An Interview With JCompanyby Jacqueline Bull December 4, 2017
JCompany Youth Theatre is celebrating their 25th season this year. They had a big anniversary celebration in the fall and have blockbuster shows for the new year. Joey Landwehr, the artistic director, and Krystle Hart, the managing director, spoke with us about what it is like to do what they do and what they are looking forward to this season. They kick off 2018 with “Les Miserables” Jan. 12-28. The interview has been edited for space.
San Diego Jewish Journal: What do you like about working with kids?
Joey Landwehr: When it clicks. And it’s different for every child. Sometimes you’re seven, sometimes you’re 18. But when it clicks, you watch it and go ‘Oh, they just got that. It just happened’. It’s so fulfilling. And I remember talking to some of my alumni from the past and I think I said … [talking about Mara Jacobs] she was playing Gypsie Rosalie when we did Gypsy here. And I watched her switch from this sort of boyish mousy (because that is the character in the play) and then she becomes this gorgeous woman. And I watched it happen. I had known her since she was eight. And I watched that switch happen during one of the performances something clicked in her. I swear I saw her head turn and she just became a woman instantly in that moment. I was crying in the back of the house. She just touched my heart in such a way in a way that I’ll never forget. You don’t always get that with adults. I think that the thing with theater is that you get little clicks, but there is always that one giant one that can change their life, can change their life forever.
SDJJ: How is JCompany different or special from other youth theater?
Krystle Hart: I get to work with an incredible core of parent volunteers who do everything from selling concessions to sewing costumes. There is a crazy amount of things that our parents do and we would not be able to do what we do without our parents. And the joy of that is I kind of get to see the whole family get involved. I get to see the younger kids helping to organize the prop tables and things like that. And then we also do have a core crew production that are students that are savvy and learn a lot and learn a lot quickly [laughs] because we throw a lot at them. They just get it and they take such a responsibility and pride in the jobs that they are doing.
JL: I think the thing that is exciting about JCompany is that all of those young people are guided by professionals. We have a professional technical director, professional sound designer, professional lighting designer, costume designer, stage manager that come in and help us to mold them in the direction that they should be going. It’s wonderful. Not a lot of youth theater has that.
What I always say is here at JCompany is that we are creating young artists, but we are also creating young humans. We teach them to also teach the younger ones how to have focus, how to be willing to try anything, and how to appreciate what is in front of you, to be a professional, to be an example to others around you, to respect the art, to respect the young people that are with you, support them through all of it. Without those tools, you are really just throwing kids up on stage and saying, ‘Don’t bump into the furniture. Remember your lines.’ And that is not teaching them how to live. And what I’m hoping they will be able to take what they’ve learned in theater and apply it to whatever they do outside of JCompany. That’s the hope. We’re very transparent. We tell them all the time ‘We’re here to make you a better person’. You’re not here for my artistic vision or make sure Krystle makes her numbers, ‘We’re here to make you awesome.’
SDJJ: What did you take away from the anniversary celebration?
KH: It was a beautiful time of like reflection on how far we’ve come. And also kind of to set goals. ‘This is 25, where are we going to be at with 50?’ And being new to the company, too, I have kind of made it a personal mission to make sure people know how inclusive we are here. I never knew that I would be invited here or be accepted here. That was my own perception. It is up to us to let people know that we are here for them. And that whether they are on the [autism] spectrum, any denomination-just anyone who has an interest in learning an aspect of theater, theater business. Come see a show-this is such an open and inviting environment for them. It is really important to us to make sure the community knows that.
SDJJ: What are you excited about for this season?
JL: Every show is a blockbuster. Usually we have one show that is a little smaller to do a little Zen moment and just breathe a little bit-no Zen. We are not going to be able to sleep for a year [laughs]. The show that I’m most excited about is “Hairspray.” Just because it is a show that I never thought that we would ever get to do here. I’m proud to say that finally thank goodness for Krystle and I preaching this diversity that we do have young kids from other walks of life and different hues and different understandings. I think we are going to be able to do it well and do it right which is very exciting.
KH: As a person of mixed background and ethnicity and growing up in San Diego and not seeing a place for myself here, doing these shows it is sort of a ‘if you build it, they will come.’ You have to be able to see yourself represented on stage. It’s up to us to program that way and to be able to invite everybody to come to our shows.
SDJJ: How do you think what you do in the theatre relates to being Jewish?
JL: The subheading for the JCC is the JCC is open to everyone. And it truly truly is… Betzy [Lynch] she-I’m going to start crying. I gotta stop crying- she told us in a staff meeting even though we do do Jewish programing (we did a whole 18th season of high season of Jewish programming and “Ragtime” had a lot of Jewish content in it), but not all of our stuff is Jewish-centric. It is Jew-ish. What she said and what I loved hearing is what we are doing as a theater company, teaching young people, ‘That is Judaism.’ That is what our goal is-is to give a safe space for young people, let them know they can be here and to support them through anything they do. And it doesn’t matter what kid. They are all here. It is just beautiful.