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Our home sweet home

Richard and Sharon Jenkins on Trinity Rep, living in Rhode Island, and teaming up on 'Oliver!'
By PHILIP EIL  |  February 26, 2014

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IT TAKES TWO Richard and Sharon. [Photo by Mark Turek]

Richard Jenkins has an absurdly impressive resume. On the 66-year-old actor’s imdb.com page you’ll find big-budget blockbusters (Jack Reacher, White House Down, Eat Pray Love), quirky cult darlings (I Heart Huckabees, The Cabin In the Woods), high-profile voice-over animation work (Turbo, The Tale of Despereaux), and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his turn as a morose professor whose life is changed by squatters at his Manhattan apartment (The Visitor). Jenkins has worked continuously with two of the most successful duos of filmmaking brothers: the Coens (Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the Farrellys (Outside Providence, There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself & Irene, Hall Pass). He has both played a recurring role on HBO’s Six Feet Under and a straight man to Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in one of the silliest movies ever made (Step Brothers). And, in the same career, he has been a DEA Agent on Miami Vice and, many years later, described by Roger Ebert as “an actor who can move his head half an inch and provide the turning point of a film.”

But what you won’t find on imdb.com is perhaps even more interesting — for Rhode Islanders, anyway. When we emailed Trinity Repertory Company for a list of Jenkins’s full credits at the theater, we received documents that read like the blueprints for the castle his career has become. Here in Providence, Jenkins playing Slim, in 1976-77’s Of Mice and Men; Biff, in 1978-79’s Death of a Salesman; and Vladimir, in 1979-80’s Waiting for Godot. He took on roles in plays by William Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet, and Harold Pinter, in addition to stabs at more experimental work, like 1982-83’s In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison. And of course there were the years between 1990 and 1994 when Jenkins served as the theater’s artistic director. Track down coxsportsonline.com’s “Biggest Little Countdown” series and you’ll see the Phoenix’s own Rudy Cheeks — aka “Jorge,” of Philippe and Jorge — explaining how Jenkins “saved Trinity Repertory Company at a time when they really needed help . . . Trinity Rep would have probably gone down the tubes if it weren’t for Richard Jenkins.” That show lists Jenkins as the “9th Most Influential Rhode Islander.”

And so it makes sense that Trinity would call on Jenkins — and his wife, Sharon, who herself is an acclaimed choreographer with four decades of Trinity experience — to co-direct its current production of Oliver!, which opened to a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd on Sunday. Trinity’s directorial invitation to Jenkins wasn’t some kind of stunt casting ploy; it was more akin to Jenkins “going home,” as the actor describes it.

It’s safe to say that local theatergoers are delighted to have him back. The reviews of Oliver! have been nearly unanimous. The Providence Journal’s Channing Gray called it “vintage Trinity. . . entertaining and very funny.” WPRO’s Kim Kalunian called it “a true musical delight. . . a rollicking, funny, good time.” Rhode Island Monthly’s Casey Nilsson called it “campy yet covered in soot — just the way Dickens would want it.” And our own Bill Rodriguez calls it a “lively,” “stunning,” “charming,” “roller coaster ride of a production” (see page 15).

The Phoenix had a chance to speak with the couple on the morning after the show’s opening night. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

YOU BOTH COULD LIVE IN BEVERLY HILLS IF YOU WANTED TO, AND YET YOU’RE IN CUMBERLAND. NOT TO INSULT CUMBERLAND, BUT WHY THERE, INSTEAD OF LA OR MANHATTAN?

RICHARD JENKINS: Well, I was at Trinity for years. I was an actor there and Sharon taught at the arts magnet school at Hope High School [in Providence] for a long time. And when I left Trinity and started to do movies — it was 1985 — we still lived here, our kids were here, their friends were here, they were in school here.

SHARON JENKINS: Our friends were here.

RICHARD: And we found that we didn’t have to move, that we could live here and do this. I love LA, I do. But I didn’t want to pick up our kids and go. They were here. They were happy here. So we thought we’d stay.

