BY CARY GINELL
Twenty-one-year-old Jessamyn Arnstein is one of many talented young performers on the Ventura County scene who has shown not only skills as an actor and singer, but in other facets of theater as well. Petite and attractive, Jessamyn has a more formidable side that belies her appearance. (She used that to her advantage in a humorous two-minute YouTube video for Three Degrees Off Center Productions called Shit People Say to Short Girls.) In addition to singing in musical comedies, she also has shown considerable dramatic skills, as evidenced in last year’s performance as Jennie Mae in Elite Theatre Company’ acclaimed production of The Diviners. Jessamyn was recently named managing director for YA4Ever, the alumni ensemble for Young Artists Ensemble, so we sat down for a late breakfast a few weeks ago to discuss her early years as a performer and what she is doing now.
VCOS: The first time I saw you was in The Diviners. And as amazing as Michael Beck was in that show, even to be noticed in a show like that, after playing alongside Michael Beck, is something. And I noticed you. You played a complex character that acted on multiple levels. You showed a lot of maturity in that role, which was unusual for someone as young as you. Was it hard to do that role?
JESSAMYN: It was. I hadn’t done a straight play in years. But then, to be working alongside Michael – well, it’s very hard to be noticed next to him because he LIVED that role.
VCOS: How old were you when you started as a performer?
JESSAMYN: Eight years old. I started with a youth company called Showboat Youth Theater. I had watched my sister do musicals as a kid and I kept telling my mom, “I want to do a musical!” And she found this company right around the corner and she said to me, “OK, do you want to do Annie or Grease?” And I said, “Grease.” So I did Grease and I’ve been hooked ever since.
VCOS: How much older than you was your sister?
JESSAMYN: I have two sisters. The one who does musical theater is eight years older than me, and I have another sister who’s a dancer who is eleven years older. I grew up going to all of their rehearsals.
VCOS: How about your parents?
JESSAMYN: My dad is a singer. He used to sing at night clubs in Chicago back in the sixties and seventies. My mom is more of a visual artist but she also has a good musical ear, so it was natural that I would be an artist.
VCOS: Was acting always a goal for you?
JESSAMYN; It’s funny. When I was in middle school, I knew in my mind that I just wanted to do theater as a hobby and that it was not a realistic goal. But as soon as I went on to high school, I was prepared to just go to a normal high school, but then I thought, “No – I need to do performing arts.” At the last minute, I changed my mind and have been pursuing acting ever since.
VCOS: Where did you go to high school?
JESSAMYN: I started at Santa Susana but I lived out in the Valley. In my junior year, they opened the new performing arts high school downtown. At the time, it was called Central Los Angeles High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. Now it’s Ramon C. Cortines Center for the Arts. That opened during my junior year and they were letting in freshmen through juniors. So I immediately went over there and got to be in the first graduating class there and got to open the school.
VCOS: You’ve studied a lot of different things – tap, ballet, singing – is any one of these your favorite?
JESSAMYN: My strength is acting. I’ve been singing the longest, it’s what I really love to do, but my strengths definitely lie in acting. Dancing is more of an extra skill that’s very useful to have.
VCOS: And now where you are going to school?
JESSAMYN: Right now I’m studying theater at CSUN, which includes set design, acting, everything.
VCOS: Do you like challenges?
JESSAMYN: Yes! (laughs) I am bored without a challenge.
VCOS: So what’s your current challenge?
JESSAMYN: My big challenge now is getting my college degree.
VCOS: Tell me about being managing director for YA4Ever.
JESSAMYN; That was an odd one. I ended up doing Rocky Horror Show for YA4Ever. Just out of the blue, my friends were looking for more ensemble members so I offered to be in the ensemble. So I did that show, and somehow, after the show was over, Nick Berke, who was one of the co-founders and managing director, calls me and says, “I’m moving to New York more permanently and I need to give my position to someone else. Would you like to be the managing director?” I said, “Yes??” (laughs)
VCOS: What do you think impressed him about you?
JESSAMYN: I guess I’m just sort of a natural born leader and I showed that a lot during Rocky. Any time a problem arose, I would help him out, and somehow he saw that.
VCOS: So was The Last Five Years your first show as managing director?
JESSAMYN: No. Godspell was my first show as production manager, but he coached me through that. Rent is the first show that I took on as managing director.
VCOS: What’s the difference between production manager and managing director?
JESSAMYN: Managing director is the company. Production manager is show-by-show. I’m not actually production manager for The Last Five Years because that was proposed by Veronica Dunne and Austin Miller. For Rent, I’m the production manager as well as the managing director of the company. I’ve been working on that for a few months now. We’re just starting auditions now. My responsibilities are basically to keep everybody organized. That’s my big thing. I have to email everybody’s schedule, make sure everyone’s on the same page, and I’m also responsible for hiring for the company. So when we’re looking for a lighting designer or a sound designer, I’m the first one who has to go out and search for them.
VCOS: Is this a paid position?
JESSAMYN: Nope! This is ALL out of love. (laughs)
VCOS: Do you see yourself more in a management type role as you go forward?
JESSAMYN: Every actor hopes that their career will end with them being an actor, but I think really the only other job I’d be happy with would be a management position in the arts. Working on Rent, we had people submit online for auditions, and it’s been piquing my interest in the casting area. Casting is different for every show. For Rent, there are four of us on the casting panel: the director, the musical director, myself, and Matthew Kesner, who is the producing director.
VCOS: The First Five Years was a different kind of show, wasn’t it?
JESSAMYN: Yes. Veronica and Austin are two very talented people who proposed the show to us a few months ago and I thought it sounded like a really great idea. The show is really different in that there are only two characters where one of their stories goes forward and the other goes backward. I discovered this musical when I was in high school and thought it was a really cool idea. I didn’t get to see it until I went to the Fringe Festival in 2011 in Edinburgh. It wasn’t a very good production but it definitely made me love the show – just the concept of it, in general. So I’ve always wanted to see it done well. I really think that Veronica and Austin do it wonders.
VCOS: What are your own favorite shows?
JESSAMYN: My favorite show that everyone has heard of is Peter Pan. I did that show in high school, played Peter, and it’s very easy, after playing that role, to see how someone like Cathy Rigby could want to play that role forever. It’s very addicting.
VCOS: Our friend Kris Kyer says the same thing about playing Captain Hook.
JESSAMYN; Kris was my sister’s acting coach when I was little. I remember running around his house when I was little, playing with the giant Christmas tree.
VCOS: It’s still there.
JESSAMYN: Yes, I know (laughs).
VCOS: Do you have a mentor who has really helped you the most in your work?
JESSAMYN: Yes. Brian Robert Harris. He directs a lot in Ventura County. He was also the artistic director at Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. He was actually the one who brought me out to Ventura County. I did a show with him at Class Act Musical Theater and after he directed me in that, he said, “Hey, come out and audition for Brighton Beach Memoirs in Camarillo. So I convinced my parents to drive me out there and I got the role. Ever since then, I’ve just keep getting pulled farther and farther into Ventura County. In Ventura County, I feel like the theater is more of a family. Everyone knows everybody. I do shows and I always seem to know somebody in the show and make friends with other people in the show. It’s a really nice atmosphere to be around.
VCOS: Here’s the “resume question.” Where do you see yourself in five years?
JESSAMYN: Hopefully making money doing what I love. I would really like to have found my way into the union by then – SAG/AFTRA – Either that or running a theater company as my career.
Here’s hoping that Jessamyn becomes more of a permanent fixture on the Ventura County theater scene.