "Look at me - the only reason you're here tonight is because you asked me to talk about myself."

It's a quality that's served her theater company, Mainspring Collective, well. "I have a really good, productive energy, passion and focus, and I have the ability to instill that confidence and energy in others," she says, and when she says it, it isn't a brag. It's a voice filled with the excitement of possibility: imagine what a room full of so many people imbued with so much energy and confidence could do.

And it's true, her excitement and energy is contagious. That Mainspring Collective even exists is evidence of that fact.

Jenna's an actor as well as producer, a hybrid far less common among the more abundant director/producer, playwright/producer combos you usually see. But if it sounds strange, it's only because Mainspring sprung up so strangely - so unexpectedly and felicitously.

"After college I moved back to New York," Jenna explains, "pounded the pavement, went out for all the shit in Backstage, the whole thing." She worked a bit, but she wasn't quite happy. "What bugged me as a performer - and as a human being," she adds emphatically, "was that everything was run by amateurs. I spent more time bitching with the other actors about how much time was being wasted than I did performing."

It was in this state of mind that Jenna attended an open audition at the Producer's Club. Jenna had a mutual connection with one of the guys who ran the theater and so, while waiting for her audition (in true Jenna fashion) she struck up a conversation. "We somehow ended up talking about how cool I thought it would be to put on my own show and they said, 'Why don't you?'" As it turns out, the Producer's Club had been toying with the idea of producing some theater themselves, in-house, and along walked Jenna - a perfect opportunity.

"So I ran home, called Hilary (Krishnan - Mainspring's Artistic Director) and said, 'Hil, these guys want to give us free space and $3,600, let's put on a show."

So Mainspring Collective was created, and their first show, a 1950’s reimagining of Euripedes’ Medea was performed at the Producers’ Club in August of 2007.

"After it was over, there was no other option. There was no question about how this is how we're going work," she says. "Because we were just so super fuckin' passionate about what we were doing."

I came prepared to my first interview ever: I have a whole legal pad full of questions ready to ask her, but I'm finding quickly I don't need to use them. I only have to mention her theater company and she's telling stories, asking and answering her own questions, making impassioned declarations and then interrupting herself with equally impassioned tangents.

As we talk, Jenna periodically rummages through her closet - she's going out later and trying to find an outfit. Her thoughts are sometimes punctuated by exclamations like, "Can I do this? Can I WEAR the Linda Rondstadt sequins?"

And then just as quickly, she's talking about her theater company again. "We can talk about Mainspring all night," she says, "It's my favorite thing to talk about." So what is going on with Mainspring these days? I ask her.

She smiles and sighs and, without missing a beat, says, "Oooh, it's kind of a sad story. Well, not a sad story - and important one." The company is, as she describes it, at a turning point. Her co-founder and artistic director, Hilary Krishnan is leaving for grad school, leaving the rest of the company to determine how the company will continue in her absence. For the past year has been a series of children’s shows entitled Monster Literature. The company produced a new installment in the series every other month, an undertaking which Jenna describes as “intense” – So much so, it seems, that they've decided to back of Monster Literature (at least temporarily) and take the company in new directions, evaluating how to expand the type of work they do.

And then she's off again, "sad story," forgotten, waxing effusive about all the possibilities the future holds, what directions the company might take, and all the work she's excited about finding and creating. She talks over and over again about collaborating, about finding passionate artists who are looking for a way "to make the art they need to make, and making a place for that to happen."

"Everything we've ever done is based on passion," she says, that passion written all over her face. "A theater company that does, you know, three mainstages and a reading series - that's just not how we operate." She's interested in finding the need, in creating art that needs to happen when it needs to happen. "I mean, I have a pile of money that belongs to Mainspring Collective," she says. "But I'm not in favor of committing so something just for the sake of committing to something."

She sums up her future plans for Mainspring Collective simply: "It's about reaching out and finding new artists - ideas - and finding a place and a home for them."

She gasps, suddenly, midsentence, and exclaims, “I have a crazy idea!” It takes me a minute to realize she’s talking about her wardrobe. She peers at the Linda Ronstadt sequins and says, pointing at it almost suspiciously, “I’m still thinking about you.”

“So I was at the dentist yesterday,” she continues without a breath in between, “And he was talking about, you know ‘Oh, when Jenna wins the Tony Award,’ … And it’s sort of sad because friends and family still think I'm going to be on Broadway. It’s hard, you know? Because it's difficult for other people to pinpoint what exactly it means to have a career in theater."

She's suddenly swept up in her own zealous cause. "But I’m not waiting for my life to happen, this IS my life! I'm not an aspiring actress or producer. At age 27, you're not ASPIRING to do anything. You're doing it, no matter what your experience is - your success is in putting one foot in front of the other and getting from point A to point B and doing your best all the time."

“Anybody can do what I'm doing.” She adds thoughtfully. “It's just a question of wanting to do it and then doing it."

She talks passionately and earnestly about all the things she's learned, the skills she's acquired, her continually evolving learning process. She truly found a niche for herself when she discovered producing. When the opportunity to do Medea came along, she says, “I was surprised to discover my own organizational skills.”

“I took the part of the messenger [in Medea] – I took a smaller role,” in order to balance her new producing responsibilities. “At first I felt like I was making a sacrifice – I had so much else to do, I wasn’t fully with the actors. But it opened up this world, this joy, these things that I’m good at that that I never would have found without this experience. I got to feel what it was like to be with something from beginning to end.”

Her pride in what she's accomplished and her enthusiasm for what comes next creates an infectious energy. She is inadvertently inspirational.

"I've had a huge part in what Mainspring has done, but in a sense I think it would have happened without me." Jenna is being humble; Mainspring Collective is her child, her labor of love. But I think I understand what she means: everything her theater company has done has been art that has been ready to be discovered, ready to be created – just itching to find someone passionate and dedicated enough to help it break through to the surface.

Finally, for fun, I ask her about the future of theater. It’s a topic I hear bounced around pretty frequently, so I want to know her opinion about where the art form is headed.

"The key to making theatre people care about is in collaborative art - finding ways to fuse different areas, like dancing, film, photography,” she thinks. “Multi-disciplinary theater is what will keep people engaged in theater. It’s about growing the way we experience live work - broadening the scope of what appeals to people - letting them experience it on different levels."

"The important thing about live theater is the immediacy. It's unpredictable, uncertain. It requires you to listen and react in that moment. It's what keeps people connected in this over-stimulated society. There's a particular audience of people who will enjoy theater, just like there's a particular audience for dance or opera. We need to make the audience for theater less particular."

And if there’s one thing she can say about Mainspring Collective and her experience running the company? “The people I work with are the most exciting, passionate and talented people. We’re a company…” She pauses, searching for the right words. “We’re a company constantly trying to remind ourselves what about this is great. There’s never a formula with us. It’s never boring.”

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