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  • Natalie Wisdom

Christopher Kale Jones and Jenna Coker Jones, Chicago-based Broadway Couple.

[Interview Date: December 15, 2020]

Chris: Frankie Valli, National Tour of Jersey Boys; Member of Under the Streetlamp and more.

Jenna: Seussical National Tour, Evil Dead Off-Broadway, and more.

Where were you on March 12, 2020, the day Broadway shut down? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?

Jenna I was doing a show at the Marriott Theatre here. It was The Princess and the Pea; I was the Queen. Their Children’s Theatre is incredible; I was so excited to be working there. I was obsessed with my cast mates and the show, itself, and we were at the Whole Foods, after I had done the show that day. I’m the mom of everyone in Chicago; people call me for advice. How to write emails; break up with agents; anything anyone needs. If there’s a problem or they’re scared, they call me. If I’m in a show, there’s a line at my station to ask me questions. Anyway, we were in the Whole Foods, and my phone starts blowing up. I had every person in the cast call me in the span of five minutes. Broadway shut down before Chicago did.

Everyone’s season lines up together, so the mainstage was going to be open for another two weeks. And people had just gone into rehearsals on Monday of that week, and then, the kids’ shows overlap, two shows. So, we were in this, ‘in between’ spot. And we thought we were going to have a show the next day. I had no idea it was going to be my last show that day. I just started to bawl, and I wanted to protect everyone.

And I’m obsessed with the Marriott. The Artistic Directors called us and said, “Let’s come in anyway tomorrow, and talk. Let’s meet as a family.” So, they created this amazing space for us to come, and mourn, and talk, and let our feelings out. And see each other again, and say goodbye to a show we weren’t ready to say goodbye to. We didn’t know what was going to happen. It was really sad.

And my friends in other shows started calling and saying, “We’re gonna do one show.” And then, they got there, and it was canceled. We both had projects that were supposed to happen this summer and were pushed, the week leading up to that.

I did not think we would be affected at all. Theatre has never been shut down in the course of history, not even during the Great Depression.

Chris: Not even 9/11. Maybe a weekend. It’s in our culture: “The show must go on.”

I don’t have much to add to that. There was a lot of hubbub. “Are people shutting down?” “What’s gonna happen?” And I think that day was the day it was like, “Broadway’s going to close.” And they were scrambling to figure it out.

Did you initially anticipate that Broadway and all Chicago theatre productions would be closed for this long?

Chris: We had no idea!

Jenna: I can’t believe it, to be honest.

Chris: (They said), “Broadway will be closed until April 12th, and most Chicago theatres are shuttering for at least a month.” Remember when that was it? “I can’t believe we’re going to be closed until April 12th!”

Jenna: I remember with Presley’s school, they were like, “We’re going to be out of school for at least a month," and I was like, “That’s horrible!” And now, we haven’t had (in-person) school since March 2020.

Chris: It will have been almost a year that she’s been home-schooling with us. Which is great! (But) she’s similar to Jenna. She’s such an extrovert. She loves being around people.

What has this time been like for you, as a family?

Jenna: Growing. Growth.

Chris: This whole time has been really bonding for us. We know that we’ve got each other’s back, and each other to lean on.

Jenna: We kept saying… We’re fine; we’re actors. We can figure it out. We’re the most resilient people ever. That’s what you do. We’ve always had to do that: your show ends, you start over; you move to a different city, you start over. Our lives are about regenerating. So, it’s pretty magical that we were able to get out and be like, “We’re fine. The world is our oyster.”

Chris: We’ve reached a point now, even though the future is completely uncertain, we can do anything. It’s funny; talking about the ‘actor thing.’ We have a resilience, just from what we do. I remember talking to my brother-in-law, years ago, when he was between jobs. He works in IT- smart guy. It had been, like, a month, and he was like, “I’ve been unemployed for a month. Is this ever going to end?” And I was like, “This is usually four to six months of our year...” And I was like, “Oh, that’s right! For a lot of people, this I something that is out of the ordinary.”

