In 2020, a racial reckoning swept through our nation’s prestigious regional theaters and Trinity Rep was not immune. It’s hard for institutions to acknowledge, never mind address, structural inequities, but Trinity committed to changing their culture. After a nation-wide search, they asked Jennifer McClendon to lead the charge.
“A lot of what drew me to Trinity Rep was the commitment to anti-racism and the company being transparent about the work they are doing,” says McClendon, whose theater career began in her native Chicago as the Multicultural Fellow at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. “The We See You White American Theater document inspired me to look at my own practices in a different light. How am I upholding or dismantling racism in my day to day? Does a policy or a historical practice that I enforce actually do more harm than good? These questions lead me to make a shift in how I see my purpose.”
Since taking the role at Trinity Rep over the summer, McClendon is at the helm of all production departments, including production management, stage management, costumes, props, scenery, electrics, and sound. However, her purpose is to make theater more accessible, equitable, and anti-racist. “I chose to lead with people first, in hopes that I can create environments that allow other artists to bring their best selves forward through their work,” she says.
“Back in Chicago, I realized one day that I don’t know any production managers that look like me,” she continues. “I want to see more people that look like me in production management and direction. I want to create opportunities for more BIPOC young adults to seek careers in arts management. I want to lead by example to inspire those folx to see this work as a viable and fulfilling career.”
This summer, McClendon will complete her first full season at the famed theater, which came with the added challenge of getting back on stage with live audiences during the ongoing pandemic. “I hope to have successfully opened and closed every show and can then say we produced a season while navigating new COVID protocols and new rehearsal schedules, all while approaching the work from an anti-racist lens. That is a monumental undertaking.”
McClendon is up front about the challenges of producing during the lingering pandemic but has great optimism and energy for the future. “I am excited to continue that work every day, excited to expand my network of theater makers, create some meaningful art, and keep everyone safe while doing so.” Looking around the historic building she calls her work home she says, “It’s something about live art that excites me and fills me with emotion, so I have to do my part to bring it back and be better at nurturing the artists that do the work.”
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