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December 4, 2008 | 2:31 p.m. CST
When she first arrived as a student at Stephens College in 1964, Jana Robbins scored a lead role in the play The Women. Now after an extensive theater career, Robbins has come back to Stephens for a new role: director of the college’s production of Little Women, starting Dec. 5. She opens up about directing at Stephens and her own acting.
Vox: How did you get involved with directing Little Women at
Jana Robbins: I approached them. I graduated from Stephens, and I’ve stayed on as a supporter, director and a teacher. So I’m just an avid alum. I contacted Beth Leonard and said that I believe my show, Little Women, belongs at Stephens. I get to deliver a show I produced on Broadway to this student body and feel proud in my ability to do so.
How is putting on Little Women at Stephens different from the
production on Broadway?
JR: I can give you a big one. We probably have more than 5 million fewer dollars to spend on it. That’s a big one. I was a producer on Broadway and not a director, so I am much more hands-on with the creation of the performances by my cast. I picked my cast, and I’m right in the mix with them emotionally for five hours a day creating the show — how it lives, how it looks, how they perform.
What is your fondest memory from your time as a student at
JR: Simply how safe and nurtured I felt, both on the campus and in the theater world here. You were part of a family. And I don’t think I was on campus for more than six to eight weeks before I got the role in the play The Women. But strangely enough, I got a leading role. Early on, I was acknowledged and supported here. I was given the kind of roles here that I was a bit too young for, but they were the kind of roles I would get upon graduation.
So you’ve been an actress,
director and producer. What job do you enjoy the most?
JR: As long as I have the opportunity to be creative, I really like it all. The fun part about being on stage is that I sing, I dance, I act, and I love the doingness of it. It’s exciting. But at the same time, when I start to direct, I’m responsible for so much more. I may never get on the stage, but everything on the stage is me. And then as the producer, you’re responsible for an even bigger picture because you pick the actors, you hire the team, you raise the money.
What do you find most challenging about directing?
JR: Right now, what I find the most challenging is literally scheduling it. It’s like trying to cook a gourmet dinner for 50 guests and having everything come out on time so that by the time the entrée is ready, you haven’t burned the potatoes.
What was your most embarrassing moment on stage?
JR: I came to the theatre and put on hose with the cotton crotch with them and didn’t put on underwear and forgot that. So I got dressed in my costume, and I had to do some high kicks in Funny Girl, and I realized that I was on stage without my panties.
You started at a really young age, when did you know for sure that you wanted to be in the theater?
JR: I was 4 years old, and my mother used to dance with Gene Kelly and sent me to the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance in Johnstown, Pa. I had my first solo at 4, and I sang, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” and my dad bought me a bubble blower. I never ever wanted to do anything else.
How is working on stage different from working on film?
JR: On both of them, I really think the key to any great performances is really playing your emotions for real. But there is a thing on stage where you really, you absolutely need an energy. You need to recreate that performance again and again and again. On film, you have to be even more still and more real because something in your eyes on camera can be really big especially if it’s like The Women, on a huge, huge screen. You are less in control of your performance when you work in other media than when you are in theater, which is why I love the rush of it.
Could you talk a little bit about working on the film, The Women?
JR: That for me was just great fun because there I was with all of these amazing women. And there’s just something exciting about being in your trailer and walking into the makeup room to get my makeup on, and there I am with getting made up with Meg Ryan next to me and Annette Benning on the other side of me. The bulk of my scene was with Eva Mendez. And I will never forget that Ms. Mendez said to me, “You go, girl. You’re really good. You go, girl.” And I said, “Eva, this is going to sound like a silly question, but may I ask you, how old are you, Eva?” And she said, “I’m 31.” And I said, “Well Eva, I’ve been in the business twice as long as you.”