BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with Jen Burleigh-Bentz

BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with Jen Burleigh-Bentz

Jen Burleigh-Bentz is an Equity actor who is based in Minneapolis and Saint Paul with an extensive resume in and out of the area. She spent four years in New York City as a part of the cast of Broadway's MAMMA MIA! covering the understudy duties for roles of Donna, Rosie and Tanya. Recently, she played the lead role in a new production of the same show on the North Shore in a newly restored theatre space. Her enthusiasm for what they're doing in Duluth, Minn., with this space and the arts in general is infectious. So much so that it made for a great topic in this space. Read on to learn everything you'd want to know about The Duluth Playhouse's new theatre from her in 6 Questions.

Jen, I was lucky enough to head up to Duluth this winter to see you star as Donna in MAMMA MIA at The Duluth Playhouse's brand new Norshor Theatre. What a great new space! Can you tell me a little about the theatre and what it's like to work in a newly renovated space like that?

OH, the NorShor! Such a beautiful new/old theatre. The Norshor was on the Vaudeville circuit - it was called the Orpheum back in 1910 and was a splendid theatre that was claimed by the gentleman who built it to be "more metropolitan than any I have seen outside of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston." There's a wonderful history written on this lovely, newly renovated theatre at http://norshortheatre.com/norshor-history/.

As for the renovation...it's wonderful. They have reimagined the entire theatre, but have kept the historical integrity on every level. From the ground up - the dressing rooms are 100% new - wonderfully outfitted with intercom systems and designed extremely well, the costume shop is large and on the same floor as the dressing rooms - what a novel idea! There is a large monitor on that floor so that we can see what is happening on stage as well as hear it. :)

The stage itself has the ability to be transformed depending on how the orchestra is placed - there is the option of having them underneath the stage, below but in front of the stage or positioned on the stage with the cast. The backstage has been reworked so that this is a back crossover and they've installed beautiful scrims but can also use new media. The auditorium has been reworked with new, comfortable seating with drink holders - to hold the wonderful options that they have on the menu in both bars. The NorShor has partnered with the owners of Black Woods, who now cater the wonderful mixology drinks and choice snacks before the show, during intermission, and occasionally after the show. Old Fashions and Lavender Martinis are not always seen at run-of-the-mill theaters - this is ONE way that the NorShor is stepping above the standards and flushing out their own way, creating a "NorShor Experience" like no other.

The rehearsal spaces are AMAZING! Tons of windows opening onto the street with sunlight streaming in will be outfitted with sprung floors and mirrors...I've worked in so many theaters over the years and VERY few have had this sort of space available to them - the offices for the team members are on the same floor as these spaces, and the opportunity for the local arts community to utilize these spaces is just fantastic.

Working in and OPENING this theatre was an absolute thrill. We had a Black Tie event, where the current mayor and most recent mayor were in attendance, along with the "who's who" of the Duluth Arts community, which is vast. I couldn't have been more honored than to have been a part of that - along with the magic of MAMMA MIA! and the fabulous cast, crew, technical, design and artistic team of the Duluth Playhouse.

You mentioned the incredible attention to detail that they had when they were renovating that old space. What features most impressed you?

I met the son of the artist who created the amazingly LARGE and vibrant murals on the walls of the theatre. He showed me pictures from when they were originally designed, and the artist's other works... they look today like they were painted on those walls just 10 years ago, yet when I visited the theatre back in August of last year... the entire rooms were in shambles! The mezzanine and the lobby have just been completely renovated - it's not gold gilded or ostentatious, it's a tasteful reproduction that took care and lots of attention, and will continue to do so as this wonderful arts community continues their journey with the amazing space.

Minneapolis/Saint Paul audiences may not often leave the area to see theatre productions with so many excellent shows happening in our midst, but The Duluth Playhouse has a very ambitious season ahead of them. What shows should people who are ready for a road trip put on their calendars?

Well, any show in this space is a treat - and the Duluth Playhouse and their arts cohorts have a great line-up of talent, but LEND ME A TENOR and THE MUSIC MAN are next on the docket. I will be attending both - it's such an easy drive and a wonderfully warm and inclusive culture, that I hope the folks who might consider a Chicago vacation take a trip to Duluth instead. :)

What is it like for you, as a Twin Cities-based actor, to join a production in another metro area like that? Do you see Duluth as close enough to provide more area actors a chance to expand to the North Shore?

I love to travel. I love to experience the LIVING in different cities, states, countries... ever since I was 20 and moved to Virginia to perform, I've had itchy feet, so have actively worked "sitting down" in seven states and have traveled with two international and one national tour, so have performed in every state except for Washington, Oregon and Wyoming, I believe. Joining new communities when you are a hard working actor is fairly common, I think, and as most productions have a different cast (at least slightly) from show to show, coming in from out of town does not always feel that different.

