By Rinjisha Roy
We are also excited to welcome two faculty members, Jenny McKnight and Hank McDaniel, to our IU Theatre & Dance community!
This summer, SPEA Arts Admin graduate student Rinjisha Roy got an opportunity to speak with Jenny and Hank, and they are both excited and eager to be with us this year.
Jenny McKnight, who has performed as a company member of IU Summer Theatre for the last five seasons, is glad to return to Indiana University this Fall as Professor of Practice in Acting and Directing. In a brief meeting with her, she shared some interesting details about her background and interests. Below are excerpts from our conversation:
Tell us something about your background.
JM: I grew up mostly in Alabama and Florida, and then when I finished graduate school, I moved to Chicago and I lived there for almost twenty years. I worked there as an actor and director and then I started doing full-time teaching positions. Thereafter, I lived in Oklahoma City for a little while and taught at Oklahoma City University. Most recently, I was at the University of Arkansas which is in Fayetteville, Arkansas. So I have been all over the place, but primarily in the Midwest and the Southeast.
Do you remember how you became involved in acting?
JM: Yes. I remember when I was in high school and we moved – I was a sophomore then – from a high school in North Carolina that didn’t have a theatre program to a high school in Alabama that had a really strong theatre program. So after moving to Alabama, I started to get involved in it. I had a fantastic teacher and a lot of other great faculty members who did things like lighting design and costume design and supported the theatre and that was when I really started getting interested in it. Later, when I went to college, I majored in English and minored in theatre and then in graduate school I concentrated on theatre.
Did you have a favourite type of role that you enjoyed doing earlier, and a kind of role that you enjoy doing now?
JM: That’s a thing that I developed over the course of my career. When I was in high school, we did a lot of family friendly plays, a lot of musicals and I was always happy to be in those. As I got into the professional world, I got involved in new play development and that is one thing I really love. Being part of a new play that a playwright has just written and is perhaps doing workshops of that play to help spread awareness on the work before it actually gets produced. I like being part of that whole process, it’s really exciting to me. I also love American classic theatre found in works by playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Their works are always very exciting to me, and I enjoy being involved in something historical, but also uniquely American.
Within American realism, which are the works that stand out for you?
JM: I enjoy Tennessee Williams’ plays and one of the reasons I like him so much is that he writes women really well. He has a lot of really strong, interesting, complex women characters and now that I am getting older, I am finding he has a lot of older, strong, and complex women characters, not just young ingenues. I love the play The Night of the Iguana which has two very strong female leads that are very different from one another. His plays are interesting in terms of the female characters and the female dynamic – it’s usually either a woman who is very strong on the outside but very vulnerable on the inside or vice versa- someone that you think is very weak and sort of vulnerable, subservient but has actually a core of iron. I like that in his plays a lot.
Tell us about some of your most memorable roles.
JM: One that leaps to mind which I did maybe five years ago was a play called Clybourne Park by American playwright Bruce Norris. In that play, I played two roles and for me as an actor it was very challenging but also very rewarding, a lot of fun.
I also love the opportunity to come here to do IU Summer Theatre because I get to play roles that I ordinarily probably wouldn’t get to play. IU Summer Theatre gives me the opportunity to do Shakespeare which I do not get to do a lot – I have directed Shakespeare but I have not performed a lot of Shakespeare, quite unlike my husband who is a member of the company. I think he has done almost all the plays except for maybe four or five and I have done only four or five (laughs).
What are some of the works you are looking forward to do at IU?
JM: I am going to be directing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. There is a lot of buzz going on about that play right now. With the productions happening around the country, there is focus on the political nature of the play. For us, we will have to figure out how to illuminate the political elements of the play in a way that’s fair and interesting but that also does justice and honour to the original story of Julius Caesar. So I’m very much looking forward to teaming up with some great student actors, student designers and faculty designers to get that going.
