By Lynn Venhaus
Whether acting or directing, Jacqueline Thompson is drawn to characters who say something.
She is currently in rehearsal for a new Shakespeare Festival St. Louis program, “In the Works,” about different ways to tell stories. She is excited about this new venture, which hopes to engage people indifferent or intimidated by William Shakespeare.
“It’s a great tool to show how Shakespeare can be incorporated in other ways of storytelling. It’s also a great way to introduce a new demographic of audience members who are not fans of the Bard. The intersection between the classical and new work offers a starting point for new discovery,” Thompson said.
Building on the Festival’s summer productions in Forest Park and the acclaimed Shakespeare in the Streets program, “In the Works” will present contemporary American plays by writers in dialogue with Shakespeare.
The first season is headlined by the regional premiere of “Into the Breeches!”, which will be staged Oct. 28 – Nov. 24 at The Grandel Theatre. It stars Kari Ely, Ben Nordstrom, Gary Wayne Barker, Michelle Hand, Katy Keating, Mary McNulty, Laura Resinger and Thompson. It is directed by Nancy Bell, a Take Ten subject in June. https://stllimelight.com/2018/06/20/take-ten-with-nancy-bell/
The hilarious and heartwarming “Into the Breeches!” is a look at the World War II home front and a group of ladies left behind. In 1943, they band together to keep the local theater going with their very own production of “Henry V.” The all-female cast shows how art and comedy can come together in even the darkest times.
The play had its critically-acclaimed world premiere in January 2018 at the Tony-winning Trinity Repertory Company. This will be its first production in St. Louis. There will be 16 performances of “into the Breeches!” throughout the month-long run.
Chicago playwright George Brant, the play’s author, also wrote “Grounded,” which starred Anne Hathaway during its New York run.
What Thompson likes about the play is it demonstrates the power of women in solidarity.
“This message is so vital and crucial during this current time in history. Through this production, they are shifting and changing the narrative of the city and theatre. They are using the stage to guide their audience in re-imaging what these characters and story can be,” she said.
Thompson has worked with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis for five years, beginning with the “Shakespeare in the Streets” venture, “Old Hearts Fresh,” which took place in The Grove neighborhood in 2013. In fact, a mural of the show, including her likeness, is still there on Manchester Avenue.
She directed “The World Begun,” the Shakespeare in the Streets production based on “Twelfth Night” and presented in the Old North city neighborhood in 2015, and co-directed “Blow Winds,” this summer’s program at the downtown St. Louis Public Library. She also acted in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Forest Park in 2016.
She is a Shakespeare fan. She likes “When the text settles into your body and full comprehension is merged with your modern interpretation. A friend told me once that she was fascinated with how he used literary devises to translate language into art. I agree,” she said.
Thompson, who grew up in Black Jack, returned home after school in 2012 to play a role at The Black Rep. She was hired at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she is currently an assistant professor of theater.
She has been on local stages ever since, also working with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Upstream Theater, SATE, New Jewish Theatre, Metro Theater Company and Mustard Seed Theatre.
In March, she won Best Actress in a Drama for her performance in “Intimate Apparel,” presented in early 2017 by New Jewish Theatre. Set in 1905, she played Esther Mills, a talented seamstress who makes intimate garments for a wide range of clientele in Harlem.
“She has dreams of opening a beauty parlor and being married — with no prospects in sight until a mysterious gentleman caller begins to write letters,” she said. “At the beginning of the show, the audience sees her frustration and despair of longing for things she feels she should have acquired by this age in life.”
During the process, she reflected on a poem by Sonia Sonchez:
“And I cried. For myself. For this woman talking about love. For all the women who have ever stretched their bodies out anticipating civilization and finding ruins.”
Thompson said Esther represents the insatiable desire and risk of the human quest to experience/find love.
“She comprised and sacrificed, hoping that this man would feel her void. She gave all of herself, hoping that she would be enough to make him stay. The play ends where it begins, except she’s loss so much — friendships, possibilities, dreams but yet, she’s there starting again,” she said.
“She represents the will to move forward in spite of pain, disappointment and circumstance. This woman approached me after the Circle Awards and said Esther is every woman’s story,” she said.
