By Dan Goff
It’s a Friday afternoon at Grit Coffee on Elliewood Avenue. Jenny Wales sits at an outdoor table, one of the few open seats. Finals are fast approaching and the shop is swarming with students. Wales doesn’t seem to mind, and, in fact, seems perfectly at ease—she’s home.
“This is my 20-year reunion,” she says. Wales isn’t just referring to the drama degree she received from the University of Virginia in 1998, but also to the reason she returned-—to become the new artistic director of the Heritage Theatre Festival.
Wales’ is the classic success story of a drama major. After graduating, she made a career as an actress in New York. This was followed by a stint in 2011 at Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company as associate producer and director of education and outreach, what Wales describes as her transition “from solo performer to artistic administration.”
“On Grounds, there’s so many opportunities to deepen what we’re doing,” Wales says. “I think Play Makers really set me up to move that forward.”
Jenny Wales high-steps into her role as HTF’s artistic director with A Chorus Line on June 21, and the process to cast the musical about auditioning to be in the cast of a musical had its own IRL dramatic moments.
“At Heritage Theatre Festival’s first NYC open call, we weren’t sure how many women would show up,” says Wales. “When we arrived at 9:25 to put down the sign-up sheet for the 10am dance call, there were already 205 signed up. All of a sudden the three hours to see the women didn’t seem like enough time. By the time we got to group seven, it truly felt like a chorus line!
“Julian Sanchez, who is playing Paul, went very method and turned his ankle during the dance audition in Charlottesville. He went to the doctor and got crutches and returned the next day to do the callback on crutches and still made us cry!”
Though it’s been two decades since she attended the university, Wales has a student-like energy and wants to apply it to her role as artistic director, and she’s already full of ideas. “What I’m really interested in is producing entertaining and engaging theater that’s also allowing us to question ourselves and who we are,” Wales says. “I think we’re in a moment to do that, and we should be doing that.”
A big aspect of her plans is increasing the “national presence of Heritage,” and bringing even more prestige to what is already one of Virginia’s most renowned theater groups, and Charlottesville’s only summer theater festival. This entails hosting auditions not just in Charlottesville, but also artistic hubs like Washington, D.C., and New York City. “We saw over 300 actors in one day,” Wales says, laughing a little at the memory.
This summer marks the Heritage Theatre Festival’s 44th season, featuring a blend of comedy and drama, contemporary and classic—the powerful combinations that have made the festival a success for so many years.
The process of selecting these plays was not an easy one, Wales stresses. “I read hundreds of plays, I’ve seen hundreds of plays,” she says. “We really selected and chose with intentionality, and I think each provides something different from the other.”
Though Wales is unable to choose a favorite production out of the 2018 lineup, she can’t hide her excitement about opening with A Chorus Line.
“From a purely personal standpoint, the opportunity to collaborate with Matt Steffens is pretty incredible for both of us,” says Wales. Steffens, the director of HTF’s A Chorus Line, is a fellow UVA grad and has also enjoyed considerable success in professional theater, with involvement in multiple Broadway productions.
“For us to create work together here at the university where we met, where we really challenged one another to define who we are as artists…that’s something that doesn’t happen every day,” Wales says. “It’s something that both of us are really grateful for.”
She defines the relationship between them as being “each other’s artistic touchstones,” and notes their “very difficult conversations.”
In Wales’ role within HTF, it’s a time of change, though she prefers the word shift over change, calling change a “tricky word.” What she hopes to shift, is something that keeps reappearing in the conversation—accessibility.
“What I’m really interested in is expanding the reach of the work that we do, and hopefully reviving a place for the expansion of our audience,” Wales says. She has some practical solutions in mind such as lowering the price of single tickets—but she acknowledges that “price isn’t the only barrier to entry.”
More than anything, Wales seeks inclusivity. “How can we program our work in a way that provides a space for everyone to come and take part in what we’re producing?” she asks.
It’s clear that Wales has countless ideas for improvement—along with a genuine passion for theater. “I think there’s a lot of change with the arts on Grounds,” Wales says. “You can sense the energy and focus on the arts in a really powerful way. And it’s humbling to be a part of that.”