Interview: Director Janeece Freeman Clark of SPRING AWAKENING at Vanguard Theater Company in Montclair

Director Janeece Freeman Clark of SPRING AWAKENING at Vanguard Theater Company

By: Jul. 07, 2023
Interview: Director Janeece Freeman Clark of SPRING AWAKENING at Vanguard Theater Company in Montclair
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Spring Awakening is currently being performed by Vanguard Theater Company, the destination for professional theatre in Montclair NJ.  The show, which has already received rave reviews, will be on stage through Sunday, July 16.  Directed by Janeece Freeman Clark, Spring Awakening features book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik and it is based on the play by Frank Wedeking.

Broadwayworld had the pleasure of interviewing Janeece Freeman Clark about her career and the Spring Awakening at Vanguard Theater Company.

Janeece Freeman Clark is the Artistic Director of Vanguard Theater Company and the Director of their current production of Spring Awakening.  She is a Producer, Director, Actor & Artist Educator, who hails from Lansing, Michigan. A 2022 Tony nominee for excellence in Arts Education, she serves on the Musical Theater Faculty at Manhattan School of Music and is also a Professor of Theater at Seton Hall University. As a Theater Director, her New York productions of Everything is Fine Until It’s Not, and A Portrait of Ray, have won numerous awards and critical acclaim. Her production of Showtime with Shakespeare premiered at George Street Playhouse and NJPAC, followed by two successful national tours. Janeece is the founding Artistic Director of Vanguard Theater Company, based in Montclair, NJ. Under Janeece’s direction Vanguard has presented NYC productions of Runaways, Spring Awakening, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Children's Letters to God, A Little Princess and NJ productions of Memphis, Hairspray, Heathers, Carrie, The Music Man, Songs For A New World (film), Next to Normal, Walk In My Gravity, and Into the Woods. In addition to VTC’s theatrical season offerings, their robust educational programming equips the younger generation with the tools to be professional performers as well as gatekeepers within the industry. Signature programs such as: Broadway Buddy pairs Broadway artists with mentees who are aspiring to a professional career in the industry; VTC Next trains and mentors a diverse group of up-and-coming “theater gatekeepers” (writers, producers, directors, choreographers, stage managers, etc.); and DreamVTC teaches the importance of artist activism alongside performance skills. Janeece has cultivated and produced video media revolving around the “Origins of Blackface Minstrelsy”; she has presented TEDx talks centered on Social Justice, Diversity and Inclusion; and has created theatrical curriculum for institutions such as New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Young Audiences Arts for Learning.

Janeece received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and her master’s from Rider University. She serves on the board of directors for the NJ Theater Alliance and is the special advisor for Seton Hall University’s Arts Council.

As an actor, Janeece has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway, national tours, television, film, commercials, and voiceovers. Janeece resides in South Orange, NJ and is married to Broadway Actor, Dwayne Clark, with whom she shares two children: Jada & DJ.

What was your very first experience as a performer?

My first experience performing was in the Children’s Choir at my church: Friendship Baptist Church in my hometown of Lansing, MI. At 7 years old, my first solo was a song called “God Has Smiled On Me.” I could barely make a sound and remember trembling so much that my heart resembled the beat of a frantic drummer! But somehow, I made it through (though barely…I think I was actually sobbing by the end!) But even so -  from that moment on - I knew the stage would become my home. The “stage” for me in 6th grade was the hallways of Waverly Middle School where I belted out the melodies of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston at the very top of my lungs - subsequently spending many days in detention for disrupting the peace! But there was one teacher, Denise Sauter, who helped me channel that energy by inviting me to join a select concert choir. The choral works of Samuel Barber and Bach were an extreme departure from the gospel and pop melodies I was accustomed to learning by ear, but I loved them nonetheless. Shortly after, I auditioned for the musical - and played Ruth in our Middle School Production of Pirates of Penzance. A bit mature for middle school? Maybe - but I recall even then loving the delightful blend of wit, humor, and catchy tunes of the satirical comedy. I also remember making audiences laugh for the first time - which was even more of a high for me than singing alone. Having the audience in the palm of your hand? Wow - there was nothing quite like it. Opening night of Pirates of Penzance was the moment I knew that musical theater would be a part of my life for the foreseeable future. 