With Jenny, we are also happy to welcome Hank McDaniel, who has an M.F.A. in acting from Indiana University and is excited to join IU Theatre as assistant professor in Voice and Speech. In the following excerpts, Hank shares the kinds of roles he enjoys doing, and what he is looking most forward to at IU:
Tell us something about your background.
HM: I grew up with a father who was chairman of the Theatre Department at Tennessee. In college, I got my degree in performance and psychology and moved to Tuscany, Italy for about three years where I studied movement and taught English. I came back thereafter and tried my hand as a regional professional actor in different places in the country. After that experience, I decided – because of some of the teachers at the time – that IU was for me. Consequently I came here for my M.F.A. and then immediately moved to London where I got my M.A. degree from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in Voice Studies. It was an intense program and I loved it. That is where I decided that I loved teaching. And when I was here, Nancy Lipschultz let me teach some undergraduate voice classes. She encouraged me later to audition to New York for Central School. I got into the program, went over there and have been acting and teaching for different Shakespeare programs around the country since. I have acted in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, here at IU Bloomington and also at Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival.
How did you find your true calling?
HM: Well, my father was involved with theatre but for a while, I tried doing everything for a living apart from what my father did because I thought, “Well, everyone expects me to be an actor!” But the problem is I really enjoyed it, and so couldn’t walk away from it. I would always find a job playing a character somewhere and I thought, “ Well, I keep coming back to this thing that I love so much.” I grew up going to the costume and prop shops when I was a kid. Also, my sister is in theatre, my parents were both in theatre in some way, and my brother is a nurse! We don’t know what happened to him [laughs]. So it is just a family thing and something I have always loved to do.
What sort of roles do you enjoy?
HM: I’m drawn to characters that are going through intense transformations, and that’s such a cop-out answer for every actor because if you read a script and the characters are where their transformation is strong, it’s clear and they are easier to play. Since I’m rather tall, I have never been the leading man type of character simply because then you have to find a woman six feet or taller usually [laughs]! So far my favourite characters have been Prior Walter in Angels of America which I did here and I also loved to play Matt Poncelet in Dead Man Walking. I also like funny, silent characters like the stage manager in Noises Off. I also got to play the Friar in Romeo and Juliet and Brutus in Julius Caesar. When I was here my first year, they gave me a golden potato award and I don’t know if they still do that but this is an award that you get for being funny that they used to give out at drama prom. A golden potato is what they called it and in my first year, I played three bad guys, back to back. People wouldn’t walk down the same hall I did, because I would play a lot of bad guys.
Your interest then is in playing characters going through some kind of transformation, and not necessarily labeling them as good or bad.
HM: Yes, that is true. For example, we did Oklahoma here and I played Jud. Jud is usually played as a purely evil human being. However, I don’t think he is that- I think he is a guy who is trying to get by in the world and is really confused by the world he is put in. He does some horrible things but deep down I think he misunderstands what is going on. I have a lot of sympathy for that kind of character.
What are you looking most forward to at IU?
HM: Working with diversity is something that I am really looking forward to. I am also excited to work with the grads on their voices and I’m looking forward to working with Jenny McKnight and Nancy with the plays here. I am quite interested in looking at voices as identity, what is it that gives us the voice that we have. Somebody said that if your eyes are the window to the soul, then your voice is its mirror and I completely agree with that. I think about aspects of voice: the voice that we choose, is it purposely chosen or is it a product of the group of people you associate with, or because of something that happened in your childhood; how does breath inform identity; what does your voice say about you as an individual and how can we use those attributes to figure out character on stage. That’s my whole approach to voice and I also do a lot of research in minority voice as well, including lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer voice work. I was just doing a project with a transgender individual and he has started taking tea therapy. I have been documenting the change that his voice went through and it was fascinating. He is an incredibly open young man and to have that be a part of his gift to his trans community was just really humbling.
We would like to thank Jenny and Hank for sharing their stories. Please take time to welcome them to IU Theatre & Dance!