Above: Elena Shaddow as Anna with the Royal Children in The King and I.
A West Bloomfield native returns home as stage manager of a touring production of The King and I.
As a young child seeing The Lion King for the first time, Jenn Jacobs literally screamed with delight as the procession of life-sized gazelles, giraffes and other exotic jungle beasts paraded past her aisle seat. It was the beginning of Jacobs’ lasting passion for the theater and the start of her dream to someday turn that passion into a career.
Today, Jacobs, who grew up in West Bloomfield, is living her dream. She is the assistant stage manager for the national tour of the Lincoln Center Theater Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I, which comes to the Fox Theatre May 8–13.
On a Tuesday in March, the New York-based Jacobs, 25, received word that a last-minute position with the touring company had become available. By Saturday, she was in California, ready to begin work.
“In that time, I packed everything I needed into two suitcases, put the rest of my belongings into a storage unit, moved out of my apartment — and here I am on the road!” Jacobs says.
While actors get the spotlight and the applause, Jacobs was always drawn to the less-visible but important work that goes on behind the scenes.
“From a young age I knew that I loved theater and wanted to be a part of it, but also knew that I had no desire to act,” she says.
This is Jacobs’ first permanent job on a national tour; she served as a substitute stage manager during a national tour of The Color Purple. In New York, she has worked on stage management teams for shows playing off-off-off-Broadway to her first Broadway musical, School of Rock.
Jacobs feels lucky to have attended West Bloomfield High School because of its comprehensive theater program. It was there she realized her talent for stage management and lighting design. Participating in a timed theater competition between other Michigan schools provided the opportunity to hone the skills she uses today.
“That experience taught me time management skills which are essential to what I do now,” she says. “I’m basically doing the same thing I did in high school but on a larger scale.”
After high school, Jacobs attended the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. While majoring in lighting and stage management, she decided stage management was a better fit and decided to focus her profession goals there. Jacobs looks back fondly on her U-M experience, where she learned everything from stagecraft to drafting a floor plan to how to do her income tax returns.
“My professors not only taught me how to do the job but how to be a professional. They really instilled in us that this wasn’t just a career but a lifestyle. When I graduated from U-M, I felt immensely prepared to enter the workforce,” Jacobs says.
Another beneficial aspect of the program was shadowing the stage management teams for the touring productions that came to the Detroit area. During a local run of the Book of Mormon, Jacobs met a member of the show’s stage management team, who later helped her make the connections that led to her job with School of Rock.
After graduation and a summer in Massachusetts at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Jacobs made the big move to New York. As a newcomer to the city, finding theater work was a challenge. While looking for theater jobs, she did everything from babysitting to temping to working at the front desk of a yoga studio.
“Getting jobs is unique for stage managers in that it’s typically based on who you know. It’s all about connections,” Jacobs explains. “I was able to make it work somehow, and each year I meet more and more people and am able to form relationships with other stage managers, directors, producers, etc.”
According to Jacobs, stage managers function as a central communications hub, dispersing information from the director to the cast and crew. The stage manager serves as the director’s right hand during rehearsals; keeping track of blocking, props, costume changes, scene transitions and sound and lighting cues.
“It’s basically a stage manager’s job to know everything that’s happening with a production,” Jacobs says.
The most gratifying part of her work is being part of something bigger than herself.
“It’s a group of people coming together to create something new,” she says. “The teamwork involved in that is really remarkable.”
Set in Bangkok in the 1860s, The King and I tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the authoritarian King of Siam and British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens. The show features such classic songs as “Shall We Dance,” “Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers.” Called “sumptuous” by the New York Times and “too beautiful to miss” by New York magazine, The King and I, directed by Tony-winning Bartlett Sher, won four Tony Awards in 2015.
“Our production really stays true to how the show was originally written,” says Jacobs. “The choreography is all based on Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. Our technology has certainly been updated, but everything that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote is extremely topical and relevant in today’s day and age.”
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I will play at Detroit’s Fox Theatre May 8-13. $35-$75. (800) 745-3000; 311presents.com.