By Alanna Love
Oregon Children’s Theatre is on the brink of a bright new chapter as they welcome their new Producing Artistic Director, Jenn Hartmann Luck. With a wealth of experience and an endless font of imagination and creativity, Jenn is set to lead Oregon Children’s Theatre into a new era of theatrical enchantment and arts education for the next generation. In this exclusive interview, we’ll explore the journey that brought Jenn to Oregon Children’s Theatre, her various artistic endeavors, the future of Oregon Children’s Theatre, and how you and the kids in your life can be a part of the adventure.
What were some of your early experiences in the arts that set you on your lifelong path of creativity and discovery in the music and theatre space, and how did those experiences help develop your passion to share the love of the arts with the next generation?
I don’t remember a time in my life when the arts weren’t central to my world.
My mom says I was born singing and my dad says I started writing my first songs when I was about 6 on my Fisher Price toy piano! While my parents weren’t involved in the arts in any way themselves – they made sure I had access and exposure. My dad would watch movie musicals with me, like Grease and My Fair Lady, and he introduced me to amazing female vocalists and performers, like Pat Benatar, Janis Joplin, Ann Wilson of Heart, Cindy Lauper… Madonna! (I like to say Pat and Ann were my voice teachers!) I was also fortunate to have access to a robust public school arts education in Mesa, Arizona. I played instruments starting in 4th grade. First violin, then clarinet – which I played all the way through high school and in the marching band. I sang in the choir, I did speech and debate, and of course – I did theatre. Lots of theatre!
My first major role was that of, Gloria Daily, in the show: Hurricane Smith and the Garden of the Golden Monkey in the 7th grade. (Haha, what, you’ve never heard of it?!?) My incredible junior high teacher, Ms. Karen Rolston, changed my life with that casting. It was also the first time that I had a solo in front of an audience. The recognition, the feeling, the camaraderie and the friendships I made… It sealed the deal for me. I still think about that moment as a young person, so awkward in her skin. Dealing with so many big emotions. And it was the theatre that made me feel seen and loved.
I wrote lyrics all through my childhood & teens – to help deal with all those big feelings – but it wasn’t until I graduated that I picked up a guitar and taught myself to play. I still marvel at the fact that now I am a published musical theatre composer and the only music theory class I have ever had was in my public school.
I guess this is my endorsement for PUBLIC SCHOOL ARTS EDUCATION and this is my heartsong for the power of the theatre in the lives of young people.
‘Part of your origin story begins with you as a singer and songwriter. That delight in music has woven itself throughout your career over the years, often blending with your passion to pass on a love of the arts to the next generation. These two things collide magnificently in your recently released album, Raise Your Voices (Songs Celebrating the Kids Who Are Changing the World). Can you tell us about the project, from your inspiration to the involvement of the children celebrated in the songs?
This project was born inside the pandemic; during a time that felt so hopeless. But I would find myself being inspired by kids. Watching videos of young people who were trying to make the world a better place: doing good things for their neighbors, helping any way they could. I really wanted to write songs, but couldn’t find my own voice during that time. But then I found myself being inspired by theirs.
It started with an Austin-based young person I’d known from my work with the Paramount Theatre who was advocating for endangered animals in Africa. Kate Gilman WIlliams. I interviewed her virtually, and then wrote the song on my own. That song became the first single: “Kids Can Save Animals!” It was such a magical experience that I knew I needed to create an entire album of these songs! My arts admin/producer brain went into full-effect. I started doing a search for young people across the country who were making huge changes in their communities. Every interview was done virtually – to this day I haven’t even met all the kids. (Someday soon, I hope!) But I wrote all the songs in Austin, and in many cases, we found a way to record the kids virtually so they could also be included on the tracks. I worked with an amazing team of Producers and the album was born. And to add to the magic of this project, every child got to select a non-profit that would benefit from the downloads of the songs.
We released the album on my record label, Lucky Hart Records, in November 2021 – when things were a bit safer with COVID – and many of the kids came to Austin for our Album release party!
I am so proud of that project and hope to someday record a Vol. 2!
For more details, you can learn more here.
In addition to your numerous talents in the arts and theatre spaces, you have a special flair for collaboration as a composer and co-lyricist of musicals. Can you share with us about one of these projects, particularly Gretel? (And is there a possibility that it may someday be featured on the OCT stage?)
Gretel! was an incredibly special project. As Director of Family Programming at the Paramount Theatre, I would book shows for our young audiences. Jason Tremblay was a playwright and the Artistic Director of Theatre Heroes in Austin. We’d just presented his fabulous adaptation of Call of the Wild and I was eager to learn of his next project. He was working on a new piece, but it wasn’t quite finished. He shared the script of something he was calling – Gretel – but it was far from ready for production. I read the script and was immediately drawn in. Not as a producer, but as a songwriter. I asked Jason if he’d be open to me writing a song for the piece and he obliged. I’d end up writing the first song for the musical; it’s called “Survive.” And it was a very powerful song for many reasons.
