Stop being so quick to judge. Let’s create spaces of genuine, open communication rather than echo chambers where we repeat the same opinions.
Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. In all the big and small ways, know that you can make a difference if you stand up for what you believe in.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jessica Schechter.
Jessica is an award-winning director, actor, performer, and producer in New York City. She has an MFA in Directing from the Actors Studio Drama School, and a bachelor’s degree in Educational Theatre from NYU. Jessica is a certified theater teacher in New York State and has been acting, directing, and running drama programs for over 15 years. She is a director member of the renowned Actors Studio Playwrights-Directors unit and has worked with Tony and Emmy award-winning actors and directors. Jessica is currently producing and acting in the award-winning hit web series “Soon By You”, and is an acclaimed speaker, improviser, and stand-up comedian presenting at conferences and community centers around the country. She is a resident director for the theater company Infinite Variety Productions (IVP) and has most recently directed an immersive theater piece on the groundbreaking work of journalist Nellie Bly called Nellie and the Women of Blackwell.
Thank you so much for joining us again Jessica! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?
When I was in 9th grade, a senior put on the school’s very first theater production: “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Though it was unlikely that a freshman like myself would be cast, I auditioned anyway, as I have always felt connected to Anne. Her story is so powerful and has always resonated with me deeply. After a series of auditions, I was gifted the role of Anne in the show, and my life was never the same.
In that production, I learned that theater is not just about being on stage, memorizing lines, and having the lights shine on you. It’s about telling powerful and important stories. Since then, I have been drawn to the theater that is not just for entertainment’s sake, but the kind of theater that serves a greater purpose. I love to create art that has meaning. My training at the Educational Theatre program at NYU opened my eyes to the world of process drama and theater for social change. My incredible mentors there, at graduate school, and in the professional theater world have modeled for me how transformative this work can be, and have shaped the development of my own vision for bringing powerful, inspirational, and relevant theater to life.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway that you took out of that story?
A few years ago, I directed an original play with IVP called Beyond the Etchings. It was co-written with Bob Staranowicz, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam and based on his letters and experiences in that war. We had the opportunity to present a staged reading of the play at the Women’s Vietnam Memorial in DC. The night before the reading, the cast and creative team visited the memorials. Walking through the monuments dedicated to World War II, Vietnam, and the Korean War at night was an even more powerful experience than we expected; although the memorials are illuminated by spotlights, the shadows remain ever-present. Submerged in that endless sea of names of the men and women who sacrificed so much, I gained a whole new perspective on the story we were about to tell and the harrowing reality that led to the creation of these monuments. We performed the play the next morning. Outside. On Veterans Day. With an audience that included veterans who had lived the truth behind the words. That experience viscerally demonstrated the tremendous impact of this kind of work.
What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Don’t be afraid to start something new. Throughout my life, I’ve found myself in places where I didn’t have many creative outlets or established arts programs and often had to create opportunities myself. I worked hard to build a self-sustaining drama program in my high school which has since grown and blossomed. I have done the same for many community centers, after-school programs, and summer camps. And much of the work I do with IVP delves deeply into the stories of groundbreaking women who have an important place in history as the first women who dared to be different. Just because something doesn’t yet exist, doesn’t mean it can’t exist; it might just mean that you have to be the one to take it from a dream to a reality. Those who say it can’t be done might have failed, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will. Be bold. Take risks. Try something completely different. Because you might just stumble upon something extraordinary.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
At NYU, I took Jason Zanitsch’s “Theory of Creative Drama” course, which opened my mind to an entirely different way of creating and utilizing art. The class taught me that theater wasn’t always about the product, but process, which is so contrary to all the messaging of the commercial theater world. Jason would lead us through these incredible exercises and process dramas where the line between audience and actor blurred, and a “performance” becomes a laboratory where everyone is involved and participates in the narrative. We explored difficult subject matter and explored how theater can open up those topics and allow the participants to engage, to empathize, and to feel in very transformative ways.
There is a tendency in this kind of work to “hit the nail on the head” too hard with the messaging of the work to make sure the audience “gets” it. After one practice performance that I directed in class, Jason gave me some of the most valuable feedback I’ve ever received. He told me, “Don’t lecture, discover”. Those words have changed my entire approach to creating art and telling truthful stories. The ultimate impact of theater comes from allowing the audience the space to process what they’ve just witnessed and empower them to connect with it in their own way.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
I just directed an incredible new immersive theater piece called “Nellie and the Women of Blackwell”. It tells the story of Nellie Bly, one of the first female undercover reporters in the late 1800s, who spent 10 days in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island in an effort to publicize the mistreatment of the female patients there. She wrote an expose on her experience called “10 Days in a Madhouse” which inspired tremendous reform for mental health. In each performance of our show, 16 individuals step into that 19th-century world and go undercover with Nellie into the asylum to bear witness to this moment in history. It is incredibly exciting to bring such a powerful story to life in this fully immersive and palpable way. For this production, we are partnering with the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Women’s Mental Health Shelter, and are donating a portion of the proceeds of the show to help support that organization.
Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
I saw a video on Facebook two and a half years ago about Nellie Bly’s work and immediately sent it to the artistic director of IVP, Ashley Adelman, suggesting that “we should totally do a show about this!” The idea germinated until this past August, when we began collaborating with Wildrence, an immersive theater space downtown, and put forth the idea of creating an experience around female stunt reporters. As we researched further, Nellie Bly’s story really stood out and we felt that her experience at Blackwell needed its own show. Nellie’s courage, vulnerability, and passion is incredibly inspiring and the more we learned about her, the more she became a personal hero of mine. Her advocacy for speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves is such an important value that, even 100 years later, needs more encouragement.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
Shortly after “Nellie and the Women of Blackwell” opened, I received an e-mail from a former student of mine. She wrote, “I attended your play tonight and it was amazing. I started thinking if there is more that I can do to tackle the problems that I feel we face as a whole. I also wanted to tell you how amazing you and the actors were. I know it takes a whole bunch of courage — that I don’t have — to pull this off and you and the other actors did just that. I remember you said in one of our class meets that you come from a family of doctors and lawyers and you felt they expected the same from you. I’m glad that you broke out of that family tradition because you definitely touched me.”
It’s feedback like this that makes me feel that what I’m doing is worthwhile and is making a difference.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
- Support the arts. Go see theater, encourage others to see theater, and support arts programming in schools and communities. If respect is shown for the work we do, it legitimizes it and empowers artists to continue striving to tell stories and make a change.
- Stop being so quick to judge. Let’s create spaces of genuine, open communication rather than echo chambers where we repeat the same opinions.
- Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. In all the big and small ways, know that you can make a difference if you stand up for what you believe in.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
- It will not be easy, but it’s worth it if you keep going. This past year, I engaged in an artistic project that I thought was going to be a career-defining opportunity but ended up being a devasting setback. My identity as a director and artist was called into question and I wanted to quit. But instead, I became determined not to let that experience define me. I could not let that be my last project. I reached out to my mentors and past artistic collaborators, and in conversations with them rediscovered the inspiration that connected me with why I started down this path in the first place. As a result of those re-connections, I was brought on to direct Nellie and the Women of Blackwell which has been such a wonderfully fulfilling experience.
- It’s ok to pivot or change direction. In fact, sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do to make the big discoveries. When I started college, I “knew” that I was destined to be a 2nd-grade teacher…until I started student teaching and discovered it was definitely not for me. Sometimes coming face to face with a reality that is not as you imagined it can be very disheartening. But that can also be the moment to change course and find the thing you really are passionate about. I know I’m glad that I did.
- This is a process. And it takes time. You can’t rush to results. Learning and growing is a process and a rich one at that. Whenever I’ve gotten too results-oriented, I am not as present, and not as in tune with what really needs to get done. Don’t focus on the accolades you may, or may not, receive when you get to “the top”. Focus on climbing each mountain, one step at a time.
- Failure is how you learn, so try, fail, learn, and pick yourself back up to try again. This is the story of every great artist and change-maker. You’ll only be defined by your failures if you let that be the end of your story. Your failures are just a couple of paragraphs in the novel that is your life.
- Don’t compare yourself to other’s success. You are on your own journey. Only you can live it as exquisitely and uniquely as you can. How many times have we all scrolled through social media, only to feel incredibly inadequate about our lives and accomplishments? Everyone is on their own trajectory and will earn their “wins” at different times. Focus on yourself and your work. You will get there exactly when you are supposed to.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve been blessed to have encountered incredible mentors in my life who have helped guide and inspire me. As an educator, I hope to continue that life of mentorship with my students. I would encourage everyone to “pay it forward with mentorship”. Be generous with your advice. Be open to others who are trying to find their way. Help others find their footing just as you were lucky to have people who helped you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
Admiral William H. McRaven gave an incredibly powerful speech at the University of Texas that has changed the way I live my life. He said, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed”. He goes on to explain that an initial small action gives you a small sense of pride. That gives you the momentum to accomplish another thing, and then another. When we want to make big changes in our lives or the lives of others, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by how much there is to do. But if we just focus on one task at a time, we will have the fortitude to face the bigger challenges head-on. I am proud to say that since listening to that speech, I try to make my bed every morning. That one small step helps me to start off the day.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to meet Oprah Winfrey. I grew up watching her and was so moved by her generosity of spirit. Her story is so inspirational and she has brought to life so much awareness and change.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
Facebook: Jessica Schechter
Tickets to Nellie and the Women of Blackwell: https://www.wildrence.com/nellie-and-the-women-of-blackwell