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the jens. a conversation.

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

Jenilee Houghton is a director, playwright, choreographer, designer, actor and a heckuva dancer; I should know. That’s how we met. We both Tackled Our Temptations (with a time-step) in another theater company’s production of Nunsense. (She was a much better tap dancer than me.)

I could think of no one more qualified to direct Love/Sick for Parker Players Theater Company. I pestered Houghton for a few months (she was busy choreographing Cabaret at Metropolis in Arlington Heights at the time) before she responded to my charms and said, ‘yes’. Happy Tap Dancing on my part ensued.

The Jen’s (Houghton and McHugh) got the chance to sit and chat. The following is what ensued. Enjoy.

McHugh: You were raised locally, but you spent the majority of your time after graduation in NYC. Tell us about your time there.

Houghton: Well I went to undergrad in Bloomington at Illinois Wesleyan University where I earned my BFA in Theatre Arts (with a dance minor) and then I moved directly to NYC where I earned my MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. My focus was in design at the time, but the program at Tisch puts a heavy emphasis on dramaturgy and directing, and I quickly fell in love with that side of the game just as much. After graduation, I started working the NYC scene, working on shows like the original Broadway production of American Idiot, but at the end of the day, I wanted to be back in Chicago and I wanted to continue exploring every facet of theatre.

McHugh: You’ve mentioned some experience in improv. Like when the bag of flaming hot cheetos exploded accidentally all over the stage during a live performance of Nunsense and you stuffed most of them into your mouth–explaining to me afterwards that your improv background made you do it. Tell me more about your improv experiences.

Houghton: haha, ah yes, the Cheeto incident. Actually, it seems there’s been a lot of accidental food catastrophes on stage that end with me living a Melissa-McCarthy moment. I think I’m horrible at real improv, actually. I have so much respect for those performers and comedians who have mastered that skill, but despite all the classes and workshops, traditional improv has never been my thing. That being said, I do think one of my skills as a performer has always been looking out for my scene partners and being quick on my toes when a near-disaster happens on stage. Should I add this to my special skills section on my resume? haha

McHugh: You’ve also written a play (or two. Or three.) Tell me about how you landed in playwriting.

Houghton: More than a handful now, yeah. I’ve been writing my whole life, but it wasn’t until I met my creative partner, Chris Causer, a few years ago, and he encouraged me to let my voice be heard that I ever sat down and finished a thing; beginning, middle, end; and then we actually started producing the work as well! It’s a magical process to create a piece of theatre from concept through closing, and to do it with someone who knows how to challenge and yes-and the sh*t out of you, well that’s just a rare gift. Stay tuned because our hope is that another one of our original works will be on a stage very soon.

McHugh: If you HAD to commit to working in only one art form, which would it be?

Houghton: Storytelling. Is that cheating? Oh well. I love every aspect of the art of storytelling (aka theatre). It’s why I love the Chicago-area theatre scene. We celebrate artists who DON’T stay in one lane.

McHugh: If you weren’t working in the arts, what would you be?

Houghton: A tree.

McHugh: Cartoon Crush?

Houghton: Every animated fox ever. Hello Robin Hood and Maid Marian!

McHugh: In honor of the late James Lipton: “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?"

Houghton: The rehearsal room is this way.

Thanks for reading. JM

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