Supporting creative work by women
Jenny Bennett, who will direct Henry V for The Classical Theatre of Harlem this summer, comes to the stage honestly. An actor, playwright, director and producer, she is a fourth generation female theater artist.
For seven years, Jenny worked in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where she created a theatre company that produced a full season of plays, comedy improv and extreme theatre weekends with the collaboration of playwrights, directors and actors from several countries. She also directed an award-winning annual Theatre Project that trained English through Theatre practice for Shu-Te University.
Jenny has acted in The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Emancipation and Chuck Mee’s Coney Island Avenue. Jenny took time out of her busy Henry V schedule to share her family’s theater history and her take on the Bard’s classic play.
1) In your bio, it’s noted that being a theater artist runs in your family. Tell me a little about your family’s history with theater. And, how you got started.
JB: My great-grandmother Treesa Way Merrill was a child performer back in the vaudeville days – I think she toured the Chautauqua Circuit, “with Willam Jennings Bryan” who, according to family lore, helped save her in a tornado or something. She went on to publish a series of elocution books (and roped my great-grandfather into posing for them). I attached a picture of her as a child (left). In it, she is listening – very, very carefully.
Her daughter, my grandmother Celia Merrill Turner, was the first woman to be admitted to the Juilliard School (for conducting, and violin, too, I think), and then serving as a The Women’s Army Corps in WWII – there’s a great picture of her somewhere leading an Army band down 5th Avenue – and playing with Meredith Wilson’s radio show. In the attached picture (right), she’s poking my mom with her conductor’s baton. In the late 40s, Grandma started the family theatre: Will-o-Way, in Bloomfield Hills, MI, down the hill from the big house her folks built. It was a repertory theatre on a tour circuit for a long time; my mom told me childhood memories of visiting artists like Vincent Price and Lotte Lenya. Grandma also contributed to theatre education in Michigan (for which I believe the MI legislature made her an official State Treasure.) My brother (also in theatre) and I used to spend summers there as kids, taking classes and being in the plays, sweeping floors and helping my Grandpa sell apple cider at intermission. Will-o-Way is gone these twenty years; now there’s a condominium development there.
So basically, I grew up on a cot in the back of the theater! I shinnied up A-frames to focus lights and swap gels from when I was six. I ran the spotlight, acted, drilled lines with people, danced, sang, and ran props since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I got my first directing gig my senior year in high school – the teacher at my school gave me the Spring One-Act. I went to University of Virginia for undergrad, which was a great program where a major in Drama meant you could take on all kinds of theatremaking, so I could act and direct there (and train in theatre management, tech, playwriting, and all those other specialties). Funnily enough, considering our family tradition, my mom didn’t want me to go into theatre; she wanted me to be President. Or an astronaut. But storytelling and theatre is as much a part of me as my arms and legs, and she made those, so she just had to deal.
3) Tell us a little bit about Henry V, the production that you are directing for The Classical Theatre of Harlem. What can audiences expect?
JB: Audiences can expect the kind of fierce, provocative show that The Classical Theatre of Harlem is known for. Our main performance venue is the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial & Educational Center – formerly, the Audubon Ballroom; so, our designers are transforming that ballroom into a theater – really beautifully. I don’t want to give away all our secrets and surprises, but you’ll be in for a very theatrical evening (or afternoon). One of my favorite things about this play is how it’s so aware of being a play – the choruses explicitly require the audience to imagine with us, over and over. It’s a wonderful opportunity for playing, and we’re making the most of it. Political, musical, funny, awful, wonderful, physical, provocative humanity.
4) Why does Shakespeare, and particularly Henry V, speak to you and modern audiences?
JB: Shakespeare speaks through time to us because in many ways, he invented us. He gave us (characters, all) permission to be the complicated, conflicted, contradictory, wise and foolish humans we, in fact, are. Some productions of this play remove those complicated bits, especially from the character of Henry – the events or lines that don’t fit tidily into our notion of a hero king. I think we do that culturally, in fact; we Hollywood-ize the story of our leaders to seem perfect: mannerly, folksy, brilliant, beat-the-odds, honest, fit (or at least, looks good on TV), kind, generous, courageous and always agreeing with us. This impossible burden of expectation comes back to kick everyone in the arse – the leader, who is of course human, with idiosyncrasies, mistakes and juicy flaws, and also us, as we continue to engineer our own disillusionment with wildly impossible expectations. I think this play speaks enormously to who we are right now. So we’re keeping all the ugly bits of everyone, especially King Henry; that’s how we can truly ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ – the purpose of theatre, according to Shakespeare.
5) What’s next for you?
JB: I have rehearsal today at 4 pm. Oh – you mean after HENRY? As yet undetermined! I’m definitely continuing to work on some writing projects, and then we’ll see. Right now, I’m all HENRY all the time.
6) What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing female theater artists?
JB: Well, there’s been some good news on that front recently – five female playwrights will have work on Broadway this Fall! The greatest challenge facing female theater artists is that such an occurrence is news. I felt the same way about all the hoo-ha about the movie Bridesmaids that came out recently; really? We’re still culturally surprised that women can be funny? And that women are paying audience? Blergh! We’ll get there, ya’ll. By makin’ art and takin’ names!
7) What gives you hope for American theater women?
JB: That there are so many American theatre women. The way to get more work is to make more work ourselves! Nobody’s gonna say ‘Oh, hello stranger: have this opportunity.’ I know so many American theatre women who are putting it together, a project at a time, getting their voices heard, telling an infinite variety of stories – that’s how hope becomes reality – by doing. And we’re doing it, ladies!
The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Henry V runs August 5th – September 4th. Tickets may be purchased here.
This is too cool! I worked with Celia Merrill Turner and also Robin as a kid over in Bloomfield. It has wonderful memories for me, and Robin was a beautiful girl. We did King and I and Sound of Music excerpts. I was 15, and Ms. Turner gave me my first chance on the stage. I ended up singing opera in Chicago and now live in Grand Rapids, retired, but doing some local things. I am sorry Robin is gone, we must be about the same age (65 next year). Loved reading this!
Barbara Humphries England