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75th Anniversary: Alumni Profiles

Jessica Powell '72

After graduating from Calvin in 1972 with an English major/speech minor (née Verwys), I spent a year studying acting with Sanford Meisner and others at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse (recommended by Ervina Boevé). For the next 11 years, I did summer stock in Hyde Park, NY, various off-off-Broadway shows, a gig in Massachusetts, and a season with CSC Repertory in NYC. Also during that time, I met my husband, Jack Powell, and together we spent two years at the historic Hedgerow Theatre near Media, Pennsylvania. We supported ourselves with the usual "actor" work: waiting tables, apartment cleaning, temporary secretary work, stitching costumes in professional shops, even working for a private "I" friend. In 1983, having sworn off the frustrations of theatre, we moved to Jack's home territory, Marin County, California — where a friend lured me back into it. In 1986, Jack was convinced to play August Strindberg to my Siri von Essen (his estranged wife) in The Night of the Tribades, and we began our California careers. Fortunately, Jack co-designed several computer animation programs, including 3-D Studio Max, and I operated a word processing business for 15 years, which ultimately enabled us to "retire" to doing only theatre.

We have been blessed in recent years with fairly regular employment as Equity (union) actors. Last September, I played Queen Elizabeth I in Peter Oswald's translation of Mary Stuart for Pacific Repertory Theatre in Carmel, while Jack played Lord Burleigh. In January, I returned to PacRep to play Sister Aloysius in Doubt, followed immediately by reprising my 1991 role of the Wicked Witch of the West for The Wizard of Oz (The Mountain Play, Marin), which in turn overlapped my current show, the tour of Pericles for San Francisco Shakespeare (Helicanus, Lychorida, Bawd, Gower). (Jack is currently rehearsing the Cowardly Lion for PacRep's Oz!) As soon as Pericles closes, I'll step into the last two weeks of The Philadelphia Story as Mrs. Lord, replacing another actor—timed perfectly so that I can still be responsible for the coffee hour at my longsuffering church, First United Methodist of San Rafael, and be on my way to Ashland, Oregon on Monday to catch some shows at the end of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's season.

A few favorite roles I've been blessed to play are Hannah, et al. in Tony Kushner's brilliant Angels in America I & II; Mame (Mame); Mrs. Roswell (Ice Glen); Goneril (King Lear); Aunt Eller (Oklahoma!); Margrethe Bohr (Copenhagen); Ethel Thayer (On Golden Pond, to Jack's Norman); the Duchesses of York and Gloucester (Richard II); Lady Macbeth; Gin (The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek); and Mary Baltimore (On the Verge).

Theatre is a demanding, disappointing, often brutal business; it's also gloriously rewarding when the rare performance occurs where everyone—actors, crew, audience—seems to breathe as one being. Ephemeral as it is, theatre can be a mutual act of creation that is, as one glowing young man told me a few weeks ago after a Pericles performance, "life-giving." Although it's been difficult at times, and I have very often asked God if theatre really is the profession I should have chosen, I must believe that it's my way of trying to carry out one aspect of being made in God's image: creativity. My Christian training of searching my own soul helps me search those of my characters, and I'm probably more aware of certain themes in the plays I do—like sin, forgiveness, redemption—than are my fellow actors. One of the reasons I pushed hard to win the role of Mary Baltimore was to be able to say her last line, "I have such a yearning for the future!" because I do yearn, not for a future on this earth, but to meet God. I truly believe that no actor can plumb the depths of his or her character without believing in one who created the enormous and fascinating complexities of human nature.

Favorite roles at Calvin include Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible and Sarah in J.B., although there are just as many good memories of doing tech or crew work: stage managing Waiting for Godot (Mark Muller, one foot on a wooden beam and the other on the floor: "To every man his little cross, until he dies and is forgotten"); assisting Ervina on Macbeth (and admiring Pat Vandenberg's ability to say, "All our service In every point twice done, and then done double, Were poor and single business to contend Against those honors deep and broad wherewith Your Majesty loads our house" in one breath, an ability I was unable to imitate when I had to bellow those lines in San Francisco's Cow Palace over the din of the Dickens Faire).


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Jessica Powell

Jessica's advice for actors

• Notice everything, ignore nothing (except reviews; good or bad, they'll just distract you, so read them after you closing).
• Try to get British training. It looks terrific on your resumé and will provide better technical training.
• Find as many colors as you can in your characters.
• "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," and your own career with persistence and joy.
• Hold nothing back.
• The harder choice is almost always best.
• Accept all roles offered until your back is against the wall.
• Breathe often and deeply.
• Read Jon Jory's Tips for Actors.
• Never give up.
• Pay attention.