Knox Changes Lives: We’re on our way there – final challenge day! Judd '69 & Charlene Jessup and Merry ’80 ...
Princeton, New Jersey
Majors in Theatre and English Literature
You're participating in Professor Carlin Metz's Theatre 231 Acting Studio class, covering New Works Opportunities. Can you explain a bit about how you're planning to cover this topic and what your experience with it has been?
Mostly I’ll be talking about what it looks like to pursue a life as a playwright in the American theatre. This will be largely based on what things looked like pre-COVID, topics such as “to grad school, or not to grad school?,” how to build professional relationships, and how to craft a life that can stay in it for the long haul—because making a living in theatre is hard. I’ll also speak about how I and other playwright friends have been coping and finding new ways to work in this current age of virtual and Zoom theatre.
I've been working professionally in the theatre almost continually since I graduated from Knox at theatres that range in size from tiny storefronts in St. Louis to major regionals and most of the off-Broadway houses in New York. Those jobs included pretty much every aspect of making theatre, except for costumes. I never learned to sew. (Is it too late to get a lesson, Margo?)
Why did you decide to participate in the class, and how did this opportunity arise?
My first year at Knox was Liz’s first year as a professor. I acted in all the plays she directed during my four years there, and I took a number of her classes. She was also at the public reading of the first play I wrote, and I very clearly remember her saying to me, “You are a writer.” She was my first real theatre mentor and encouraged me to pursue a career in it. We've kept in touch since I graduated, including being invited to come back to campus to judge the Davenport Playwriting Award (in 2012, I think). I would do anything to support her and the Knox Theatre community. So when she reached out to me and a number of other alums about being a part of this class and revisiting Spoon River Anthology, which I acted in as part of Rep Term X, I jumped at the opportunity.
Tell us about your acting experience as a Knox student.
I loved acting at Knox and—no lie—I have actual dreams where I’m back performing and producing plays in Harbach and Studio Theatre. Highlights include Doc Bob [Theatre Professor Robert Whitlach] casting me as Undershaft in Major Barbara (when I was a first year!), the incredible company that was the chorus in Liz's production of Love of the Nightingale, getting to act alongside my dear friend Dan Blask '96 in Tom Stoppard's The Boundary in Studio Theatre, getting to fight Jason Powell '00 with broadswords in Macbeth, and founding the Really Useless Improv Troupe, which, as I understand it, spawned a tradition of improv and sketch comedy that continues to this day.
Can you go over what you've been doing professionally since graduating from Knox?
I've been pursuing a career in theatre with a focus on playwriting. To pay the bills, I spent a number of years working as a stage electrician in both regional and off-Broadway theatres. I went to the University of California, San Diego, for grad school in playwriting (class of '06). Then I spent 10+ years in New York and met my wife, Nicole A. Watson, who was working as a freelance director at the time. I spent three years working at The 52nd Street Project, an organization that makes theatre with and for the kids of the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood until I was awarded a Jerome Fellowship from The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, which required us to move to Minneapolis for 2017-18.
Additionally, I was awarded the inaugural Apothetae-Lark Fellowship for a Deaf/Disabled Playwright (2017-19), allowing me to make a living solely as a playwright for a few years. After my wife was offered a job as the associate artistic director at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, we moved to the D.C. area and I received a finishing commission from Round House to work on my play We Declare You a Terrorist, which they subsequently committed to producing as part of their 2020-21 season.
And then COVID hit, everything shut down, and my play was bumped to (most likely) 2022. My wife retained her job, but I've been out of steady work since March, cobbling together some online teaching opportunities and relying on the federal unemployment assistance until that ran out. Thankfully we were offered free housing at Merrimack Rep in Lowell, Massachusetts, in exchange for becoming their writer-in-residence for as long as we needed a place to live. Recently, Nicole accepted a new job as the associate artistic director at the McCarter Theatre, so at some point in the near future, we'll be moving to central New Jersey and start getting reacquainted with New York City and acquainted with the theatre scene in Philadelphia. Currently, I've just begun writing the final play of an Oedipus trilogy, I’m collaborating on a few projects with the SITI Company as they plan their “sunset season,” and I’m working on a commission for the Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences.
Why is Knox important to you?
I got to meet and work with a whole host of incredible people, many of whom I am still in touch with, people who lifted me up, made me a better theatre-maker, and with whom I created a real home away from home. All in all, I felt limitless when it came to exploring and discovering my voice as a person and artist. I just realized I’m describing the “Freedom to Flourish.” That was the motto when I was there, don't know if it still is, but I’m just realizing that I guess it actually worked.
Photo above: Tim Lord at the May 2019 workshop of his play On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle; or, Owed at The Lark in New York. Photo by Karin Shook.