We'd love to know a little more about your education and how it prepared you for your career?

Following my time at Waverly Middle School I continued my musical theater journey at Waverly High where, after my first couple of years of performing principal roles in the musicals, I had my eyes set on a new role. In a performance of persuasion, I convinced my teachers that I was capable of helming the next high school musical. I directed (and performed in) productions of Godspell and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat during my final years at Waverly High School - which was the best education I could have ever imagined. 

Following high school I attended the University of Michigan where I studied Musical Theater, Voice Performance, Education, and even Psychology (minor) (I was a bit of an overachiever).  My time at Michigan gave me even more permission to explore my diverse interests - as a performer, a creative, and an artist citizen. My professors supported and encouraged my exploration, which was paramount in my artistic development. 

I moved to NY immediately following my tenure at Michigan, and felt prepared in many ways - but I soon realized that there were some aspects of the business that I wasn’t prepared for - at least not emotionally. Coming up in the business as a young Black actress, I often found myself being placed in very specific boxes. One casting director after the next - one creative team member after another - even my representation played a part. The feedback I received from my agent was often: "they don't think you're "raw" enough" or "they think you are too 'polished'" which was code for...I wasn't Black enough. At times I would hear “Can you try it again, but a little bit more street?” “Street” was substituted with “urban,” “sassy,” “edgy,” and sometimes they would even boldly say - “Can you try it again, but a little bit more Black?” What I found odd was that the material I was auditioning for seldom actually called for this kind of specificity they were requesting (e.g. "Belle" in the Regional production of Beauty and the Beast. Really!?!). It was just expected because of the skin I was in. Ironically, however, on the flip side, there were also moments where, apparently, I was "too black." I'll never forget when the director on a TV set said, "Can you try it a little less angry...more like Oprah having a disagreement?"

In part, because of these experiences, I decided to move to the other side of the table.  Having the desire to change the narrative of theater as I knew it, I began in my own corner of the world. In 2015, I founded Vanguard Theater Company with a then colleague of mine, Daryl Stewart.  From the beginning, we set out to create a space where all performers could bring their authentic selves into the room and have the diversity of their lived experiences honored on and off the stage.   

In addition to being the Founding, Producing Artistic Director of Vanguard Theater, I am on the Musical Theatre Faculty of Manhattan School of Music, and an adjunct Professor of Theatre at Seton Hall University. Obtaining my masters from Rider University gave me the opportunity to bring my theater philosophy into the world of higher education, thus furthering my reach. 

You have a vast amount of experience in the performing arts.  What are some of the challenges of wearing so many hats?

Being perpetually tired lol!  I am also the mom of two children - my son is in middle school and my daughter is starting high school.  My husband, Dwayne Clark, is currently in “Shucked, the Musical,” his 10th Broadway show.  His schedule is jam-packed, so I do a fair share of the heavy lifting with our kids.  

But I’m very lucky to be surrounded by a team of incredibly talented and supportive people.  It’s so important to be able to trust your team, and not have to micromanage, or second guess, their choices.  But of course, finding the right people, training them in the “Vanguard-way”, and then letting them fly, at times carries challenges as well. 

As the Founder and Artistic Director of Vanguard Theater Company, why do you think the Company has been so successful?

Talking-the-talk and walking-the-walk are two very different things. I really believe the reason we’ve been so successful is because we’ve been unwaveringly walking this walk since the very beginning. We are 100% mission driven in everything we do: Challenging social and cultural narratives through theater dedication to DREAM: Diversity, Reciprocity, Education, Activism, and Mentorship. For many theaters, the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2020 served as a much-needed wake-up call, urging them to confront the systemic inequalities within their theaters and embrace the importance of diverse representation on stage and behind the scenes. But since we began in 2015, we strive to make sure our casts, board of directors, staff, creative teams, and audiences mirror the rich diversity of the world we inhabit. Our philosophy is that without diversity of race, gender, class, experience and perspective - theater fails to exist. We’ve found that when everyone feels safe to bring the truest version of who they are into a space - creativity, joy, exploration, and commitment is boundless. That’s what we call: “The Vanguard Vibe.” 