What was also true about this time was that Jason was losing his very difficult battle with cancer. Jason passed away before we could finish the musical, honestly – before we could really even get started. After his passing, his wife really wanted to see the show be finished to honor his life and the life of his two-year-old son, who he’d left behind.
At that time, the award-winning playwright, Suzan Zeder, came on board to help finish the show. Suzan was both Jason’s and my playwriting professor at UT Austin, and she found herself truly drawn to the story as well. And to the goal of finishing Jason’s final play. She’d never collaborated with one of her former students, but our connection and collaboration on this project was the beginning of our writing partnership.
But what ended up happening is that Suzan and I became so deeply connected to the story and to finding the agency of our young heroine, Gretel, who was navigating the loss of her mother, and being set on an impossible journey to defeat the great witch, Baba Yaga. The musical took on a life of its own and guided us at every turn. Including guiding us towards the incredible cellist Nora Karakousaglou – who would become my cello arranger and musical soul-mate on this project. Nora is now part of the Malta Symphony Orchestra and living on the Mediterranean Island. But I dream of her and I working on another project together in the future.
Gretel! The Musical opened at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX in January 2019 and had its regional premiere at First Stage Milwaukee under the direction of Jeff Frank. (One of Stan Foote’s longtime collaborators!) The musical was published by Dramatic Publishing Company in the summer of 2020.
And yes – I do hope to produce the show here in Portland in a season to come! So STAY TUNED! And don’t miss it when it happens! But for now – if you’d like to learn more, explore the musical here.
You served as the Director of Partnerships and Programming for Education at the Paramount Theatre in Austin for almost a decade! How did this time influence you as an artist, administrator, and educator, and how you are bringing these insights with you to this new chapter at OCT?
It was a dream come true when I joined the Paramount Theatre in 2011, just a few months after I graduated from UT Austin with my MFA in Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities. I joined the organization as Education Director and I helped grow our youth and family programming over my time there. We served young people with world class live performances on our stages, with critical in-school arts-integration programming, and a summer camp program that became a quintessential Austin experience for young people. I was so proud of the work we did to serve the youth in the community. But it was also an honor to create a team of arts administrators and educators that I was ridiculously proud of. We’d grown to a department of 8 full-time employees and 60+ teaching artists and performers. We had the best arts educators in town and some of the most impactful programming being offered in Austin.
I was fortunate to work with incredible Leadership and Colleagues who modeled the best practices in Arts/Non-Profit Management and together we helped the Paramount Theatre become an Arts Leader in Austin.
In 2019, I was promoted to Director of Partnership and Programming to help support our continued growth and strategic planning. This was also the time when I started realizing that I wanted to find more opportunities to tap into my creative projects. So when COVID hit, I found myself ready to step aside to make space for my team and used lockdown to start working on my own projects, like the “Raise Your Voices” Album and another new musical with Suzan Zeder called, The Battlefields of Clara Barton. In Feb 2021, I ended my time at the Paramount after a decade and turned my sights on the next big adventure which would be a space honoring my administrative leadership skills, my educator heart, and my artistic goals. I was also REALLY ready to leave Texas! So – this amazing opportunity at OCT felt really special.
You have spent your entire career serving communities of young people and their families through the performing arts, and any such organization across the country would have been lucky to have had you at the helm! What made OCT special to you and spoke to your heart?
While I had never worked in Portland or with OCT, I was very familiar with Stan Foote and the important work that Oregon Children’s Theatre had done for the past 30 years. In fact, the adaptation of The Giver which had been shepherded by Stan, was on my syllabus for the TYA course I taught at UT Austin for multiple semesters as a really strong example of Classic Lit being adapted for the TYA stage. Stan had a huge impact on the National TYA scene and I respected his work in that sphere. Learning of his passing was difficult for all of our colleagues across the country. While I didn’t have a personal tie to OCT – it still felt like one of our family members was lost.
When this opportunity came across my screen – It gave me pause. I knew some of the heartache and difficulty the organization had gone through over the years, but I wasn’t sure if I was the right match until I came to Portland in February for my final interview. It was the people. It was meeting this incredible staff and imagining what OCT could become if the team had some new energy to help guide the company forward. When I had the chance to meet the entire team during my interview process, I really fell in love. I learned how much the staff and board had gone through and had to navigate since 2019. I spoke with some amazing administrators and educators and knew that this would be a community I’d be honored to be part of. I was also truly inspired by the YP Company – the Young Professionals. I deeply care about programming for the youngest kiddos in our communities, but also working with an organization that is committed to challenging their teen constituents the way the YP does – is really special. I wanted to be a part of that!
