'I hope that it's cathartic': Ground Floor Theatre's world premiere of 'Jenna & The Whale'
Jenna & the Whale, a new play by Vanessa Garcia and Jake Cline, is making its world premiere this month at Ground Floor Theatre. As Garcia explains, it’s a play about a young woman and a whale but it’s not just about a young woman and a whale. “This play is about a girl named Jenna who gets stuck in the belly of a whale,” she says. “So that's what it is sort of on the surface. But it's really about a town that's coming to terms with a very big loss – a young man that they've lost and they're all coming to terms with that and what that means for each of them.”
Stories about people being eaten by whales are usually full of metaphor, and Jenna & the Whale is no exception. “Oh, yeah, there's metaphors,” says co-writer Vanessa Garcia. “There are metaphors left and right. There's a lot of, you know, deep rooted biblical stuff, but the piece is not… a religious piece at all. But there is the literature of that biblical language, sort of underlying and the undercurrent of the things. The story of Jonah and the whale is definitely in the background.”
Kelsey Mazak, who plays Jenna, says she found the character to be easy to relate to. “She is very strong willed, very caring of others,” Mazak says, adding “she does tend to have a coping mechanism of burying herself in things, such as books or surfing, to not deal with grief. She's a very caring person but does struggle to take care of herself. I mean, I'm the worst about not taking care of myself and just kind of focusing on other people. And when I'm not acting I'm also a school psychologist. And funny enough, Jen [Jennings, who play’s Jenna’s mother, Lynn] is actually a school counselor so we have that in common. But I think any time you're in a job like that you don't really take care of yourself and you tend to put all of your… everything into the kids you work with.”
“[It’s] amazing to me is that they are both school psychologists and actually dealing with some of the issues that are at the center of this play,” Garcia says.
Jennings says she drew on her real-life experience to portray Lynn in Jenna & the Whale. “Lynn is, you know, she's a mom. And I too am a mom now,” Jennings says. “I only have a four year old [while]Jenna is… in her early twenties. But it is pretty amazing what mothers will do for their kiddos. And, I've definitely found some organic mama bear moments in the show.
Garcia, who like her co-writer Jake Cline is based in Miami, has been in Austin for the production period leading up to the premiere of Jenna & the Whale. She says it’s been a pleasure to be on hand for the play’s rehearsals. “All the actors are so fantastic that I love Lisa [Scheps], our director. She's so great,” Garcia says. “You know, you sort of sit back as a writer in world premieres -- you're in the room completely and you're also sort of not wanting to tread on anyone's toes and sort of seeing where things are going. And so, you know, I write little notes but Lisa gets to them before I have to say anything, which is awesome. And then there's just this back and forth conversation. These things are alive, right? Like when you go see the show, pieces of the scene that you just heard [in the studio] have already been edited. They were edited this morning. You know what I mean? So that's actually really exciting how alive these things are. So it's been really fabulous.”
“I've had the privilege to be part of a couple of world premieres with the playwright right there,” Jennings says. “And it's my favorite thing to do. I want to collaborate.”
Grief is a major theme in Jenna & the Whale, and Jennings says the play has important things to say about grief and how one deals with it. “I think that there is, even in the deepest of grief -- and I do not mean this in a toxic positivity way – [but] there is joy in the deepest of grief because you connect with people and you have that connection that you find,” she says. “[The play] deals with suicide. Suicide has touched many of our cast members, including myself. So when I hear myself say, ‘oh, there's joy and grief,’ one of my voices is going No, there's not. Remember how horrible it was. Correct, but also remember that out of that comes a certain beauty, a certain melancholic beauty, but a beauty nonetheless. And I hope that it's cathartic for people.”
“There's not a right way to grieve,” Mazak adds. “I know Jenna says several times in the play, ‘I'm crazy, right? People are saying, I'm crazy’ and [we] talked about it in our first rehearsal that there's a sort of madness that comes with grief. And I think [the play] really explores that – that nothing that you do in the process of grief is wrong. Nor is it crazy. It is valid and it's a part of the journey.”