19: Jennifer Thorn
co-founder of MOXIE theatre
Jennifer Thorn is the co-founder and associate artistic director of MOXIE Theatre. By means of its production of primarily female playwrights and the special attention given to plays that defy female stereotypes, MOXIE aims to create more diverse and honest images of women for our culture. Jennifer was awarded the Global Leadership Award by the YPO International for directing A Lesson for Life in both San Diego and Florida, which is a workshop to raise awareness about child sexual abuse. Jennifer’s adaptation of Loung Ung’s debut novel, First They Killed My Father, which raised funds for land mine victims in Cambodia, was performed in San Diego in 2003 and has since been translated into several languages. She recently founded San Diego Women United, and will be directing The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson at MOXIE this May-June.
Eilene Beniquez is a Freelance Photographer based in Southern California. She was trained at the Santa Monica College Commercial Photography program and finished in 2013 to start her travels. She specializes in Portraits and Still Photography but have been trained to shoot all types of commercial work. For the last couple of years, "The Womens' Project" has been her passion project and something she holds very close to her.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on January 13, 2017, in Jennifer's San Diego home. Eilene Beniquez photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
JENNIFER: I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about being young, because my daughter is nine right now. It’s hard, and my daughter and I very similar, so it feels a little like preparing to relive that. I grew up in San Diego, in Peñasquitos.
I would say that my experience of being a girl and a daughter was very positive, but that my experience of being a girl in the world, separate from my parents, felt really painful. Like all girls, I became aware that outside of my family, the world didn’t feel like a very friendly place to be a girl, and that was really confusing because it felt like I was feeling like that and other people around me seemed happy and free.
Which I now understand, growing older and talking to other women, isn’t true. We were all freaking out a little bit going “wow, the cards feel a little uneven and stacked against me, but everyone else seems really happy!” The girls around me were really confident. They seemed like they knew what to wear, and how to talk, and how to make friends, and I didn’t. Now I understand that we all felt equally lost. So I think it was dual. My house was really loving and open and safe, but I felt like what my parents were telling me was true about the world, about possibility, didn’t line up with the possibilities that I felt like I saw around me.
SOPHIA: Can you talk a little more specifically about what that painful public experience was?
JENNIFER: I think that the most obvious point that was really difficult for me was dealing with having been molested. I became aware of sex before anyone around me was. But I wasn’t old enough —cause I wasn’t telling— for anyone to be talking to me about those things. I remember trying to talk to a girlfriend, trying to hint that something was happening, and my girlfriend being so confused by the idea. She was like, “You must be confused, because that doesn’t happen.” And I was like, “Am I confused? I don’t think that I’m confused.”
Or the snippets people give you about sex as a kid. People tell you, when two people love each other, and they make love, then you have a baby. So I had that information, but I wasn’t sure exactly what sex was, so was I going to have a baby? Those confusing things.
I remember really distinctly having a moment as a young girl in the bathroom stall listening to the girls in elementary school talking about sex, what they knew, what they didn’t know —none of us had enough information, because supposedly we weren’t old enough to have information. Except for we know that awareness of sexuality, sexual thoughts, begin in elementary school. So we’re given no information, and we’re just making stuff up. So I was like, I could maybe have a baby.
Now when I’m older, it’s so sad that I thought that, because there was no intercourse, and that couldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell my parents, but it wasn’t their fault. It seemed too young to be [talking to me about sex.] What did I need to know? My parents actually confronted me asking if something was happening because it turned out another family member was having the same problem.
SOPHIA: Oh my god.
JENNIFER: She told right away. I’m sure it was a really frightening thing to ask. And I lied at the time and said no but actually only ended up telling them cause I felt bad about lying. But they handled it amazingly, and I went to therapy. And I would say that unfortunately one of the most painful parts is that I feel very separate from myself as a little girl. [My past and present selves] seem like different people to me. I would like to meet her and talk to her now and be like “Honey, oh my god, it’s totally gonna be okay, it’s gonna be fine.” The having told part and figuring things out after telling was probably more painful than the telling.
SOPHIA: How has that impacted the way that you talk to children around that age about sexual education?
JENNIFER: My daughter already knows everything about sex. Not everything! We haven’t talked about oral sex or things like that, do you know what I mean? But yes, the first time she expressed curiosity, I very scientifically explained everything. And she was not blown away. Kids start asking around five or six a lot of the times, and if they’re asking, then I think they’re ready to know.
I definitely have been open in checking in with her about situations that you can get into that feel uncomfortable, and I don’t care if it sounds like the silliest thing and you think you might have misunderstood things and got it wrong or something —I want to know.