It was also important for me personally to find a new creative home that could benefit from my Admin & Educator Chops, but would truly be a space that could nurture my artistic goals.
So – when you ask “What about OCT spoke to my heart?” – I think my heart felt full and inspired and challenged… and ready to step into this role.
Oregon Children’s Theatre
You, your husband, and two children officially relocated to Portland this May. How have you been settling in and what have you been discovering together about the Portland community?
We have fallen in LOVE with being up here. The trees, the rivers – I am even in love with driving around Portland. I KNOW! Who likes driving on the 5? But driving over the bridges and seeing Portland from these different vantage points is spectacular. I know the city has gone through a lot over these past few years – but I think Portland is stunning!
This summer season has been a dream. My husband & kids have spent hours on the trails near our home with our dogs. And while we know the fall and winter seasons will bring a very different vibe – to say the least – we are so excited to call the Pacific Northwest our new home!
Personally, I am obsessed with Mt. Hood. My interview was in February and we came out during a very wet March to find housing – I legit never saw Mt. Hood before we moved here. I am in awe every time I see that peak. If I’m stressed or anxious, the mountain just reminds me to breathe and to keep it all in perspective. I’m also simply gobsmacked at how Mt. Hood just disappears some days. (And maybe for entire seasons…ha!) I grew up in Arizona, and we certainly have some mountains there, but nothing like this. I obviously had some gorgeous terrain to observe when living in Los Angeles and of course there are fabulous natural wonders in Texas – but there is simply nothing like Portland and SW Washington. The Gorge – The Bridge of the Gods – I just…. I get overwhelmed. And I know I haven’t even seen much yet! We can’t wait to keep exploring all that the region has to offer.
And while my kids are just chomping at the bit to get started with their new school semester, to meet their teachers, to start making new friends, and to get that routine going, we really made the most out of the summer camps in the Portland area. My kids did some programming with OMSI & the Oregon Zoo, they did a few Trackers Earth Camps, and of course – OCT! By being in a bunch of different camps, it allowed us to see different parts of the city really quickly. So that has been really fun! Looking forward to a fabulous school year for my kids and a wonderful first year as new residents!
Jenn Hartmann Luck
The Oregon Children’s Theatre is taking a temporary hiatus from mainstage performances for the fall of 2023 due to the lingering financial impact of covid-19. How can we best support OCT during this time as you look to build a strong foundation for 2024 and beyond?
When I arrived it was clear that – like so many arts organizations across the country – OCT needed to pay extra close attention to saving and cutting expenses wherever we could. I had to make some quick decisions, with the board’s support, to reduce payroll, pause on producing a fall mainstage production like we normally do, and really tighten the buckle on all spending.
All of those decisions came at a critical moment, and while difficult, proved incredibly valuable. In addition, we’ve had some generous support step up that has allowed this break to feel like it was the right choice. While we will be taking this time to do some important strategic planning and board recruitment, all of our education programs are in full swing. Acting Academy, School Residencies, and our YP programs. Including the fall YP production of, SPIDER, in October. We will be presenting that show in the Annex space at Curious Comedy.
And I am happy to say – we are planning for a very exciting Winter/Spring Season starting in January! I want to be clear – OCT is open for business and is dedicated to serving the Portland community like it always has.
But Oregon Children’s Theatre is not out of the woods. We will need an incredible amount of support from the community to make this season and beyond successful and sustainable. How can you best support OCT?
- Book your kids in their Acting Academy classes now! We have offerings at the Hanna Building in NE Portland and at MAC, in Multnomah Village.
- Plan on booking your tickets for our season when it is announced – there will be some very exciting works on stage come January 2024!
- Make sure you are advocating for arts education and arts funding throughout the city and the state. We need this support and need that advocacy from across the community.
- Look at giving a tax-deductible donation to OCT in any amount!
- Join our brand new Producer’s Circle, a monthly giving program with benefits that will allow your gift to reach farther throughout the entire season.
We know many of our readers would be eager to get their children involved in OCT and learn more about theater and the arts together. While we await the announcement of mainstage performances, how can kids participate and engage with OCT in the meantime?
- Acting Academy classes for the fall are on sale now!
- We are excited to announce some exciting new tech/production-based classes for the first time! So exciting!
- School Residency programs, including our Be YourSELF program, are available now for school bookings! Contact our Education Department for more details.
- School field trips and public show tickets will be announced very soon – so keep your eyes open!
Learn more about Oregon Children’s Theatre here and be a part of the new adventure.
Oregon Children’s Theatre
This article was written by Alanna Love, a writer based out of Boise, Idaho. She revels in tracing the thread of beauty woven throughout daily life, especially when it is found in ballet, literature, or historical wardrobing.