I’ve learned so much on this job. I’ve been doing it for a long time- first in London and now here in New York, but still I learn every day. Whether it’s about the characters, the text, the process…always be learning.
As part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jenna Augen who is currently starring in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt on Broadway.
Jenna Augen is an actress and singer living in London and New York. Jenna won the UK Theatre Award for her performance as Daphna in the UK Premiere production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews at the Theatre Royal, Bath, which transferred to the St. James Theatre London and subsequently the Arts Theatre in the West End. Other UK Theatre credits include: Ada Kahn in Chicken Soup With Barley (The Royal Court), Goody in Rufus Norris’ Sleeping Beauty (Birmingham Rep) and Foible in The Way of the World (Chichester Festival Theatre) The Knowledge (Charing Cross Theatre), The Comedy About A Bank Robbery (Criterion Theatre, West End), Bartholomew Fair (Shakespeare’s Globe) as well as The West End production of Leopoldstadt in which she originated the role of Rosa which she is currently performing on Broadway, as well as the additional role of Wilma in that production. Film and Television includes: Episodes (Hat Trick Productions), The Night Watch (BBC) and Josephine and the Roach (Short). Jenna was nominated for an International Voice Arts Award for her narration of Disney’s live-action audiobook, Beauty and the Beast. She also narrated its companion audiobook Lost in a Book by Jennifer Donnelly.
Jenna is a graduate of the three-year acting course at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. She is a proud member of both UK and American Actors Equity.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series, Jenna! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Connecticut and got bitten by the acting bug really early. My mom is an opera singer and I had the great good fortune of not only seeing and hearing her perform growing up, but being immersed in and exposed to all that music and all those stories as well. I always wanted to act out those stories — “pretends” I called them — and she very sweetly and indulgently would let me. It’s the only way I ever wanted to play. It still is.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
As I say, it was an instinct that manifested very early on, but most particularly, it was when I became interested in Shakespeare at a very young age that the die was cast. A wonderful woman in my small town in Connecticut began a Shakespeare group for kids and although we didn’t delve into the very adult themes of it, we did understand the language and the heartbeat and the story lines and the emotions of the characters. We studied and learned not only our own scenes, but each other’s as well. And sometimes we studied and performed whole plays. I’m so lucky to have had that for so many reasons. And because I was at the age of being a sponge, I was able to retain every line. I learned in those few years of doing it (I am an incessant quoter — it drives my friends mad). But also, it gave me an immediate path to expressing whatever emotion I was feeling. If I had no words, Shakespeare, of course, did. At the same time I was voracious for every musical I could find and listened to all of them on repeat. My parents are very patient people.
So none of us are able to achieve success without help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped you get you where you are today?
There are so many that I’m going to start crying because I can’t believe how grateful I am for all of them and that somehow it all led me here. I’ll have to start with my parents because they encouraged me every step of the way. They saw it immediately, and I am so lucky and grateful that they never doubted that instinct in me or cautioned me against the risk of a career in the arts, they only helped and encouraged and supported me right from the get-go.
I’ve had many astonishing teachers over the years, but I am indebted to two in particular for their extreme encouragement, brilliant teaching, and discipline. The first is my violin teacher (I was quite serious about violin when I was in high school), Asya Meshberg, who taught me innumerable lessons about art, music, the discipline they require, and life. And my beloved ballet teacher when I was much younger, Patricia Schuster who did the same. Their words and teachings still echo in my head all these years later and I am hugely grateful to them.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m currently in Leopoldstadt on Broadway. I play Wilma and Rosa. Wilma is Rosa’s mother. The play spans 55 years and is centered on a Jewish family living in Vienna from the beginning of the 20th century through the mid 20th century.
It’s an incredible piece of writing by Tom Stoppard. I feel so grateful and privileged to be a part of it, and was also a part of the London cast in the West End. It has been the greatest honor and responsibility of my life to play Rosa in Leopoldstadt (and now Wilma as well).
Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
I’m not the only one to say this but, every time you get a chance to act, enjoy it no matter where or when or how: sometimes those opportunities can be rare, but it’s what we love and what drives us, so revel in every opportunity you have to do it and be creative.
Follow your instincts. If there is one thing that seems practical for you to do but your instinct says that something else feels right, do what feels right. You never really know what’s going to lead you to the next thing. But if you follow your tastes and heart and instincts it will very definitely be part of your particular path. The road is long, but as long as you are true to your own rhythm and you love what you do, you will be alright.
The other thing is to have faith that it will. A lot of this business is letting go and staying humble which can be hard. Self-awareness is key. You might be perfect for that role but it might not be the right moment for you, or the right production for you, and in a year or two, you will find yourself with a group of creatives and at a point in your journey where it is.
Lastly, one of my main pieces of advice for actors starting out is to learn to relish the “no’s” as much as the “yes’s.” That sounds crazy and is incredibly hard to do, but your path will be shaped just as much by the doors closing as by the windows opening. This piece of advice is much more for retrospective moments, but ultimately, when you’re in a “yes” you’ll find you can be grateful for all the “no’s” that led you here.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances”?
- I’ve learned so much on this job. I’ve been doing it for a long time- first in London and now here in New York, but still I learn every day. Whether it’s about the characters, the text, the process…always be learning.
- Stay positive.
- Stay kind. It’s a really hard business, so stay as kind and affirming as possible.
- Stay humble. There is so much talent and creativity and greatness everywhere. Stay in awe of it. Relish seeing and finding it. Let other people’s artistry inspire you always.
- Take very good care of yourself and get a lot of sleep. Keep snacks in your dressing room.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and why it’s meaningful?
I have so many. But, the one that popped into my head just now is Polonius, “‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, Jenna. Thank you so much! We wish you continued success!