But I don’t think that it’s made me more frightened, because I recognize that there’s not really anything [my parents] could have done to stop it happening. Are they just never gonna leave me alone with anyone ever? They certainly didn’t suspect and then leave me in that situation. I guess I mean there’s not really anything more that I can do than to prepare [my daughter] for the world to stop her from ever getting hurt. Or my son. So I feel free from responsibility for making sure nothing bad ever happens. But also because I realize if I could go back in time I wouldn’t change that part of my life.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about your teenage years? I know you went to an all-girls high school.
JENNIFER: I was in public school till I was in junior high. I was struggling in a classroom setting, and I was also really acting out at the time. It was clear to my parents that I was setting myself up for bad things in the future, which I was. I was trying to. So I think they felt that the best thing to do was to put me in a smaller school. So they sent me to a private junior high school, but it was horrible. My mother will even tell you.
I didn’t really get along with most of the students there. I had one incredible teacher, and then I had a teacher who just did not like me at all. It was my fault just as much as it was the other kids’; I was angry and mean, probably. But she decided that a good way to solve the problem was to hold a classroom dialogue where we would sit in a circle and everyone would tell me what their problem was with me but I wasn’t allowed to talk. It was really inappropriate.
That day I got in my mom’s car, and I was like a leaf on a tree, and my mom asked me what happened and I explained it to her. My mother parked her car and blocked the entrance and the exit to the school. You had a one-way road going in and a one-way road going out, so my mom parked her car near the exit so that nobody could leave, and went down [to speak to the teacher/administration.] I don’t know what she said or what happened, but she walked patiently back up the hill, got in the car and was like, “We’re done here.”
JENNIFER: I had to go to all-girls’ school, and I’m really really glad that I did. If I hadn’t gone there, I don’t know if I would have truly learned how to put female friendships before male friendships. It took until my twenties to understand how valuable those were, but removing the male gaze from high school drove me to take on leadership opportunities and things that I wouldn’t taken on if I had felt distracted by boys.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about the experience of creating MOXIE?
JENNIFER: I was supposed to move to New York. I did an internship there and was potentially moving back to work at that theater. I came home for the summer to pack up my stuff and move back, and then 9/11 happened, and the theater was pretty much closed down. It was clear that once they reopened, it wouldn’t be a position that they could afford to have anymore.
So I started working at the San Diego Rep, and I was working with Delicia [Turner Sonnenberg,] who I started MOXIE with. We became good friends and started to slowly work on projects together, along with Jo Anne Glover and Liv Kellgren. We had gotten enough projects under our belt, and decided that we would spend one year studying and educating ourselves on business, nonprofit management, and that sort of stuff. We would take responsibility for the separate sections of founding it, and start a company.
We knew that if we were going to found a company entirely run by women, and if our mission was going to be focused on women, that there was going to be speculation about whether or not we would be able to handle the business end of things and whether or not that business would be successful. So we knew from show one that it had to very clear that we were prepared because we were women. It had to be clear, so we announced a five-show season to begin with.
JENNIFER: And we had money to begin with. So that there was no doubt that we were here, we were ready, and we were a force to be reckoned with. It was a crazy lot of work, but that first year was really successful right away and it had the effect that we wanted. And we never took a break. From that first season, we’ve been producing almost year-round now for the last twelve years.
SOPHIA: In the piece you wrote for One Billion Rising San Diego, you said, “I want to remake the world so that my daughter, who came fast upon the heels of our company, would see herself as powerful, and where my son, who came later, would see that the strength of women didn’t have to come at the expense of his own strength.” Can you talk about theater as a medium uniquely suited to do that?
JENNIFER: Well I think first I would say that so far, theater has not been an easy place for women to do anything. Especially women with children. The system is not set up for us to be successful, and it is not set up for us to be taken seriously, even if we are able to produce at the same level as men. Just by having children, by letting people know they exist, I think we’re taken less seriously. In our founding years, we were asked continually if we produced children’s theater. And that wasn’t necessarily because people saw our kids, it was just an assumption that our interest in art must be connected to children. Which is never a question that guys starting a theater company would be asked. But the fact that we were doing it, we were successful, and women were coming through our doors in itself proves that our mission is possible. I don’t feel like theater is yet a place where having a family is embraced. But I think we’re making progress towards that.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about any of the moments in which you feel like you’re making ground?
JENNIFER: Usually they’re really personal moments with artists, directors, actresses, or more often, playwrights, in which an artist expresses gratitude to us for our faith in their work and our dedication to making sure that people connect their work to their name. We always say that MOXIE is a playwrights’ theater, and I think a lot of theaters would say, “Oh all theaters are playwrights’ theaters.” But when we talk about a show and how it fulfills our mission, we talk about how the woman who wrote it fulfills our mission, because I think it’s really easy for us, especially with female artists, to disconnect the artist from their work. Their play is like a thing we talk about without mentioning their name. And so we’ve really made an effort to make sure that the press and the people who come in our doors are able to say, “You should see Blue Door by Tanya Barfield.” That’s who it’s by. It doesn’t exist without her. We didn’t write it, and a lot of people who see theater don’t even know that.