Here are some specific examples of what success looks like for Vanguard. In our rendition of The Music Man, the charismatic Harold Hill was brought to life by a Filipino Rapper, while the role of Mayor Shinn was brilliantly portrayed by a Black Woman - making the Mayor and her wife an interracial, lesbian couple. They led a “River City Iowa” that beautifully embraced the kaleidoscope of humanity, showcasing a multitude of families that defied societal norms. From single-parent households to racially and culturally diverse families, from blended and extended families to grandfamilies and foster/adoptive families, from same-sex families, to childless families - we celebrated the vibrant tapestry of what communities can (and should) look like - and the magic that happens when members’ of a community like this embrace their differences and unite. 

Our portrayal of Diana by a Black woman in Next To Normal not only mesmerized audiences but also ignited crucial dialogues within our Black community, challenging the pervasive stigma surrounding mental health. The actor’s powerful performance brought forth a new understanding of the complex struggles faced by individuals from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, our casting of a woman as Dr. Madden further reshaped the narrative, offering a fresh perspective. 

In our production of Spitfire Grill, a Latina woman took center stage as Percy, igniting crucial conversations about the pervasive but often hidden issues of sexual and physical abuse within families, particularly in marginalized communities and impoverished environments. Furthermore, the casting of a Black woman in the role of the Spitfire Grill matriarch and owner added depth and diversity to the narrative, showcasing the power of representation on stage. Witnessing the heartfelt bond between the three female leads - Black, Latina, and White - as they crafted a beautiful chosen family, both within the story and in their real-life connections, was beautiful to behold, exemplifying the transformative nature of the unity that can come from shared experiences.

Our current production of Spring Awakening celebrates the rich tapestry of human experience with a vibrant mosaic of cultures and backgrounds all sharing the stage together. This image allows so many young people to see themselves represented in this very important story of self discovery. 

We love that Vanguard Theater Company is very connected to the arts and education community in NJ. Can you tell us a little more about the Company's impressive initiatives?  

A hallmark of our work is partnering with non-arts organizations to lift their messages through the work we are presenting.  For example, with our current production of Spring Awakening, which is about young people seeking truth and knowledge while many of the adults around them strive to keep them in the dark, we have partnered with the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, Out Montclair, AAPI Montclair, and the Broadway House for Continuing Care. We also held a transformational workshop about Teen Trauma and Mental Wellness with the cast, 25 teenagers, and mental health facilitators. Previously, for our production of Runaways, the Musical, we had a concert in Montclair in partnership with Covenant House NJ to raise awareness and funds for the growing number of homeless youth in Essex County.  We regularly partner with Out Montclair, Montclair History Center, AAPI Montclair, and The Howe House, among others, on programs that lift the messages they share offstage with the work we are presenting on stage. 

Interview: Director Janeece Freeman Clark of SPRING AWAKENING at Vanguard Theater Company in Montclair

Your current production of "Spring Awakening" has already received excellent reviews. Why do you think the time is right for this show?

For so many reasons!

The regressive decision by the US Supreme Court to dismantle a 50-year precedent of protecting the rights to safe and legal abortion in this country has put millions of women and girls at serious risk - and those in disadvantaged situations (such as members of marginalized communities, low income individuals and abused victims) are disproportionately affected. 

Suicide among adolescents ages 15 - 19 jumped 30% over the previous decade. During the pandemic, it was called the “pandemic within the pandemic” and continues to plague us more and more with each passing year. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students - with Black, Pacific Islander, and Native American students reporting higher rates than all others. 

When Sater first began writing his musical adaptation of Spring Awakening, what fueled him to write was actually the 1999 shootings at Columbine. Today firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens ages 1 - 19 in the United States. 3 million kids (in counting) are impacted every year by gun violence. 

