Broadway director got her start in NU theater

Sara Peck

Jen Bender, Communication ’01, has directed sexually outspoken puppets, Southern belles and Disney characters. Though Bender is now a Broadway director with Tony Award-winning shows under her belt, eight years ago she experienced Dance Marathon-induced exhaustion, the Waa-Mu Show and the Dolphin Show.

The Daily: What was your most memorable moment at Northwestern?

Jen Bender: Dance Marathon was a huge thing, because my mom had died my junior year of ovarian cancer, and the group DM benefitted that year was an organization for women with ovarian cancer. DM was a great opportunity to do something that was fun but also impacts so many people. I don’t know if I could have done it all four years because it’s really grueling, but everyone should do it once.

The Daily: How did you get into directing? Was becoming a director always your goal, or was it acting?

JB: I had originally thought I wanted to produce Broadway shows or work somewhere like the Goodman Theatre, so I started producing for student shows, but I didn’t always think that they were that good. I had a hard time wanting to raise money and advertise for a show that I didn’t really believe in. When I directed “Pippin” my junior year, I just thought that (directing) had all of the things I loved to do and none of the things I didn’t like to do.

The Daily: Is there anything you wish you had known while you were at NU that you know now?

JB: I wish I done less shows and taken more classes that I was really interested in, like in TV and film. Theater majors for some reason really don’t cross over into TV and film that much, and I wish that I did because in the real world, the two overlap.

The Daily: How did you break into the business?

JB: I applied to direct the Dolphin Show my senior year and I didn’t get it, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was really upset that I didn’t get it, so I decided that I wasn’t just going to sit around and cry. I called every director in Chicago and asked if they needed an assistant. I started assistant directing in Chicago, and it just kept going from show to show to show.

The Daily: What was it like to assistant direct “Avenue Q,” which won a Tony Award (in 2004)?

JB: It was totally, totally unbelievable. It’s been running almost five years now, and I still think of it like this little show I hope some of my friends will come see. When it moved to Broadway and won the Tony, especially against “Wicked,” which was such a huge hit, we just couldn’t believe it. I was in the very last row of Radio City Music Hall, jumping up and down and screaming like a crazy person with the rest of the cast. It was just this little show that we loved so much that turned out to be something that everyone else loved too.

The Daily: What can NU theater majors do to succeed in the business?

JB: People should just go to any organization they find and say “How can I get involved?” Do anything you can possibly do and don’t expect to be paid or have a job title or any sort of stability; just show up everywhere you can and say “What can I do?” When you do good work, people start to notice you, and after awhile the work starts finding you. You can’t wait for your phone to ring.

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