And I’m not meaning to compare it to this year, but actors have to pivot so often. A lot of them are struggling during this time, but everyone has side hustles and things. And we’ve seen a lot of friends who are really talented, who have done five or six Broadway shows, who are like, “I’m out. I’m done.” And that’s gonna be the way it is.

Jenna: It has definitely made people decide what they want. And I think that’s excellent.

Chris: And we’ve also decided more strongly on side-hustles that we love. But we also still love TV/Film and Theatre, and we’re going to be doing it until we’re dead.

Jenna: Yeah, there’s no quitting here!

Chris: We’ve been able to level-up our skills during this time. Jenna has gotten good at editing. We’ve gotten better at producing content.

Jenna: We’re basically our own Production Company.

Chris: We’re learning a lot right now. Moving on to new things has been empowering. A lot of crazy things have happened this year, but we were able to level-up, and now we’re moving into our next period. And we’ll see what the next year holds.

What have you been doing over the past several months or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?

Jenna: I have rebranded and relaunched my holistic health coaching biz. So, I am virtually training people and taking Zoom clients. (shameless plug: Right now for people, and I think for me, the biggest thing to keep me sane, is moving my body. One of the best purchases we’ve made is a mini-trampoline! Presley can get her energy out. Making a routine for ourselves; having a routine and not letting it go. It helps that we have a kid. Having that routine and having that predictability, in an uncertain world, helps my Type A, control issues. And eating well and staying in touch with people, because I am an extrovert. Having Zoom dates and being intentional. Going for a walk; all of those things. Just being one with nature; just getting some air. Being a support for people, and then reaching out if you need the support. That’s been good.

Chris: Also, in this time, people feel a lack of control. It’s been helpful for us to launch into things and expand our talents.

Jenna: We started the Artists’ Health Collective. So, it’s professional artists in the community in Chicago; whether it’s Choreographers, Directors, Actors, Designers… The whole thing is to do Health and Wellness for them, since their schedules aren’t normal. So, I created this whole six-month program of how to live your best life, as an artist, living in a world that wasn’t built for you.

Chris: And I got my Personal Training Certification, which is something I’ve wanted to do since College, but (now) I have it. And it was great to learn about that.

And I’ve been reading a lot more. I’m trying to get through a book a week of stuff I’m learning about. Just so I have more talents. I think part of it this year, for me, is that I don’t want to depend on (theatre) for my income. I want to do theatre as much as I can; do it and never need the money. So, I’ve been learning about investing a lot. I’ve been reading tons of stuff about investing and trading and stocks. Right now, it’s something I’m leaning into, so that maybe, in the next year or two; it can provide some income. So that every time I take a job for theatre, it’s only because I love it.

Jenna: We want to be our own bosses, because this has taught us that you can’t depend on anything.

What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?

Jenna: Home-schooling. And just; my extremist brain goes to: “It will never be the same!” I love collaboration; I love people throwing out ideas and making something out of nothing. I love a dressing room; I love hugging; all those things we took for granted. I love having an audience close; I love doing audience participation. Can we do that anymore? And what does that mean? Something I think about a lot is: it will never be the same. But I am grateful that I was part of it before this, if it isn’t the same again.

Chris: It just depends on the period. The first three months, we were just trying to help the place we were working transition, and that involved a lot of stress, while we were maintaining home-school for Presley. It’s better now, but in the Spring, they didn’t know how to do it very well. For those three months, we had screaming-match arguments, as a family. And we all love each other very much, but it was just high-intensity in the house. She was mad at us, and we were all mad at the situation.

What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine for you?

Jenna: Marriott called me and said,” I don’t know what you think of this, but would you be interested in doing something on YouTube for us? I don’t know what.” Then, we came up with “Couchical,” which is us doing one musical from our couch, where we play all the characters. It was like Drunk History. So, we did it, and we sent it out to their subscribers!

Chris: We deliberately picked shows we knew really well-had maybe done-but also, we just basically, narrated what happens in the show. Sort of like Drunk History but without the drinking. And we would cut from our narration to sing as the characters, so it was very silly.

