Interview with Jenna Duncan (Associate Artistic Director/Casting Director)
Since the fall of 2017 we have been fortunate enough to have Jenna Duncan as our Associate Artistic Director / Casting Director. As we launch into our theater’s insanely busy casting season, I wanted to make sure Jenna and I had a chance to talk about the unique challenges and joys involved in assembling our 10-person National Players touring company. Jenna and I work together constantly, yet we seldom have a chance to step back and reflect like this. What she has to say in the ensuing interview makes me even more grateful to have her on this team.
jkj: Hey Jenna, can you talk about your history with National Players?
Jenna: I was an apprentice at Olney in 2013 and I came in with a huge interest in Players because of my love of reps and rep companies; shows that are in conversation with each other.
So I was able to assistant direct The Tempest while I was here. And that was a particularly special NP show because it was a mixture of current tour members and alumni. And then I came back the next summer and associate directed Midsummer for Tour 67 and then I did The Giver for Tour 68. And then I got this job two years later and came back and directed Tour 70’s Twelfth Night.
jkj: How is casting for NP different from anything else we do here?
Jenna: You’re casting an ensemble based on more than just their acting ability—how they will function as a company member: their work ethic, any technical experience. Are they willing and able to wear as many hats as we ask them to wear? How do they work in a group? Are there a lot of big personalities in the company thus far? A lot of introverts? How does that balance? I look for the qualities of peoples’ processes in a different way because I’m not casting for a month, I’m casting for an entire year. So I look for adaptability a lot. And I look for positivity and the willingness to dive headfirst.
jkj: In my experience, the adjustment piece was more important to me than the initial audition piece. I like to see how open and flexible they are. It tells me a lot about how they are going to work in the company.
Jenna: I think the main thing I look for in adjustments is fearlessness.
jkj: Yes, true. I think another thing I look for is vulnerability. Whether it's to let a mistake exist or to take an emotional risk on a piece in a new way, to investigate it differently. The company requires them to give all of their humanity— whether they’re performing or teaching.
Jenna: It’s interesting you bring up teaching in relation to honesty. Because kids see right through your BS. If you are not a truthful actor, the kids are bored. They see things adults don’t because we’re paying attention to craft and intellectual intrigue. So I think kids gravitate toward National Players more as performers and as teachers when they are emotionally open.
jkj: Let’s talk a little about what we are looking for when we approach Shakespeare.
Jenna: What are you looking for?
jkj: Well, I’m looking for authenticity. I want the audience who hears it for the first time to know exactly what’s going on. I want to understand their emotional experience: honest and human. When actors approach it smartly but honestly, suddenly this language doesn't feel distant, it can actually expand our understanding of what humanity is.
Jenna: People will often deliver Shakespeare as a speech and they’ll forget to discover. We just did our first round of auditions in NY, and the most successful adjustments were when I had our casting apprentice Rachel [Grandizio] go be a person for them to talk to and connect with. It made people come alive. It helps you formulate as you go when you’re checking in with a live human, the way Shakespeare was meant to be delivered, almost in conversation.
jkj: Now that we’ve expanded our rep beyond just Shakespeare, has that changed the kind of people that we’re looking for?
Jenna: I don’t think so. It feels like our aesthetic is still so linguistic. The Diary of Anne Frank still has challenging and beautiful language in it. The Crucible is still heightened and can feel unclear in its own way if you’re not doing it honestly. We’re still driven by active, expressive, emotional language in classic or contemporary work.
To go back to the issue of the core quality we look for in a Player, I would say I look for generous people—people who want to listen to other people and give to other people. That’s most important.