SOPHIA: Could you speak more about theatre as an industry being difficult for women?
JENNIFER: I will confess that I’m not a good person to ask, because I’ve created a universe for myself in which to make art…because I only have so much time. And so with the time that I have, I want to work with who I want to work with, on what I want to work on, and I’m not interested in asking for somebody else to give me permission to do that.
And like I said in the beginning, I’ve been sensitive since I was a kid. I’m not interested in becoming good at rejection. I used to feel like I needed to toughen up, but I’m not sure that that’s conducive to me making art. So if my hard skin is going to get broken every time someone says no to me…I’m just not going to let people say no to me!
I will say that I think theater, that storytelling, is something that women are often drawn to as a whole. It feels like theater is naturally feminine in that way. Community and storytelling are things that are really important to making good art, and I think women who build art tend to be naturally drawn to building community.
SOPHIA: You’ve acted in shows as well as directed. What’s been difficult and/or rewarding about dealing so intimately with women who are different than you —in parts that you play, directing other women, or creating stories about them?
JENNIFER: I would say first and foremost I consider myself a director. I think I’m a far better director than I am an actress. I feel really sad for anybody who doesn’t get to spend their time with as many amazing women as I do, and some of those women are fictional, and some of those women are playwrights. I often, and this is totally not an exaggeration, forget that men write plays. Every once in awhile, a man will write to me and say “There’s this really strong female character in my play and I know that you don’t produce men, but you should make an exception for my play.” And I always get so offended. I should make an exception for your play? People will say to me, “You know this play by so and so?” And I’ll say, “I don’t know who he is.” [They respond:] “You don’t know who he is? He’s getting produced all over right now.” And I’ll say “Oh...I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about him. I don’t know anything about any men writing plays. Only women.”
JENNIFER: I have a wealth of knowledge about women who are writing. Working in an environment surrounded by women, playing characters that are written by women, specifically the types of shows that we choose to produce…really just vicious or brave or really fleshed out complex characters…I feel blessed for the opportunity. Playing those characters is exciting, but the most thrilling process for me is getting to know the work of a playwright. And as I read the play again and again as I’m preparing to direct her work, I get a sense of her voice and feel like I know her even if I don’t know her. [Directing a show] feels like a little like giving birth every time, and you feel so proud, and getting to go back and watch that with an audience…
I always have to remind myself that most women do not have a hundred women at their fingertips who they could reach out to at any time for personal or artistic or business reasons. And particularly post-election when I was feeling really distraught, and decided that I wanted to do some political organizing, I put that invitation out and hundred people showed up. It made me realize that this is the universe MOXIE has connected me to. Without this [company] it would never have happened. So I feel really lucky. I feel like I get to live a lot of lives inside my one life, and that’s pretty cool.
SOPHIA: How did becoming a mother shape your experience of womanhood?
JENNIFER: I knew I would have kids, but not because I was particularly baby crazy or maternal. If you asked me before I had [my daughter] Penelope, I would have told you that I would suck being pregnant. I’ve always said I’ve sucked at being a girl. Menstrual cycles and everything…I’m thirty-six years old and you’d think that I would have this stuff figured out by now, but it’s like every time I have my period I’m like, “What’s this? What am I supposed to do?” My husband’s like, “Haven’t you figured this out by now?” No, it’s brand-new. I’m always caught off guard by it. Carrying spare pants with me now because I’m like, I can’t remember!
Anyway, I assumed that I would hate it. And I found when I was pregnant with Penny that I never felt better. Ever. I felt so powerful and so beautiful. I never loved my body more. I never felt healthier. The end got uncomfortable, but everybody warned my husband, like “Ugh, watch out. Just prepare yourself.” And it was like, birds were singing when I woke up every day! And he was like, “This is great, you should be pregnant all the time!” And I felt like from the moment I was pregnant, I knew who Penny was. I had a strong sense of her personality when she was inside of me.
It was a full twelve hour labor. It was challenging, but I loved giving birth. It was rad. It was intense and amazing, and I would totally do that again. I don’t know if I want to have another child in my life because that’s a lot to manage, but labor was incredible. Then when I had [my son] Fox I was like, “I’m not even gonna go to the hospital! This is awesome!” And I was really lucky that my labor made it possible to stay at home. Not everyone can do that. I had a pool put in in our living room, and we had him in our living room, and that was amazing. That was an incredible day.