Jenna: We did The Sound of Music, Les Mis, and Beauty and the Beast! We did that for Marriott, to help entertain their subscribers, until they can come back in-person. They were slated to start in the Fall again, and it got pushed.

Jenna: Family time. Time with Presley, watching her literally grow. She grew three inches in the past eight months! Getting better, as a family. We shot a lot of video as a family. Presley-her game is so high. Watching her, because she’s such a natural. Watching her grasp concepts that I didn’t learn until much later; it’s her normal. We have dance parties, and we do fun stuff. And we’re always being goofy and silly. And that’s been really fun! Oh, and Presley and I shot a national Walgreens campaign. The director and team were on Zoom in NYC, and we were in Presley’s bedroom. They sent a giant camera and a cameraman… Presley was lit up.

Chris: Trying to level up and learn. That’s been a positive.

I’m also thankful that we’ve had a family during this time. It’s so isolating for everyone. And our friends who are single; for them, it’s been hellish. I’ve been studying a lot of research, and I’ve felt comfortable in a mask, maintaining distance, going to the grocery store. And we just saw some friends who hadn’t left the house since March, for anything. They were on their outside stoop, and we talked to them. That’s another thing. What stories are we going to hear about people who hadn’t left the house since March? So, I’m grateful I have this crazy person to hang out with.

What is your biggest concern right now?

Jenna: What I said before: that it will never be the same. That Presley will never go to school, and that her mental health has suffered so hard during this time. And it’s a prime time for her to learn how to be a good person. We do our best to encourage her and be there for her, but my concern is her mental health, and that the world will be so different for her.

Chris: The world is different, virtually, than it is, in-person. So, for her, I think that is a big concern for me. We keep reinforcing it, with how we talk to her. She can decline people on playing apps, and things like that, real-quick. But you can’t do that on the playground.

Jenna: And because everything is on screen, she wants everything ‘now.’ Instant gratification.

Chris: Also --- not knowing what it looks like to be a part of a theatrical experience moving forward. It’s an intimate experience--- how do we still cultivate that?

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

Jenna: Collaboration; throwing out ideas and making something out of nothing; a dressing room! Hugging! Audience participation! Hearing an audience laugh. Feeling the lights on my face.

Chris: I just miss the experience of being in front of an audience and crafting a story on the spot. And watching them have all the realizations an audience has when they go through a story. I became an actor, because I wanted to create moments of catharsis for people-that is a break in their regular day and regular schedule. It shakes up their consciousness. And I think that’s something that’s sorely needed right now. It’s the way a lot of social justice movements have been added to, in the past. I think that’s the part I miss most. Being able to weave a story, on the spot, and take people away from what they’re currently thinking. It could be a fun and happy thing or it could be, “Oh, I need to think about this differently than we did.”

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

Jenna: I have so many, but when I was working at the Fords Theatre, a historic theatre in DC. I grew up going there; it’s four hours from where I grew up, and I got to do Little Shop there with Chris. I was Audrey, and he was Seymour. And we had a turn-table, and I was sitting on the trash can. And it was the moment when the turn-table moved, and I looked out and sang “Somewhere That’s Green.” And the whole theater had been restored to its original look. So, there were gas lanterns with a top balcony that’s a square. And it’s white and beautiful red seats. I remember, every day, being in that moment, and thinking, “This is everything I’ve ever wanted in this life, is this moment.” To sing that iconic song was just magic.

Chris: I think it would be Opening Jersey Boys in Los Angeles, and just feeling like I’d arrived! The Opening Night was great. I was a huge fan of Mary Steenburgen; she was the mom in What About Bob, and I watched that on repeat, as a kid. George Lucas was there. And a full circle moment was, I went to Northwestern University in Chicago, and when I could afford it, would go see shows at Steppenwolf Theatre. And (I) got to see Gary Sinise onstage a couple times. He started this theatre, with his friends. And when I was doing Jersey Boys in Los Angeles, he came out to see it! And he wrote me a personal email, through my website, and said, “Hey I’ll keep it short. Just wanted to say I saw the show tonight. I thought you were really fantastic. I really enjoyed your work.” I wrote him back a huge email, being like, “I went to school in Chicago. You’re one of my idols! Went to see shows at Steppenwolf all the time. This means so much.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I got an email from Gary Sinise!”

