Jenna Vik ’10 played the Queen of Hearts. She wasn’t in a casino or around a card table with friends; she was performing in an elementary school in Lake Garda, Italy, less than a year after graduating from Central.
The show was Alice in Wonderland, and the Italian kids, crazy with excitement, joined in on the final chase scene, circling Alice to protect her from the Queen and her guards. The kids pulled at the Queen’s skirt and pommelled the guards’ pillowed costumes until the actors fell with laughter and the teachers stepped in. For Jenna, it was just another day’s work.
While at Central, Jenna — a theatre, Spanish and secondary education major — studied abroad in Granada, Spain, and London, England. She was bitten not only by the acting bug (she performed with the Network Theatre Company in London) but the traveling bug, as well. After graduation, she interned with the Iowa Theatre Artists Company (ITAC) in Amana, Iowa, but it wasn’t exactly the other side of the globe. So Jenna googled “Italy jobs” and came up with the perfect listing: “Looking for English-speaking actors for Theatrino 2011 Tour of Italy.” Just a few months later, Jenna was traveling Italy with three tour mates — from Australia, England and Wales — teaching English to children through simple fairy tales and zany sketches.
Kids, Pigs and Pressure
During her six-month tour, she traveled to Rome, Milan, Trieste and many small towns in between. Before each show, Jenna or one of her fellow actors would preview vocabulary, go over the plot and teach the songs. Then came the performance – Three Little Pigs, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood or Excalibur – each teaching a different English lesson, like opposites or comparatives. The older middle school students were treated to silly sketches focusing on grammar.
The set was just a red curtain and the actors pulled their costumes on over their clothes, but the kids didn’t mind. “In many schools, it seemed like the kids sat in their desks all day, rarely doing any hands-on activities,” says Jenna. “So imagine the kids’ excitement when four English-speaking actors arrived with an interactive show. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such enthusiasm in a school setting before.”
After each performance, the actors would break the kids into smaller groups and conduct workshops, teaching English numbers, colors and body parts through songs and games. “Initially, the workshops were very difficult for me because I had to really slow down my speech and use very few words,” says Jenna. “But I quickly grew to love the workshops and had a blast working with Italian kids.”
Despite the idyllic scenery and captivating culture, conducting workshops wasn’t the only challenge Jenna faced in Italy. The schedule was jam-packed with performances, and she had to work, live and travel with the same three people for months. But Jenna dealt with the pressure. “I feel like a more mature person because of it,” she says. “I’m better at communicating with others, and I’m much more tolerant of people’s differences.”
The maturity that comes from traveling and working abroad wasn’t the only thing Jenna gained during her time in Italy. She became fairly fluent in Italian and made friends from all over the English-speaking world. Plus, she discovered what it’s like to be a professional actor — adjusting to different performance spaces and keeping a show fresh over four months.
Jenna returned from Italy in June, and she’s now immersed in professional American theatre, interning at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in Wisconsin, where she understudies several parts and plays supporting roles in a resident acting company. She credits Central and its faculty with her success in both Italy and the U.S. Jenna’s professors taught her how to work with others in a creative environment and perform hands-on theatre, which turned out to be extremely useful in Theatrino. Plus, Central helped her get some amazing performance and internship opportunities, such as ITAC, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis and the Pella Shakespeare Festival — where she went from stage manager to Juliet during one summer.
It wasn’t just Central’s theatre program that launched Jenna’s career, though. Her Spanish courses taught her “how to understand a culture not only through its language but also through its literature, history, customs and people.” Something she got no shortage of in Italy. On top of visiting many of the famous sites — the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps — she saw Rome during Carnival, attended a free Lady Gaga concert and was blessed by the Pope on a Sunday afternoon in Vatican City.
Those big moments aren’t really how you come to know a country, though, something Jenna understood from her time in Central College Abroad. “Mostly, I experienced Italian culture through the language, the food and the coffee,” she says. During one of her final weekends on tour, Jenna stayed at a bed and breakfast in a tiny town in northeastern Italy. The owners told her about a food and wine festival nearby and offered to loan their bikes. So Jenna and a tour mate rode over and sampled local food and wine from the Friuli region — with not a tourist in sight. “After being in Italy for five months,” says Jenna, “I had the strange sensation that evening that I was truly experiencing it for the first time.”