Interview with Playwright Caleen Jennings

On Sept. 27, Dr. Caleen Jennings spoke to a gathering of St. Mary’s students about life on campus in preparation for St. Mary’s Hear and Now, her original collaborative play about “ the Black experience” at St. Mary’s.

Jennings stated the Hear and Now will explore this theme by “Creating monologues and getting [students] to perform.” Jennings’s husband Carl said the goal of Hear and Now is “to move towards creating an optimal atmosphere of hope and possibility.”

“Our goal is to engage the campus in a dialogue about what perceptions are [and] what experiences are, from multiple points of view, because I have always believed that when people have an opportunity to talk and to share stories, well I think that’s what we’re on the planet to do” Jennings said.

“I think the University is one of the last places where people can create safe environments to meaningfully experience one another’s lives  and I believe that when people experience each other meaningfully there’s much less [likelihood] to be conflict and strife.”

Jennings is an anthologized plawright and Professor of Theater at American University, on a one-year sabbatical. Carl Jennings is an organization development consultant, applied behavioral scientist, and documentary maker. The Jennings’s connection to film and the performing art extends beyond the nineteen eighties.

Between 1982 and 1983, the Jennings’s worked in Nigeria for an independent television consulting firm “upgrading all aspects of Nigerian television capability management, news reading engineering, graphic arts, [and] production.”

Subsequent to their Nigerian experience, Jennings produced two short dramatic productions akin to her project at St. Mary’s.

According to Jennings, “one was a piece for imagination stage, a performing troupe for people with down syndrome and other kinds of mental challenges.

“I did it just the way I am creating this piece for St. Mary’s”Jennings said. “I interviewed them, I asked them questions like: what’s the most fun thing about your life? What’s the most difficult thing about your life? What would people not know by looking at you? What are the things that present you with frustration? What are your dreams and hopes? And it was just fabulous. From what they told me I created a script called Ascension.”

Jennings also created a piece called Working Wings about “what happens when a person with Down syndrome is hired or looking for a job and the whole thrust was ‘we can do the job, give us a shot.’” Carl Jennings filmed Working Wings and made a documentary detailing the script’s creation.

Jennings characterizers herself as a writer who writes “between the cracks of time . . . I don’t think I’ll ever be a person who’s so disciplined they say, ‘every day I am going to write something.’” Although Jennings “comes at it every single day” when she’s writing a play, she advises aspiring writers to “go into a story saying I don’t know what this is, I don’t know where it’s taking me, I am just going to let just talk to me and I am going to go where it is just for the first draft and get it out and see what I have.” Disparate pages and chapters “don’t have to connect, you don’t know where you are yet. It’s like asking people to make a map of the woods when they haven’t been in the woods yet.”

When asked for a hint about the direction their dramatic production might take, Jennings characterized the students of St. Mary’s as nascent poets. “The wonderful thing about working where we’re working now is people are so eloquent, people speak in poetry and they don’t even know it. On the way back home last night . . . we were talking about the little gems.” Jennings recalled a response to a question she proffered to the students who attended the first Hear and Now discussion when she asked “Give me a characteristic of St. Mary’s College.”

One student answered “a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of white people.”

Jennings said “It’s a wonderful phrase.  There were so many little gems like how one girl said ‘They love black people in Argentina.’”

Dr. Jennings believes the “the best theatre has a little bit of sadness and a lot of joy.” It provokes questions and reflection. Laughter is powerful: “When [the audience is] laughing, literally, people open their mouths they inhale and their bodies are receptive and I think to have those moments where people can just relax then when I pose something maybe a little bit controversial or a little bit painful people are still relaxed and open and it drops right in.”

Carl Jennings was also “stuck by the sense of willingness that exists almost on behalf of all the students, irrespective of the difficulties that they acknowledge exist.

“[The students] experience themselves, predominately, as accepted and want to understand” Carl said. “As a person who just turned 65, it’s troubling to me that our young people are left to have these insights and this awareness when people my age, [and] some who are younger, have fallen asleep at the switches,  so to speak. They are not as engaged or willing to be moved as this group.”

When asked about her December production, Jennings said “We’re staging this in the round with the audience on all sides. This will be St. Mary’s first production, in the round. I think the audience-actor interaction is going to be very exciting and the audience will actually have a chance to make their voices heard. I want to know: what did you hear that was surprising? What did you hear that was interesting? The talk backs are really going to be an important part of [Hear and Now].”

Jennings concluded: “I hope everybody will come, and I hope it will be an experience that will engage them even more deeply in the community because I want everyone to walk away feeling good at the end.”

Dress Rehearsals and Performances of St. Mary’s Hear and Now with talk backs are, tentatively, scheduled for the 2nd-11th of December.

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