If you’ve been following this series of interviews over the last few weeks, it will come as no surprise that the theatrical world—as we have long known it—is still at a standstill. Actors can’t gather together to rehearse, and audiences can’t gather together to enjoy the fruits of their labor. For a lot of us, on either side of the Fourth Wall, it’s pretty unbearable.
But out of this calamity has risen a malleable creativity that should surprise no one who loves the arts. Many theatre lovers have pivoted—for the time being—to streaming services like National Theatre Live and the Great Performances series offered by PBS. It’s not a perfect substitute, as nothing truly compares to or can replace the energy, connection, and catharsis of being in a theater, but it’s a decent stop-gap measure. And, if you’re intrigued, there are more streaming options being announced all the time.
For performers, though, the options are…fewer, to be sure. At least right now. But the omnipresence of Zoom and Skype and the like mean that connections can still be made if one is willing to rethink what can be considered Theatre.
Image: Photo of Jaclyn Loewenstein in a scene from Fun Home. Photo by Jesse Folks.
Of the actors, directors, and producers that I know and have spoken to in the last couple of months, there is one artist in particular who seems as busy as ever, taking advantage of all the tools at her disposal to stay invested and involved. Jaclyn Loewenstein will be familiar to many who follow the local theatre scene. Whether you enjoy family-friendly musical comedy from CUTC and Parkland College Theatre or the slightly edgier fare of the Station Theatre, it’s likely that you’ve seen Loewenstein, who has appeared in numerous local productions like Parkland’s Fiddler on the Roof and the Station’s Fun Home and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It’s just as likely that you’ve seen something she’s directed, like the Station’s American Wee-Pie and Small Mouth Sounds. And if you have a budding actor in your family, you might also know her from her work spearheading Class Act, a performing arts camp for young actors that made headlines recently with an all-online musical. (More on that later.)
In addition to her work with Class Act, her position on the Station’s board of directors, and her individual performance coaching, Loewenstein was also part of the cast of Falsettos, the Station production postponed by the COVID-19 quarantine. When the cabin fever and the frustration of not getting to rehearse Falsettos set in, she responded with a video presentation of one of her numbers from the show.
Check out the clip here, and then learn some more about Loewenstein, her work, and love of theatre.
Smile Politely: Because it's such a huge part of my own life, I love knowing how others first got interested in theatre. What was your first exposure to seeing live theatre? Where was it? What do you remember about it? How did it affect you?
I don't remember an existence without theatre. My mom has always been a director/performer/teacher/producer/writer (and at age 82, she's still does it all!). When I was four, my whole family spent the summer at Harand Theatre Arts Camp in Wisconsin. My mom taught/directed, my siblings were campers, my dad was the camp doctor...and I tagged along. I don't have many specific memories of that summer, but I remember feeling at home there. Two years later, I was enrolled as the youngest camper at Harand. Thinking back, I can't believe I slept in a cabin without my family at age six! (Of course, I could still see them every day.)
Image: Photo of Jaclyn Loewenstein dressed as Snow White in a scene from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo by Jesse Folks.
SP: When did you first participate in theatre yourself? If you were on stage, which role did you play? What do you remember about the experience?
Loewenstein: My first role was Snow White in my kindergarten play. My family had just moved (six weeks before the school year ended!), and my teacher was kind enough to take a chance on the new kid as Snow White. I remember (and the home movies can prove) that my post-poisoned apple "unconscious-on-the-floor" scene was far from convincing. I kept peeking at the audience between the dwarves' marching legs. Oops.
SP: What was your introduction to theatre in the Champaign-Urbana area?
Loewenstein: The day after my family moved to Champaign, in June 2011, I auditioned (along with my daughters, then ages seven and ten) for CUTC's The Music Man. Thankfully, we were all cast, and it was a perfect introduction to C-U and the theatre community. We went on to perform in several more musicals together through CUTC and Parkland Theatre.
SP: What is an unexpected way in which theatre has impacted your life?
Loewenstein: Having worked as a theatre director/instructor/coach in many cities (Chicago, NYC, Austin, C-U) over the past 30 years, I've enjoyed staying connected with many of my students and their families (thank you, Facebook). I can honestly say that when some of them started training with me in elementary school, I never would have predicted they'd choose theatre as their career path. Today—a dozen years later—my least-coordinated Oompa Loompa is well on her way to becoming a professional dancer. The timid boy who barely made a sound at his first audition (singing "Bushel and a Peck") is a professional triple threat. And then there are the kids who I thought really had "it," but they've chosen to pursue different interests (which I fully support).
Having this perspective on my past students always helps me see the potential in my current students. I love getting to know these kids and imagining how they might develop and where their passions will lead them in the years to come.
SP: I know that Falsettos is postponed right now, due to the shelter-in-place precautions. I also know that you have found some pretty wonderful ways to stay involved in theatre in the meantime. Can you tell me more about The Show Must Go ONLINE!, which you recently directed? What else have you been doing, assuming that left you any time at all....
Loewenstein: Yes... I expected to spend April focusing on Falsettos at the Station, but instead, I found myself directing a new virtual musical written (in 19 days) by Beat by Beat Press. The Show Must Go ONLINE! is about a drama teacher (played by me) and her students, coping with the cancellation of their school musical, titled Brushes with Greatness! The Dental Hygiene Musical (which should give you an idea of the tone of this show).
I selected 19 of my Class Act students to join me for this experiment in virtual theatre. After two weeks of individual Zoom/FaceTime rehearsals and a week of editing, we had our YouTube premiere on May 5th.
The production has gotten a lot of positive attention from viewers and the show's authors, who asked me to do a live Facebook chat for the children's theatre community. (There are more than 500 groups around the world who've licensed this musical!) I was also interviewed by American Theatre magazine.
As for the summer, I'll offer some virtual theatre programs for Class Act students, and I'm exploring online possibilities for my other theatrical homes—the Station Theatre and CUTC's Penguin Project. Meanwhile, I'm offering private coaching and love seeing the faces of my students!
It is unsurprising that Loewenstein has plenty of irons in the fire. The Station Theatre recently teased that they would be offering a “virtual Station opportunity,” and the next Class Act camp schedule will be posted in late May at classactchampaign.com.