Sunday, September 17, 2000

UC prof is theaters' creative catalyst

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You've probably never heard of Norma Jenckes. She's an intrinsic part of Cincinnati's theater scene, but she doesn't act, doesn't direct, doesn't produce and isn't even attached to a local theater, although the people who run those theaters feel very attached to her.

        “She really is a little-known treasure,” says D. Lynn Meyers, who called on Ms. Jenckes last season to coach her cast through the Irish-ness of The Cripple of Inishmaan at Ensemble Theatre. “And she has that phenomenal laugh.”

        Ms. Jenckes is a teacher, coach and adviser. She connects people. She spurs activity.

        Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's Jasson Minadakis believes Ms. Jenckes holds the key to what he sees as the next threshhold for local professional theaters — regularly doing new work by local playwrights.

        In her primary role, on the English department faculty at the University of Cincinnati for 16 years, playwriting is one of the courses she teaches.

        Mr. Minadakis observes, “She has taught, is teaching or is advising most of the local and regional playwrights working in Cincinnati today.

        “All the theaters who are interested in local playwrights need to get her involved” to help match “the best new voices to the groups that can most appropriately serve their work.”

"She makes it happen'

               For all that Ms. Jenckes is hailed as a teacher and a coach, Richard Hess, head of the drama department at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, marvels at her ability as a do-er and a connector.

        “She manages to do things that other people only talk about,” he says. “I love her innocence. She just says, "Hey, let's do this,' and she doesn't think about obstacles; she makes it happen.”

        “I'm told I push to action pretty fast,” says Ms. Jenckes, and out comes that phenomenal laugh, which starts well below the place genteel titters take form. This is a pure eruption of glee that lights her up from within and can unabashedly fill a room with its volume.

        “I think it's my problem-solving mentality that gets me in trouble.” She laughs again. “I see something missing and I think, "why not?' It's always, "What can I do?' "How can that happen?' What's next?' I'm not content to just talk.”

        At the moment she is:

        • Orchestrating the 10th anniversary of UC's Helen Weinberger Center for the Study of Drama and Playwriting, of which she's founding director.

        • Preparing for a full course load at UC, including a session in advanced playwriting.

        • Getting ready for Monday's opening of the Theatre of the Mind readers theater season at Ensemble. (She is a founding committee member.)

        • Finishing the first draft of her new book that analyzes the work of playwright Edward Albee.

        • Editing the Weinberger Center's semi-annual journal American Drama.

        • Preparing to be dramaturg (literary adviser) for a rare production of Hamletmachine for NETPlay next spring at the Aronoff's Fifth Third Theater.

        • Huddling with Jasson Minadakis about developing one of her scripts at Cincinnati Shakespeare.

        All this starting and connecting and doing “is part of my self-definition,” says Ms. Jenckes, who holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Illinois. “At a university you teach, research, write, but you're also of service to the community, both academic and the community at large.


        The Weinberger Center starts its anniversary celebration with a two-day visit by South African master playwright Athol Fugard (Master Harold...and the Boys, Valley Song and many more). Mr. Fugard will be on campus Sept. 25 and 26.

        “When I came to the university 16 years ago, I had an agenda,” Ms. Jenckes says frankly. “I wanted to specialize in drama, and start a drama journal and perhaps start a center. It seemed possible.”

        Ten years ago, the dream became real when Mrs. Weinberger agreed to partially fund the center.

        “She wanted the students exposed to qualities of excellence,” says Ms. Jenckes, who named this year's Theatre of the Mind reading series after a favorite phrase of Mrs. Weinberger's — offering “windows on the world.”

Theatre of the Mind (play-reading series): Playland by Athol Fugard.
  When: 7 p.m. Monday.
  Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine.
  Tickets: $5. 421-3555.
Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative: Three One-Acts by Marion DiFalco.
  When: 8 p.m. Tuesday .
  Where: Aronoff Center for the Arts Fifth Third Bank Theater.
  Tickets: $5. 621-2787.
Athol Fugard Celebration sponsored by Helen Weinberger Center for the Study of Drama and Playwriting.
  When: 7 p.m. Friday, screening of Master Harold . . . and the Boys, Law School Room 114; 7 p.m. Sept. 24, Playland reading, Law School Room 118; 7 p.m. Sept. 25, Athol Fugard will read from his work, Werner Concert Hall, College-Conservatory of Music. Doors open at 6 p.m.; noon Sept. 26, “The Artist in Society,” a conversation with Athol Fugard, Law School Room 114.
  Where: University of Cincinnati.
  Tickets: All events are free and open to the public.
        In its first year, the center hosted playwrights Edward Albee and Michael Weller at UC. Among the invitation-only members to Mr. Albee's master class were Joe McDonough and Kevin Barry, now the city's most accomplished playwrights.

        At the time, Ms. Jenckes arranged an introduction between Mr. Albee and Ensemble, which developed into a relationship, at least for the short-term. Her relationship with Mr. Albee continues. She's writing a “critical examination” of his work.

