GO's Person of the Year: Jeff Jenkins
But what makes Jeff tick? Why, with talents tailor-made for Second City, has he spent the last four-plus years building the entertainment scene in Missouri's third-largest city? Because it's a challenge, of course.
The PastDon't be fooled, sitting still hasn't been easy for 34-year-old Jeff. It never has. The son of a career military man and the middle of three children, he'd never lived in a single town for more than three years in a row before he graduated from high school. He says his sense of humor was honed during the two- or three-day grace periods a kid receives at a new school, ingratiating him to his peers and developing his sense of independence at the same time.
After aborted stints at several schools (including one at Evangel, in 1991-he dropped out, then was told not to return because he'd missed chapel too much. "I've been kicked out of some of the finest Christian schools in the country," he quips) Jeff was living in Mesquite, Texas, making the 45-minute drive to Fort Worth daily to study and hang out with Four Day Weekend, a Dallas-area improv group. After a few years with various improv outfits, Jeff-then 29 and older than most of his peers-thought it was time for a new challenge: finally finishing college. Evangel was both logical (Jeff grew up AG) and convenient, since he could graduate in two years. With his one-semester chapel-skipping ban ancient history, he re-enrolled in August 2002.
Soon, Skinny Improv was born, more as a way to relieve boredom than anything. However, as the original group of eight performers gelled, Jeff realized the business potential of the family-friendly act in Springfield. On a trip to Seattle to visit his brother, Jeff laid out everything he wanted The Skinny-and Upside Down Creative Group, the business face of his enterprises-to be, including corporate training services, an all-girl comedy group and children's theatre-all of which are now realities.
The PresentIn 2006 Jeff had an eventful, often tumultuous year (not to mention spending two weeks in a Florida hospital with liver and gall bladder problems). Here are some highlights that made him GO's Person of the Year:
• Approximately 200 Skinny shows and the launch of almost a half-dozen new groups. The Snowball Effect, Betty Improv, The Trifecta, The Mystery Hour with Jeff Houghton and The Campfire (among others) all began in 2006. The pumped-up schedule allows the Skinny to put on eight shows per week in their home theatre, where they entertained 17,000 people in '06.
• 175 corporate training or private gigs for businesses, which bring in the bulk of Upside Down Creative Group's revenue (and make about 30,000 people per year laugh with their co-workers, no small feat).
• Six Springfield Playhouse shows. 2006 was the first full year of this Upside Down'-backed series. Hosted by Springfield Little Theatre, actors put on plays for children with enough wit for parents ("The humor is very Shrekian," Jeff says).
• Improv classes. The eight-week sessions are the minor leagues of the Skinny. With five levels (with eight or so students per level) during each quarterly session, many graduates eventually wind up in Skinny groups.
• The near-completion of a new 210-seat theatre, slated to open in early January. The group's old home of two years, below Riad on Park Central East, was homey but uncomfortable, especially the leaky roof. The new space just a few doors east is huge step up for the group. "It's a huge risk, a huge commitment," Jeff says.
Besides his "day job," which requires six days per week of bottom-line attention from a self-described non-business person, Jeff found time to:
• Direct The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, SLT's annual Christmas show that had 150 kids audition and 40 in the cast.
• Audition for next month's SLT production of Cinderella-he's been cast as the king.
• Play the role of Ethan Girard in The Full Monty.
And this is where 2006 for Jeff crosses from the merely busy to the dramatic. His role in The Full Monty earned him a pink slip from his adjunct faculty position in Evangel's theatre department (he's since resumed teaching at OTC), a strong reaction indeed against such a popular alumnus. But there are no regrets on Jeff's part-the pants-dropping role and the short time he had to learn it (the original Ethan injured himself late in rehearsals) challenged him as an artist. As for the material that irked Evangel, Jeff says "It isn't theatre unless it questions, to be a part of something that causes dialogue. Even if you don't believe in [what we were doing] you're still talking about it."
His ouster (officially called a "resignation") at Evangel altered some relationships; Jeff's received e-mails from people saying they won't return to the Skinny. "There were some people in the community who thought we were going to start being dirty," he says, but he's not worried. "It's the same clean show. What I did with The Full Monty was what Jeff Jenkins the artist needed to do."
Jeff's goals for 2007 include a full-time Skinny traveling outfit, which would handle all out-of-state and corporate gigs; a Shakespeare festival, possibly on Park Central Square; bigger improv classes; auditioning for a part in the two-man play Tuesdays With Morrie; producing more plays and musicals. In short: continuing to create opportunities in the local comedy and theatre community.
And it's that opportunity as much as a challenge that keeps Jeff in Springfield. "I don't think people realize how much talent there is here," he says. "I want to give people the opportunity to find a new platform and find their own skills."
And if SNL or Second City happens to call for Jeff (as he thinks they someday will for Skinny talent)? Would he go? He says yes. "I'd weigh the pros and cons, but artistically I have to find things that challenge me."