Thompson was busy last year – in addition to “Intimate Apparel,” she starred in “Dot” at The Black Rep, “A Human Being Died Last Night” at Upstream Theatre and directed “Of Mice and Men” for Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble.
She also was featured in a Super Bowl 2017 public service announcement, “Smart Phone,” by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.
PSA Video during 2017 Super Bowl:
After “Into the Breeches!” her next project is directing “District Merchants” at New Jewish Theatre.
It is playwright Aaron Posner’s version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” about love and litigation, deep passions and predatory lending, and will be staged Jan. 24 – Feb. 10. One description said It is about the endless complexities and contradictions of life in America.
“In the Works” will also feature family matinees of “A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness,” a new play for young audiences by the Festival’s playwright-in-residence Nancy Bell, which is inspired by the mistaken identity hijinks of “The Comedy of Errors,” as well as staged readings of the Festival-commissioned “The Thousand Natural Shocks,” a moving coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who finds strength and resilience through a high school production of “Hamlet.”
Characters that have something to say.
For a detailed In the Works schedule and to order tickets, please visit www.sfstl.com/in-the-works, or call Metrotix at 314-534-1111.
Student tickets to all performances are free with an ID but advanced reservations are recommended. A limited number of “Pay What You Can Nights” are scheduled for the “Breeches!” performances on Nov. 7 and 14, and should also be reserved ahead of time. Military discounts are available as well.
Here’s Jacqueline Thompson’s answers to our questions:
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I like to think it chose me. I always was curious about storytelling. My first undergrad major was journalism. The arts always created a space where my passion was greater than my fear. As a child, I was extremely shy and quiet. I would cringe when I was called on at school but created a world of my own at home with my dolls. Creating characters with my Barbies, singing around the house and writing stories was my greatest joy. As an adult, I saw the power of sharing experiences of humanity on stage and the necessity for it to be seen through a myriad of lens.”
- How would your friends describe you?
“I called one of my dear friends, Melinda, whom I have known since high school so this is real: supportive, loving, thoughtful, thrill-seeking, hilarious and smidge bit insane (Insane? Thanks friend!)”
- How do you like to spend your spare time?
“What’s that? No seriously, I love music! Random fact, I also wanted to be a radio deejay growing up. I can tell what a song is from the first few seconds of listening, like a human Shazam. I enjoy live music and concerts when not working.”
- What is your current obsession?
“My 2-year-old nephew and 5-month niece. They are everything good and right in my world.”
- What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“My sense of humor! My close friends say I’m hilarious. I’m the friend that will take you on a new adventure and you will have the most peculiar experience and remember it always. They call it my shenanigans!”
- Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“Last year, my grandmother and stepfather passed two days apart. My grandmother was my center and my stepfather had been in my life since the age of 3. After eight months of watching them suffer, my priorities and passions shifted. My focus became less about career moves and more about living a fulfilled life. I am more concerned now with cultivating and nurturing my relationships, experiencing new adventures with more traveling and being present for my family.
- Who do you admire most?
“I have great admiration for my past teachers and professors in theatre. Women who nurtured, protected, inspired and challenged me to be my best self. Much love to Julie Mock, Cecilia Jenkins, Nefertiti Burton, Lundeanna Thomas and the late Carol Mitchell Leon.”
- What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“To perform internationally.”
- What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“I love Forest Park!”
- What’s next?
“Into the Breeches” at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and directing “District Merchants” for New Jewish Theatre
Here’s More to Know:
Name: Jacqueline Thompson
Birthplace: St. Louis
Current location: St. Louis
Education: B.A., Clark Atlanta University; M.F.A., University of Louisville
Day job: Theatre Professor at University of Missouri– St. Louis
First job: Target
First role: 3rd grade — sassy kid in a church play and a butterfly.
Favorite roles/plays: “For Colored Girls,” “Intimate Apparel” (Esther) and “Dot” (Shelly).
Dream role/play: Would love to Direct “Head of Passes” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, interested in performing a one –woman show.
Awards/Honors/Achievements: Regional Arts Grant, TCG’s Rising Leaders of Color, St. Louis Theater Circle Award for outstanding actress in a drama 2018, for “Intimate Apparel.”
Favorite quote/words to live by: “One day at a time” and Mariane Williamson’s poem, “Our Deepest Fear.”
A song that makes you happy: Jill Scott, “Golden”