Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Jen Nails: From Performer to Writer (and Back Again)

Jen Nails shares some of her journey--from actress to improv performer to teacher to novelist--in today's edition of the Good News Theater Blog.

I've known Jen for more than a decade; we met after she appeared in the early Amnesia Wars improv show Honey Harlowe, and I've been following her burgeoning and diverse career ever since. She's just published a book, Next to Mexico, which is based on her one-woman show Lylice (which I saw in an early incarnation years ago, and which is now back at the PIT for a month of performances.) I asked Jen to talk about her show, her book, and how she's progressed through the various phases of her show-biz/literary life:

ME: Jen, your character Lylice Martin has been around for quite some time (I remember "meeting" her many years ago myself!). But I suspect that some readers may somehow not be familiar with Lylice. So can you start out by telling us who Lylice is, and what her eponymous show is about?

JEN: Lylice is a sixth grader at Susan B. Anthony Elementary school. She's outspoken, ambitious and the star Blue Ribbon Reader in her English class. Basically, the biggest nerd in school. In Lylice, I play the title character and five of her teachers. The play takes you through Lylice's final year at SBA, gingerly transporting you back to the hideous world of middle school.

ME: Lots of our readers are artists themselves. Can you give us a sense of how you created and developed this character?

JEN: I wrote my first Lylice song in college (over ten years ago) and then moved to New York to audition for theater. I found out I wasn't a very good legit singer and always felt uncomfortable trying, and usually embarrassed myself. Yay! But when I tried improv I loved it and I was hooked. Improvisation made me feel comfortable and strengthened my confidence. I went back to the song I wrote so many years before, and revisited the character Lylice, and started writing other songs and playing them at open mics. Within a few months, I had a handful of songs and then I started writing monologues to compliment the music. Lylice is a combination of how I was in middle school mixed with how I wish I'd been.

ME: You are now a master teacher at the PIT. Tell us about the class(es) you teach, what you look for in students, and how prospective students can learn more about them?

JEN: I teach a solo performance class at the PIT called Do It Yourself. Over the past six years it's grown from one to three levels. In levels two and three, students are guaranteed a 30-minute slot at the PIT to perform their solo show. Every student in Do It Yourself is different and I always stress that no one can do YOUR solo show better than YOU can. I think that is one of the wonderful things about solo performance -- it's all yours and there's no competition. I think the "secret" to solo performance is to find what you're good at, what you love, what you feel best doing, and explode it onto the stage.

ME: Finally, I am so thrilled that you have put Lylice's adventures into a book. Tell us how this came about. How were you able to make the transition from performer to novelist?

JEN: I had always wanted to write a book. After doing Lylice for several years in schools, I realized that the character might work well in book form and that that would be a great way (ideally) to share Lylice with a wide audience. I have always written and have always loved writing, so it made sense that that would be my next step. I enjoyed the process of writing a novel (okay, it's a love/hate thing but I'm into that I guess) so much that I am just about to graduate from The New School with my MFA in Writing for Children, and am hard at work on a second novel for kids. But I couldn't have written Next to Mexico (based on Lylice) unless I'd written those songs so long ago and performed that show for all of those years. I never saw myself as an official writer at all. I have reconciled that I'm not performing as much lately. It took a while to accept that I have moved on rather than have given up. Those "give up" words are so hard for us actors to take, and I think we are never really looking for fame and fortune, most of us, we are just looking for a way to create something, to make something out of nothing, and make a decent living at it. After over thirteen years in New York, I feel I am just beginning.

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