Then there’s sex education. Though explored in our schools to a certain extent, inclusive sexual education for LGBTQ+ youth doesn’t exist in our school systems. Furthermore, Gender Queer books top the list of banned, challenged, relocated, and restricted books for providing sexual education and LGBTQIA+ content. As a matter of fact, over half of the 2022’s most challenged books have LGBTQ themes. 

This show simply couldn’t be more timeless. Spring Awakening is an exploration of what it means to live, love and survive in a world that strives to keep you in the dark. However, when I watch our wonderful actors tell this story, I am struck not by the sorrow…but by the hope. Sure, there are many tears to be shed in it, but it contains an overall message of communal hope. When this provincial town in 19th century Germany fails its youth, these children answer by picking up the pieces and creating a community of love, support, hope - and change.  

Can you tell us a little about the cast and creative team for "Spring Awakening?"

We had over 1200 submissions for Spring Awakening, many of which were outstanding.  We knew when we chose this show that it was extremely important to have the cast reflect the diversity of our community, so that everyone would be able to see themselves represented in the show.  

It’s an exceptional cast. They are, each and every one of them, extraordinarily talented and more importantly remarkable human beings who have given themselves completely to this process, and to our intention to honor each of their lived experiences and histories while telling this story.  I am also very proud of the fact that two of the actors, who grew up in our educational programs, are in our show, as members of the ensemble and covers for two of the lead roles.

My creative team is a force! Collaboratively, we have crafted an immersive and genuine world that allows our talented actors to seamlessly delve into their characters, and embark on their complex journeys from one moment to the next. I value each and every one of them.

What would you like audiences to know about the show?

When casting a show, in addition to looking for ways to connect our world and community issues to the topics explored in the piece, I also make really specific and thought-out choices with regard to casting. The conscious casting audiences see in our production fulfills our mission of giving voice and advocacy to a wider range of identities. Though many of the themes in Spring Awakening are universal - how each character might experience them differs based on their lived history. The narrative of this story takes on a few additional layers with this in mind. At times, this might feel uncomfortable. But I encourage viewers to lean into that discomfort and allow themselves to experience this story from the viewpoint of many different lenses. 

Can you share with us some of your future plans?

Illuminating New Voices is a Vanguard Theater initiative made possible by funding from Jordan Brand’s Community Grant Program Black Community Commitment Grant to increase awareness of the role race plays in our history and drive a deeper understanding of the consequences of racism in our everyday lives. Earlier this season, our very first New Works festival was quite successful - showcasing abridged versions of five new musicals, four new plays, and one choreo-poem. Next season we’re thrilled to be able to present three full works by Bipoc teams that came out of that festival. 

These three plays center on themes of identity and self-discovery, in a world where unconscious bias boldly lives and dwells. Centering on that same theme, we’ll be opening our season with Pippin where we’ll also explore themes of societal expectations, the relentless pursuit of power, and the dance between illusion and reality. A couple of additional mainstages (with similar themes) are in the works. We hope to have a fully flushed out season in the coming weeks. 

Throughout the season, we will also have one night only events in partnership with Out Montclair and other community partners.  Last season, we also began bringing educational programming and productions into schools, something we are eager to develop further.

Now that COVID is “officially” behind us, we hope to bring back our signature Broadway Buddy Mentorship program, in which we pair 30 rising artists with 30 artists working on Broadway.  During the years we ran this program - 2016 - 2020, emerging artists created vital and lasting relationships with professional performers in whom the young performers could see themselves - critical and invaluable relationships that they will be able to access throughout their careers. 

Finally, we look to grow our VTC Next initiative, cultivating the next generation of behind the scenes professionals - the writers, composers, directors, producers, technical and stagecraft workers – to help create alternate pipelines to professional work. 

Our readers can view a special sizzle reel to preview Spring Awakening at the following link: Spring Awakening at Vanguard Theater Company

Vanguard Theater Company is located at 180 Bloomfield Ave Second Floor, Montclair, NJ 07042.  For more information, and to purchase tickets please visit  or call (862) 205-3525.  You can follow the Theater on social media at #dreamvtc and @vtcnj 

Photo Credit:  Janeece Freeman Clark Headshot and Production Photo by Spotlights Photography


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