Hannah Knapp-Jenkins is a Musical Theater major who will be graduating from the University of Washington at the end of this quarter. We asked Hannah to share a little about her background, her experiences at the UW, and her goals as a musical theater artist and body-positivity activist.
Tell me a little about yourself, where did you grow up and what inspired your interest in musical theater?
I grew up right here in Seattle! My parents are from Eastern Washington, and met through their mutual love of punk rock music. Growing up, the soundtrack of my childhood was mostly composed of The Clash, Ramones, Rancid and Rocket From the Crypt. In third grade, I had my first memorable musical theatre experience when I saw my childhood best friend perform in a production of Annie. The following year, I decided to join her on stage in a production of The Wiz. It was at that moment that I was bit with the theatre bug. I continued to do shows almost every year following fourth grade, and I ended up here! My family and I joke that the only way I could rebel against rebels was to go into musical theatre, and that’s exactly what happened.
What was your musical theater experience prior to coming to UW?
I did a few shows prior to high school, but it wasn’t until I was in the theater program at Nathan Hale High School that I realized I really had a knack for musical theater, and I began more serious training. I performed in the spring musical every year of high school, but my two favorite roles were definitely Grandma Rosie in The Wedding Singer, and Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray.
What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned as a Musical Theater student?
I took our senior capstone course last spring quarter with Wilson where he stressed how important it is as an artist and creator to be yourself. Growing up, I always struggled to find my place in the world of musical theatre. I am a plus-size woman, and I could rarely identify with leading female characters, because almost always they were written for and played by petite women. Throughout my time at UW, not only have I become a more well-rounded musical theatre artist, but I have become a body-positive activist, and it wasn’t until capstone that I realized I could combine the body activist side of me, with the actor side of me. I now am trying to push boundaries, and show other people that you do not need to be a petite young woman to be the “beautiful” lead in a show, but that everyone is beautiful exactly who they are. Specifically, I want to prove to myself and the world that plus size women ARE sexy, beautiful, worthy of love, and should be represented as that on stage and in everyday life.
What was your most memorable experience with the Musical Theater Program?
This is a tough one. Sweet Charity was the program’s first show, which I had the wonderful opportunity of being in. It was the most challenging show I had been in to date, with a huge dance learning curve for me. Sweet Charity is an iconically Fosse show, and not only did I have little faith in my dance skills, but I had never done anything Fosse. I ultimately overcame the challenge of the choreography, and because of that, there has never been a more rewarding show experience. It was not only memorable due to the self-accomplishment, but that’s also where I first met my cohort mates, and my now long-lasting friendships.
What has been your greatest challenge during your time as a MT student?
I think my greatest challenge during my time as a MT student was my confidence in my dance abilities. I came into college with little dance technique, and then was thrown into Sweet Charity with a group of experienced and technical dancers. I almost did not audition for Sweet Charity because of my fear of the choreography, but I am so thankful I pushed myself because I ended up gaining more skill and confidence than I could’ve asked for. Over the rest of my time as an MT student, I took many technique classes, and had teachers like Steven and Wilson to help me get out of my own head, and see what abilities I do have and how much I really have improved since being in this program.
Since you’ve both directed and acted, could you tell me a little about your directing experience? How has the experience of directing impacted you as a performer?
As soon as I graduated from Nathan Hale High School, I knew I wanted to stay involved in their musical theatre program. Each year, I worked alongside director and drama teacher Sydney Baird Childers and worked my way up the directing ladder. My junior year of college, I co-directed the 5th Avenue Theatre 2015 Award nominated production of Young Frankenstein at Nathan Hale, and last year directed Nathan Hale’s production of The Addams Family. I loved directing at the high school level. My students were all there to work hard, and were beginning to find themselves in the world of musical theatre. It was in high school that I knew I needed to pursue a musical career and I loved encouraging and seeing that self-discovery in my students. Directing has definitely impacted me as a performer. Being on the other side made me see how important preparation is. It’s difficult to get any productive work done if either side is not fully prepared. Directing also confirmed what Wilson has told me in the past; that you as an actor never know what the director is looking for. You cannot read their minds. That’s why it is so important to be yourself, you just might be exactly what they’re looking for. On that same note, it’s important to remember that advice when you’re not cast. It’s not for your lack of talent. A director has a vision and they’re looking to cast people to fulfill that vision. If that is not you, that is not a hit to your talent or abilities.
I understand you spent the summer studying musical theater in New York. Tell me about that experience! What did you learn and how did it change the way you look at musical theater?
This summer I attended Collaborative Arts Project 21 (CAP21) Summer 2016 Professional Training Program in New York recommended to me by Steven Sofia and Wilson Mendieta. I didn’t know what to expect going into CAP, but the experience was truly life changing, and I saw so much growth in both my art and myself. We had class from 10-6 Monday-Friday, with a range of classes from dance, to singing, to acting, to audition technique, to musical scene study and more. The faculty was compiled of theater professionals, from former Broadway actors, to experienced directors, all to say credible and knowledgeable of the theater business. The cohort was smaller than I anticipated with about 20 students. We all came from different cities, states, countries, and very different walks of life. One of my favorite parts was working with a group of people, all different from each other, all with similar dreams. Everyone was there to work, and their dedication inspired me every day to work harder and become the best artist that I can be. It was at CAP that I had professors that I could look at and identify with, and others that further encouraged the body activist side of me to really push boundaries when it came to musical theatre. Just like in Wilson’s Capstone class, these teachers encouraged nothing but being you.
Do you have any plans after you graduate?
Yes! I will be playing the role of Berthe in UW Musical Theatre’s production of Pippin in March! I will simultaneously be directing a production of Seussical Junior at Lake Forest Park Elementary. Yay musicals!
What impact do you hope to make in the Musical Theater world?
I want to change the way we see “beauty”. Like I mentioned before, I want to show the world of musical theatre that a plus-size or curvy woman can be desirable, sexy, loved. I want women of all shapes and sizes to be able to identify with performers on stage, and be self-assured that they themselves are sexy, beautiful and worthy.”
And last but not least, what message do you have for future musical theater performers?
BE yourself and BELIEVE in yourself. Don’t compare yourself to your peers. You may not be the best singer, dancer, or actor in the room, but you are YOU, and no one else is.