Jenny Wales's Inaugural Season at Heritage Theatre
AS AN ACTOR, A DIRECTOR, AND A PRODUCER WHO HAS WORKED ON MAJOR STAGES IN NEW YORK AND AROUND THE COUNTRY, JENNY WALES IS NO STRANGER TO OPENING NIGHT JITTERS.
Yet, standing in the UVA Drama Building lobby last June 22, waiting for the curtain to go up on A Chorus Line and on her tenure as Artistic Director of the Heritage Theatre Festival, she felt…at home.
Wales (College ‘98) was taking the reins at a place that had given her both a foundation to build on and the inspiration to soar. And now, as the first patrons were filing into Culbreth Theatre, she was surrounded by many of the people who had been on the journey with her, from professors like longtime Heritage Producing Artistic Director Bob Chapel and Colleen Kelly (who had taken the Heritage helm for the past two seasons) to theatre friends from near and far who had come to Charlottesville to mark the occasion.
And right by her side was the person who had shared her journey with her from her first days on Grounds and multiple times during her career since, Matthew Steffens, whom she had tapped to direct A Chorus Line and launch her Heritage leadership. “I think you are always nervous for an opening night, but there was something so incredible about being here and feeling the support that night. UVA is a place that has given me so much, and I am committed to giving back to this community, and continuing the extraordinary Heritage Theatre Festival legacy that owes so much to Bob Chapel, and of course to HTF Founder David Weiss, who passed away last year.”
Wales felt fortunate to connect with Weiss several times after her appointment, including talking about the season she had planned. “It was clear to me that David’s commitment to and passion for this organization never wavered,” she said. “I was grateful to be able to bounce ideas off him and to have him ask me so many astute questions, just as my former professors and now colleagues Bob Chapel and Colleen Kelly, as well as my new colleague, Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa, have done. To have their guidance is immeasurably helpful as I continue to develop my voice as a leader here.”
The voices and talents on stage on her first Heritage opening night made Wales’ homecoming even sweeter, as the audience greeted a cast culled from Broadway, Charlottesville, and all across the nation with a rousing standing ovation. “I am incredibly proud of that production,” Wales said. “It was an incredible intersection of local talent and artists that have been on some of the biggest stages in the nation. It was very important to Matt Steffens and to me that we present this classic show through a 2018 lens, especially as it deals with so many difficult issues that remain front and center in our world today, and I really think we did that.”
As she would be for the entire season, Wales was equally proud of the people who gave so much of their time, their energy, and their hearts to make the season happen. “We have a company of over 100 people who are involved with us over the course of ten weeks. It is important to foster a sense of community, and company engagement because you have limited time to get on the same page. At our first company meeting, we talked about how there would be days where we have triumphs and days where things might not feel so triumphant, but we must collectively and individually stay focused on why we were doing what we were doing, and that is to create work that impacts our community.”
Given the tight time frame and the enormity of the season-long tasks at hand, Wales had precious little time to bask in the golden glitter glory of her A Chorus Line opening night success. As the confetti swirled, so did the challenges of a second show, Harvey, which was due to open just two weeks later in the Ruth Caplin Theatre. The 1950 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic by Mary Chase about a man and his best friend, who just happens to be a six-foot-three rabbit only he can see, was directed by another longtime Wales collaborator and noted Seattle-based director Desdemona Chiang.
Under Chiang’s guidance, the show delighted audiences with its unique and sometimes tricky combination of expertly-staged slapstick and a very powerful take on what it means to be a family and what it means in our society to deal with people who are “different.”
“I absolutely loved what Des did with the show, because she took a piece that people think they know and allowed us to see it in a different light. I loved seeing audiences come together and laugh and have a joy-filled, heart-forward evening together. I was really proud of that. And for me, it was the encapsulation of what it means to bring together artists from our community, including the Charlottesville community and our faculty, staff, and student communities, with artists from around the country.”
Joy-filled is also a perfect description for the season’s next offering, the classic Marx Brothers musical The Cocoanuts. The show marked a return to Heritage for actor/writer/director Frank Ferrante, who previously had delighted fans in 2014 with his acclaimed one-man show An Evening with Groucho. “Right after I took this position, I had the opportunity to see Frank in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which he directed and starred in, at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. I walked away from that evening and from meeting him afterward thinking that he was a force of nature, and after experiencing his talents firsthand this past summer, I think that was an understatement. I am not sure I have ever been in an audience where so many people were sharing that much uproarious laughter together. There is just something about that piece, and about seeing someone like Frank, who is clearly at the top of his game, and the cast he assembled and so brilliantly led, that was remarkable. Every single show, you saw 8-year-olds laughing alongside 80-year-olds. I can honestly say a great time was had by all!”
Behind all the fun and frivolity of The Cocoanuts was plenty of hard work, Wales added. “The design of that show, was absolutely stunning, and a testament to our gifted and tireless crew. What they were able to accomplish in a very short amount of time is something I still can’t quite wrap my head around. It took six people three weeks just to paint the gorgeous drop that helped make that set so unforgettable.”
The commitment to community that Heritage has always shown was at the heart of the season finale, The Mountaintop, Wales said. The show, written by Katori Hall and directed by another longstanding Wales colleague, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, is a fantastical reimagining of the final night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. The show is set entirely in King’s Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel, where a seemingly random encounter with a motel maid paints a rarely-seen human side of the Civil Rights leader. “I was so proud of the artistry of the piece and the humanity that Kathy was able to share and make with Enoch King, who played Martin Luther King, Jr., and Suzette Azariah Gunn, who played Camae, which allowed us into an exploration of who King might have been.”
The 90-minute show was followed each night by a “Community Conversation” that brought the cast and members of the artistic team, with a variety of UVA professors and community leaders, to discuss the impact of the play, Dr. King’s legacy, and the hard work we still have in front of us as a community and as a nation. “Programming The Mountaintop during the 50th anniversary year of Dr. King’s assassination, and just prior to the first anniversary of the tragic events of August 11 and 12, 2017 was critically important to this season. The piece was an inclusive moment, and an example of how art allows us to explore our common ground and our divides.” Each night, among the people joining Wales and the actors included UVA English professor Maurice Wallace, UVA School of Law Dean Risa L. Goluboff; community activist Don Gathers, Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy and Mayor Nikuyah Walker, and Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer and the founder of the Heather Heyer Foundation.
“These conversations transcended the work we are doing,” Wales said “It was powerful, night after night, to be a part of a community of people who so deeply responded to the art they had just experienced. It was a testament both to the power of art and to the heart of this community, as people not only talked, but also listened to each other in what are inherently difficult conversations about where we have been and where we need to go as a community and as a society.”
Now, with a successful season under her belt, Wales is deep into the planning stages for the 2019 Heritage Theatre Festival slate. “I am taking all of the feedback I sought and received from our company and from our community, and I am trying to implement it as we move forward. We are hard at work planning a season that is aimed at the intersection between entertainment and community engagement. I am excited and profoundly honored to have the opportunity to write the next chapters in the Heritage Theatre Festival story, and so grateful to work with an extraordinary team of people to make it happen.”