Interview: Jessa Blackthorne of DISASTER! THE MUSICAL at West Hudson Arts & Theatre Company

Performances ran through May 4.

By: May. 05, 2024
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.

Existing user? Just click login.

Interview: Jessa Blackthorne of DISASTER! THE MUSICAL at West Hudson Arts & Theatre Company West Hudson Arts & Theatre Co. presents Disaster! The Musical! 

Disaster! puts a comedic spin on the beloved classic disaster movie genre, infused with the funky beats of disco! As the curtains rise on the grand opening of New York City's latest sensation, the floating casino known as the Barracuda, an impending earthquake threatens to turn the night upside down. Disaster specialist Ted Scheider (portrayed by Dylan Myers) races against the clock to evacuate the ship, while the unscrupulous casino owner Tony Delvecchio (played by John Jeffords) prioritizes profits over safety, brushing aside any warnings.

Marianne Wilson (Maria Ruppert), a determined journalist, uncovers Tony's shady dealings with local safety officials but finds herself entangled with her ex-fiancée Chad (Frankie Perez), who, alongside his buddy Scott (Roman Koster), is catering the extravagant event. Will Ted manage to rally everyone to safety before disaster strikes? Can Marianne and Chad reconcile their differences amidst the chaos? And what's causing those mysterious tremors?

Set to a groovy soundtrack featuring 70s hits like "Hot Stuff," "I Am Woman," and "Knock on Wood," Disaster! promises a rollicking good time. With a colorful cast of characters including a disco diva (Lily Mayo), a melodramatic songstress (Samantha Egge) and her mischievous twins (Maisie Kelly), a conflicted nun with a possible gambling habit (Jessica Nelson), and a jubilant retired couple (Melissa Broder and Robert Strauch), the stage is set for uproarious laughter and spontaneous dance breaks. Just remember to pack your life jacket—because when Disaster! hits, it's better to be safe than sorry!

I had the honor of interviewing Director Jessa Blackthorne! 

Please tell us about yourself.  

My name is Jessa Blackthorne and I am from Bayonne originally. I currently live in Carlstadt and I am very involved in all areas of theatre in New Jersey. I have a BFA degree in musical theatre from Rockford University in Rockford, IL. I am also autistic, something that I heavily integrate into my process as both an actor and a director. 

Please tell us about your involvement in theater. 

I've always known theatre would be part of my life. I went to High Tech High School in Hudson County, majoring in Musical Theatre before moving on to get my BFA. After graduating college, I moved on to a full-time job outside of theatre (still utilizing my theatrical skills though), but became heavily involved in local community theatres. To date I have been in shows as an actor around northern NJ almost constantly since graduating college, most recently performing in It Shoulda Been You at Bergen County Players in Oradell where I played the role of Jenny in May 2023, Antigone at St. James Players in Montclair where I played the title role in September 2023, and Five Lesbians Eating A Quiche at Nutley Little Theater in Nutley in February 2023, where I played the role of Lulie Stanwyck. In addition to acting, I have also been the costume designer for NJIT for two years, I just wrapped up costuming Legally Blonde The Musical last week, and Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play this past fall. I also do work as a choreographer from time to time as well. In addition to all of that, I am the producer of and a performer with The Cosmic Light Cabaret (formerly known as The Home of Happiness,) a nonprofit theatre organization that is also New Jersey's longest-running active shadowcast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show! It's something I have been doing for 12 years, and we have shows all year round in addition to my other theatrical work. We perform twice a month in Chatham at Chatham Hickory Cinemas and in Teaneck at Teaneck Cinemas! Theatre is truly a source of joy and expression for me, so I will do everything I can to be as involved as possible at all times. In fact, I have to force myself to take breaks sometimes because otherwise I will always be involved in something, and even multiple somethings in some cases! I was involved in four shows at the same time at one point early in the production process for Disaster! I guess you could say performing/doing theatre is my autistic special interest. 

What inspired you to direct this piece? 

This is the first full-length show I've directed! I've always been interested in directing and generally being on the other side of the table with the creatives working on a show. A few years ago I assistant directed a production of The Wedding Singer: In Concert, and really enjoyed being able to help guide everything creatively. I then got involved with a one-act play festival at Old Library Theatre in Fair Lawn, where I directed a piece in both 2022 and 2023, and had a great time doing that as well! In terms of getting involved with WHATCo, that began in 2019 when I was cast in the role of Cassie in their production of Neil Simon's Rumors. I had a really wonderful time working on that production, and when one of my castmates, Allyssa Hynes, approached me in 2022 to audition for a murder mystery dinner theater production they were doing, Bridesmaid Murder Mystery, I said yes immediately. That was how I met Brandi-Leigh Miller, and we became friends. Brandi provided me with a lot of guidance about setting up and managing the nonprofit for Cosmic Light Cabaret, as I took over managing the organization rather unexpectedly. A few months later, Brandi reached out to me with her idea of having a season at WHATCo with all women directors, and I loved the idea. She asked if I'd be interested in directing the musical, and it moved ahead from there. While the musical was selected by the theatre's selection committee, I could not have been happier with the choice. The writing is hilarious, the music is fun, and it's overall such a good time. I love campy theatre and I tried to put a lot of that into this production. We have an immensely talented cast; so talented, in fact, that we've added an additional show (Saturday, April 27th, at 1pm,) just to showcase our understudies! That means you'll have to see the show twice if you want to see all the talent on offer, and I really highly recommend that you do.

