BWW Interview: Philly's Own Jennie Eisenhower
Jennie is known for many appealing qualities that include her delightful personality, her talent as an award winning actress, teacher and director.
In 2004 she was awarded the Best Supporting Actress in a Musical Barrymore (the Philadelphia equivalent of a Tony) for her work as Kate in "The Wild Party." In 2009, she won her second Barrymore - this time for best Actress in a Musical for her work in "Forbidden Broadway" at the Walnut Street Theatre. She has had three additional Barrymore nominations for her portrayals of Julie in "Showboat" at the Media Theatre, Rona Lisa Peretti in "Spelling Bee" for Theatre Horizon, and Jo in "Little Women" at Bristol Riverside Theatre.
As a director, Jennie's credits include "Chicago" at The Media Theatre, "Flat Stanley" and "A Christmas Carol" on the Walnut Street Theatre's Mainstage and "Mean Girls are Bullies 2″ for Walnut's touring outreach, "Home Sweet" at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, "Working" and "Ragtime" at Howard Blake Magnet Arts HS. She's also an adjunct faculty member at Temple University and teaches voice and coaches acting privately.
Jennie originated roles in many productions including the renowned playwright Christopher Durang's musical "Adrift in Macao" (music by Peter Melnick), "Suburb" at Off- Broadway's The York Theatre, The Wilma Theatre's "Embarrassments" about the writer Henry James, "Remember When the Music," a revue of Harry Chapin songs, and the Arden's "Baby Case," just to name a few.
Pati Buehler: Speaking of babies, Jennie is not only a fairly newly married lady but is joyously enjoying her latest "production" her adorable baby girl Chloe. Tell us how do enjoy motherhood and how do you balance a career and being a mother?
Jennie Eisenhower: Motherhood is incredible. It has - for better and worse - changed the way I see the world. I am far more aware of how fragile life is and what a privilege it is just to be alive. Chloe is so cute and very funny. She is crawling and trying to walk now so every minute of the day is about keeping her from bumping her head or eating an electrical cord! In terms of the career/mother balance, I went back to work when she was two months old ("Parade" at the Arden). It wasn't as tough as I thought it would be. Being in shows isn't that is difficult to juggle. The schedule is structured and I carve out the time. The freelance elements of being a working artist are harder: the emailing, networking, seeing shows, auditioning etc. At the end of a day chasing Chloe around, it is tempting to collapse on my couch and just watch the Bachelor or something.
PB: Many Philly actors are thriving right in their own backyards much to the delight of the local audiences. What is the appeal or perhaps disadvantage of earning a living in your home area as opposed to going for out of town productions?
JE: I did some out of town work in my twenties and that was a great time to do it. I was single with no kids and nothing tying me to any one place. It was a fun way to see other parts of the country and I really enjoyed it. But making an artistic home for me in Philadelphia has been really wonderful, especially since I have Chloe and my husband Tony now. My parents, siblings, and many of my friends are also in the area. It would be much harder to travel for work now just from an emotional standpoint. However, this production of Arsenic and Old Lace ran for a month in Lancaster, PA and I went and lived there for a month. It worked because I took Chloe - and my mom, who is the best babysitter in the world - with me!
PB: Personally I like the fact that there is a Philly stable of versatile, talented actors who seem to 'theater hop' from one production to another in the Philadelphia area. Some folks like the familiarity of this others wish the Artistic Directors would bring in fresh talent more often. What do you think?
JE: I think that is true of any theatre community! In New York, you have your Broadway stars. And I've lived in Chicago and Tampa for extended periods of time and there are "regulars" in those communities as well. It's just the way theatre tends to work - directors like to hire people they know and trust and who have done good work for them before. And actors generate fan bases over time and it behooves the theatres to hire people who have a following. I feel very grateful to be able to work in Philly at lots of different theatres.
PB: Jennie, you do musical theater and comedy so well. What is the process for prepping for both?
JE: Thank you! I am actually teaching a class about the process of prepping for performance at the Walnut this spring so I have been thinking about that question a lot lately. The truth is my process varies depending on the production. For some roles I do a lot of reading about past productions or historical information (if the character is based on a real person), and do a lot of journaling. And for some roles I just focus on what's in the script. The one thing I do for every role I play, though, is show up to the first rehearsal fully memorized. I started doing that several years ago and it has really helped my process. If I am fishing for lines while working scenes, I am not fully present in the moment and, for me, every day of rehearsal is precious. So I make sure that I have my lines under my belt. That way I can jump right in and start living in my character from day one.
PB: As a director and musical teacher what do you look for from artists you direct and students you teach and how do you draw out their potential?
JE: I am always asking people to take risks and to be vulnerable. If a student or an actor is willing to take chances, I'm thrilled. The toughest thing is to work with people who are guarded. But that is the challenge of being a director and a teacher - and one I enjoy. I can pull just about anyone out of their shell. Basically, I am willing to make a complete fool out of myself and most people eventually decide it is safe to do the same thing around me!
PB: Any favorite roles? Challenging roles? Roles you love to do?
JE: I define my "favorite roles" by the list of characters I miss and wish I could inhabit again. This list changes from day to day, but today the ones I am really missing are Mae in "Reefer Madness" (11th Hour Theatre), Saunders in "Fallen Angels" (Walnut), Jo in "Little Women" (Bristol), Kate in "Wild Party" (Media Theatre), and Rona Lisa Peretti in "Spelling Bee" (Theatre Horizon). I also miss pretending to be Carol Channing ("Forbidden Broadway" at Walnut Street Theatre). I would LOVE to do Lilli Vanessi in "Kiss Me Kate." She is a diva and Anna in "Closer" because I am obsessed with that play.
PB: Media Theater just announced its 2014 season and you will be playing the role of Morticia Addams in their production of the Addams Family. How much fun will that be?
JE: I cannot WAIT! My husband LOVES the Addams Family so he is super excited about it. And my niece will finally be old enough to see me in something - and she is six and obsessed with witches and monsters, so I think this is the perfect thing to take her to. Also it will be fun to be back in heightened, vampy musical theatre role. I have fun with that style.
Saving the Trivial Pursuit fact for last; Jennie, as many know is the great grand-daughter of President Eisenhower and grand daughter of President Nixon. She doesn't hide the facts about her family heritage and is happy to talk about it when asked. Having seen her in 3 past productions (Wild Party, Mouse Trap and Little Women) I can tell you that Jennie has absolutely earned her way into the hall of great talents in musical theater with her delightful ability to play wonderful convincing roles and make them look as if she were meant to play them.
Learn more about Jennie at www.jennieeisenhower.com