TWISI PEOPLE’S CHOICE WINNER #2: JENNETTE WHITE

jennette white

Nominated by: Lisa St.Clair 

Written By: Angela Gasparetto, Sean C. Robertson & Amanda Campbell 

(Jennette White is an actor/playwright/director and the former Director of Neptune Theatre School in Halifax, Nova Scotia)

I am so happy that Jennette has been nominated for the TWISI People’s Choice Award. Jennette (or as many of us call her, Nettie) has been a steady positive force in theatre in Canada, and in the lives if 1000s of people for over 20 years. I say 1000s, as not only am I speaking of all of her students, at Neptune Theatre School and elsewhere, but also all of the audiences she has touched with the shows she has written, directed and/or performed in. Nettie is magic. She just is. I started going to the Neptune Theatre School when I was 12 and only stopped when I went away to university. In many ways I found myself and discovered my path at the School because of Jennette. I remember after a performance of 12th Night (as part of the Youth III class performed at Dal; I played Olivia!), she said to me “you should think about doing this” or something like that. I knew I had found what I loved doing and she knew it too. A few years later she traveled up to Toronto on the train with me when I went to audition for an acting degree; I later worked as her assistant at the Neptune Theatre School and was in the Young Neptune Company and taught at the School. I can honestly and truly say that Jennette White has inspired, taught, challenged and supported me – as a person and as a theatre maker. It should be said loud and clear – Jennette is a fantastic theatre person who creates great work – on the page and on stage. And she is a gifted teacher and mentor. So many of us, her students at Neptune Theatre School, have gone on to professional careers in the theatre and performing arts. I went on to do more training and have worked as an actor and now movement director for over 15 years. I count the learning and professional discipline I got from Jennette to be a vital foundation and resource for all that I have done and continue to do. But it isn’t only about how I have developed professionally in the theatre that is important with regards to Jennette, it is also how I developed as a person. I know I would not be alone in saying that Jennette White nurtured confidence and individuality in me, helped me find my own personal voice and use it loud and clear in this world. If that isn’t what good theatre is about, I don’t know what is. With much love and gratitude for the woman and Canadian theatre practitioner that is Jennette White, I say THANK YOU!!

– Angela Gasparetto

Jennette White

She was a bright red lipsticked giant with mismatched multi-coloured striped stockings and a ponytail on the side of a shock of red hair. In the carpeted, musty pre-renovated Neptune theatre Lobby, she smiled kindly and sat next to me, asking my name.
I explained that I was 12 (and a half!) years old and that I had decided, probably the year before, that I was going to be a big time theatre star and I’d like to take a class at the Neptune Theatre School.
‘I’ve read this brochure,’ I said waving the wrinkled piece of paper before me. ‘I’ve read it all and even though it says 17 and up, I’d like to take Acting Youth 3’
I studied her reaction. She didn’t blink.
‘Have you seen the write up for ‘Creative Play 5?’ she asked, still smiling.
My face fell and I was instantly furious, but I bit my tongue. Who did this ridiculously dressed woman think she was to tell me I wasn’t good enough for the advanced class I had so carefully chosen? Clearly she hadn’t witnessed my debut a few months before where I performed as ‘Jacob’ in Jacob Two Two and the Dinosaur in my elementary school gym an hour away.  A performance that critics exclaimed: ‘Brilliance!’ and ‘The best ever!’ and ‘A joy to watch!’.  And even though those ‘Critics’ were really just my own supportive father, I would have thought she would have gotten wind of it somehow.
I took a deep breath and explained, ‘I will not be spending my hard earned money to ‘play’ with a bunch of kids. I’ve already done a couple shows, I’m very mature for my age, I should therefore be in Acting Youth 3′
I could see her studying me. I held my breath. The clock in the lobby clicked a few slow motion seconds.
‘How about Acting Youth 1?’
I looked at her sideways,  I could see she wasn’t going to budge any further.
I sighed and when we shook hands to seal the deal the most extraordinary thing happened; her arms opened to reveal an impressive wingspan and I suddenly found myself being drawn in.
Her arms wrapped around me and….. strangely,  I instantly knew I was safe.  It was the first of countless hugs we would share in the years to come.
Jennette was our teacher, our mother, our sister, our therapist, our friend, our confidant,
and she instilled in us a sense of Integrity. Integrity with a capitol ‘I’. That was her biggest lesson. Everything we did had to not only surpass her expectations but our own as well.  And it was her own unwavering belief in us that made it possible.
She wasn’t interested in teaching people to become stars, she wanted her students to be the best humans they could be. She encouraged her students to take the lessons of theatre with its’ teamwork, focus, conflict resolution, hard work and attention to detail and apply it to their daily lives. There are thousands of students she has taught over the years who were touched and inspired to this day by her care.
There are some who grew into professionals in the industry. They are some of your favourite actors and people. They go above and beyond. They mentor the younger people in the cast. They bring a heightened sense of community to everything they do. And they learn the names of all of the technicians with whom they are working.
There’s a story Jennette told us in the early years of our training about an experience she had in the theatre. One of the many lessons burned into my mind.
She was mesmerized by an actor who absolutely commanded the stage. He literally danced around the stage saying his lines and twirling his scene partner in circles before finishing in a dramatic dip. At the deepest point of the dip the actor looked offstage and (boldly!) winked. Now, there’s a very good chance that Jennette and her attention to detail was the only one in the audience to see the wink but it broke the magic for her and that one broken ‘suspension of disbelief’ was too much.
Ever.
It was inexcusable.
She taught us that the magic of the theatre was sacred. It must be respected above all else. It was a bond between you and the other actors and, most importantly, the audience. For theatre without an audience, she would say, is ‘like one hand clapping’.
In the 20 years (or so) since that first hug, Jennette White has managed to inspire a generation of actors and writers and lawyers and social workers and teachers and Moms and Dads to strive to do their very best everyday.
Not bad for someone who is just getting started.
-Sean C. Robertson

I remember July 1996 so vividly. It was hot and I was climbing the dark staircase in a building on Barrington Street in Halifax above a bicycle shop I had never noticed existed before. I was eleven- almost twelve. I had told my mother that I wanted to take acting classes at Neptune Theatre School because the girls who got the leads in the elementary school musicals went there and I wanted to get lead roles too. Yet, now that I was there, about to walk into Neptune Theatre School, I could not have been more terrified. The class that my mother had called and asked if I could take was a two week Musical Theatre Collective for 13-18 year olds… and I had just finished grade six.

