Out of the Woods: Artistic Associate Jake Penner

Posted July 29, 2020

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Since the 'Out of the Woods' play-reading series has been extended, we wanted to revisit some of the work that went on behind-the-scenes while we were exploring this new storytelling format. Artistic Associate Jake Penner, who was intimately involved with the series, talks about how it started, and how it grew over time in this interview.

APT: The Artistic Associate role was created just this year, and you started shortly before Covid shut everything down. How long were you working, and what were you working on when that happened?
Jake: I mean it was supposed to be pretty cut-and-dried. That job was supposed to assist Carey (Associate Artistic Director Carey Cannon) just rounding out the casting for the 2020 season, and to assist in programming the remaining play slots for the 2021 season. And helping out with design conference, and all of the things that sort of go into those two core jobs. A lot of scheduling, a lot of coordinating. And then we turned on a dime almost immediately when it became clear that we were going to have to amend the season that we would have been currently in now. 

I really hadn’t been working very long. I think that I was officially in the office for two weeks before Carey and I went down to Chicago to hold auditions for a few remaining slots in the apprentice program this year. And we got back from Chicago, and I don't think we were in the office for more than a couple of days before it became clear that the world was now shifting into an online model of doing business. And so we used the remainder of that week, my third week on the job, helping the production team move the design conference completely online. So that was really the last thing I did in the APT office before we were in quarantine. And I've been working from an APT apartment ever since. I live just off capital square in Madison, right on Lake Monona. And I've actually been really glad to be here for the last however many months, given what's been going on in terms of Covid-19. To be here in a community where we're all taking care of each other, and looking out for each other, and cooking each other meals and supporting and doing all of the things that you would expect of a community like Spring Green – I've been very grateful to be here. 

APT: Can you talk a bit about your history with PBS Wisconsin and how you helped get the Out of the Woods series off the ground? 
Jake: To be totally honest with you, I'm not 100% sure how the PBS collaboration came together. I’m sure they, like us, were figuring out, ok, how do we program around not being able to be within six feet of each other? I mean, all of a sudden they have a content gap that they had to fill. And I was on a morning check-in call with the artistic team, and Brenda had mentioned that she was going to have to go into a meeting with the PBS Wisconsin team, because they might be interested in hosting these play readings in their finished form. I had just finished up a big project with PBS Wisconsin – directing a one-woman show, The Light by Zhalarina Sanders. And it was a six-month long project with PBS. It’s three interrelated music videos that Zhalarina wrote the music for and starred in, and I directed. 

And it was a learning curve for me the first time I worked with PBS. And I said Brenda, you know, I think it might be good for me to be in the room for that. Just knowing how that institution functions, and so some of that experience has absolutely helped, I think, in putting together the Out of the Woods series. 

APT: Internally how did the play-reading series get its start?
Jake: At the moment it was really just something to do, and to experiment with. And I think that Carey and Brenda had some titles that they just wanted to hear out loud, you know, as they would probably at this point in any normal season, while they're thinking about programming for future seasons. So we all got onto these virtual plays. And so that was really our baby steps into the rehearsal process, just seeing if there was anything positive in reading a play on Zoom – a communications platform that was never intended to be a platform for this. And then when we had solidified the partnership with PBS, we went to the core company and said here's what we would like to do. We want to get everybody's take on this, is this something that everybody is interested in doing? And everybody came back and said, yeah, let's do it. 

And so we hired the slate of directors, and we put the casting together, that was primarily Carey Cannon, but I helped out a little bit putting those puzzles together. And then Aaron Posner was good enough to be the guinea pig for the Chekhov one acts, and just go in and figure out, ok, well, how do we map a traditional rehearsal process with this platform? Totally uncharted waters for everybody at that point. And Aaron, being a great director, was able to figure out pretty quickly how to do that, so those Chekhov one-act plays that APT has a history with actually lent themselves really well to the platform. And I don’t think we knew that it was going to work. But we started with the Chekhovs, and we thought, wow, this is really funny, and it's really entertaining. And seeing this group of actors from, literally, from a different vantage point, we get to see all the little things you might not catch in those last few seats up the Hill where I like to sit. 

