INTERVIEW: Broadway Veteran JENNA GAVIGAN On New Book, Her Special Moment with Bernadette Peters, an
Jenna Gavigan makes her literary debut this fall with Lulu the Broadway Mouse. At age sixteen she made her Broadway debut in Gypsy, opposite Bernadette Peters. Since then she's appeared in a half-dozen films, on more than a dozen television shows, and on east and west coast stages, most recently Off-Broadway in the world premiere of Straight. She has used her past as a child star to draw on inspiration for the book which focuses around a mouse with big dreams! Jenna talks about her new book, what it was like starring opposite Bernadette Peters as a child, and what is next for her.
STRAIGHT, the Off-Broadway show you starred in alongside Jake Epstein and Thomas E. Sullivan got quite the buzz and gained a lot of attention. Any word of what Is next for the production?
Thank you for asking about Straight! It was such a dream of a job. I miss it terribly. In the two or so years since we closed and the play was published, it’s been produced quite a bit around the world! Most recently in Mexico City, I believe
Where did the idea for your book, Lulu the Broadway Mouse come from? Did you draw inspiration perhaps from your life as an actress?
Honestly, the idea sparked half a lifetime ago when I was making my Broadway debut in Gypsy at the Shubert. We’d spot a mouse from time to time, as one does in New York City, and they always seemed to have such big personalities, almost like they wanted to help out with—or star in—the show. Over the years, the idea for a mouse who lives at the Shubert and wants to be on Broadway has been percolating in my mind, and it was after Straightclosed, actually, when I finally sat down to write what is now being published.
Lulu herself is certainly inspired by me as a kid, by my dream of being on Broadway. The other kids in the book are inspired by me as well—by different parts of my personality and past experiences in the theatre. And many of the other characters are inspired by people I’ve met and worked with over the years.
What is the message you’d like the youth to take away from your book?
That your dreams are achievable, no matter how far reaching they may seem. But that they involve hard work, and all the steps to achieving a dream might not be entirely in the dreamer’s control. And… to quote Lulu, “…sometimes dreams turn out differently than we imagined.” Being open to new experiences and change and the possibilities that come from loss and upset is what makes us stronger and often leads to things we never could have dreamed up!
What made you decide to write a book and take your creativity in that direction, specifically a children’s book?
Well, I love kids. And this story that had been high-kicking around in my head since I was still technically still a kid myself really needed to be written for kids. I wound up majoring in creative writing at Columbia and during my last semester I finally took a class I had been wanting to take for years: writing for children’s books.I’d spent most of my time at Columbia writing adult fiction and screenplays and television, so spending my last semester writing a picture book—based on an idea I’d had for a very long time—was a really special way to end my time at school. That book was around 700 words and the published novel is around 37,000 words. So… what I started at Columbia was far from what’s being published, but it certainly got the ball rolling.
As I write in the acknowledgements for my book: I am thankful to be able to make believe for a living. For me, acting and writing go hand-in-hand. They’re just different forms of make believe. I truly believe being a writer has made me a better actor, and being an actor makes me a better writer.
What was it like working with the beyond talented Bernadette Peters back in Gypsy? Do you have a special moment or something you can tell us about your time with her in Gypsy?
Don’t get me started. She’s a legend for a reason. We all know she’s talented, but what I can tell you from having had the honor of sharing the stage (and backstage) with her is that she is a solid, good human being. She is humble, she is giving and she is kind. Our company was as strong as we were because she was at the top of our pyramid. I am a firm believer in things trickling down from the top. She set a hardworking, yet incredibly loving, tone for everyone in the building, and we all followed suit.
My Gypsy memories are endless. I could go on for WEEKS. I do remember once when I was on for Dainty June, it happened to be our 100thperformance. Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft were in the audience (!!!) and they came backstage to have a little celebration in Bernadette’s dressing room. She kept telling them something to the effect of: “She’s seventeen! Can you believe it?!” That was a very special evening. Bernadette Peters, Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft… I mean, really.
What is next for you in your career? Will you be returning to broadway? Are you still performing?
I certainly hope I’ll be returning to Broadway! (Do you hear that, Broadway? I would like to return to you, please!) All I know about the near future is: my book comes out on October 9, 2018. One of the wonderful/terrible things about being an artist is there’s no knowing what the future will bring. Long term or short term. For example, it’s very common to get less than 24 hours’ notice for an audition, especially for television. This makes for… a very last-minute kind of life.