Jennette White was the first person that I met at the top of the staircase as I tried to resist the urge to hide behind my mother like a shy toddler (an image made even more awkward given that at eleven I was already 5’8 and a half). She was all smiles and exuberance, an imposing tree-like woman, taller than I was and with an immediately generous heart. For the next two weeks I was pushed and stretched in ways that my restrictive comfort zone could not even fathom. Apart from the fact that I was not allowed to leave the building at lunchtime, Jennette, along with Angela Gasparetto, Sean Robertson, Laine DeWolfe, Laura Mae Nason and Gillian Anderson, treated me exactly the same as all my teenaged compatriots, who simultaneously intimidated, intrigued and awed me. Jennette instilled in all of us a sense of professionalism and a strong work ethic as a foundation for our play. She expected great things of us, but in that she believed that we were capable of more than most of us at that tender age could see. We worked hard. That summer I learned that theatre isn’t about memorizing lines. It isn’t about having the lead part or being a star. That summer I learned about the thrill of improvising within your imagination, about grotesque clowns, about dramatic monologues and arm circles and crunches. I learned about the magic of the room, of the process, of creating a truly unique theatrical piece in collusion with your peers under the guiding hands of teachers and mentors who would become friends. I also learned that shaving your legs doesn’t (usually) hurt and that I wanted to dye my hair purple like fourteen year old Mara Jones, who I thought was the most grown up teenager of all time.

I would attend Neptune Theatre School for the next five years, taking four musical theatre Collectives, one Collective in the Fringe, all four levels of acting classes and culminating with a year in the Youth Performance Company where Jennette directed us in two TYA shows. I would later go on to teach at the theatre school myself for four glorious summers. I became a quite proficient improviser, a hardworking character actor, a loud belter whose pitch problems (mostly) sorted themselves out, an ardent theatregoer and a slightly less tragic “dancer” (thanks, Marla). But, most astonishingly and most significantly, my once quite crippling shyness no longer boxed me in. Neptune Theatre School was the place in the world where I felt the most safe, the most beautifully me and the most excited about my future and the endless possibilities of what I could accomplish there. That was the space that Jennette lovingly fostered. If you were at the Ford Centre, where Neptune Theatre School currently has its home, between 1997 and 2001 you probably saw me bounding up and down the hallways, exuberant with stories, eager to give hugs, singing too loud, running up the stairs two at a time, or jumping up in the elevator (a trick I learned from Jennette). There were a slew of us, Jennette’s tribe, and we knew, this was our place and we were forever (and still are) bound together by that experience like brothers and sisters.

One of the most wonderful things that Jennette knew was the power of the ripple effect. Not only was I fortunate enough to learn so much directly from her, either as a director working with me or watching her perform (there is a performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” forever seared into my memory from a Coffee House in 1997 that blows Anne Hathaway out of the water- (not that’s it a competition, I know, Jennette!), but I was also taught throughout the years by so many of Jennette’s tribe, like Angela and Sean, who came before me. There’s something really magical in inspiring (or allowing) young people to be teachers and mentors to even younger people, assuming you ensure that they are acting as positive role models for the impressionable eyes of awed children like me, as Jennette was strict about. Sean Robertson, Marla McLean, Angela Gasparetto, Jennetta Lamb, Rhys Bevan-John, Bruce Godfree, Zach Fraser, Anna MacLean, Katy Pedersen, Amanda LeBlanc, Meredith Zwicker (likely many names you will recognize from the professional Canadian Theatre): they were the Theatre Princes and Princesses of my teenage years who I looked up to with stars in my eyes and eagerly soaked up every grain of advice, inspiration (and gossip) that my perpetually perked up ears picked up. That was the way Jennette ran the theatre school. It was a place where an eighteen year old and a twelve year old could talk about how to evade bullies in Junior High or a twenty year old could teach fourteen year olds about diphthongs. It was a place where we were encouraged to believe in one another, to cheer for our collective successes, rather than feel pitted against one another in competition for roles, glory or attention. It’s the spirit out of which TWISI was born.

Neptune Theatre School was our home away from home and Jennette was the beaming matriarch. She worked tirelessly and valiantly with so much heart and so much care. She is the reason so many young people in Halifax first walked into a theatre. She was the igniting spark for so many professional theatre artists now working around the World. I feel very privileged to be able to help give Jennette White a TWISI People’s Choice Award and to say thank you for the profound influence she has had on me.

– Amanda Campbell

The TWISI People’s Choice Awards are an opportunity to celebrate deserving members of the Canadian Theatre Community (artists of the performing arts in the broadest terms- theatre, comedy, music & dance), technicians and crew members, educators, and administrators in the professional and community theatre in Canada).  If you would like to nominate someone for a TWISI People’s Choice Award please write a blog or make a video to celebrate and introduce the person and of your choice and email it to amandacarol.campbell@gmail.com. 

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