What is the thing you’re most excited to do when live theatre is back?

Jenna: I love a dressing room! To wear costumes and make-up! Hearing an audience respond in laughter! And my favorite thing ever is, before the show, listening to the orchestra warm up. I could cry thinking about it. The last giant show I did was The Producers. And we had a 26-piece full orchestra, and I was the only person onstage at the top of the show. And the sound of the orchestra warming up, and the lights going out, and hearing this curtain come up was just everything. I just remember breathing and listening, and just thinking, “there's nothing like that.”

Chris: I can’t wait to play some character and sing some crazy high tenor song at the top of my lungs in a live theatre experience. I can’t wait to sing like that in a show. My favorite thing about Musical Theatre is the music. (The music) usually is what transports people, so I can’t wait to sing a transportive, very high tenor song!

Jenna I also can’t wait to make people laugh!

Chris: Yes, you can’t!

What advice do you have for young Broadway hopefuls during this time?

Jenna: Now is the time to train; now is the time to buckle down. I’ve helped friends’ kids auditioning for college programs, and they’ve sent me their audition videos. It’s exciting, and I think it must be really discouraging for them, at this point. And my advice would be, “We’re all waiting!” So, it’s the best time to be like, “Ok, what’s a skill that I could use? Let me work on my flexibility. I’m going to do the splits every day… Let me get an extra note at the top of my voice; I’m going to vocalize more… I’m going to learn an instrument.” Learn an instrument!

Chris: Now is the time to level-up; to learn; to keep practicing.

Jenna: Start to embrace that uniqueness of who you are, and if you’re a Black or a Brown person, get in the game! We need you! We need your stories and your faces and your representation now more than ever.

Chris: It’s hard to motivate yourself during this time, but the people that come out of this, successfully, will be the people who come out of it at a different level than they went into it.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical:

Jenna: In the Heights!

Chris: Serious: Sunday in the Park with George. Pulpy: Jekyll and Hyde

Favorite Broadway Play:

Jenna: August Osage County, any Tracey Letts play.

Chris: I love Hamlet.

Favorite role you’ve played:

Jenna: Brooke in Legally Blonde, Holly in the Wedding Singer, Audrey in Little Shop.

Chris: Seymour (in Little Shop), although Frankie Valli was also a highlight!

Dream role:

Jenna: Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda

Chris: George in Sunday in the Park with George

Favorite Movie Musical:

Jenna: Mary Poppins Returns

Chris: Moulin Rouge.

Jenna: And Singin in the Rain! If we’re talking, all-time.

Movie that you think should be a musical:

Chris: That Thing You Do!

Jenna: Home Alone!

Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or Tradition:

Jenna: In the shows that have been really awesome, it’s the pre-show tradition that you do just with that cast, whatever it is, and carrying that through the entire time. And how it’s special and unique to each production.

Chris: Being onstage in a big house with just the ghost-light on.

Jenna: Also, a sitz probe or wandelprobe!

Favorite Chicago Restaurant:

Jenna: Beatrix! Dessert place: Ingrained

Chris: Pizza place near us, called, The Art of Pizza, which does deep dish.

Favorite Theatre Superstition:

Jenna: The ghost-light, because so much can happen in that space, and you don’t know what!

Chris: I just love the things you can’t say in the theatre!

Favorite Broadway Icon:

Jenna: Kristin Chenoweth. Because she is the first short person I have ever seen in a leading role on Broadway. When I was in LA on the Seussical Tour, I got to meet her! She asked to meet me after, because I was so little. I was, like, 21 years old. And seeing her play lead roles and be funny and weird- I had never seen my brand onstage before.

Chris: My old-school answer is Mandy Patinkin. Slightly more modern would be, Norbert Leo Butz. I like that he was kind of an ingenue in The Last Five Years, and then, he moved into really fun, comedic roles.

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