When I joined the cast in Duluth, however, I have to admit, they were extremely welcoming and warm, which was glorious. The thing is, if you do your job, show up on time (which is generally 10 minutes before you're supposed to be there!), are respectful and good to people, they are usually respectful and good back to you. If an actor took a job thinking that he or she would be more important than anyone else in the cast or crew, that actor may have a hard time working outside of our Metro... I go into every job thinking that I am going to learn something interesting from every single person that I meet, and I always do! In or out of town.

Duluth is fabulously close! They have amazing theatre and opera programs up there, and when they need to look outside of their area to fill roles, I think WE can color ourselves lucky that we are close enough in proximity to be considered options for THEM. One thing that I think some of us forget as actors, is that we can often times be mobile - Chicago is not that far away, Milwaukee is not that far away, if an actor wants to expand and has the talent that other theaters outside of our Metro are looking for, why NOT consider expanding to those cities? We have so many wonderful opportunities in Minnesota, but if there's a role that you want to play, and the Great River Shakespeare Festival is doing it, we usually put our hats in the ring... by why not do the same when that show is being performed in Chicago, or Arkansas or Utah? The talent in our area is vast, all that is holding us back from being in those companies is geography... I feel lucky to have seen the Duluth Playhouse search in MN Playlist, as I was not actively looking to move out of the area to perform last year, but I did and grew EXPONENTIALLY from my experience there.

You had the opportunity to play the lead role in a show you spent considerable time playing on Broadway. What was different, the same or better about this role for you?

AHA. I have bullet points for you.

1) So, when I played Donna on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, there were 2,000 people at every show. We never had half sold shows, nor poorly attended shows there, it was always a huge house. At the NorShor, we sold the show out a month before it even opened - it's a smaller house, 650 seats, much more intimate than the Winter Garden, but completely sold out. So, similar vibe there.

2) When I played Donna in New York, I was understudying the role - which means that my job was to of course act and sing and dance very well, but even more so, my job was to give a performance as close to the Donna in residence at that time as possible so as not to throw off the other performers (I had six different Donnas within one calendar year). As an approved understudy, you literally would be asked to "fill their shoes" for the 2.5 hours. Every approved understudy performed slightly differently than the Donna in residence, of course, but we did the best that we could to keep rhythms, intentions, actions and blocking as close to our Donna as possible.

At the Duluth Playhouse's production of MAMMA MIA! at the NorShor, however, I got to make Donna MY OWN. It was a completely different experience. I was able to bring her character in from the ground up, working closely with the folks who played the other characters and building my Donna WITH them. My Donna's intentions came from different life experiences, world views, a different heart and soul - mine. That, I have to say, was ultimately so very rewarding. Getting the opportunity to grow with a character like her, who has so many responsibilities, very clear priorities, extremely strong, loyal and long lasting relationships was just an immense pleasure and really cut me to the core every night. I loved it. I loved playing Donna and Tanya and Rosie in NYC, but the luxury (and responsibility) of filling my OWN shoes as Donna was a beautiful thing. It felt real, it felt right and it felt FABulous.

3) There's a magic that surrounds MAMMA MIA! productions that is very particular. The Broadway company still keeps in pretty close touch, though it's a vast number of folks, and has been closed for three years. The Duluth Playhouse's magic was just the same. No ego, no power plays, just wild enjoyment of every moment and every person. A true treat - an experience that I will treasure always.

As an Equity member, what did you think of the recent news that Actors Equity released that Minneapolis/Saint Paul is the number three best place for live theatre in the country? (that story here)

Well, I love it here, who wouldn't? Seriously, though, yes, it's a wonderful place to live, and our opportunities to do new works, work with amazing writers and directors, in theaters of national repute and in theaters that are just coming into their own are great. We have it pretty great here, there is no doubt, however, in my humble opinion, it's great as long as you have another job or business to keep you secure. As our contracts are pretty short on the whole (though there are a few companies in the area that offer 3-6 month long contracts, it's generally 6-12 weeks max), if an actor is constantly working, that's 4-6 shows a year...which can be slightly intimidating to a newcomer to consider. All in all, I think it's great that this great community is being recognized, it's high time!

What is next for you on stage or off?

Thank you for asking!

Well, off stage I am the co-owner and operator of Brickhouse Music in downtown River Falls (RF - yes, Wisconsin!), so even when I am doing shows, I am directly involved daily in the running of this big operation. We've been in RF for 20 years, have about 8000 square feet of retail space, have 350 lessons per week, do rental, repair and public address (PA) installs, so we are busy bees. Check out brickhousemusic.com or look for us on Facebook to take advantage of our free workshops and clinics.

I am psyched to be starting work on a new work this spring - a play called SUBPRIME (by Beck Lee, a New York playwright) at Mixed Blood. We open in May and run until May 27. I am blessed to be performing with some wonderful local actors - Bonni Allen, Charles Fraser and Don Hopman - and once again get to work with Peter Moore, this time as my director instead of my co-star. :) See Subprimetheplay.com for information and tickets.

Photo: Jen Burleigh-Bentz, photo by Bonni Allen Photography.

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