Backstage: A Q&A with production manager Jessica Eckenrod

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Jessica Eckenrod. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal

Jessica Eckenrod has had a love for theater and the arts since a young age and knew in college that she wanted to pursue it as her full-time career. Eckenrod puts emphasis on learning as she encounters new roles and challenges. She initially started in the arts as a young singer/songwriter then took on acting along with production management. She is in her second season of being production manager for Centre Stage and is currently working on “Red Herring,” which opened May 10. The play is her directorial debut with a mainstage production at Centre Stage.

When did you first become involved in production management and directing, and when did you know this is something you wanted to do long-term?

At 15, I began working on stage crews in a small community theater in my hometown of Morristown, Tenn. I was always ready to learn anything and everything, so I kept “graduating” into the next level of crew life and given more responsibilities. College came, and when I wasn’t able to do theater full time with my current major, I just switched. Scenic design, lighting design, script analysis, and character work were a part of my everyday life, and I’d be fine if the remainder of my days were like this. I started writing and directing original works in college, alongside some classics here and there. Whenever I began composing, the game changed once again to musicals all day every day. My focus shifted to directing song cycles and original works. And thus, musical theater won me over completely.

Production management didn’t quite fall into my life, but it wasn’t something I’d “considered” heavily. I’d done all of the aspects but never managed them all. I’m heading into my second full season as PM with Centre Stage, and once again, it’s been a journey that has helped me grow, learn, and improve myself as both a performer and a professional in the business of theater. 

What has been your most challenging play to direct and why?

I have a deep, deep love for musical theater. Classics, modern, abstract — it doesn’t matter. There’s something about the process of creating a musical that fascinates me. That’s why directing “Red Herring” at Centre Stage was such a challenge for me. A nonmusical on a very large scale with over a dozen locations and a script that mirrors a screenplay was incredibly intimidating. An ensemble of six actors took on 18 different roles, and each had character work to undergo, costumes to quickly change into, and about a billion props to carry on and off. There were zero lyrics to hide the quiet moments, no choreography to fill in the breaks. There was just — the stage. Hardest show to date and I can’t wait for the next one.

What has been your most enjoyable play to direct and why?

Eesh! That’s a toss-up. First place is [a] tie between two original works: “Story” and “Letters from the Public.” My first crack at directing a full-scale musical, “Story” was an incredibly lengthy process that taught me a lot about theatrical aspects that I never considered as an actor. As an original musical, it was my first opportunity (and a very rewarding one) to hear things that had been living in my brain for years finally take the stage.

I co-produced “Letters from the Public” two years ago in downtown Greenville alongside my wonderful boyfriend, partner, choreographer — the talented Michael Cherry. This was an unforgettable experience due to us working with an ENTIRE “community” to bring it to life. We collected letters from around the Upstate, and some from states away, that touched on personal moments or memories. Anonymous or not, the letters were adapted into their own respective song and performed by local Upstate vocalists and musicians. Many authors of the letters were in attendance, and to see the effect on them, as well as the audience, was MIND-BLOWING.

What’s your favorite play?

I have to say it. “The Crucible.” I’ll shout it from the rooftops. “THE CRUCIBLE”. It needs to be done, so I can play John Proctor. Bottom line.

I read “The Crucible” initially while a high schooler and have continued to read it for leisure when there’s a moment to spare. The message of how far faith in the unseen can go and what belief in ourselves can accomplish — or not accomplish — resonates all day, every day.

Which actors/directors/designers inspire you?

Actor(s) – Is it appropriate to say Meryl [Streep]? Because… it’s Meryl. Among a LONG list of others.
Director — Rachel Chavkin and Christopher Rose (local)
Designers – Ming Cho Lee (set design) and Miranda DeBusk (lighting/local)

What do you most enjoy about Greenville’s theater scene?

Top two: the talent and the people! When I first moved to South Carolina, I was incredibly impressed with the actor/actress scene. Singers and dancers alike on a Broadway level, and some of them having even been on Broadway! There is a wide range of talent in this ever-growing city, and I feel that theatergoers have truly only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Now that I’ve been a part of the production world a bit longer, I have seen the work and creativity it takes to put up these amazing productions the Upstate theater community continues to offer. I have formed friendships with hardworking artists who inspire me to improve myself and who continue to great meaningful work with a full-time job. Greenville is incredibly lucky to have so many brilliant minds operating in the creative department!

How has Greenville’s theater scene changed since you first became involved?

So much growth. When I first moved to Greenville five years ago, I knew of a few staple theaters in the area that had been established for at least 15 years or more. By year two, a new theater was over here. Year three, two more theaters had risen up, each location holding a different niche than the other! With more opportunity to perform came larger pools of PHENOMENAL actors/dancers/singers. I’ve had the opportunity to see more modern works in the area and still have a place to go see my favorite classics!

What is your hope for the future of theater in Greenville?

Collaboration.

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