Jenna: I was born in Minneapolis. I attended South High which is where I first got really into theater. I've always been a storyteller. I thought maybe I would go into creative writing but that is not necessarily where my skill set lies. I was 15 and I fell into theater and I never fell back out again.
I went to the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. My dual interests have always been administration and directing. There were some amazing teachers and people I took one-on-one classes with, but the directing Master of Fine Arts program had been disbanded a couple of years before I got there. Instead, I got some experience through the student theater, which might not have been a bad thing. Directing is such a personal thing; there is only a certain amount of it that can be taught. Most of it you just kind of have to figure out through practice.
The best thing that happened to me in college was the internship semester I spent in London with a West End producer and I just learned everything. The six months hands-on in London were worth more than the three other years combined.
After college I spent a couple of years making work on my own, producing and directing, followed by a few years working together with former classmates under the name Six Elements, where we did some great work.
Two weeks after I parted ways with Six Elements I was approached by a guy I knew who legitimately said, "I'm going to buy a theater but I don't want to do the boring business stuff." And that is where I am today. It is really the perfect melding of the artistic and business sides. Plus, I get to do some directing.
Read the recent interview with theater artist Lucas Skjaret about his experience with the Fledgling Project for emerging artists with Arts' Nest.
Kendra: What is Arts' Nest and how did it come about?
Jenna: It all happened in reverse order because the space came first. The Brave New Workshop Student Union was for sale and although it was larger than we were envisioning, we thought, “Sure, why not? Let's try it." Once we had the building we needed to decide what we wanted the building to do. I consider myself lucky that I had that internship in London, that I had an internship at the Jungle Theater, and that in general I had been given the tools to succeed as a producer. I wanted to be able to offer other people the tools to succeed because for every success story there are three more where someone self-financed a show only to end up with thousands of dollars of debt. I also wanted to make a space where in order to do a show or two you don't have to create a company and go through all the paperwork and the legal stuff.
Phoenix as a space and as a community has come to mean a lot of things even separate from Arts' Nest. The plan down the line is for more of the weeks to be used for our mission-driven projects and fewer of them to be for rentals, but that will come with time; we are still only a year old.
Jenna: I've taken many jobs that would sort of train me for this experience, but sometimes the price of ignorance is very high, like not realizing that I had to deal with unemployment insurance. But even in those first few months it was all about getting the building ready. We got in here and the electrical and the plumbing had to be redone and all on a very tight timeline. Theater people run on deadlines; there is a show with an audience. I’ve discovered that doesn't work in the construction field, where it's just dealing with the sheer difference in work mentality.
It's been completely worth it, however; just having this place. On a night when everything clicks and the audience is happy and the artists are happy, being able to make things happen, and being able to reach out to a young artist and say, "You know what we don't have enough of in this town? A thing that you do." And they can come in and just have a smashing success, or a moderate success. It's just why I wanted to do it in the first place.
Kendra: Tell me more about the Fledgling Projects.
Jenna: There are a number of things we do under the Arts' Nest banner, and Fledgling is our production assistance program where most of the energy goes. It's a very simple application process on the Arts' Nest website: just fill out a little bit about yourself, what kind of artist you are, and an idea of a project you want to do. It's not to say you necessarily need to pitch a project; we also love to get applications saying, "I'm a lighting designer who recently came to town and want more opportunities."
We collect applications on a rolling basis and then three times a year the board sits down and reviews them to pick the ones that seem to fit in with our mission; ones we can help make successful.
Kendra: Do you feel like at this point you have a built-in audience for the venue that comes from show to show?
The biggest thing we have going for us is 50 feet of window ads on Hennepin Avenue. We put up posters and there are people walking by who stop to look. We also have a quickly growing Facebook page and an email list of 700+ people.
Kendra: Are there particular arts communities that have embraced what you do?
Jenna: We do such varied programs here including with the comedy community and performers who have warmly embraced us. Shadow Horse Theatre with A Drinking Game Minnesota was one of the first ones to sort of take a chance on this venue. The big runaway hit right now is Blackout, which is an all-black improv troupe. They've had fully sold-out shows and that's been wonderful to see a brand new improv group just kill it. As someone who has done strictly dramatic theater, it’s been extraordinary to see the different energy and the different crowds who come out to shows. People take chances on comedy in a way that they don't on new stage work.
Jenna: One thing that we have been working to push here is bringing together different kinds of art and rethinking what art is. We work to display and sell visual art, so we are kind of becoming a gallery space. We are trying to do it in a thoughtful way, and it has been a learning process for me. Visual arts is something I always enjoyed and something I would consume as a viewer, but it's a different world. Why should these worlds be so distinct? That's why when we made the sign I pushed really hard to just make it Phoenix. I didn't want "Phoenix Theater." I didn't want to close off the possibilities that exist. The goal, down the line, is to have this place open on a more regular basis. So few performing venues have lobbies the way this one does, and to make it a networking space is a goal of mine.
It all comes down to your collaborators. Finding the right ones, knowing how to communicate with them, respecting them and trusting them. It's why the community can get very closed off, because sometimes it's hard to take the risks to find new collaborators.
Jenna: It has been a slow process. I keep saying yes anytime someone wants to talk. The Minnesota Theater Alliance did a profile on us. We have a bunch of memberships now including Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Minnesota Theater Alliance, and Minnesota Playlist. We are trying to become part of the community so that the word spreads in an organic way. We can't afford ads. We've also started right away with our programming even though we weren't necessarily in a firm financial spot to do all these Fledgling programs. I really wanted to get the word out that this is what we do and who we are. A lot of it is spreading from people we have already worked with and who have had positive experiences. We are definitely seeing an uptick in interest.
A lot of people keep offering their support and I want to make sure I use people's time in a respectful manner. There's nothing worse than volunteering and being ignored. That said, I'm always willing to sit down or go grab a coffee with someone. We do have an email list and Facebook group for volunteers, so when there are things that we need help with we can send out a call.
Join our email list. I send out two to three a month detailing what's on stage and interesting things that are happening at Arts' Nest. It's focused on getting information out about Phoenix Theater but it will also include education classes and that kind of thing.
We have a lot of stuff coming up. Our next round of acting workshops starts in March. We have a series of Fledgling shows happening in May. And I have a personal project later this month called Love is Never a Lie, for which I'm both director and playwright. I'm super-excited and nervous about it because I haven't written a play since I was a teenager.
Ticket Information: Love Is Never a Lie at The Phoenix
A classic Romance with Noir stylings. Inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac.
Written and Directed by:
Meredith Larson, Ethan Bjelland, Megan Guidry, Robb Krueger, Katie Starks, and Mickaylee Shaughnessy
Friday, February 19th at 7:30pm
Saturday, February 20th at 7:30pm
Sunday, February 21st at 2:30pm
Thursday, February 25th at 7:30pm
Friday, February 26th at 7:30pm
Saturday, February 27th at 7:30pm
2605 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55408
$20 or Pay-What-You-Can
About the show:
Cynthia Debrett is a brilliant espionage agent, careless with her safety, fiercely devoted to her country, and quite painfully in love with her best friend, Robin Bell. Robin however, is quite taken with the newest agent in Cynthia’s unit and knowing nothing of her unrequited love, begs her help in getting closer. Fighting fascism is easy. Coping with a breaking heart, much more difficult.