Jessica Greenberg ’12G brings her students to New York for a professional theater experience
Friday, September 7, 2018
Friday, September 7, 2018
Soon after Jessica Greenberg graduated from UMass Theater with her MFA in Lighting Design, she found a position at Weber State University in Utah. Despite being two-thirds of the way across the country from New York City, she has also maintained a working relationship with artists there. It was only a matter of time before these various threads — Utah and New York, teaching and working as an artist — came together in a project that gave Greenberg’s students a unique opportunity: being part of an Off-Broadway co-production of a new theater piece, The Beyoncé, by the Adjusted Realists. We wanted to know more about how this all came together, so Greenberg kindly offered to answer some questions for us.
Question: You work at Weber State in Utah — can you tell us about how you came to work there?
Greenberg: I attended Hampshire college from 2001-2005. I discovered lighting design towards the end of my time there, and talked my way into Penny's lighting class my senior year. That opportunity was a turning point for me — I was hooked. After graduating, I spent a year working at Hartford Stage and then pursued freelance lighting work in New York for a few years. I applied to grad school, had offers from several different programs, but I really felt UMass was the best fit for me.
After I graduated with my MFA in lighting design in 2012, I taught for one year at Hampshire College while design Professor Peter Kallok was on sabbatical. I had been interested in teaching, and that experience at Hampshire confirmed it. I applied to different jobs, received two tenure track offers in my job search, and Weber State was a good fit for several reasons. I loved their emphasis on developing new work, their interest in fostering design opportunities for undergraduate designers, and their dedication to helping each student find their individual path. I am now starting my 6th year teaching here. I'll be seeking tenure this winter!
Additionally, Utah has amazing access to outdoor recreation which I love, and it was also a good place to be for my husband to do his work, as he happens to be a professional cyclist.
Question: What is theater is like at Weber?
Greenberg: WSU has about 26,000 students. We have about 120 theatre majors total in all areas of interest. Musical theatre performance is the most popular emphasis. It is a smaller program compared to UMass, and we are undergraduate only. We do offer a BA similar to UMass, with an emphasis on cultivating well rounded theatre students with an appreciation of all the aspects of theater.
Question: Just the sheer logistics of getting a group of people from Utah to NYC seem daunting. Can you tell me a bit about the program you have to help students do that? Is it something that was already in existence when you arrived, or did you create it?
Greenberg: This began not as a formal program, but as a meaningful way for me to make a connection between my scholarship and my teaching. Giving students the opportunity to participate in a professional process, to apply their skills learned in the classroom, while building their resume and make networking connections, is important to me. I also want to demystify New York as an intimidating place, and show them that they are learning the skills to succeed!
Since I began teaching at Weber in 2013, I’ve designed 9 productions in NYC and 13 Salt Lake City productions, and I’ve brought along one to three student assistants on each project. New York venues I worked in include 59E59, A.R.T. New York, La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, and The New Ohio among others.
Last fall I had the idea of taking these small-scale professionalizing opportunities to another level. What if I dreamed bigger? My idea was an Off-Broadway Co-Production featuring the work of theatre students in all areas. Weber State University theatre could partner with colleagues of mine in the NYC based company The Adjusted Realists, (www.adjustedrealists.com) and I'd bring a group of students on a sort of “study away” program. Each student would have a leadership or assistant position on the show based on their area of interest. This would be a high impact, professionalizing experience for students, leaving them with a professional NYC credit on their resumé. I pitched the idea to company members last fall, who were totally on board. I then sought funding from sources on campus, including the Lindquist College of Arts & Humanities, the Lindquist Creative Fellowships for Artistic Endeavors, and the Office of Undergraduate Research. Happily, we were able to secure funding to co-produce a show in July 2018, as well as pay for all housing and flights for 11 students and myself.
The new play was The Beyoncé by Eliza Bent, based on a short story by Anton Chekov. It was featured in the NY Times as one of the top theatre events to see in late July. We were at A.R.T New York theaters in Hell's Kitchen.
Question: Please talk about your production process. What kinds of prep work do you do back in Utah, and what happens when you get to NYC?