What do you want your audiences to take away from this show? 

I hope they take away a sense of fun and joy and can step away from their troubles for a while into a groovy, dazzling world. Also, I wrote this in my director's note, but I'll say it here too: Sometimes disaster is inevitable. The best thing you can do is just keep moving forward. Daybreak is never far away. My mom taught me that.

Any upcoming projects you will be working on after this? (Directing, playwriting, acting, etc.) (If not, that is okay!).

As I mentioned above, my Rocky Horror Picture Show shadowcast, The Cosmic Light Cabaret, performs year-round! We will be announcing our May date in Teaneck soon, and will be performing at Chatham Hickory Cinema April 27th and May 25th! Our website is if you're looking for more information (we are also accepting auditions!)

Anything additional you would like to add? 

I wanted to talk a little more about how I integrate my being autistic into my creative process, especially with it being Autism Acceptance month.

On the very first day of rehearsals, I made a deliberate point to share with my cast that I am autistic. It was important for me to ensure they understood that my creative process and communication style might differ from what they're accustomed to with other directors. While I often blend in seamlessly with neurotypical people in social interactions, there are times when my communication veers in unexpected directions, potentially leading to confusion or tension.

I also made it clear from the outset that if anyone ever felt uncomfortable or perplexed by something I said or did, they were encouraged to approach me directly for a discussion. Alternatively, they could seek support from Brandi or our cast advocate, Karina. My aim was to be transparent about my neurodiversity without fostering an environment of overcaution or unease. Open dialogue remained paramount throughout our collaboration, as I recognize that I may not always realize when my words or actions could be misconstrued. Given that not everyone has extensive experience with openly autistic individuals, particularly in leadership roles involving large groups, I aimed to ensure that everyone involved in the show had a positive experience. I wanted them to view my autism not as a hindrance but as a benefit to our collaboration.

During the rehearsal process, my willingness to explore unconventional or seemingly impractical ideas was notably pronounced—a trait that is likely influenced by my autism. My neurodiversity led me to approach creativity from unique angles, unbound by traditional limitations, and I was more willing to try out suggestions from my actors, at least compared to directors I've worked with in the past. Despite the occasional failure, some of these experimental ideas evolved into the most captivating segments of the show (look out for the beam-crossing scene!) I attribute this openness to unconventional approaches to my autistic traits, as I embrace innovation and divergent thinking in pursuit of artistic excellence.

Autistic individuals often experience hyperfixation, where we become deeply engrossed in specific topics. For me, this manifested in a fascination with disaster movies. I dedicated hours to watching classics like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, as well as lesser-known gems like The Cassandra Crossing. Delving into parodies and modern remakes in addition to the classics provided insight into how these films influenced Disaster!.

My hyperfocus on disaster movies was just the beginning. I meticulously researched every aspect of the show, breaking down the material into manageable segments. This involved creating a detailed spreadsheet to organize ideas and concepts for each portion. Despite the enormity of the task, this method allowed me to approach rehearsals with a comprehensive understanding of the story and its influences, enabling me to craft a cohesive creative vision.

Collaborating closely with my core creative team, including choreographer Bong Dizon, music director Scott Burzynski, stage manager Athena Nakrosis, and producer Brandi-Leigh Miller, was essential. Together, we devised a rehearsal schedule based on my organizational framework. By addressing multiple areas simultaneously—blocking, choreography, and music—we maximized efficiency and set clear milestones. This approach proved invaluable, especially considering the diverse narrative strands and characters in Disaster!. As a result, we completed all staging work with four weeks of rehearsal time remaining, allowing ample opportunity for final adjustments and polishing before opening night.

Brandi consistently placed her complete trust in me, even encouraging the pursuit of my most outlandish ideas, regardless of how absurd they appeared. This unwavering support has been transformative for me, and I am deeply appreciative of it throughout this journey. I really hope my work can shine a positive light on autistic creatives in theatre everywhere, and help to create more opportunities and visibility for my community by demonstrating that we are just as capable as our neurotypical peers. All we require is an opportunity for our visions and ideas to be embraced and trusted.

The cast:

Frankie Perez   He/Him              Chad

Roman Koster  He/Him              Scott

Dylan Myers    He/Him              Ted

Maria Ruppert   SheThey         Marianne

John Jesse Jeffords      He/Him              Tony

Samantha Egge             She/Her             Jackie

Maisie Kelly                    Ben/Lisa

Jessica Nelson She/Her             Sister Mary Downy

Melissa Broder              She/Her             Shirley

Robert Strauch              He/Him              Maury

Lily Mayo                         Levora Verona

Matt Masiello  He/Him              Jake

Ashley Nichols He/Him              Ensemble/Wealthy Man/Tony US

Karina Munoz  She/Her/Hers  Ensemble/Shirley US

Maggie Madere            She/Her/Hers  Ensemble/Sister US

Amanda Regan              She/Her/Hers  Ensemble

Paula Barratta  She/Her/Hers  Ensemble

Danubia Vilar   She/Her/Hers  Ensemble

Judy Espaillat   She/Her/Hers  Ensemble/Levora US

Holly Stefanik  She/Her/Hers  Ensemble/Traci/Marianne US

Gunnar Holmberg        He/They            Ensemble/Ted US/Music Captain

Richard Dwyer     He/Him         Ensemble

Leo Vasile          He/Him              Ensemble

Photo provided by: Jessa Blackthorne


To post a comment, you must register and login.