APT: How did the rehearsal process go?
Jake: It was really a window into some of these actors' thought processes. So it was great. It was a really intimate take on what APT has always excelled at, in a completely foreign locality. And it turns out that it was actually fun to watch. So, the rehearsal process continued to evolve from the Chekhovs. John Langs came on for As You Like It and he started to push the form into a new direction. He was very aware that it was on Zoom, and was playing around with the way that each actor's individual frames were are showing up on screen. Like the order they were in was very important to him. And he was making use of the edges of the frame, so an actor can dip out of frame when they’re eavesdropping, for example. Or Melisa (Pereyra as Rosalind) can walk into frame wearing a wedding gown. And I coordinated the fight between Charles the Wrestler and Orlando. And so that was one afternoon of myself, Nate (Burger) and Jim (DeVita) looking at this new tool that we have, recognizing the restrictions of it, in terms of building a fight. And then leaning into the strength of this little camera on the top of everybody's laptops. And we thought, let's make use of what an audience cannot see. You know, if somebody is going to make “contact” with somebody, can they do it below the frame? And then have the other person who's being hit react to that? Or can they do a traditional wrestling lockup above the top frame so that we don't see their arms or their faces, but we have a sense that they're engaged that way? And then can it get chaotic enough to where we can sell that these guys are moving around so much that they're actually covering their little camera? And then if you bring on some of the other cast members who are in that scene to react as though they're watching the fight, is that clear storytelling? I thought it was; I thought we found something there where we were able to move our very limited medium of Zoom into a new area. 

And then with Arms and the Man, working with Bill Brown, who has a very different style. Everybody just kind of had their own take on it, just like with any play we would produce. But it was basically just figuring out how to digitize a traditional rehearsal process in a way that we're forced to right now. But it continues to evolve, and I kind of can't wait to see what the long-term response was from Julius Caesar, and from now, as we're moving into Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…, to see what David Daniel has applied to doing it. It's a very different take from the previous performances. There's a lot of multi-media in Are You Now…, which is, again, moving a Zoom play into a new direction. 

APT: What’s your favorite part of working on this project?
Jake: My favorite part has been, at the very beginning of the Sunday performances, watching Zoom get flooded with all of the people who've shown up to watch us do this. And then hearing their response afterward, they're delighted and complimentary about the work itself. But I think the real thing that people are responding to is seeing these actors, this acting company that has become part of their families. They just seem like they're so grateful for the moment; that they get to watch something beautiful in a time where it's very difficult to connect to people. And there's certainly enough going on in the world outside right now to cause people to want maybe a little bit of respite in the moment. Or to see the events of the world right now being filtered through art, and being reflected back to them through art. So I guess my answer is, seeing the audience both appreciate it and respond to the plays, and have them satiate something that they're not getting right now, even if it's not exactly the thing that we all want it to be. 

APT: Anything you’d like to add?
Jake: This is my third time now working at APT in an artistic capacity. I was assistant director for Blood Knot two summers ago. Before that I was on stage. It is always an educational experience for me. I mean, when you come here as an actor, and you get to collaborate with this caliber of artists and administrators and storytellers, you're just, by nature of the environment, you're going to be challenged to a greater degree than you normally are. And even though that can be uncomfortable at times, you always grow from being here, and working with these storytellers. You always internalize story at a higher level when you work with actors like those who are here at APT. And directors who come and direct shows here. And Brenda and Carey, who are so good at what they do, and are so passionate about what they do that you, I think you start to internalize rhythms and poetry, and I guess most importantly, you internalize all the things that draw us to live theater in the first place. That indefinable thing that we cannot live without.