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Watch that Man Behind the Curtain 

Behind every actor's bow, behind every audience's standing ovation, there are those who played an instrumental role behind the scenes, creating the opportunity for that entertainment experience.

Professor Bill Jenkins is one of those key individuals, standing metaphorically by the stage curtain, perhaps playing the most important role of all.

click to enlarge Bill Jenkins
  • Bill Jenkins

As Chair of Ball State University's Theatre and Dance Department, he creates opportunities for young hopefuls who aspire to be in "the business."  Aided by faculty and networking through friends of friends, Bill rubs elbows with Broadway heavy-hitters who do lunch and take meetings for a living.

A native of Carmel, Jenkins is one of the youngest department heads ever appointed at Ball State. Growing up, he was influenced by the leadership of his uncle Dr. Robert Hartman who was the Superintendent of Carmel Clay Schools for 25 years and is widely credited with its progress. When Jenkins looked to making his mark in the world, it made sense for him to consider the field of education.

But the surprise came when Jenkins caught the performing arts bug in high school.

"The strength of the Carmel High School performing arts department was inspiring to me. I initially thought I was going to be a high school teacher," says Jenkins. "I gained great experience working with teachers like Linda Johnson, Tam Tudor and Ron Hellems."

Hellems chaired the Performing Arts department at Carmel for 23 years and apparently Jenkins had an impact on him, too. "He was one of those kids that knew he would be in a position of leadership as his life progressed," remembers Hellems. "He played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He was in the Ambassadors show choir, all the theatre productions and was involved in student directing. Bill was a natural leader."

After high school graduation in 1991, Jenkins enrolled in BSU. While there, his career aspirations shifted.  "Eventually, I realized what I really loved doing, more than being an actor or anything else, was being a storyteller. And that's how directing became my passion."

In 1996, Jenkins left BSU, armed with both a Bachelors degree in acting and a Masters degree in communications. Three years later, he completed his MFA in directing at Illinois State University. After a yearlong teaching stint at the University of North Dakota, Jenkins heard about an opening in the BSU musical theatre program. He applied and got the job.

"In the middle of my third year at BSU," says Jenkins, "the chair of our department accepted another position. I was dumbfounded when Dean Robert Kvam of our college asked me, a 29-year old untenured, assistant professor to step in to the interim department chair position." 

With his colleagues' encouragement, Jenkins eventually sought the open chair position and earned the title at 30 years old. Eleven years later,

his passion is the push behind the burgeoning program at BSU and its list of famous adjunct faculty members including Sutton Foster.

click to enlarge (left to right) Bill's wife, Sara Jenkins, Sutton Foster and Bill Jenkins.
  • (left to right) Bill's wife, Sara Jenkins, Sutton Foster and Bill Jenkins.

"Bill Jenkins is a smart educator," says Foster, two-time Tony Award winner and star of ABC Family'sBunheads. "He has a very special rapport with his students, giving them freedom and a great learning environment. They adore him!"


Foster has been described by the New York Times as an "amazing triple threat," yet there is nothing threatening about this winsome darling of Broadway who can act, dance, and sing her way into even the coldest of hearts. 

Jenkins and Foster met in New York in 2005. Foster recalls, "One day, my agent called and said 'Ball State students are going to be in New York and they're wondering if you would come talk to them.'  I said, 'Of course!' I knew about Ball State through Dave Letterman and it was actually one of the schools I considered when I was looking at colleges."

Soon after, she began collaborating with Jenkins and his students each year at their NY showcases and now visits the campus regularly. "It was always my dream to be a teacher and this opportunity seems like a match made in heaven!" says Foster.


She brings name recognition and a certain cachet to the academic table. In return, Jenkins's department provides Foster a safe haven to explore as a creative artist. In 2011, she made her directorial debut on campus, co-directing a production of The Drowsy Chaperone with Jenkins. In 2012, she received an honorary degree. This semester, Foster teaches a senior-level course via Skype.