We loved it here. It was really not a hard decision to make.

YOU MEAN, DESPITE ALL THE PAPARAZZI ON MOPEDS IN CUMBERLAND ZOOMING PAST YOU ON YOUR WAY HOME?

RICHARD: I didn’t have that too much. Actually, it’s been pretty quiet. [Laughs.] My fame quotient’s not that high. So it’s not a problem.

CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT WHAT TRINITY AND PROVIDENCE WERE LIKE WHEN YOU FIRST ARRIVED HERE?

RICHARD: Providence was not in good shape.

SHARON: No, in fact the first week we came here, we stayed at the Biltmore. And it was the last week that it was open before it closed [down]. At that time it was really bad, [before] they did a complete rehab. And the town was just desolate. We were here for a few years when the Outlet Company and Shepard’s were still [here], but everything was kind of falling down.

WHAT WAS TRINITY’S STATUS AND REPUTATION AT THAT POINT?

RICHARD: It was one of the premier theaters in America. I think it wasn’t long after that that it won the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. When we came here, it was still at the old Trinity Church. They had a small theater upstairs.

SHARON: On Broad Street.

RICHARD: That’s how it got its name. For many years, that was the only place it performed. Then they used the RISD Auditorium as their other space, a larger space. And so when we came here, [it was] at least two or three years before we moved into Majestic Theatre [on Washington Street, downtown].

I came here as an apprentice, so I basically moved scenery from one place to the other. And it was amazing. I came out of a small school in the Midwest. I wasn’t exposed to any theater other than the basic traditional stuff. And then to come here and have [former artistic director] Adrian Hall in your face, it was amazing. It was just like, “Oh, there’s something else out there!”

This guy, along with [longtime Trinity set designer] Eugene Lee — the two of them were looking for another way to do the theater. And it was all based on trying to engage the audience, trying to find a way in to make an audience come alive. And it was just incredible to see what they did and the way they approached the theater.

Adrian used to talk about what he was doing all the time, so you were in on this. It wasn’t just like, “OK, you’re an actor. I’m the director. I’m doing this. You’re not involved.” It was not that way at all. You were a partner in all of this.

Sharon. . . wasn’t working at the theater at the time. In fact, the very first show we did at the Majestic, which was a play with music about Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist, called Aimee. . . [Hall] needed choreography, and Tim Crowe said, “[Richard’s] wife Sharon, she’s a choreographer.” And Adrian said, “Great.”

So we brought her in and she started choreographing. And [for] every piece of choreography, from then on, he brought Sharon in. So she’s been at that theater as long as I have — even longer, because I left and she’s always worked there.

But it was a time [when] the theater in the late ’60s, early ’70s was exploring and the regional theater movement had just started. What was the mission statement of a non-profit theater? Adrian used to say, “We’re trying to get past the phrase” — it’s an old show-business phrase — “‘If the play’s a hit, we eat tonight.’”

I SPOTTED SOMETHING IN AW MAGAZINE ARTICLE ABOUT YOU THAT SAID: “ONE OF HIS EARLY PRODUCTIONS THERE [AT TRINITY] WAS A MUSICAL ABOUT THE SERIAL KILLER CHARLES MANSON.”

RICHARD: Yes, it was. It was a real toe-tapper. [Laughs]

SHARON: It was called Son of Man and the Family.

RICHARD: It was really a play with music, but it was kind of a musical. And yeah, it was about Charles Manson. And that was a big hit, let me tell you. [Sharon laughs.] One night there were about 40 people in the audience in this big RISD Auditorium.

It was not successful, but it was at a time when you could do that and it didn’t kill your theater, because there were a lot of grants. There was money from the National Endowment [for the Arts.] There was money from the Ford Foundation. There were a lot of private donations. So you could fail once in a while. You could make mistakes. You can’t do that in the commercial theater, because if you do a musical and it’s a big bomb, you’re wiped out.

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