by Chip Schwartz
Mt. Airy teacher, choreographer and director Jessica Bender, 38, just made her directorial debut at the William Penn Charter School’s Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 24 and 25 with a production of “Fame.” Having performed and directed at a number of other locations, this project was particularly special since it represented a full-circle journey for Bender, who graduated from Penn Charter in 1992 and served as a member of the school’s Alumni Board from 1999 to 2009, the last two years as Board President.
Bender was hired to come back and run the performing arts center in 2010 for the community and professional companies that use the space. She also teaches Dance and Technical Theater at the school, and runs the school’s performing arts camp.
“Jessica has done a fine job as the manager of the Kurtz Center,” said Head of School Darryl J. Ford last week. “However, she derives her most pleasure when teaching students while on stage. She is a director of considerable talents and is able to inspire students to act, dance and sing in ways beyond what they think possible.”
Coincidentally, during her senior year at Penn Charter, Bender participated in the LaSalle College High School production of the very same musical. It seemed natural that in returning to her alma mater 20 years later to direct, she would revisit the musical that she remembers so fondly. Nostalgia aside, there were many reasons for selecting “Fame” to show in the almost two-year-old Kurtz Center.
Since “Fame” was both a successful movie and TV series, the plot is well known to many theater buffs. It takes place in a performing arts high school in New York City, so it is clearly relevant to the participating students. Bender explained that Penn Charter has a surplus of talented musicians, singers, dancers and actors in attendance. This particular show included a cast of 52 with 14 leads.
How was Bender able to overcome the challenge of managing such a huge cast? “Lots of patience,” she explained. “I think that the largest challenge of managing a cast of over 50 high school kids is conquering the noise. They were very talkative in the beginning, but after a few weeks, they figured out that the chattiness was counterproductive. I also had some help from some of the upperclassmen who wouldn’t tolerate disrespect from their peers.”
“Fame” is full of challenging content like swearing and some sexual and drug-related references. The production was advertised with a rating of PG-13 so that parents knew in advance in case they didn’t want their younger children to be present. Edgy though it is, the topics touched on are important contemporary issues that many young people deal with, if not personally, then through friends, family or media representations. Bender thinks that its honesty and relevance were more than enough reason to let the show go on.
Bender’s wealth of experience in the performing arts began when she was growing up in Mt. Airy. (She attended Our Mother of Consolation before Penn Charter, hung out at the Water Tower and played Father’s Club tee ball.) She initially discovered her love for the stage courtesy of a neighbor of her grandparents who was also a director. Throughout most of high school she focused on dance and eventually attended Boston College which, when she began, had a much smaller theater program linked to the communications department. (She graduated in 1996.)
A back injury during her sophomore year prompted her to get more involved with directing. By the end of her time there, theater had become a full major, and she had gained insights into skills like lighting, set design and costuming.
Ever since her studies at Boston College, Bender knew directing was her calling. Post-graduation she returned to Philadelphia and worked for a time with the Arden Theatre Company and the Walnut Street Theatre. Frank Anzalone and Chuck Abbott were mentors at Walnut Street as well as Bob Carlton. Colleen Durkin Lapowsky was the aforementioned director neighbor to Bender’s grandparents who directed her at Penn Charter, and coincidentally in “Fame” at LaSalle. While at the Arden, she AD’d for Terry Nolen and Aaron Posner, as well.
The version of “Fame” directed by Bender was a major success by any criterion. Both performances were sell-outs, with about 1300 audience members overall. “I’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback,” Jessica reported. “People loved it! ‘Fame’ is a bit edgier than what Penn Charter would normally do, but so far no complaints. I also heard that we had a lot of kids at the performances who had never seen a show at Penn Charter before. That I think is the biggest victory. Bringing in new audiences is always a positive thing.”
Were there any kids in the cast who have indicated a desire to be professional performers? “I have several kids who would like to major in theater in college,” Bender said, “but I also have a bunch of kids who want to do other things. I think that’s what high school is about; do what you love, even if it’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life. Enjoy the experience!”
Does Jessica have any other directing projects in the future? “I’ll be doing ‘The Little Mermaid’ this summer for my camp kids and a play yet to be announced at Penn Charter in the fall.” As for her ultimate career goal, “I’m incredibly happy doing what I’m doing. I’ve toyed with opening my own venue or resident company with some of my friends in the business, but I’m feeling very at home at Penn Charter and plan to stay at least until my daughter graduates in 2018.”
For more information about Penn Charter, call 215-844-3460 or visit www.penncharter.com.