I had no suspicion that pregnancy or motherhood or childbirth would come naturally to me at all, and I’ve been delighted to find that I didn’t have to become some other kind of person to be good at any of those things. That my kids don’t expect me to be like their friend’s mom. Every once in a while I freak out and project my own insecurities on them and I assume that they wish I were different. I say, “I know it’s hard. Other mommies are home most nights and I’m in rehearsal, and I work a lot, and I’m not really good at this or that or whatever,” and without hesitation —both of them, always— like, “I love going to the theater with you, you’re perfect!” And I’m like, “Thank God! Cause I don’t know how else to be!” I don’t think...I couldn’t be any other way without being really unhappy.
I will also say that it makes me brave. I am way less fearful as an artist because what’s at stake by failing and making bad art is...what is at stake? At the end of the day it’s a horrible rehearsal, people boo the show, I come home and my kids and husband are still here, so it has freed me up to just go! Let’s just do it! Let’s do this big show, and we probably don’t have enough money to do it at all, with all these people and moving parts, and…yeah. I’ll figure it out. It’ll be fine.
SOPHIA: I know you were very active in the election and viewed it with your daughter very much in mind. You also organized with other women afterwards. Can you talk about how that’s been for you?
JENNIFER: I think I felt very much like a little girl…like my younger self, on election night. I felt like MOXIE and the universe I was in, and my mother and I going down to Pantsuit Nation, having our pictures taken together after voting, and our Hillary shirts...I felt like, “Aha! My time has come! And my daughter is going to grow up and it’s going to be less confusing to her because of this.”
I have this awesome neighbor, Phyllis, and I went down to watch election results at her house, and I left before anything was finalized and came home and cried. And Matt, my husband, who’s English, he knew, and he wasn’t shocked that I cried. I think he was shocked that I wasn’t angry, but…I told him that I felt like a little girl. I had thought that I understood how the world worked, and then somebody patted me on the head and said, “We were never going to let you win. We were just going to let you play, but you can’t win.” I’m still grappling with my feelings about that. The last couple months have really been confusing. My home life is fantastic and my children and my marriage are great, but the political environment and then the death of a really close friend, which followed really closely on the heels of that, feels like...I’m still reeling on the heels of that. Like I don’t understand the rules that we’re playing with anymore.
When I feel lost, I make a thing. I organize. So my pseudo-organization which isn’t really even an organization —it’s basically just me being like hey we should all get together. It’s San Diego Women United. There was just a call-out to friends to figure out what we could do, and it turned into a panel of incredible experts who spoke, and then a hundred women, most of whom I didn’t know at all, showed up, and they were like, “When do we meet again?”
I’m certainly not leading it, because I’m politically passionate, but the fact that I am part of running MOXIE means that I always feel I have less time to know what I want to know about politics. But I knew that I knew smart women, and that maybe they would know what to do. So I just asked them all to please come tell me. It’s been wonderful because I realize that a lot of women feel the same way. Half the women during the last couple meetings have been like, “I feel embarrassed,” and that’s part of why I kept that space for women only. Because I feel like the women I knew would be more likely to ask the questions that they really had, to speak without fear of being shamed, and there wouldn’t be men who wanted to dominate the conversation if I just said “No, you can’t bring any men.” So I did. That’s worked so far.
SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
JENNIFER: I think the time for a matriarchy has come. That’s what I really believe. And not because there aren’t incredible examples of men in my life. My father and my husband and my son…oh my god, my son is so cute, I can’t even talk about him without being emotional…If the world were run by them, it would be different. But they would say, “It’s fine if you take over. We’re tired of running things. Have Jen take over.” I really do believe that. I think that we have tried [to have men lead.] We have tried it that way, and we have made some progress, and we have managed to not completely blow shit up yet, but I feel like that’s the direction that we’re heading, and the solution isn’t just to keep trying to find better men. I think it’s time to flip things. And the only way that that’s ever going to happen is if women build each other up and drive our culture in that direction. And the only reason that there isn’t more equality is because [women] are oftentimes the first people to tear each other down and to second-guess and to say “Who do you think you are? How dare you?” And that’s not just some women. I think all women, including myself, are tempted to think that as a first reaction to another woman. But I am prepared to put my sisters first, to cheer them on. And like I said recently, I was talking to a male playwright [who called it] reverse discrimination that I refuse to produce male playwrights. We used to say predominantly female playwrights, but I don’t say that anymore. And I said “Okay, sure. I discriminate. Openly, against male playwrights, because somebody has to, and I’m prepared to do that, politically, with women. And I don’t need to apologize for that anymore. [laughs] So yes, I’m ready for the matriarchy.
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