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Spotlight shines on Summerfield Thespians

{deck}Ladies in acting troupe feel lucky to be working with Jennie Lee{deckc}

If all the world's a stage, then some local residents called the Summerfield Thespians have found their place in the spotlight.

Jennie Lee, who has lived in Summerfield for about three years, has many years of experience in all the aspects of theater and found herself starting a local acting group.

"At a get-together for new Summerfield residents, I looked around the Lakeview Room in the Clubhouse and decided it would be the perfect place to put on shows," she said. "I asked if anyone ever did any performing arts or classes, as they are always looking for new exciting activities, and I was invited to be on the social committee. So I put a notice in the monthly newsletter - the Summerfield Summary-- about 1 ½ years ago, and several ladies responded.

"We started by meeting once a week and playing theater games. When Christmas came, we were asked to do a skit, and we performed a short play for the holiday happy hour. The group wanted to continue after that, so the training was increased.

"I started them on monologues, and then we evolved into doing scenes. After some time and hard work, the ladies wanted to perform for an audience, and so the troupe first performed a series of monologues and short scenes in May (2012) in that same Lakeview Room. It was so well received that we recently put on a similar show for the local community theater company Mask & Mirror's quarterly meeting."

Jennie said she had always wondered why there were no acting classes in Tigard.

"You have to go downtown or to Southeast Portland to take classes, so when I heard about Mask & Mirror, I thought it might be an opportunity to teach and direct again" she said.

Now Jennie has just finished teaching an acting class for the company. "I'd like to teach a monologue/scene study next - who knows where it will lead?" she asked.

As for the Summerfield Thespians, "this is the first time I've worked with seniors," Jennie said. "The ladies are incredible - I am really enjoying them. They are so enthusiastic -they jumped right in and worked hard. I would still love to work with young people as well - I'm into working with any age who wants to discover the actor in themselves."

Jennie was raised in Maryland and majored in music education at the University of Maryland. While teaching music in public school there, she became interested in Transcendental Meditation (TM) and joined the staff of the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield, Iowa, where everyone practices TM.

"It was pretty amazing," Jennie said. "I was teaching first grade and music, but that is where I got into acting and discovered Meisner."

Jennie went to New York City to study the Meisner acting method founded by Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. The Meisner technique utilizes a series of inter-dependent training exercises that build on one another. Students tackle increasingly complex exercises to be able to improvise, express emotions and react spontaneously moment-to-moment. The emphasis for actors is to learn how to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of a play.

Jennie apprenticed with the Muny First Stage, a children's theater company in St. Louis, and was later invited back as a paid guest instructor and director. In 1998, she returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse, completing a Meisner teacher training course.

"When I came back to Iowa after NY, I just had to be involved in acting, so I taught acting classes after school," Jennie said. "I initially did it to get the money to go back to New York for my own acting training, but I ended up loving teaching and directing so much - I found it to be incredibly fulfilling.

"I started the Performing Arts Conservatory to bring NYC training to Iowa, where students homeschooled in academics in the morning and came to me for dancing, singing and acting training in the afternoon. It was so joyful - we had our own theatre, and I was able to teach, direct and act - it was heaven!"

As a part of the conservatory program, Jennie moved her students into film. She co-directed and helped edit an award-winning original film called "Small Town Reality," written with her students. It was such a success that she wrote a screenplay for a feature-length movie later; both films were done through a generous collaboration with Hawthorne Direct Inc.

In addition, Jennie, who has acted in many productions, formed a professional repertory company made up of some of her conservatory graduates, which performed locally.

Her son was also an actor trained at the conservatory, and as he got older, Lee decided the time had come for a change and found a full-time job doing consulting work that she could do anywhere she wanted to live.

After checking out several places, "Portland sounded really amazing," she said.

"My son and I came for a visit and fell in love with the city - we were back to stay within a month," added Jennie, who moved here in 2005.

"After working full-time at a 'real job' since I've moved here, I am excited to get back into theater - coaching and teaching acting - and realize that my passion for it is as strong as ever, so I hope this is just a new beginning - stay tuned!"

The other women in the Summerfield Thespians could not be any happier about this new outlet and having the opportunity to pursue acting.

Probably no one in the group with the exception of Jennie has more experience performing than Summerfield resident Helena Greathouse.

Helena, born in Czechoslovakia, started performing with the Czechoslovakia National Radio Children's Ensemble, dancing on Czechoslovakia National Television, and participating in artistic gymnastics while still in elementary school.

She met her husband Mark, from Portland, in Europe when they were college students. Mark, who had started playing the accordion at the age of 5, performed with Helena in Germany. After they settled in the U.S., Helena taught and judged gymnastics for many years.

The Greathouses, who have lived in Summerfield for 10 years, took early retirements from the Bonneville Power Administration and started performing as the Great House of Music while also publishing books and CDs; meanwhile, Helena has performed on the stages of many local theater companies.

Seeing the article about the Summerfield Thespians in the Summary, "I realized that Jennie is a really high-quality coach and thought, why not take advantage of this?" she said. "What else could I wish for? I don't even have to go anywhere to meet with them - we are lucky."

Helena continues to go to auditions in the metro area and wanted to add monologues to her repertoire.

"I also am taking private lessons with Jennie, and I practice with the group," she said "Since I started with her, I have been getting really good comments from people."

Carolyn Ward, who has lived in Summerfield for more than three years, said, "I was always interested in acting and entertaining, and this group was willing to let me in. They are very nice ladies.

“I've never acted before, but when you do comedy, you get hooked on the audience's response. I did a monologue, but I don't think I could do anything serious.

"Going to the practice sessions is one of the highlights of my week. The girls are so nice. We are very fortunate to have Jennie - she could charge us to do this."

Patricia Hayes Clark has been involved with Portland Community College's Senior Studies Institute's play-reading series, where she met Carolyn, who told her about the Summerfield Thespians.

Patricia, who has lived in Summerfield for 11 years, wasn't a theater neophyte herself, having performed in community theater in Connecticut.

"But I had kids and had to be home with them," she said. "I hadn't done any theater for a long time. I joined for fun, and I'm having a good time. We were doing it for our own enjoyment and entertainment - I didn't know we'd be doing it in front of people.

"Now we've done two performances - we're a traveling troupe! For a senior, it's good to memorize lines - it keeps the synapses moving in the brain.

“It's been wonderful to become someone else on stage - all of a sudden to have an audience is a whole other experience. When they laugh - it's quite an experience."

JJ Bond, who has lived in Summerfield for eight years, said she did theater in high school and college, and was thrilled to get back into an acting troupe.

"It's fun to do, and it pushes me a little farther," she said. "I have trouble remembering lines. I memorized the script but then would draw a blank. My mind is not as sharp as it used to be!

"But Jennie is very patient with us. She makes us laugh at ourselves. I just love it. This is just a win-win for all of us. I'm just really impressed with Jennie!"

Rebecca Rowland Hines, who lives in the Washington Square area, originally took a Meisner class from Jennie and became friends with her.

"When Jennie asked me to join the group 1 ½ years ago, she knew I had experience, although it was 30 years since I did it," she said. "I wanted to get my feet dancing again, and the ladies are so much fun.

"Jennie is so accomplished, and we are fortunate to rub shoulders with people like her. It gave me confidence, and I started auditioning. After my second audition, I got a role with the Lumiere Players in Tualatin. It's hard to break into local theaters because if they don't know you, they don't know if you will learn your lines, take direction, act like a prima donna and so on. But once you're in, it starts to build momentum."

Rebecca worked in information technology until she retired two years ago and wanted to do something totally different. "This definitely is the total opposite!" she said.