URBANA — If you're a fan of new plays, you're in luck. So is Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, the new head of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre.
He has at least two new-play projects in mind for the department, including its summer theater program. Jenkins, who took over in August, formed a committee that will meet with students, faculty and alumni to talk about presenting new works in the summer, rather than classics and plays.
"What we hope to do is have more community engagement in seeing new works and getting excited about them," said Jenkins, who before coming here produced new-play festivals in New York and New Jersey. "We want to use the summers as a time of renewal and what better way to do that than new work?"
Another new-play program with a lot of promise is The Sullivan Project, which will involve the department's marquee name, Daniel Sullivan, who teaches directing at the UI when he's not working in New York.
For six weeks starting in January for the next three years, professional actors will gather here to act in a new play directed by Sullivan.
"The idea is to take a play and get it on its feet and get it into production," Jenkins said. "I believe new play production is the most important thing that playwrights need at this particular moment. There are a lot of conversations about new play development."
A new play, Jenkins said, can end up in "development hell," losing, over a series of readings, the playwright's initial artistic impulse. He believes a new play needs to be produced to see whether it works.
And who better to nurture a new play than Sullivan, a New York-based, award-winning director?
"For my money, he's the best director in the country," Jenkins said. "As far as I know, he's the only one to have nurtured four new plays to the Pulitzer Prize. Dan wouldn't tell you that because he's so self-effacing."
The department also will return next season, after a 2012-13 season of no William Shakespeare, to two Shakespeare plays: "The Tempest," to be directed by Robert Anderson, and "Much Ado About Nothing," to be directed by Kathleen Conlin. Both are faculty members.
Guest designer Chad Tyler, a UI landscape architecture alumnus, will design "Tempest" with green goals. The theater department will work with the UI engineering department to study how much energy the production uses, to explore whether the theater department can shift to a more sustainable model.
"As we study that, we want to disseminate the information so we can have an impact beyond the walls of our own theater," Jenkins said.
The department will kick off the fall semester with a somewhat new play, the Off-Broadway hit "Nine Parts of Desire," a one-woman show that was written and performed by Heather Raffo and premiered in 2003 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The UI will change the way it's performed to allow opportunities for more female students to appear in the play, which Raffo will direct.
The award-winning play tells of the lives of nine Iraqi women between the first and second Gulf Wars and during the U.S. occupation. Critic John Lahr of The New Yorker described it as "an example of how art can remake the world."
Jenkins came to Champaign-Urbana from New York University, where his last position was director of theater studies at the Tisch School of the Arts. He worked at NYU for 14 years, teaching theater history, theory and criticism and taking the director of theater studies job in 2010.
Jenkins decided to leave because he felt it was time for him to move on. He wanted to try something different. He looked at a variety of opportunities and was "astonished" by the UI.
The main thing that impressed him were the students — he said they are "hungry" for theater training and education, more so than the students he met in any other place he visited.
Also, he was impressed by the facilities. He called Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where he has an office on a lower level, amazing and unique.
"We're blessed to have it here," he said. "I think this town is the best-kept secret in American theater."
Among other attractions for him are the "brilliant" actors among UI theater faculty, as well as the presence on faculty of Conlin, a former dean of the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts. He calls her one of the best directors in the country.
Jenkins himself has worked in all aspects of theater. He's seen theater from the other side, too.
From 1996 to '06, he was a freelance critic for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, covering local, New York and national theater events. He's contributed to various other publications, among them The New York Times, American Literary History, Theatre Journal, The David Mamet Review and Variety.
In the past decade, Jenkins has produced nine books. His 2004 "Under the Copper Beech: Conversations With American Theater Critics" is an oral history featuring interviews with 20th-century U.S. theater critics.
And he's series editor of the "Best Plays Theater Yearbook," an annual collection of commissioned critical essays and historical references. He started writing for the series in 2002 and took over as editor two years later.
"Compiling the staff and doing the research for that — that's how I became a theater historian," he said. "That, and I also was writing about theater history for scholarly publications."
For his editing work, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education gave him its 1997 Meritorious Service Award. He has received numerous other awards and grants, among them several from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
Jenkins also has been since '97 a member and since 2002 chairman of the Henry Hewes Design Awards Committee, which honors outstanding New York theater design on and off Broadway. He's now into his third term on the board of trustees for the American Theatre Wing.
Besides NYU, Jenkins taught at Carnegie Mellon University, where he received his master's of fine arts degree in directing, and at the University of Washington and SUNY-Stony Brook.
His undergraduate degree is in drama from San Francisco State University and his doctorate is in American studies from the University of East Anglia, where the faculty includes Christopher Bigsby, perhaps the world's most influential scholar of American drama. Jenkins studied with him.
Jenkins' past also includes stints driving a truck in the Bay Area and working in a wine shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., in trendy Park Slope.
His wine shop job came after he, while shopping, absentmindedly answered a customer's question. The manager heard him and hired him on the spot.
"The owner gave me a flexible schedule so I could do theater," Jenkins said.
Jenkins spent a few decades on both coasts, but he's no stranger to the Midwest. He grew up in Wichita, Kan., later moving to California. His family couldn't afford college, so he joined the Army when he was barely 18, becoming a medic and surgical technician.
After his discharge, he went to college thinking he wanted to become a medical doctor. But theater, which he had done in high school, sucked him back in.
"It was one of those things that kept calling me back," he said.
At San Francisco State, he directed 12 productions in five semesters. After graduating, he went to grad school at Carnegie Mellon. But after getting his MFA, he couldn't find theater work: It was the Reagan era, when many arts organizations had their funding cut.
So he returned to California and drove a truck before landing a one-year visiting theater position at a college in upstate New York. After that job ended, he went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he managed the BAM Harvey Theatre and was part of the management team for Peter Brook's renowned productions of "The Mahabharata" and "The Cherry Orchard." "The Mahabharata" was an 11-hour epic; Jenkins watched it 16 times.
"So I learned a lot," he said.
After one season, the BAM Harvey closed for a while, and he was laid off. Jenkins began producing plays off-Broadway and in New Jersey, did general management for small theater companies and wrote and edited. That's when his wine shop job came along.
He then spent four years in Seattle, teaching directing at the University of Washington for three years and writing for the Seattle daily and other publications, among them Theatre Topics, a journal published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
He was still writing for the Post-Intelligencer when he returned to New York. He first taught at SUNY-Stony Brook and then at SUNY and NYU for a year, commuting between the two. He dropped the SUNY job to focus on NYU, where he taught theater history, literature and criticism.
"A career is made by saying yes. In the early years, it's important for young artists to say yes," he said.
It's also important for arts educators to not only prepare students to be performers, designers, etc., but to also train them to think on their feet as well as to analyze, break down, critique and solve problems.
"That is something we need now in the American workplace," Jenkins said. "We're doing it now at Illinois, and we're going to do it better."