Greenberg: With preproduction done remotely, I typically use Skype to attend production meetings and even watch rehearsals. Visual research and other documentation are typically shared via Google Drive or Basecamp. I think it's really exciting that we live in a time where technology can help us collaborate across continents and time zones. Geography is not the barrier it once was! I complete my preproduction paperwork and light plots from home. I also hold regular preproduction / orientation meetings for students, not only for production related logistics but also to explain things like the subway, or remind them to leave space in their suitcase to bring back a dozen bagels. I help the students find appropriate housing and flights. We will then come to NYC for usually about 10 days for load in, hang & focus, tech and previews.
I typically arrange for some field trip opportunities when time allows, but the experiences are really about the production that we are creating. This summer, I reached out to fellow UMass lighting alumni and was able to take students on backstage tours of the Metropolitan Opera and three broadway musicals, as well as have dinner with UMass alum Kevin Barry, a successful broadway production electrician.
Question: What’s been the reception from students? Have any of them been inspired to take the step to move to NYC after graduation, or to put themselves out there in other ways that were directly inspired by the trip and the work?
Greenberg: The reception has been extremely positive! Students who came with me on the first iterations of this project are all currently working in the field, in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and elsewhere. Another is touring internationally with a dance company as the resident lighting designer. No one has moved to NYC yet, but I've had several this summer tell me they can't wait to graduate so they can go back. (And if I might brag a little — one of my assistants ended up winning the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival lighting award at the national competition.)
I had a post-mortem meeting with the students on our last day together in NY and I took some notes on their comments. Here are some quotes:
I am very proud and comforted knowing that the way that tech is done for this NY show is exactly like the way tech is done at Weber State. Our professors really have taught us best practices and good habits.
This trip has helped me not be afraid of moving to New York. Now I understand it as a city and I could see myself living and working here.
Assisting the costume designer has been so great. I feel like I’ve gotten the chance to really contribute to the design. There were a couple of problems that I came to solve and it felt really good to have the knowledge to help be a part of the solution.
I learned how important it is to have a solid plan and good paperwork preparation before hand. It the challenge of having so little time in the theater challenge me to be extremely organized and prepared. I feel really proud of how our smoothly our load in went.
This project has been amazing to work on. I feel that this has helped me learn how NY works and I will be able to share it with my future students. Knowing that the process we use at Weber is the same in professional theatre is good because I know that I can bring that to my future classroom and high school program.
Question: Of course, we’re curious how this relates this all back to UMass. Are there any experiences that you had at UMass that inspired this idea, directly or indirectly?
Greenberg: I had the wonderful opportunity to study lighting with Traci Klainer, Matthew Richards, Margo Caddell, Michael Dubin, AND Penny Remsen in my time there. Each one of them is a remarkable educator, and I learned different valuable lessons from each of them. Traci took us graduate students on lots of field trips to NYC, to tour spaces, meet professionals, to learn about different career paths that a lighting education could inspire. I absolutely loved those trips, and each one broadened my knowledge in a different way. Matt and Traci both invited me to assist them on different productions, from Hartford Stage to Barrington Stage Company to off-broadway productions. Traci also connected me with an assistant opportunity with Tony award winning designer Peter Kaczorowski. I learned invaluable lessons from working as an assistant. The idea of combining the benefit of an out-of-the-classroom field trip learning experience with the chance to assist professionals is for sure inspired by my experiences at UMass.
Also, as I mentioned earlier—getting to connect with the UMass network of professional alumni has been amazing. There's a long list of great artists and technicians out there that have gone through this program.
Question: As a designer and as a teacher, are there lessons that you learned at UMass that you’ve carried forward?
Greenberg: I owe everything to the education I received at UMass! I'd have to write a whole article to answer this question. There are too many things! Let's see... One of my favorite quotes from Penny- after a very long couple of tech days, I was feeling a bit tired and cranky. Penny gave me one of those steely Penny looks (you know what I'm talking about) and said, "Look, girly- you've got to have fun doing what we do. Otherwise what's the point? You could be making a hell of a lot more money being miserable somewhere else!" That stuck with me. She's so right. Getting to tell stories with light is a joy and a privilege, and we need to remember that even when we hit the bumps in the road. It's hard work, but worthwhile things aren't easy. I strive to be joyous in our work and pass that lesson on to my students.