I very much miss working on stage. I am a big fan of doing eight shows a week. I love the routine of it. I also miss working on television, which I used to do a lot. I’d also love to write for television. As an author, there’s always the possibility someone will ask me to adapt my book for television, film or stage. I am open to all of the possibilities, that’s for sure.
What was it like being a child actress on Broadway? Do you feel it’s changed for better or worse for child actors?
I was sixteen when I made my Broadway debut. I was treated like an adult—I was in an adult dressing room. But I went to school during the day. I went home to my parents’ house in the evening. I took my SAT’s before a two-show day and was applying to college while the show was running. So, it was… tricky, at times. But overall, it was a gee-dee dream.
The first time I auditioned for a Broadway show (The Sound of Musicstarring Rebecca Luker!) I was in the sixth grade. Not getting that show—and the many close calls after that—was heartbreaking. But I’m honestly glad with how it worked out. I was able to have a fairly normal education and social life up until my junior year of high school. And while I grumbled about school at the time (mainly because I was exhausted), I realize now how important it is. I am so thankful for my solid education. (Cue a harmonious “we told you so!” from my parents.)
I’m not sure how things are for child actors then vs. now. But I would imagine being a kid, in general, is tougher now. Social media is bonkers. Cell phones are a whole thing. Texting… oy. It seems that there is more and more pressure to do well in school and it is even tougher and tougher to get into college. I used to ride my bike for hours after school. Do kids still do this? (Kids, and show biz kids: if you’re ever feeling like it’s all too much, please feel free to contact me on social media and we’ll talk it out. It’ll all work out, I promise.)
What advice do you have for the younger generation, specifically kids who want to be Broadway performers and their (sometimes overbearing) parents?
Alright here’s the summary:
Show business is not as easy as it looks. But nothing worth doing is ever easy. Go after what you want. (What youwant. Not what your parentswant. If you’re doing this for them, you probably won’t get the part, because you don’t really want the part. Ya know?) Work hard. But please manage your expectations: you probably won’t book the first or first two-dozen jobs you audition for. But when you finally do get a job, it’ll be worth it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s one episode a week and years on the air vs. a binge watch over one weekend. It’s cake from scratch rather than out of the box. (You get it.)
Now that I’m warmed up, here’s the essay:
My parents weren’t overbearing, which I’m thankful for. They put the time and work in because it was my dream. I will say that a bunch of the kids who I auditioned with when I was younger—ones who had parents who clearly cared more than they did, parents who were perhaps living vicariously through their children—most of those kids aren’t in the business anymore.
I guess what I’m getting at is: do not go into show business for anyone but yourself. You are the one singing your heart out at auditions, sweating through leotards during dance classes, memorizing monologues until you can’t see straight. You’ll be the adult who will do the same. While it can be an exhilarating, joyful, dreamy business it can also be awful. Frustrating. Illogical. Heartbreaking. If you can think of doing anything else that will make you as happy, please do it. If you can’t, then by all means, show business is the business for you. Welcome.
Also: there’s no rush. Don’t feel like you need to make a lifelong commitment to being in show business at age ten. Plenty of the actors you know and love didn’t get started in show business until they were grown-ups. Take time to be a normal kid, go to your friends’ bat mitzvahs, go to summer camp, go to regular school. (Please, for the love of Hamilton: focus on your school work. It is important. As the teens say: “It is V important.”) Show business will be there for you during college and beyond. Speaking of college… minoring in economics (or literature or Italian or psychology) doesn’t mean you’re lame; it means you’re aware that sometimes actors need to have other jobs while they wait for acting gigs. (Most artists will have “side hustles.” This is normal. This is to be expected.) So, if you decide to go to school for theatre, or some show business-y profession, consider taking classes outside of your comfort zone. All the things you learn will make you a more interesting actor not to mention a more interesting human being. Branching out might also make you realize that you not only want to be an actor—you want to write, too! Or, you don’t really want to be an actor anymore, but you’d love to be the lawyer who negotiates actors’ contracts. Or you’d like to be the person who operates the camera, rather than the person in front of it. Or: “Wait a minute, it’s someone’s job to make Elphaba fly?! I can have that job?!!” Just because you grew up saying you’d like to be one thing, doesn’t mean you don’t have the option to change your mind, is what I’m saying here.
Whatever it is you decide to do, work hard at it. Be kind to the people you work for and with. And be kind to yourself. As Mr. Sondheim wrote: “art isn’t easy.”