Jennifer Sassaman: Actress, Director, Writer, Choreographer, Singer, Educator
I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than a theater artist. I do remember deciding when I was six years old that everyone wants to be an actress and I should be more realistic and pick a sensible career. Doctor sounded like a sensible career, so I spent approximately six months dutifully telling people, when asked, that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. But it didn’t ring true to me, even then; so after half a year, at the mature age of six and a half, I admitted to myself that I could not imagine doing anything with my life other than theater. And I have stuck to that decision now for almost four decades. Now when I meet students who are considering getting a degree in theater I tell them: if there is anything else you can imagine doing with your life? do that. If you cannot imagine anything but creating theater? Then, welcome.
When I think about the role that theater, and the storytelling arts in general, have in the lives of humans, it strikes me as deeply significant that every known culture in the history of our species has had some kind of performative element. Theater is older than agriculture. Clearly, we humans need theater. But why? What function does it serve? My best guess is that it simultaneously engages our needs to feel connected and to share what we are going through. We are social creatures. When something significant happens to us, the first thing many of us do is to tell the people that are close to us what has happened (or, if you’re like me, the person standing next to you in line at the grocery store). Furthermore, when something significant happens to the people in our lives and they don’t tell us, we are hurt. We want to share stories because when we do we feel them again, or we spread the burden of our pain a layer thinner. We want to hear stories because we want to experience all the emotions that humans go through. We are junkies when it comes to feelings;
addicted to the various chemicals our bodies produce in connection with extreme feeling. Glutamate from fear; phenylethylamine from that dizzy feeling we experience in the early days of romantic love; epinephrine/anger, dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin/endorphins all produced in association with happiness and pleasure; etc. Not only do we love feeling these feelings first hand, but we get very strong echoes of it through storytelling whether the story is real or invented.
As fascinating as brain chemistry and anthropological perspective are, I don’t think they are what most artists, nor most audience members, think about when creating or viewing theater. For me, I simply love falling into a story and building it with the ensemble of artists around me. I love taking the combination of ideas and impulses and creating the ephemeral, temporary world of that play. It is the exhilaration of creating a powerful event and the love I feel for the people I get to work with that make it hard to imagine doing anything else with my life.
While I don’t feel like every piece of theater needs to have a political slant, I do feel like what I create should lobby for positivity. I do feel like I have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place with the art I contribute to; but this responsibility can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Whether creating a tough social-issues play that addresses a current problem or working on a comedy that will make people laugh and give people the mental capacity to handle what is happening in the world, I just want to feel like I’m part of the solution.
The next project I will be working on is a musical comedy that I directed and choreographed fifteen years ago. When it was suggested that I work on it again I thought “sure, why not, I had a lot of fun then.” But as I started to take the script apart last fall, I was hit with the realization that it is an incredibly sexist show. Written in the late 1950s and early 60s, the casual misogyny is so deeply ingrained that it took my breath away. Part of me wished I was working on something else, but the remainder of me stubbornly bit into the challenge; certain that there was a way to produce the show in a way that highlights feminism and intersectionality while also holding on to comedy. Will I be successful? Come to Wisconsin in late April and you tell me.
Take a look at Jennifer’s work:
Since graduating with an honors BA in Performing Arts, Jennifer has directed and choreographed close to fifty plays and musicals, performed in over thirty, recorded vocal tracks for various albums, written several plays and musicals, and taught hundreds of teenagers and college students how to prepare for a career in the arts.
In 1997 Jennifer started her own theater company in Philadelphia, and was the artistic director for five seasons. Under her leadership, the New Mermaid Players developed not only an adult company that performed locally as well and toured to the Northeast every summer, but also a thriving youth component. NMP produced seven youth productions annually, and provided training through its theater school and summer camp intensive. Furthermore, Jennifer initiated an outreach program that linked local artists willing to donate their time with schools that had little to no arts budget. Through the outreach program, NMP was able to produce shows at schools that had not been able to afford productions for many years, and allow students with raw talent to hone their craft with skilled mentors.
In May of 2009, Jennifer graduated from the Florida State University School of Theatre with an MFA in Directing. After graduation, she served on the Board of Directors for The Actor’s Center in Washington DC where she also worked with the SWAN Festival (Support Women Artists Now) as a director and a panel leader.
Jennifer has studied theater in London, Spanish in Costa Rica, and dance with several different companies. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where she teaches Directing, Text Analysis, Movement, Theater History, and Musical Theater as well as directs for the main stage.
Most importantly, Jennifer is the proud mother of a wonderful almost five-year old girl named Madeleine (though she prefers the brilliant nickname: MadSass) who Jennifer got to direct in her first play ever this past December.