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BWW Blog: Sharing Their Stories - An Interview with Jenna Duncan

If we can adopt Jenna’s mindset of authenticity and create space at the table for a diversity of theatrical experiences, the post-pandemic world will shine much brighter

BWW Blog: Sharing Their Stories - An Interview with Jenna Duncan

Hello Broadway lovers, creators, and theatre students around the world! Welcome back to the blog, and to my new segment: Sharing Their Stories. For the next few weeks, I'll be sharing the journeys and artistic discoveries of notable artists in my DC area, and around the world. Every person I've had the honor to speak with, carries unique experiences and perspectives about the constantly changing world of the arts. I hope their stories serve as inspiration, demystification of the road to artistic success, and as fuel to keep creating.

One of the most important values I've learned along the artistic path is the importance of authenticity: the art of being both true to yourself and genuine in your interactions with others. If we meet theatre people assuming fake personas, we feel less inclined to work with them, much less believe them onstage when they tell our stories. Working in theatre requires us to really analyze our values and beliefs, and then carry our unique inner lights forward to better the artistic world around us. Jenna Duncan does this every single day. The associate artistic and casting director of Olney Theatre Center, Jenna works to create spaces for new voices and stories told in theatre, whether it's making decisions in the audition room, travelling the country with Olney's National Players, or helping to select the next mainstage season. In everything she does, Jenna emphasizes the power of staying true to yourself, remembering you possess the inner strength to make a mark in the theatrical community. Here is her story.

Jenna's childhood did not revolve around the arts. "I like reminding people that I didn't get started hardcore with theatre until college. I went to George Washington University initially to study journalism, so I could report on theatre...like a theatre critic or features writer." However, she quickly realized that her internal compass pointed in a different direction. "While I was interviewing all these theatre people, I found that I wanted to help! I didn't want to hear about theatre, I wanted to facilitate it. I switched to theatre at the end of freshman year, much to the dismay of my parents. Don't worry, it worked out." As a new theatre major, Jenna dove into student productions at school. In terms of picking up her new skills, "I loved learning as I was going. Studying in our department was great, and I loved my professors, but student theater let me be responsible for my own success and failures and really helped me realize who I was/what I wanted."

After college, Jenna started out as Olney Theatre's Casting Apprentice. Except the theatre was in a huge transition period when she arrived, so there was no casting director there to guide her. Again, she continued learning how to trust and rely on herself. "I had wonderful mentors in our Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Directors, but I was basically running casting for a regional theatre with no one to demonstrate the way it should be done. It took me a long time to get it anywhere close to right, and I'm still trying to improve on the process constantly 8 years later. But I figured it out to the best of my ability."

This flexibility and trust in herself led her to Forum Theatre, where she worked as Associate Producer, a multifaceted role that included production management for most shows (when Forum couldn't hire an external Production Manager). "I'd never production managed...but I had all of these transferable skills. I was a stage manager, a casting director, I had been on the designer side in college...so I figured it out as best I could. I will never turn down an opportunity to learn."

Speaking of learning on the job, while working at Forum (and freelance casting on the side), Jenna worked a variety of gigs to pay her rent. "Coming out of school, I felt like everyone I talked to would frame their current fantastic artistic gigs as... 'Oh! It just fell into my lap!'...I feel like they all left out how to pay your bills along the way before you land those." In the spirit of authenticity, Jenna opened up to us. "I dog walked, marketed beer, sold kale chips in grocery stores, taught guardian-and-me toddler soccer class...anything I could land."

Jenna bounced between gigs, seasons and directing opportunities to grow her experience before becoming the interim artistic associate at Imagination Stage. She worked to cast their season, directed their theatre for young audiences and ran the musical conservatory programs. "It was a whole new step in figuring out how organizations work. Plus, it was the first female-led organization I'd been on staff for. It was a huge step in realizing I could be fully me and still be successful. Plus, I met Kate Bryer, an incredible mentor who taught me to combine my love of education and directing in a way I still use constantly. Kate taught me how to keep your values at the forefront of your work as an administrator and director." Soon after her time at Imagination wrapped up, Olney posted the call for a full-time Associate Artistic Director. And here she is today.

Before the pandemic hit, Jenna could land in a new place every day at Olney. "It depends where in the casting season I am. There are days when I'm solely focused on getting actors everything they need for auditions. There are days in the audition room. There are days when I'm only focused on administrative work." Jenna also travels, whether working with Olney's National Players (a touring company) or searching for new apprentices at theatre conferences. "It really varies, and I miss auditions now. I miss actors."

Despite sadness at losing the live aspects of her job, she carries through with her trademark adaptability and enthusiasm, leading online classes, and planning workshops for young theatre creators. She also always strives to balance her artistic/producing and casting halves, even during the pandemic. "I've tried to start referring to it as how these difference halves work in harmony instead of balance. Balance makes it seem like one part always outweighing the other, or you have to shave them both down to get the scale even. During the pandemic I've been trying to reframe it as how they both work fully and actually inform one another instead of working as separate halves."

Jenna says that's her mantra going forward post-pandemic; bringing harmony into her work when she can operate full speed again. As a facilitator first, she hopes that harmony and intention in her own work can lead to more welcoming spaces for the artists she supports. "If I can help foster an environment anywhere I work that asks for more (and new) voices at the table, and allows everyone at that table to do their best work in the safest way possible, that would be my job functioning at its best." If we can adopt Jenna's mindset of authenticity and create space at the table for a diversity of theatrical experiences, the post-pandemic world will shine so much brighter.


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