For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.
TCG: When was the moment that you decided to become a professional theatre actor?
Jennifer: Since I didn’t enroll in a conservatory program for undergrad, I tried to take as many theater, voice, and dance classes as I could. At the same time, I discovered that I had a real passion for critical theory and got absorbed in studying that, especially when (after auditioning) I wasn’t placed in any of the acting classes. I was an overenrolled and undisciplined student my first two years of undergrad—particularly in my CORE curriculum classes— but when I started studying within my major (English and Comparative Literature), I buckled down and found that I actually liked engaging in the pedagogic process. I decided to become an academic and so foreswore theater for about a semester and a half. But then, I got to be a part of my first devised theater project: a 48-hour process with Dan Hurlin. We made a piece inspired by Piaget’s theory of conservation and it clicked for me—given my interest in critical theory, whatever theater I would set out to make would start from there, so that the two were in no way mutually exclusive. It makes sense that I am now so connected to Pig Iron given their devised process founded on extensive research. My first piece is “Underground Railroad Game,” a piece I’m co-creating which explores race and narrative.
TCG: What is one challenge in the acting profession that you would like to change? How would you do so?
Jennifer: Theater professionals are not paid enough, which in a capitalist system denotes a lack of value. Because we have to work multiple jobs just to survive, the work can suffer, and because there is a demonstrated lack of value—both monetary and spiritual—society suffers. It can be demoralizing to participate in a devalued discipline and negative feelings can lead to inertia and detrimental compromise. I think we need to encourage and invite non-avid theatergoers back into our spaces to ignite community-wide reinvestment so that fresh energy and perspectives may renew us. I think we should also challenge ourselves to make things that would not be better served on the big screen; rather, spectacles that live by experience and presence and which can be bigger and sharper than any flat screen interpretation could be.
TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career— a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an actor?
Jennifer: I’m not sure I’ve yet had the feeling I could create a lasting legacy, but things changed DRAMATICALLY after I studied at Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training. It’s quite a rigorous program in which preconceptions of self and community are shattered and re-built in the way many MFA programs do for performers. What was unique was that while I was contending with my classmates and myself I was also making stuff. A lot of stuff. We made pieces/proposals without end. And so, I had the invaluable experience of trying and failing so much as to develop a thicker skin in a tough business. I also learned that I could make things (and sometimes succeed at making them), and that I have a great time doing the making. I started school with the thought that I wanted to be a creator, and I left with the confidence that I am a creator, and that was a huge and significant leap for me. It also changed how I regard myself artistically and informed where my interests lie. I used to feel that my work would be determined by casting directors and agents and directors, but I now I feel free to make my own things.
Jennifer Kidwell is a performing artist. Recent projects – I Understand Everything Better (David Neumann/advanced beginner group), I Promised Myself to Live Faster and 99 Break-Ups (Pig Iron Theatre Company), Dick’s Last Stand (Whitney Biennial 2014, as the controversial Donelle Woolford), Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter (Robert Wilson/Toshi Reagon/Bernice Johnson Reagon). She is a co-artistic director of the theater company Lightning Rod Special (Philadelphia) and a co-founder of JACK (Brooklyn). Her writing has been published in movement research Performance Journal #45 and hyperallergic.com. In 2013 she was awarded a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship in conjunction with Pig Iron.