Jennifer Bielstein has loved the stage since her high school days back in Texas. It was there that she really started her career, behind the scenes and backstage. She never left the theater, moving to Chicago and working for Steppenwolf and Writers Theatre before moving to Louisville nine years ago to assume the helm as the managing director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. It’s her training in team dynamics, from early play productions, that helps her in her busy job, juggling everything from play production, procurement and all operations of the facility. Plus, she gets to see all the plays, which one might argue is the best part of her job.
How long have you been involved in theater? Is it something you have always had an interest in?
I’ve enjoyed theater, dance and music since I was very young, but really committed to theater during high school in Houston. I fell in love with the collaboration that is theater: we come together as a team to create a play. It takes many voices and skills. What I value most about theater is its power to impact lives: theater can be cathartic where you learn about yourself, theater can be educational where you learn about others and theater can be simply entertaining allowing you to escape. Theater definitely increases empathy and leads to a better world.
Is there truly something for everyone at Actors? How do you promote each show when there are different audiences for every production?
The work we do encompasses a range of styles and content. We encourage anyone to come to any play, as you can learn other people’s stories. We deliver a range of programming with our annual shows, Dracula and A Christmas Carol, comedies, dramas and musicals in our mainstage season, and a variety of world premieres in the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
We promote each show to people who have attended Actors Theatre previously, but more importantly, we identify potential audiences we can introduce to the theater because of the specific production. Then we use direct mail, advertising, promotions, email and a great deal of social media to get them to Actors.
Are you able to sit down and enjoy every show that is produced at Actors Theatre?
Absolutely! It is one of the best parts of my job. It’s a little challenging on the opening night of each show, because I’m focused on hosting our guests for that evening, but each show runs at least three weeks with performances Tuesday through Sunday, so there are plenty of opportunities.
What is the biggest misconception about Actors Theatre and about your job in particular?
There is a general lack of understanding of what a handmade art form we produce, as we create every production from the ground up to deliver a unique production built by and for this community. It requires 100+ people to bring each show to fruition, whether those are actors, directors, designers, playwrights, artisans building the sets, costumes or props, technicians creating the lighting and sound effects, crew making all of it work together and more! This doesn’t even encompass the important work of the support staff who are selling the tickets, ensuring you get to your seats, maintaining our facilities, promoting the show …
With my job in particular, I would guess the biggest misconception is that people do not realize the complexity of what we do and what I am responsible for in partnership with Les Waters, the artistic director at Actors Theatre. In addition to creating 20+ plays each season, we run a 364,000-square-foot physical plant, including a seven-story parking garage; we publish two books annually, we run a robust education program working primarily with middle school and high school students, we run a highly successful training program for early-career professionals generating talent for the field of theater, we manage rental tenants in our properties, as well as maintain artist housing in other properties, we develop amazing key business partnerships, such as what we have with Chef Edward Lee of MilkWood (located downstairs), we work with a large team of local staff and also hire many from across the country, and we are lucky to work with more than 1,000 volunteers.
What is the best play you have ever seen? (And it doesn’t have to be at Actors.)
This is an impossible question for me, as there are so many over so much time. I’m delighted when I feel a deep emotion, when I’m surprised by an unexpected plot turn, or when I experience an ingenious staging of a piece. One of the most visceral moments in very recent memory at Actors Theatre was in the second act of Seven Guitars by August Wilson. There was an incredible scene that was a combination of brilliant writing, directing, design and acting, in which one of the characters generously gives of herself to help another recover from a potentially violent moment in time. Absolutely riveting
Who is your favorite celebrity that you have met?
Gary Sinise. On my first day of work at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, I walked into the theater and he immediately said, “Who is this?!” I was introduced and he gave me a huge hug, practically lifting me off of the floor, and said, “Welcome to the family.”
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
During the weekdays, I’m usually booked in back-to-back meetings during typical business hours, punctuated by a lunch or coffee with a donor or stakeholder. Weekday evenings and weekends are also spent tackling bigger projects and responding to emails. Each week contains three to five evenings of receptions, dinners or events representing Actors Theatre with various constituents in the community, or in support of other arts organizations or nonprofits. Because Actors Theatre is important nationally in the field of theater, I regularly travel for work conferences or meetings to ensure we are playing a leading role in issues important to our field. I also make time to work on projects to unite our sector to leverage our collective strength on both a local and national basis.
Who are your mentors and what advice do you treasure?
Tim Evans, who hired me at Steppenwolf Theatre, is the person I credit the most as a mentor—as someone who believed in me, gave me great opportunities, helped redirect me as needed and still is a sounding board and terrific source of support.
I’ve also been particularly struck by the amazing women I’ve met in Louisville and all I have learned from them and all that I continue to learn from them. There are men in that mix, too, but it is notable how women reach out to women in this community.
Fill in the blank. You’ll never see me without my ___________.
Vaseline lip gloss
Where can we find you hanging out around town?
Actors Theatre, other arts and cultural organizations, live music venues and with friends
What’s your bucket list travel destination?
I have a spreadsheet with many! Seeing the country and the world are important to me. Top of the list right now are Singapore, Austria and Montana.
Night owl or early bird? What do you do during that quiet time?
Night owl, without a doubt. Read, watch a mindless TV show or movie, organize the house …
Tell us some of your favorite local restaurants.
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
Lightning round! Give us your:
Candy or junk food splurge: Fritos
Guilty pleasure song: “Come Get it Bae,” by Pharrell Williams
Tearjerker movie pick: There are so many!
Standby nail polish color: Mostly au naturel, but a sheer/clear pink if needed
Favorite cocktail: Red wine
Cartoon alter-ego: I have no idea, though I asked my husband, and he said Lisa Simpson.
What are three of your favorite things right now?
Running in Creason Park
My iPod Shuffle
Wild-caught salmon from Kingsley’s, cooked on the grill
Thank you, Jennifer! And thank you to our talented FACES photographer, Adele Reding. See more of her portfolio here.