New York City and Los Angeles are teeming with actors looking for that one movie role, that one TV show, or that play that will get them noticed and launch their careers. The scene is no different in Chicago, another outpost of the theater world, where scores of actors pay dues in supporting roles and bit parts while awaiting the casting call that could take their career to a higher level.
Enter Jersey City native Jen Short. An actor and stage manager currently based in Chicago, Short recently got her first taste of post-drama school success when she landed the role of Cherie in the Raven Theatre’s production of “Bus Stop.”
“I like stage managing. But performance is where my heart lies.” – Jen Short
“My character, Cherie, is a nightclub singer,” Short said recently. “She’s being abducted by Bo, a cowboy, who has taken her from the nightclub. He’s taking her back to his ranch to get married. They have their struggles throughout the play. But in the end, they get together and make amends with each other.”
This revival production of “Bus Stop” premiered in October and opened the 2011-2012 season for Chicago’s Raven Theatre, where Short has worked as a stage manager for the last two years. The play, Short said, was the first time she has been cast in a Raven Theatre production.
Born and raised in Jersey City, Short said she did a lot of community-theater during her high school years and worked with the Hudson Shakespeare Company. After graduating from Jersey City’s McNair Academic High School, Short attended Catawba College in North Carolina where she graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts, concentrating in stage management and performance.
“I like stage managing,” Short said. “I prefer performing. Stage managers have a much harder job, so they actually get better pay. Stage managing is a great way to stay involved in the theater and to make a little more money than I would as an actor. But performance is where my heart lies.”
Thus far, Short has been a stage manager for three Raven Theatre productions, including “12 Angry Men,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “Radio Golf,” August Wilson’s final play. She is currently in production for Raven’s upcoming run of “The Price,” Arthur Miller’s family drama about two estranged brothers after the death of their parents.
“The stage manager is like God throughout a production,” Short joked, explaining the role and importance of stage managers to theatrical productions.
“The director has the final say in everything,” she said. “But once a show opens, a director can leave. Normally, for an Equity (union sanctioned) show, the director will stay for opening night and then move on to their next project. Once a show opens, it’s the stage manager’s responsibility to make sure that the quality of each show is consistent after the director leaves. The stage manager is there for every performance. The stage manager runs all the production meetings, all rehearsals, makes sure all the designers, actors, and tech crews are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Short landed at the Raven in June 2009, just a month after her college graduation and a stint living on friends’ couches.
Equity can wait
Despite the steady work, Short said she isn’t eager to join Actors’ Equity, the union that represents thousands of professional working theater actors and stage managers – at least not yet. Getting an “Equity card” is a goal for most emerging actors and young stage managers because union membership comes with many benefits. But Short said being unionized also comes with some limitations.
“Once you get your Equity card, you can’t do any non-union shows,” Short noted. “So, you can’t do a show you’ve always wanted to do. You can’t do a show ‘just for the experience.’ And if you don’t have the contacts to continually keep working on Equity productions, you can find yourself without work.”
She said Chicago has a lot of terrific, reputable non-Equity theaters she wants to work with before getting unionized.
She is also applying for a nine-month apprenticeship with Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which is an Equity house. If accepted into the program – which offers three months in Steppenwolf’s acting school, three months as an assistant director, and three months as an understudy – the experience, she said, will give her exposure to an Equity theater without being unionized before she is ready.
And “Bus Stop” won’t be Short’s last appearance on the Raven Theatre stage. She has already been cast in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” Raven’s final production for its 2011-2012 season.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.