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Meet Jen – Rose Kid!

This piece is part of a series showcasing Rose students past and present.

When you bring your child to The Rose, you never know where the experience will lead. They may write, direct, and produce their own pieces. Or maybe the personal growth gained through theater will help them chase their dreams, all the way to the big city lights. 

An arts education teaches kids to use their imagination to innovate and problem-solve in ways that transcend the stage and lead to a successful life. Here’s proof.

The following blog post is written by Jen. Jen has been a part of The Rose since her theater beginnings. Jen is also a published playwright and author, and her plays have been produced in Chicago, Los Angeles and Omaha. She is high school drama and creative writing teacher who has also led workshops at the Fine Lines Summer Writing Camp and The Rose Theater. But before she was impacting the next great theatrical minds, she was a Rose kid. Here is her story.

 

As a writer, I can tell you the little things that happen to us are the things that end up counting. Big things, like my thirtieth birthday this year, didn’t really impact my life much. It was a fine time, but my trajectory didn’t swing in a completely different direction. But something like an ad in the Omaha World Herald back in 1989, for a random example, could change everything.

Sometimes I wonder who I’d be today if my parents hadn’t read the paper that day and found out about Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater. I’m sure great things would have happened regardless, and maybe I would be sitting in a library sorting books. I would have still loved stories. But I probably wouldn’t talk to people as much. I probably wouldn’t have very many friends. And I sure wouldn’t have grown up to be the same person at my core.

Because little Jen had a lot ahead of her, and she was going to need the Rose.

So at the age of two years and eleven months, I snuck my way into a class at the Emmy Gifford. Saturday morning, lounging and then jumping on the squishy chairs and benches in the lobby, I waited for Jim and Carol to take me back into the small wooden rehearsal hall and teach me how to move my body and use my voice and set free my imagination. And I was hooked.

Class after class, story after story. I remember Jim acting out Paul Bunyan. I remember Carol’s puppet telling us the story of the Fisherman and his Wife. But most of all, I remember Tracy.

Tracy Iwersen could squish her nose all the way into her face. Tracy could wave her hands and bring us to the Ugly Duckling’s barnyard, or she could shoot us up to the stars to visit Cassiopeia. I followed her into Toro’s underwater kingdom and up Jack’s beanstalk and through the woods to slay a wolf. Tracy was magical. A real-life Dumbledore.

A lot of people don’t remember the little blue castle on Center Street, because in the mid-90’s, everyone packed up their things and moved to the Rose. I also packed up my things and moved schools. At the age of eight, my life started splitting in half. At school, people called me “it.” They chanted bad words when I got on the bus, holding tightly to my purple lunchbox my parents bought to cheer me up. And to make things even awesomer, my brain was starting to not let things go. Anxiety welled up in everything, until I was counting sidewalk slabs and turning lights off only if both feet were past the door’s threshold. Worrying thoughts ate me up inside. Stress felt heavy on little shoulders.

But every Thursday, there was Tracy. Then there was Tracy and Brian. They’d turn off the lights and play spooky music and all of a sudden, Classroom Three would turn into a mysterious island or a large haunted mansion or the belly of a Kraken.

I had my first crush at the Rose. I found my first best friend at the Rose. I did my homework in the chairs at the Rose. I learned how to teach at the Rose. I was fitted for my first costume and danced onstage at the Rose. I was at the Rose when Bush won the election in 2000, and I found out about LGBTQIA+ rights at the Rose.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge watching his boyhood-self sift around his old school room, my entire life played out at the Rose.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge watching his boyhood-self sift around his old school room, my entire life played out at the Rose.

And one day, when I was about twelve, Tracy gave us all numbers and told us to not look at them. “Put them on your head,” she instructed. “Now greet each other accordingly. Treat 10 like they’re the queen and 1 like they’re a street scrubber.” She had us do this once, then switch, then again, then switch.

She finally collected the numbers and she said, “In life, sometimes you’ll feel like a 10 and sometimes you’ll feel like a 1, but you will always be you.”

Something clicked into gear in my brain. I was who I was, and that was enough.

Something clicked into gear in my brain. I was who I was, and that was enough.

I started singing. I acted more. I made more friends. By high school, I was writing plays with Brian and proudly presenting my three-hour script to the class with no hesitation (I do not in any way recommend writing a three-hour script). I became President of my own drama club at Omaha Central, and I started directing and producing my stuff. And when it came time to say goodbye to the Rose for Chicago, I decided to apply for the playwriting program at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

And while I was living in Chicago, Tracy passed away.

I remember being 500 miles away from home, yes home as in the big castle on 20th and Farnam, and I just got up and left my apartment and walked down the street to Lake Michigan. If you’ve ever seen Chicago at night, you know the city burns with orange and white and red and blue and green, and then at the lake’s edge, it just stops. It’s dead out there, just pure black where the only difference between water and sky is that the water makes crashing noises and the sky has stars.

I sat on a concrete slab with the waves breaking under me, and I just stared up at the stars. I searched furiously for Cassiopeia. I couldn’t find her. And I cried a lot.

Because the thing is, there’s a difference between the places we’ve been and the places we carry with us. The places we’ve been might be a neighborhood supermarket or some old schoolyard, but to carry those places with you for the rest of your life … they needed to have made an impact.

Tracy taught me it was okay to be magical, it was okay to be different. Brian taught me how to write and held me accountable. Through the friends and the rest of the staff who worked with me, I learned how to project my voice, work as a team, and accept people for who they are.

So who would I have been? I would have been quiet, alone, in my own head, and most of all, without stories.

When it was time to come back to Omaha, I knew I had to stay involved and come home to the Rose. This company of loving artists and educators are unique in the way that they keep pushing forward to not only teach Body, Voice, and Imagination, but also how to stand up for yourself and others, advocate for your identity, be vulnerable enough to say yes and be brave, and to believe in the magic in your own heart.

I try to carry that out when I teach classes nowadays. Success isn’t measured in how quickly scene changes go (they go very fast) or how many lines are memorized (many lines are memorized).

The true success is when the quiet girl in the corner steps up and speaks a line we all can hear.

The true success is when the quiet girl in the corner steps up and speaks a line we all can hear.

It’s giving the friendless a family. It’s bringing out that magic in all of us, and transporting from our classrooms into our own stories.

And years from now, when I’m old and my voice has gone hoarse and I can’t remember most of the places and people I’ve met, I’ll still remember this place. Because it’s not only a part of me, it made me who I am.

And you might think, even after all this time?

Always.

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