 "I've become a better performer and actor since I started working with the students. It's a real reminder of why I became an actor to begin with," she says.

Jenkins considers Foster a colleague and friend, "She's really a wonderful human being who cares as much about the students as she does about anything else. That is very important to us."

Jenkins is also a conduit to movers and shakers like New York casting agent Stephanie Klapper; Los Angeles casting director for film and television, Mark Saks; and, Erica Daniels, the casting director at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. They, too, have been brought into the fold as adjunct faculty using what Jenkins calls "a friend of a friend" networking.

In a business that pivots on relationships, having the attention of industry insiders can translate into making a real difference when students enter the professional world. Jenkins's student showcases in NY, LA and Chicago are beneficial because they provide opportunities to audition for important casting agents and directors and gain representation.

"The power of the performing arts is transformative," Jenkins emphasizes. A conversation with him quickly confirms an extraordinary devotion to his work."The performing arts can be both entertainment and an opportunity to teach, allowing us to learn about ourselves."

One of Jenkins's students is junior Sam Malone. She has studied with Jenkins for three years and describes her classroom experience in almost reverent tones, "There's a great feeling of acceptance and warmth with Jenkins. He's helped me gain a lot of confidence." Sam plans to move to New York or Chicago after graduation. "He taught me that we all have the power within us. There's just lots of steps to take to achieve it. Jenkins's office door is always open and he's an incredible mentor."

Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone.
  • Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone.

Jenkins has watched many students grow and flourish.  He recalls, "Grace Rex ('08) was, for one reason or another, one of those students who always doubted how talented she was, but she came alive on stage. The interest in her at our showcase was extremely high because she is unbelievably warm, vulnerable, smart and a really savvy actress. Subsequently, she's gone on to a recurring role on The Good Wife."

"Emily Behny ('10) was shy and quiet, yet so very talented. After graduation, she landed the role of Belle in the national tour of Beauty and the Beast. This November, Emily will play Nessarose in the Broadway touring production of Wicked at Old National Centre."

Jenkins has set up collaborative partnerships and secured resources and grants for the department's student-created original musical called, Circus in Winter.  The play, based onthe book written by Hoosier Cathy Day, revolves around a circus that chooses to winter in Indiana and the surrounding circus performers' stories.

Under Professor Beth Turcotte's leadership, 14 students adapted Day's book with Ben Clark ('11) composing the original musical score. Circus in Winter has had readings across the country. It was picked up by a New York producer and optioned. The musical has won awards at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and has been workshopped at Goodspeed Opera House at their New Artist Colony.

Sutton Foster, who played a leading role in several of its readings, explains how she found herself happily sucked into the project: "It was one of those things where you go, 'Sure, sure, sure. I'll help you out with your student show.'  And then I worked on it with them during the readings and thought, 'Oh wait, this is really good! It's fantastic! This has legs! This has life!' I'm beyond excited for the students for what they are doing with the work."

Jenkins is often asked for advice on how to make it in the entertainment business and it's much like the man himself--introspective and insightful.

"If you can do anything else with your life and be happy, I highly recommend it," he says. "It's a difficult business. Actors, directors, singers, dancers--go into the world in a constant state of unemployment. But if you think it's the only thing you can see yourself doing, then I think finding a school that will allow you to flourish as an artist, and more importantly, lets you grow and supports you as a human being, can make a big difference."   

Jenkins himself obviously falls into that blissful curse of living the entertainment industry. He is passionate about the performing arts and enjoys seeing his influence trickle outward in interesting directions.

Networking, creating opportunities, making connections--it's what people like Bill Jenkins do as they work behind the curtain.

 

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About The Author

Denise Reiter

Denise Reiter

Bio:
Denise is an award-winning writer and video producer. Her dream job would be head writer for The Alan Brady Show. A veritable Swiss Army Knife in PR & marketing communications, she loves a good story and is always looking to tell one.

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