This Spotlight focuses on Jennifer Chang, a director, actor and educator who helped found Chalk Repertory Theatre, a production company which matches plays to site-specific locations around Los Angeles. I first worked with Jennifer on Chalk Rep’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan which featured a multicultural cast, performed outdoors throughout the lawns and courtyards at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles where the pre-eminent collection of Oscar Wilde materials in the world is housed.
Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?
Jennifer Chang (Jennifer): I am a director, actor and educator. I helped found Chalk Repertory Theatre and am currently a Visiting Professor at Pomona College and will return to UCSD this fall and continue my role as Head of Undergraduate Acting. I staged Chalk Rep’s immersive productions at site-specific locations around Los Angeles because I believe architecture affects human psyche, and I’m curious as to how unconventional spaces can illuminate and unpack story, especially since storytelling provides opportunities for communion and conversation for promoting empathy in order to inspire action and change.
I also believe it is vital to tell stories that challenge mainstream ideas, hold the door to opportunity open to diverse groups of artists, and I hope to dismantle notions of elitism in theater while pursuing rigor and excellence through fun and artful theatricality. I love language – its syncopation, musicality and power. And as a child of immigrants, I am interested in investigating what it means to be an American.
(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?
(Jennifer): We (the theatre company and I) were in the midst of casting The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan at Antaeus Theatre Company when the shelter-in-place orders and subsequent shutdowns were implemented. While we held out hoping that we might be able to continue or postpone, since rehearsal was scheduled to begin at the end of April, it became evident that the show was not going to be able to proceed as planned and the cast and production team were informed via Zoom, phone calls and emails.
(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?
(Jennifer): Its future is currently under discussion by the artistic leadership at Antaeus. The artistic directors and executive director have been absolutely supportive of the show and the vision and want to make sure they are responding to the science and information our state and city leaders are providing and with the longevity of the theatre company in mind. In general, I think only the institutions can really respond to this question, not the individual artists, but even then, it's difficult to predict what will or won't be happening in the next year or so.
(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?
(Jennifer): I was in early talks for various projects but I have not had follow-up discussions as would be the norm. All institutions seem to be in a wait-and-see stage.
(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?
(Jennifer): I'm still teaching my classes via Zoom and the on-line academic portal Sakai. Zoom has been the tool used for play readings that I've been and will be a part of in the future. Personally, I've been using this time to do many domestic projects that I enjoy that my schedule usually doesn't allow for, including baking, knitting, crafting, and doing my part to help make masks as I think my current state of watchfulness is best soothed by doing with my hands rather than the usual art-making. I've been asked to be a part of others' projects that utilize smart phones but have not initiated projects myself. I think I'm in a grieving period right now and am taking a break from my own personal theatre projects. I'm happy to be contributing to others' work.
(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?
(Jennifer): We will need to be patient and resilient, and whatever one needs to do to survive the wait is important and good. You can make art or not make anything and that is absolutely alright. If you feel like doing and making something that's awesome, and if you don't feel like doing anything at all, that's awesome too! Theatre has survived multiple pandemics so it will be back as soon as we are able, but the road back will require patience and adaptation and we are all coping in different ways and on different timelines. I think practicing patience for each other will be vital.
We are incredibly lucky to live in an age where content can reach us in our homes, and food and other necessities can be delivered to our doors. My family and I are incredibly privileged to be able to partake in these modern luxuries and to be citizens in a wonderful state and city where science and data are appreciated and heeded. While it is a real challenge to be separated from the various communities we are accustomed to being a part of, I am so very thankful that my family is safe and well and that our quarantine can help our larger community.
Being a theatre practitioner is an incredible training ground for understanding collaboration, care and empathy for others. While our theatre brethren are hard hit in the repercussions of separation and shutdown, we are also uniquely able to understand how our contributions fit in communion with others. A big thank you and virtual hug to everyone!
This article first appeared on Broadway World.