By Cindy Atoji Keene
In an era of instant celebrity reality shows and pop star culture, it’s easy to think of an acting career as a frivolous ambition or a hobby that requires a day job to pay the bills. But armed with a MFA from Yale School of Drama, actress Jennie Israel, 42, of Lexington, has plied her craft not just on stage, but as a professor, arts administrator, and director, defying the starving artist depiction of her profession. “Acting is serious, exhausting, sometimes excruciating work,” said Israel, who will be playing Medea in the upcoming production of Actors’ Shakespeare Project. “It can look like fun and it can look easy, if we’re doing it right. But so many people have no idea how deeply challenging it can be. Even with the best training and years of experience, it is just not natural and certainly not comfortable to put oneself on the line as we do.”
Israel, a veteran of the Boston theater scene who has been acting for over two decades, has also appeared in Rudy for TriStar Pictures, the soap opera Guiding Light, and Coming to Litchfield, an independent film. Israel came from a family of gifted storytellers and started doing theatre in fifth grade at her elementary school in Roslindale, where her first role was as Santa’s elf. She said she wanted become an actor because “my greatest passion is realizing the depth and breadth of human experience through a written text.”
For the last year, Israel has been preparing for her latest role as Medea, reading the myths of Medea and doing extensive physical and vocal preparation. “I get myself in as strong and fit a shape as I can so I have the endless energy I will need for such a challenging role,” said Israel, who has read and re-read the play hundreds of times, memorizing the lines in a variety of ways, including on the elliptical machine at her gym, “breathing very deeply so the language can really get in.”
Q: You have performed in Boston Marriage, Tartuffe, and Dollhouse at New Repertory Theater; Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Huntington Theatre; Table Manners at Gloucester Stage and many others. What is involved with auditioning?
A: Auditions take a great deal of preparation. I can be asked to come in with a monologue of my own choosing, or, at this stage in my work, more often I am asked to come in and read a scene. That way the auditors can get a sense immediately of whether I might be the person they are looking for. I spend hours with the text I will be reading as I begin to imagine myself as that person. I am often very excited to be auditioning and I have to wrestle my excitement into a laser focus to create clear work in the audition room.
Q: What was your most embarrassing moment or biggest faux pas?
A: About eight years ago, during a production of Richard III, I looked out into the audience? something that does not normally throw me ? and saw someone who made me feel really distracted. I stopped breathing and lost my lines. There I was, surrounded by almost everyone in the play, facing off as Queen Elizabeth against Richard III and all I could think of to say was, “You…will…learn!”
Q: What is your most favorite part of being in a production? Your least favorite?
A: My favorite part of being in a production is probably rehearsal, where all the discoveries take place. There is nothing quite like the deep work that happens with a group of like-minded artists on a piece of magical text in a dungeon of a rehearsal studio at all hours of the night. My least favorite part is probably when the show closes, at least most of the time.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
A: Get good training, learn the skills of auditioning, and be in excellent fitness all the time since your body is your only instrument. Yoga is essential. And most of all, know yourself.
Q: How much can an actor earn for stage work?
A: Professional actor salaries for union theater work in Boston range from around $200 per week to around $750 per week, from the smallest theaters in the area, to the ART and Huntington. The salary also depends on the size of the audience, which dictates the contract under which an actor is hired.
Q: Have you ever gotten any fan letters?
A: Over the years I have had a few. Some lovely, some creepy.
Q: Have you have been stopped on the street or asked for your autograph?
A: I have been recognized in the street many times and its fine ? people are very kind. Autographs are usually requested after performances and it’s pretty rare; mostly children ask for it.