        It was a little more than 10 years ago that Ms. Jenckes coached class member Claudia Reilly to a Humana Festival of New American Plays win for Astronauts in 1989.

        As a playwright, Ms. Jenckes won the Goshen Peace Prize in 1995 for Andromache in Baghdad, a look at the Gulf War.

        (Ms. Jenckes advanced playwriting course, English 590, is open to the public in UC's continuing education program. Registration is open through this weekend. Admission is by her discretion. She can be reached at 556-3914.)

        Also coming up for the Weinberger Center is a visit by contemporary Hispanic playwright Jose Rivera (dates to be announced) in conjunction with the drama department's production of his Marisol.

        At the top of Ms. Jenckes' agenda “is working toward a residency. I hope within the next year I'll be able to announce a playwright.” First she will be hunting for $5,000 in funding. “Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a playwright-in-schools program?” she thinks out loud.


        “She's so passionate,” says Mr. Hess recalling how, five years ago, he wrote his first-ever grant with Ms. Jenckes, to the National Endowment for the Arts. They were pursuing one of only 10 grants that were available for a North American visiting artist exchange program. They won the grant and playwright Sally Clark.

        “Passionate” is a word a lot of people use to describe Ms. Jenckes.

        “Do they? Who says that?” Ms. Jenckes asks in surprised delight. “I'd call it obsessive or compulsive.

        “I guess I do care a lot about the things I care about. I think and feel intensely.”

        Among her personal passions are her husband, Yashdip Bains, who is also on UC's English department faculty; her adult son Joe and his family in Los Angeles; her friends; her native Rhode Island; gardening; great writing, including poetry. Ms. Jenckes is an accomplished and much-published poet.

        What she feels most passionately about, professionally, are teaching, writing and drama. It doesn't take much to set her off on a favorite subject.

        “I don't care who you are. I guarantee you that every day you will participate in drama. Drama and daily life are so inter-connected, we need to understand how it manipulates us, moves us. Tragedy and comedy are immense fields of human experience.”

        “Decision-making is drama. Farewells are drama. Political campaign ads. Television and movies. We're constantly exposed.”

        Ms. Jenckes has passion to spare and directs it into the wider theatrical community.

        “She's interested in other people and in Cincinnati,” says Mr. McDonough. What sets her apart, he continues, is “her commitment to the role of the playwright in the theater community.”

        She founded Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative five years ago to give local writers an opportunity to hear their work read by actors before an audience during the writing process.

        She also arranged for it to have a home in the Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Theater.

        “She's a cultivator,” says Mr. Minadakis. “She understands what most people don't, that there has to be a development stage.”

        “It is about process,” says Ms. Jenckes, then notes (with a mere chortle), “only in myth does it come out of the head of Zeus.

        “An immense amount of practice is required. Everybody understands about practice, and trial and error, except in art. Nobody would expect a child to put on a pair of skates and immediately compete in the Olympics.

        “What has to happen is for artists and audiences to have more of a sense that work only gets better by doing it. Whatever work you're doing now, you're preparing for the next work.”

        Ms. Jenckes stepped back from Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative three years ago to spend a year in Romania on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

        Mr. Barry is one of several serious playwrights who miss her firm oversight of CPI. “She's like a conscience,” says Mr. Barry.

        The playreading series has continued and takes place at 8 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month September through June. There is no reading in December.


        A little more than a year ago she co-founded Theatre of the Mind with Barbara Stanley, Luther Gibson and David Edwards. The readers theater series has a dual mission of presenting work that isn't done in Cincinnati and giving paid work to Cincinnati's professional actors and directors.

        The series began last year, and was devoted to the work of contemporary American women playwrights.

        This year the theme is international plays, with a schedule selected by Ms. Jenckes.

        She's corresponding with Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott, hoping at least one will come to Cincinnati (and the campus) in association with a reading.

        “The plays are provocative,” she says. “I think we'll still be reading them 100 years from now. I can't imagine going through our lives without ever hearing them read.”

        “Her mind is a treasure trove,” says Mrs. Stanley, “and her knowledge goes far beyond theater. I love how she brings information from vastly different areas and makes it relate.

        “And I love how she's passionate about everything.

        Playland, by Athol Fugard, opens Theatre of the Mind's Windows on the World series at 7 p.m. Monday at Ensemble Theatre. Well-known local pros Michael Bath, Everett Cork and Tony Davis are directed by Luther Gibson.


        Ms. Jenckes does have one other project, adopted from a “creativity club” she read about in her native Rhode Island.

        “Things can happen from small starts,” she says. “This is about giving people a forum.

        “Someone may be dreaming of something and it seems impossible, but by speaking the wish, the creative idea, by admitting there's something you want to see happen and willing to help make happen, that's the first step to making it real.”

        She's planning to schedule a meeting in October. She invites everyone with a wish and a will to make something artful happen call her for more information.

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