What a Piece of Work is Jan

This week, my boss Jan Powell announced that she would be stepping down as artistic director of Quill Theatre due to an illness in her family.

Although I know it will not be the end of our friendship, and hope it will not be the end of our collaborations together, I thought that the end of her tenure at Quill should be accompanied with some level of pomp and circumstance.

I first met Jan because I had decided on a whim to start studying Shakespeare and wanted to complement reading the plays with seeing them, but I was too broke to pay for theatre tickets so I offered to volunteer at the company in exchange for free tickets. Jan had recently taken over as artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare and we struck up a friendship because Jan is more of a nerd about the text than a lot of theatre folks, and that connected with me, coming from a literature background.

She very quickly became my mentor in all things Shakespeare. She has spent years patiently listening to all of my ideas, theories, and dreams. Although I was new to the world of Shakespearean theatre, Jan treated me like a valued member of the team from day one. She invited me to rehearsals, production meetings, and fundraisers. She introduced me to directors and actors, praising me as a scholar I hadn’t yet — and still haven’t yet —become.

If I had to choose Jan’s defining quality, it wouldn’t be her intelligence — although she obviously is brilliant — it would be her humility. Lots of people in the world of Shakespeare are smart. What sets Jan apart is her lack of ego. Jan is almost always the smartest person in the room, but she never acts like it. She listens ten times as much as she speaks, and always makes your contribution feel important, valuable, interesting. Whether it’s in a workshop, a rehearsal, a production meeting, she puts herself in the background and allows everyone else to shine. No matter what idea you bring to Jan, she makes you think that it’s a brilliant, insightful, and original contribution. That attitude invites honesty, vulnerability, and investment from people.

If you’ve ever praised Jan for her work, or asked her about her directing style, or her approach to Shakespeare, she will immediately deflect all the credit away from herself. I can’t count how many times she’s told me “I start with a great playwright; I bring talented actors into the room, and I try my best to stay out of their way.” It’s this kind of self-effacing that creates a community.

It would be hard to overstate the influence that Jan has had on me, and the extent to which she has enabled me to grow from a bookish nerd with a vague interest in the Bard into a Shakespeare writer, dramaturge, and educator. She ignored my lack of experience and expertise and focused on my enthusiasm and made space for me at the table when no one else would have.

Jan’s leadership at Quill has been invaluable, leading us through a huge transition both artistically and logistically, and the work she did as artistic director will continue to define the company for years to come.

 

Some of my favorite Jan Powell moments, in no particular order:

When we bonded the first night we met, working on a set build for The Tempest, over our shared love of Firefly.

When she took a break from schmoozing with donors and board members at a fundraising event to engage in a heated 30 minute debate with me on whether As You Like It or Twelfth Night is the better comedy. And the gracious way that she accepted my surrender years later when I realized the error of my ways.

When we were breaking down the set for Taming of the Shrew and one of our volunteers said “this is too big for me” and Jan and I both yelled out from opposite sides of the room “that’s what she said!”

When a discussion of Juliet’s relationship with her mother during rehearsal led to Jan crying. As someone young, naive, and enthusiastic about Shakespeare, it was heartening for me to see that someone like Jan, an experienced director with a PhD can still be brought to tears by the text.

The first time Jan ever asked me to write a dramaturgical essay for a show program, and then tore my first draft to shreds — in the nicest, most Jan way possible —because she knew I could do much better. She was, of course, right and I am still proud of what I came up with in my second draft.

When Jan couldn’t make it to my first Shakespeare conference with me, and knowing my anxiety about social situations, emailed a mutual friend and told him to “make sure I talked to people.”

When she presented me with The Bard Award for all my of contributions to Shakespeare in Richmond.

When she asked me to be on the writing team for our series of educational TV spots for PBS.

When I texted her husband to ask for his help planning a surprise birthday party for Jan, and he told me that several other people had already reached out to him for that same purpose. It’s a testament to Jan that her colleagues compete to throw her a birthday party. I ended up writing a skit for that party, wherein me and other folks from the company toasted Jan, “spontaneously” bursting into lines from Shakespeare with Jan’s name substituted. What a piece of work is Jan, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty—All the world’s a stage…and one Jan in her time plays many parts…

When she created holy shit god damn the most fucking amazing Hamlet I have ever seen.

When we spent most of my wedding reception avoiding the drama among my guests by hiding out back talking about Shakespeare.

 

This is a long list and it could easily get much longer.

My friend, my mentor, my hero. Jan Powell has made Richmond, Quill, and the world of Shakespeare a much richer place, and hopefully will continue to do so. My words are small recompense for what she’s given me. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.

Thanks, thanks, and ever thanks.