Interview: Theatre Life with Amelia Hensley

The actress on her work in Signature Theatre's World Premiere musical Private Jones and more.

By: Feb. 13, 2024
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Interview: Theatre Life with Amelia Hensley
Amelia Hensley. Photo by Jon Taylor.

Today’s subject Amelia Hensley is currently living her theatre life at Signature Theatre as The Storyteller for the World Premiere musical Private Jones. The production runs through March 10th in Signature’s MAX space.

Amelia was seen on Broadway in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. Other NY credits include Playwrights Horizons’ I Was Most Alive With You, and Lincoln Center’s Into the Woods. She was most recently seen in our area at Olney Theatre Center in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.

Regional credits include LA Philharmonic’s Beethoven’s Fidelio, Getty Villa / Deaf West’s Oedipus.

You might have also seen her on You Tube for Sesame Street or on the ABC network show Station 19.

As theatre works towards inclusiveness for all, read on for Amelia’s thoughts on how that can be accomplished.

Private Jones is an important show for two, if not more big reasons. First off, unlike other theatres that take a “traditional” musical and add American Sign Language (ASL) to make the show more inclusive, Private Jones is an ORIGINAL musical that utilizes not one but two forms of sign language. Both ASL and British Sign Language (BSL) are used within the show.

Secondly, it follows my mantra that theatre is meant to educate as well as entertain. Did you know the story of a deaf sniper during WWI? I guarantee you did not.

With a mix of deaf and hearing performers, please consider seeing Private Jones at Signature Theatre. Let’s face it, Signature Theatre will always be the go-to place for musicals in the DMV. The fact that they continue to push the envelope just reinforces that fact.

Amelia Hensley is an artist who is driven by her profession to be sure. Check her out in this very important new work and see why she is living her theatre life to the fullest.

At what age did you know you wanted to be a performer?

I have been performing on stage since I was maybe four years old, but I didn’t realize it would become my career until I was fourteen. That is when I started really wanting to be an actress. 

Where did you receive your training?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts under Gallaudet University’s Theatre Department in 2013. Afterward, I mostly grew as an actress by being involved in so many productions and getting to work with many directors. I have grown as an actress because of them. 

Interview: Theatre Life with Amelia Hensley
Amelia Hensley in Faction of Fools 2013 production of
The Lady Becomes Him.
Photo by Second Glance Photography.

What was your first professional job as a performer and what do you remember the most about that opening night?

My first professional production was when I was a student at Gallaudet University. At that time, Factions of Fools needed a place to rent, so they rented there. The Theatre Department made an agreement where a theatre student would intern with the company. I worked with them three times, but one show is my favorite, The Lady Becomes Him.

We had to create a story from scratch, and it was very collaborative teamwork to develop it. Faction of Fools is focused on commedia dell’arte, where we all used masks on our face. You know deaf people need to express themselves through their face, so they focused on how all of our bodies can express it. It was a wonderful experience, and I would do it again a thousand times.

My first professional job after I graduated from Gallaudet University was Deaf West’s Spring Awakening at Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts and opening night was really simple and small. I remember how much we were proud of our work, and the people were really wonderful. 

Can you please tell us a little something about Private Jones in general and also something about the role/roles you play in the show?

I am in the ensemble, but I do have a unique role which is The Storyteller. I'm excited to learn what the audience will interpret from the character. It feels like it is an easter egg in some way. I am also doing puppetry for a dog as well. It is one of the bigger challenges I have done because there are different techniques for how to puppet the dog. 

Interview: Theatre Life with Amelia Hensley
Amelia Hensley in Signature Theatre's World Premiere
production of Private Jones.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

What were your first impressions of Private Jones after your first read of the script?

My first impressions were of how brilliant Marshall was. How he wants to include visuals of different sounds with different foley. I may not relate with Gomer because I was born deaf and will never understand what sound is like. To evolve with Gomer when he finds other people like him and makes a connection or the people willing to learn a new language to make connections with Gomer was a beautiful moment. 

Private Jones was workshopped at Goodspeed Opera House before coming to Signature Theatre. You yourself were part of that production. Were there any changes made to the show between East Haddam, Connecticut to Shirlington, Virginia?

OH YES. :) The Storyteller expanded a little more. It was nice! More actions. There’s a new song. One of the characters is now different, for example, they were friendly but were changed to more not friendly. It makes more sense for the story.  Many little things have been changed.  

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about inclusivity in the performing arts. Do you think theatre, specifically, is trending in the right direction when it comes to this, and what, if any, steps should be taken to achieve a fully inclusive culture?

I would say yes but very slowly. I don’t speak for all communities, but what I can say about deaf and hard of hearing people based on what I experience is it makes a huge difference if they have a deaf or hard of hearing person on the creative team because they can bring the “of what we needs,” such as suggesting captions that can be seen anytime rather than for a selected date only, or to set up interpreters. Often interpreters are BOOKED 6 months in advance, and we end up working with interpreters who just started interpreting jobs. Even to add light cues for deaf actors, or to support the director better helps. If you work with just deaf actors, then it will be too late to get what we need. The key is to have at least some deaf/hard of hearing on the creative team. 

Can you please talk about your experience making your Broadway debut in Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening?

At that time, I was not exposed enough to what Broadway is all about because when I grew up, there was not much talk about musical theatre. I knew I always enjoyed being on stage to tell a story. I had no idea that it could be bigger. When I was told that we were going to Broadway, I was like oh cool… In my mind, I'm happy that we will keep telling this story and excited that we get to travel to NYC.

When we got there, I was like oh my god. this IS HUGE! Haha. It was a rich and overwhelming experience for me. If I ever go to Broadway again, I will scream and jump. HA! Honestly, I never thought it would be my career. I always thought it would just be my hobby. At that time, you didn’t see deaf actors on stage that often. I felt like I was in at the right time and right place and that led me to be involved in so much theatre for almost 10 years now. 

Why do you think more musicals like Private Jones need to be seen?

It is important to see the crossover of theater communities, in a way that’s not simply to add sign language but includes it as part of everyday life because it is part of everyday life. I hope that more shows come along like Private Jones to help expand the world's view and knowledge of language, spoken and signed. 

It may sound like a tiny thing, but it does make a huge impact on the audience when they learn something new, and it sticks with them forever.  

After Private Jones finishes its run at Signature Theatre, what does 2024 hold in store for you workwise?

After this, I will be ASM for a show that Alexandria Wailes, who is our Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL) for Private Jones, will direct with support by Visionaries of the Creative Arts (VOCA) a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. It will start right after I am done with this production. Right after that I fly to Los Angeles to do Beethoven’s Fidelio with Dudamel and Deaf West Theatre, LA Phil/Walt Disney Concert Hall. It will happen in May in Los Angeles, then we will be touring Europe. I'm booked until June fourth at this moment with no break in between. I’m also waiting for a grant to support my new musical play that I have been working on for a while and hopefully I can workshop it this year. 

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Marketing Manager and Publicist Zachary Flick for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.