Jesse Roth, AB’13, knew she wanted to pursue theater from the moment she started at the College. Now almost five years later, she is an associate company member with The New Colony and assistant to the artistic director at A Red Orchid Theater, with various directing, writing and dramaturgy credits to her name.
Roth’s latest dramaturgical project, reWILDing Genius, a collaboration between The New Colony and Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, has already garnered accolades and fanfare for vividly capturing the millennial generation’s attitudes towards activism. The project also began at the University of Chicago.
“The [Theater and Performance Studies] undergraduate program focuses on the development of new works. The academic residencies with Chicago artists and arts institutions is a collaboration that expresses this commitment,” said Heidi Coleman, director of undergraduate studies for TAPS and University Theater. In 2013, Roth’s fourth year in the college, TAPS partnered with The New Colony to develop reWILDing Genius—from scratch.
“Looking at what my life as a theater artist has been for the last 10 months, I owe a great deal to the Theater and Performance Studies department, [which introduced] me to these people I work with now,” said Roth.
Roth began her career with The New Colony before she even graduated by serving as a dramaturge for the original reWILDing Genius production. It ran from May 1–11, 2013, and focused on an urban commune of geniuses at an elite university attempting to enact global change through cyber-vigilantism.
Her experience with the original reWILDing Genius allowed her not only to showcase her breadth of technical and artistic skills and learn from some of the most talented theater professionals in the city, but also to bring her own unique perspective to the production as a young millennial. The result was a combination of professional development and advanced higher learning.
“The reWILDing piece would not have had the developmental timeline without being in residence here. Students are an integral part of this process, not patronized. It’s a part of our pedagogy to truly invest in student ownership and initiative,” said Heidi Coleman.
Clearly, Roth did, because after graduating she earned a place in The New Colony Associate Company and was offered the chance to engage dramaturgically with reWILDing Genius again. This time, however, she had a different cast, audience and political climate to keep in mind.
“Nothing with Edward Snowden had happened when we began the script development, and that was a huge game-changer for the story, so it became really important to go back and incorporate the higher stakes and the increased consciousness of Anonymous and the type of work it does,” she said. Moreover, “we were able to explore these ideas of what the structure of the play was going to be with the student actors in the University production and then age them and raise the stakes for the production at Steppenwolf.”
Despite all the dramaturgical work she has done with The New Colony and reWILDing Genius, Roth still considers herself “primarily a director” and even recalls wanting to be an actress during her first year of college.
Heidi Coleman said, “I [met] Jesse at a prospective student meeting after she had been accepted. Every year a handful of students come and self-identify during those sessions as wanting to join the program. Jesse was definitely one of those people who knew that she wanted to work in theater, but maybe not how.”
Roth credits figuring out “how” she wanted to become involved in theater to the commitment of both University Theater and the TAPS program to offering students opportunities to “learn by doing.” After directing a short play with University Theater in her first year and enjoying the experience, she continued to propose plays and take directing classes.
By the end of Roth’s university career, she had directed five productions, four of which were fully staged. What she didn’t know then was that by directing so many plays, she had also become a dramaturge.
She said, “After leaving, I realize that every class I took with Heidi Coleman and every single training I had with her was about dramaturgy. It was sort of tacitly what we were all learning. That kind of thinking is really foundational as a director, and obviously as a dramaturge. I hear myself using that framework of thinking and that rhetoric daily in working in theater now.
“The courses that I teach ask for the same creative engagement whether the result is a critical paper or a scene for performance. Theory is present in both. The [TAPS] program is designed to create a dramaturgy in whatever students do. Jesse is a director, but she has learned an active process of dramaturgy,” said Coleman.
Roth’s myriad skills have served her well as a budding theater artist in Chicago. Since graduating, she has assistant-directed for Red Tape Theatre and directed plays for The New Colony and First Floor Theater, a new company made up of University of Chicago alumni whom Roth refers to as “some of [her] best friends.” She has also continued exploring dramaturgy and casting. With such a wide breadth of professional successes and opportunities, Roth sees herself remaining in the theater world for the foreseeable future.
“I want to keep directing plays and developing new plays with playwrights,” she said. “But also, theater is about great people doing great work in rooms together. And the greatest pleasure is being is those rooms with those people. That’s what I want to be doing.”