The Play’s the Thing

Jessica Drake ’11 hasn’t written the next act of her life yet, but she’s finding an audience for her work. The Northern California student earned an O’Neill National Critics Institute Fellowship during the American College Theatre Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., April 19-23. She attends the annual National Critics Institute in July at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn., where she’ll work with leading professional newspaper and magazine critics.

“This is an incredible opportunity to learn from more theater professionals and meet other up-and-coming writers, actors, directors and critics,” she says. “The process has been and will continue to be a valuable challenge and affirmation of my Westmont education and experience.”

Drake fell in love with the theater at Westmont. She’d intended to study English, but that changed her sophomore year when she attended England Semester.

“I saw and studied some of the best theater being produced in the U.K.,” Drake says. “From Shakespeare to Chekhov to Beckett to Tim Crouch, I learned that the theater was capable of expressing and exploring much more than I ever knew, and I was hooked.”

Drake set out to create an alternative major in dramatic literature, combining her interests in English and theater. “The major balances the academic study of drama and the production of theater,” Drake says. “My double major in English was unintentional — I just couldn’t keep away.”

Fresh from England Semester, Drake decided to take to the stage instead of sit in the seats. She auditioned for “Mueveme, Muevete,” a bilingual play written by Diana Small ’09. “She was a new face to the theater department, but I was impressed by her energy, intellect and confidence,” Small says. “Since then, I have seen Jessie’s work as an actress, director, producer and dramaturge and have never been disappointed.”

Drake landed a supporting role in “Mueveme, Muevete,” served as assistant producer for the Fringe Festival and played the part of Roxy in Tyler Leivo’s ’09 senior project, “Love Me Dead.”

After three semesters of acting courses, Drake appeared in several Westmont productions, including Mrs. Smith/Mr. Martin/Fire Captain in “The Bald Soprano,” Mouth in “Not I (PlayBeckett),” Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth: Unsexed,” and Natasha in “The Proposal (33 Swoons).”

Drake is a founding member of Ratatat Theatre Group, which includes Westmont alumni Casey Caldwell ’08, Nolan Hamlin ’09, Marie Ponce ’10 and Anna Lieberman ’11. “Body/Bach-Min/Max,” their first show, played at Center Stage Theatre last summer. The group revised it, renamed it “Roses” and performed at Fishbon in March.

Besides acting, Drake explores the fields of playwriting, directing, dramaturgy and producing. She wrote and directed her first play, “24 Circles,” for the 2010 Fringe Festival. Her one-act play, “The Place Before,” was selected for the Center Stage Theatre’s Aspiring Female Playwrights Workshop in 2010, where it received a staged reading. She co-produced Westmont Fringe 2010 and produced Fringe 2011 this year.

As a dramaturge, she worked with Lit Moon Theatre Company on its production of “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” and Westmont’s production of “Servant of Two Masters,” where she directed the pre-show carnival. “I really enjoyed creating a new way for the audience to enter the world of commedia dell’arte,” she says. “I recruited talented circus-types from Westmont — acrobats, jugglers, stilt-walkers, unicyclists, and musicians — to put on a carnival that captured the spirit of Italian commedia. It was an incredibly fun project for me to direct and dramaturge, and I think the audience and cast enjoyed it too.”

Her work as a theater critic began her freshman year in a literature course and continued through her studies abroad. “Spoiled with a play a day in England, I was hungry for more theater when I got back to Santa Barbara, but I was too broke to pay for the meal,” she says. “One way to get free tickets is to review the shows. So I applied to work with the Santa Barbara Independent, where I got a job as a freelance reviewer.”

This experience writing theater reviews led to the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival last February in Los Angeles for the Region VIII Critics Institute, where she won first place. The next stop was the national competition in Washington, D.C.

“We wrote and edited our reviews and met with professional critics from media such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR and American Theatre Magazine,” she says. “It was an incredibly challenging week, and I learned a lot about the profession and improved as a writer.

“Whatever path unfolds for me, I know that I belong in the theatre and that my education at Westmont has prepared me for what comes next.”

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