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Student helps direct professional cast in new Theater Emory production

Jessica Le-Mckeown (right) acted in Theater Emory’s “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by John Ammerman. For “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” she takes on the opposite role, helping direct a cast of professional actors. Emory Photo/Video

Theater Emory’s newest offering, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” features a special role for student Jessica Le-Mckeown: The Emory College sophomore serves as the associate director, leading many aspects of the production, which opened Monday and runs in repertory through Nov. 9.

Unlike many Theater Emory shows, which are made up of a mix of professional and student actors, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” features an entirely professional cast, making Le-Mckeown the only student in the rehearsal room. However, the cast members, who affectionately refer to Le-Mckeown as “Young Jess,” give her the respect her position warrants.

The opportunity sprung from the relationship Le-Mckeown built with director Lydia Fort when she took the theater studies professor’s directing class last year. Le-Mckeown expressed her desire to do more directing and Fort in turn offered her a position on her next production, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.”

“Jess has been tremendous — taking on any task and jumping into the ring to ensure the show is top notch,” says Fort. “She’s made significant creative impact on the production and run several rehearsals, which is so far above and beyond her original title as assistant director that I decided to promote her to associate director to honor her contributions.” 

Le-Mckeown is excited for the opportunity. “I appreciate that Lydia and Theater Emory have built a structure around this production that very much acknowledges that I have a position of authority in this show, even though I’m the only student in a room full of professionals,” she says. “It can be intimidating, but it’s also very empowering.”

Embracing Emory’s opportunities 

When Le-Mckeown began applying to colleges, she knew theater would be a major part of her studies, but she didn’t want it to take over her life. “The main reason I applied to Emory is because I could do other things in addition to theater here, unlike in a conservatory program,” says the native of Palo Alto, California. “Here, there’s a breadth of education and also some flexibility.”

That flexibility led Le-Mckeown, who mostly participated in theater as a performer prior to college, to a surprising discovery: a love for directing.  “I like performing, but I really love the rehearsal process,” she says. “I much prefer the creation of something and directing is another way of getting to the creation side of theater and having more control over the story being told.”

At Emory, Le-McKeown jumped into her newly discovered passion head-first, taking on major roles in student theater groups like Dooley’s Players, for whom she directed last year’s production of “Appropriate” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. “It was fantastic to be able to spearhead that kind of project,” she says. “We were able to collaboratively create a really cool show.”

“I came to Emory partially because of Theater Emory and partially because of the strong student theater organizations,” she says. “Directing a show as a sophomore in college is not something I think a lot of people can say they did, but at Emory, there are a decent number of students who direct when they’re younger.”

After this show closes, Le-Mckeown’s artistic life does not slow down. This semester, she performs in two productions with Dooley’s Players, “You for Me for You” by Mia Chung and “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” for which she will also write. In the spring, Le-Mckeown travels to Arezzo, Italy, to study physical theater at the Academia dell’Arte.

This varied approach to her creative pursuits mirrors the breadth of education Le-Mckeown receives in Emory’s Department of Theater Studies, and both give her an advantage in the rehearsal room. 

“The education we get is so comprehensive that I’m able to communicate with everyone on a production team,” she says. “As a student director, you need to be able to switch codes and communicate with actors, professors, designers and students — it’s a really interesting challenge.”

For her part, Fort believes the work Le-Mckeown has done together with her on “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” not only improves the show, but also gives Le-Mckeown an advantage if she decides to pursue a professional career in the theater.

“Being an associate on a professional production while being an undergrad makes for a great leverage in her professional career,” says Fort. “I’m thrilled that Jess has had the opportunity to exercise her talents on this production; plus, I learn so much from her.”

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