Last season we began our “Actors’ ExPats” series – interviews with folks who once were involved with Actors’ but had since moved away. This year, as we move our 30th Season, we are going to take that idea and expand on it. We are going to be celebrating some of the many, many people who have made this theatre such a success!
So, we’ll be interviewing all kinds of folks, from those that helped start Actors’ in the very beginning to those who are helping out today; people who have moved from West Michigan and those who are active in Grand Rapids theatre now. Our goal is to get to know some of the amazing people who have graced our stage, from acting to directing to everything in between. This is an opportunity to take a look at the past and also look to the future – and why Actors’ Theatre has been a passion for so many.
Recently Actors’ Board Member Dawn Highhouse sat down with Lighting Designer, Production Stage Manger and Technical Director, Jennifer Kules to talk about how she got her start in theatre and where it’s taken her recently.
So Jen, how did you fall into this little thing we call Community Theatre?
International Woman of Mystery Jennifer Kules (center) ignored our requests for a headshot. This is the only known published photo of her. (The Vegas Cast, Crew and Producer of "Girl's Night: The Musical")
Well, Dawn ya see… it kinda went like this… I grew up in a small little town just a bit west of here called CHEE-CA-GOH… life was hard, winters were rough…
Actually, in all honestly I just fell into it. A friend of mine dragged me into doing theatre at GVSU, and the next thing I knew I was working for Circle Theatre as their Master Electrician (A Chorus Line/Evita season). The next year, I designed the full season at Circle. A year or two later I was given the opportunity to design Scrooge for Civic Theatre, and I think the next year, I was working at Actors’ designing for Three Tall Women. It was like BAM! I quite honestly don’t fully recall how it happened (or in what order), but I know it was like a whirlwind.
Those are probably some of my fondest memories of theatre. It was at a time where it seemed that Grand Rapids was FINALLY becoming a COMMUNITY of theatre, and no longer separate theaters producing their own productions, (which is what I was lead to believe the theatre scene was in the city.)
Tell us about some of your favorite productions.
"The Exonerated" from Actors' 2004-2005 Season
So many shows stand out. I was extremely proud of shows we did in the first years I was at Circle Theatre. Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago, Cabaret and Merrily We Roll Along are some of the shows that seem to have come from a different creative place. That space did not lend itself to the large spectacles that can be done at other spaces, but yet, the shows there were so different and just plain good – visually, vocally, musically. Circle had this 4′ x 8′ of a room that they crammed an orchestra in and it sounded FULL. We had 3 par cans and a flash light to work magic with, and David Kolenda and I would find a way to make it look flashy, or in the case of Cabaret desolate and dingy. (Thanks David for changing out all those house lights!) No show was too big for that little place. Then there was Bat Boy: The Musical at Actors’ Theatre which David had to beg me to consider, and it is still to this day one of the craziest shows I have done. And I loved every minute of it! (I don’t know how Catie Dreher still speaks to me, but she does.) Or coming back to do Urinetown at Actors’ with a monster set brilliantly designed by Christian Pouquette. That was truly a work of art from direction down to the last bit of schm-acting on the stage. I have also had the privilege of doing shows like The Exonerated with Jeralyn Pinskey, whom I LOVE to work with, as she allows a designer to design. With that show it wasn’t music that you had to inspire you, but the story, which for me is an unusual adventure. The Exonerated was one of those shows that really stops you as an audience member and challenges you. It was an honor to be a part of that production. Then there was the sheer process involved with Civic Theatre shows… the size and spectacle of Scrooge, Wizard of Oz and Cinderella… working with Penny (Notter) was always a blast. I can probably tell a story or three about every show I worked on… but none probably should be in print.
Jen's Home Away From Home
Now that you make your living doing theatre all across the country, what life skills would you say you learned from doing theatre here in Grand Rapids?
Working with people. Different people. The right attitude is key. Also getting the job done, no matter what. I never had “formal” training. I came from the era in GVSU that no matter who you were or what you were supposed to be doing, we all needed to come together to get the show up. There were no “actors” or “crew” – everyone worked til the early hours if we had to to ensure the show went up. I went back ten years later, and that mentality was gone. The cast walked out 10 minutes after a tech run, and didn’t look back. The people who I worked with in GR (and smoked with, and drank with…and they know who they are), they have the old school mentality. No matter what needs to be done, we all come together to get the show open. I take that attitude with me on the road. Crawl under a set to bolt a wall in, help set levels on mic lines, focus the show, go shopping for a swing actress coming in last minute that needs a costume. Train a new actress. It is just: What do I need to do to get a show open tonight? I have been picking some of my crew out of the GR area and that is because there are still a few who have this mentality, they have been trained and raised with the same work ethic… and I find that can be more valuable than a masters degree.
Where are you now?
I am at this very moment in time in Holland, MI, but I just came from Rochester, NY, and then before that, Wilmington DE. Basically I live out of my really cool lime green Sierra Mountain suitcase. Technically, I call Phoenix, AZ home, at least for the last 2 years… but that is so I can have insurance on my car and mail delivered. I don’t think Phoenix likes me so much though, because I keep having to leave.
What are you working on?
About 3 years ago, I was asked to fly to Phoenix to work with a New York based production company on the American premiere of a crazy little show called Girl’s Night: The Musical. It was fun, and I thought it was going to be a one shot deal. A few months later, they contacted me and said we are taking the show on the road… and I had to adapt it to travel. I found myself on the road with the show as it grew and changed… flash forward to today, and I am the technical director/production stage manager of this show. Earlier this year, we had five shows running simultaneously, and between myself and an amazing woman, opened all five productions – from Des Moines, Iowa to Las Vegas (opening the same night as our return to NYC). ALL within two months. Oh, and 2 were brand new casts who had to be cast, trained and directed, and sets designed, built and installed… and plots drafted… shows programmed. Fortunately, I have an amazing crew (my core group being all from West Michigan!)
Oh, and the company is working on premiering another show…
In my down time, I get to come back to West Michigan to another little theatre that is not technically a part of the “community” but sure happens to have a lot of the Grand Rapids alums on its stage… I have been working for Mason Street Warehouse in Saugatuck since its inaugural season, and I have had a wild ride there. It is a gem of a theatre, with great talent on stage and off. Plus, I love that I get to spend my summers (or most of it) here – just down the road from those who I spent so many years doing great theatre with, and having great fun doing it!