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Carol Mayo Jenkins: creating a life beyond the footlights

In Artist Spotlight on August 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

KNOXVILLE, TN – Carol Mayo Jenkins may be most well known for her role as English teacher Elizabeth Sherwood in the popular 80s T.V. series Fame – and that’s perfectly all right with her.

“I moved to Los Angeles with two suitcases to do 12 episodes, and it lasted for six years,” says the London-trained actress. “I was very proud of that television show. And because it was about the school of the performing arts, it was about everything that I love anyway.”

While embracing a mainstream television series might seem inconsistent with a career spent performing Chekhov, Strindberg, Beckett, Pinter, and Albee, to Jenkins it all makes perfect sense. To this grande dame, it’s not just about time spent on the stage or in front of the camera. It is a life, filled with experiences that go well beyond the footlights.

The Tennessee native trained in London at the Central School of Speech and Drama and soon afterwards started a new theater company called Drama Center London. The company did a successful tour of the U.S. and later returned with playwright Harold Pinter for off-Broadway productions of The Dwarfs and A Night Out. Those never made it to opening night, however, when the cast’s visas were denied. Jenkins moved on – first to act on Broadway in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and later to San Francisco, where she was offered work with the fledgling American Conservatory Theater. It was A.C.T.’s first season in San Francisco, and it was characterized by non-stop work; the company put on 16 plays in 22 weeks, and followed that up the next year with 22 plays in 40 weeks. The all-day, all-night schedule included not only rehearsal and performance, but constant training – voice lessons, singing lessons, Alexander technique, mime, and more.

“It was just incredible,” says Jenkins. “I don’t think there’s been a theater in this country – certainly not before or since – with that kind of scope.”

Working hard was nothing new to her. She credits her training in London with giving her a different sort of perspective on acting.

“”When I went to school in England we were trained not just to be good actors, but to be theater artists, and to want to create and build and do extraordinary things in the theater. If you don’t want to just stand around and hold a spear, build your own company. If you’re unhappy with the roles you’re getting, create your own theater.”

And create she did. In the years that followed, Jenkins defied a traditional logic of gradually taking on bigger and more impressive roles, instead building theaters and theater companies, spending six years in L.A. for Fame, living in Mexico City to film a novella, and working in more than 20 regional theaters throughout the countries.  Once she confounded her agent by taking an understudy role in a production of First Monday in October in Washington, D.C.; he felt it was beneath her and a bad career move, but she wanted to do it anyway. After all, she got to spend time in the Supreme Court to research the part, and ended up becoming great friends with Henry Fonda, the play’s star.

“I mean it was a fabulous lifetime experience, one I will never forget. So, what’s so bad about that? I often think actors get so intent on, ‘I can’t leave New York, I can’t do this, and I can’t do that because I’m building my career,’ that they forget that building your career is living.”

She contends that off-the-stage experiences are just as important as on-stage experiences. “That’s the fabric of one’s life, and that’s one’s material. That’s what you have to draw from.”

Fame to her was not just about the show, it was about learning to act for the camera, learning to live in L.A., and the rewarding feeling she got when she visited performing arts schools that popped up around the country, inspired by the show. Likewise, on a trip to Lithuania and Russia in 1991 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, her lasting impression was one of international kinship among actors during a tumultuous time.

“And so it’s as much the work that one does as the places that that work takes you,” says Jenkins, who has returned home to Knoxville, Tennessee to perform and teach. “Not only in the world, but in your own mind and heart that are important.”

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

Carol Mayo Jenkins in Collected Stories at Cinnabar Theater, photo by Eric Chazankin

Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude: