Q & A with Jennifer Hope Wills
BB: Where did you get your training in order to move to NYC to pursue theatre as a career?
JHW: I would say I actually gained most of my training and experience through working with my parents who owned and operated their own theatre while I was growing up. I literally grew up on the stage doing and learning all kinds of things. That being said, I did go to undergrad at Salisbury University (a small Liberal Arts college close to home) in order to get a degree and actually try to get away from theatre. I earned a BA in Music Education and then got a MM degree in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy from Indiana University. At the time I was going to sing classical music and teach at the college level which I did for two years before deciding that I indeed had to return to my roots and give NYC a try. It was that feeling of “I’ll always wonder what could have happened if I never tried”.
BB: As far as schooling/training what were some great attributes to studying at Salisbury University?
JHW: I’m having a bit of a hard time answering that question these days. I always was a huge proponent of going to a Liberal Arts college and getting a well rounded education and then specialize from there but, in these last years since I moved to the city, the conservatories have really been taking over as a breeding ground for NY performers and I think it is even harder now than it ever was to “break in” if you didn’t go to one of those schools. Sadly though, while those schools are turning out extremely technically well trained performers, I often find a lot of the heart to be missing and thereis a huge entitlement there that they deserve to be stars. I had to fight my way up tooth and nails and they really have no idea what that is all about. Yes, I know those schools are hard and they had to fight hard to be there and stay there but then they come out with so many great connections. I came out knowing not a single person. I was able to work through it and break through but I think it is sadly much hard to do these days. I am still VERY thankful for my well rounded education.
BB: What is one thing that you learned while actively pursuing a NY stage career that you wish you would have known/learned before moving to the city that you could impart to others?
JHW: I certainly wish I would have had more training in dance and perhaps other forms of acting (Shakespeare) etc. I think you really need to know EVERYTHING now. Even having special interesting skills like juggling, gymnastics, playing other instruments, etc. You need to do it ALL now.
BB: How was the transition from going from college to pursuing a NY career? What did you do to adjust/conquer NYC.
JHW: Oh boy…I don’t know. I was older (I think about 27….but luckily everyone thought I was younger and right out of school). It was definitely hard for me and a big change for a small town girl but I think there was also a naiveté in me that made me just not think about things too much. I just kind of got out there and started to do it. At that time, I just made auditioning my job and went to just about any audition I was even remotely right for. It was tough being non-equity and not having any connections as I was one of those people sitting out on the pavement at 6:30 in the morning in the snow just waiting to get on a list. I also didn’t realize at the time that for so many of those bigger jobs, they were just “required” auditions and they weren’t necessarily looking for anyone. It wasn’t until I got a job at Paper Mill Playhouse that an agent would even think about talking to me.
BB: How/when did you get your first Broadway job?
JHW: This is an interesting story and I wouldn’t say I necessarily recommend this…but…it’s what we decided to do and it worked. Two years after I moved to NYC is when they were auditioning for the revival of “Wonderful Town”. I had never heard of it but new it was an older show which I knew was where I fit the best. After I researched it, I realized that the role of Eileen was really just me on paper and I knew I had to try to get an audition. My agent submitted me but nothing. She called and nothing. One of her dear friends was an agent there at the time so she talked to her directly and she said that they wouldn’t see me because they didn’t know me. She did remember me from a “Music Man” audition though and liked me, but, in this case there was nothing she could do. So, my agent asked me how right I thought I was and, I’m extremely modest but I said…this is ME…no doubt about it. So, she told me to gussy myself all up as if I was going in to audition for the role. Go to the casting office directly with my picture and resume and tell them that this particular agent asked me to drop this by. I was so scared…I was always told this was a big NO to do anymore. Well, before I got to the subway, after dropping my photo/resume off, I had a call from my agent saying that they were giving me a pre-screen. Five auditions later I was auditioning with Donna Murphy in front of a room FULL of people including Betty Comden. Yikes! The role ultimately went to TV/Film star Jennifer Westfeldt BUT, the same casting office also cast “Beauty and the Beast” and they were looking for a new Belle understudy so I went in and sang once and the job was mine. I made my Broadway debut about four years after I came to the City and then 8 months after that, Jennifer Westfeldt left “Wonderful Town” abruptly and 1 more audition later, I ended up getting the role of Eileen. It’s interesting, all of my Broadway jobs essentially came from auditions for other things. Lesson: Always do your best…you might not get that job but it could lead to other things.
BB: Can you offer a piece of audition advice?
JHW: Oh boy…yeah…I need to take my own advice to think of auditions as just another chance to perform and have fun but even though I’m thinking that, the minute I walk into that small fluorescent lit room with people behind a table just staring at me…I start to get all nervous and inside my head LOL. I think my best auditions have been the ones where I have lots of time to prepare and I have all the sides memorized and can just stand there and really just listen and respond in the moment to what the reader and director are giving me. When I’m not as prepared, I certainly am more nervous.
BB: What was/is your day job/other ventures in between gigs or do you do both simultaneously?
JHW: When I first moved to NY and needed that other job, I was a Legal Proofreader which was awesome as I usually did a 5pm-midnight shift and it was quiet. LOVED it and I had the days open to audition and didn’t wreck my voice waiting tables or working at a bar. Then I was very fortunate to have 6 full years doing consecutive Broadway shows. After that, my other job has been mom. Sadly I don’t get paid for that, but it’s the most important job EVER!!!
BB: Do you still train/work on your craft? How? Where?
JHW: I actually wish I could, but being a mom takes all my extra time and money. My motto is, if you can, NEVER stop learning and training. Singing, dancing and acting muscles need to be maintained and always strengthened.
BB: Any words of inspiration or anything else you want to say/impart?
JHW: I know you’ve heard this before, but honestly, if there is anything else you like to do…do that instead. This business is VERY hard and competitive. If, however, you can dream of nothing else, then you need to give it a try but learn EVERYTHING and train hard. Get out there and meet everyone you can and always be professional and kind and prepared. Also be ready to be creative and perhaps create and find your own and new way to use your talents. You also need to be honest with yourself to know where you fit best. Use your strengths and work on your weaknesses.
For nearly four years Jennifer won audiences’ hearts as Christine in Broadway's longest running musical The Phantom of the Opera. Other Broadway credits include her critically acclaimed portrayal of Eileen in the revival of Wonderful Town opposite Brooke Shields (revamped New Broadway Cast recording), The Woman in White and Beauty and the Beast. She also appeared as Della in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with City Center's, Encores!
She has starred in many of the top regional theatres across the country with credits including Magnolia in Showboat and Fiona in Brigadoon (both at Sacramento Music Circus), Marian in The Music Man (at both Walnut Street Theatre and Florida's Riverside Theatre), Rose Vibert in Aspects of Love and Sharon in Finian's Rainbow (both at Walnut Street Theatre), Maria in The Sound of Music and Julie in Carousel (both at Pittsburgh CLO), Sandy in Grease! and Lady Anne in Camelot (both at Paper Mill Playhouse), Eliza in My Fair Lady (The Gateway Playhouse) Lily in The Secret Garden (VMT) and Brooke/Vicki in Noises Off! (SART).
Her voice can be heard as Liesel in the famous Salzburg Marionette Theatre’s version of The Sound of Music starring Christiane Noll as well as the upcoming concept recording of the new musical An American Victory. She has appeared in concert with the Houston, Portland, Omaha, Asheville and Regina Symphonies, the Long Island Philharmonic, at Merkin Concert Hall, Town Hall, Joe's Pub and at the Mar-a-Lago Club with Howard McGillin for Donald Trump and guests.
She holds an MM degree from Indiana University where she appeared on the mainstage as Laurey in Oklahoma!, Papagena in The Magic Flute, Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore and Gossip I in The Ghosts of Versailles.
Jennifer Hope Wills