UW News

October 9, 2003

From cattle to cattle call: Jenkins’ life is quite a script

The UW School of Drama’s Professional Actor Training Program (PATP) has a new head this fall, but he’s not unfamiliar to the students in the program. Mark Jenkins has been teaching in the drama school and directing productions for more than 10 years. Now he’s stepping into the shoes of former PATP head Steve Pearson, who decided to leave the position to concentrate on teaching and directing.

“I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and it just felt like this was the time to make a change,” Pearson said of his decision to step down. “Letting go of my administrative responsibilities will free up time to focus on some of the creative projects I’ve had on the back burner.”

Pearson made his decision in August, and Jenkins was asked if he would take over. It was a natural progression, given that Jenkins had interviewed for the post at the same time Pearson did, in 1992.

“I told Steve many times over the years that I was so glad I didn’t get the job,” Jenkins said. “It involves many headaches and tough decisions. But Steve used to take me out to coffee and talk to me about issues he was facing. He used me as a sounding board and in the process he mentored me for the job. Now the sense of responsibility I feel is awesome, but I’m really excited about it.”

A three-year graduate program leading to a Master of Fine Arts degree, the PATP is intended for students who aspire to a career in acting. This year, the program was cited by the New York Times as one of the nine most outstanding professional theater programs in the United States, and Pearson auditioned more than 1,000 students for the 10 spots in the first-year class.

Under Pearson, the PATP began working with a Japanese technique originated by Tadashi Suzuki, and Jenkins says that will continue. “The curriculum will stay the same, because we have a really good program. My first task is to do no harm.”

Jenkins’ specialty, however, is the Western system of so-called “Method” acting originated by Constantin Stani- slavsky. Jenkins studied with Lee Strasberg, who is credited with establishing the Stanislavsky Method in this country, and is a lifetime member of the Actors Studio.

Jenkins began his teaching career after compiling a long list of professional roles, but he didn’t get them via a program like the PATP. He grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming and didn’t really discover theater until his undergraduate career in the 1960s at the University of Wyoming.

“I tried out for a part in a play and I didn’t get it,” Jenkins remembered. “But I got a card inviting me to enroll in an acting class. From that moment on I was galvanized. When I began to get roles and saw that people thought I had talent, it just set me on fire with ambition.”

Back on the ranch his ambition wasn’t always greeted with enthusiasm. Jenkins called it a “conversation stopper,” explaining that someone would ask him,

“Well, what are you going to do when you get out of college?”

“I’m going to New York to be an actor.”

(Long pause.) “Oh, those cows are doing pretty well.”

He was undeterred. By his senior year Jenkins had talked the Wyoming drama school director into doing Hamlet so he could play the title role. And after graduation he set off for New York with the ambition of working for the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Incredibly, he reached his goal the following summer. A friend of a friend was helping festival director Joseph Papp with auditions, and let Jenkins know that there were always people who didn’t show up for their appointments. Jenkins took one of those slots and was chosen for a small role in Macbeth, starring James Earl Jones. He wound up working with the Shakespeare festival for two years.

A role in a film (“not a classic”) took Jenkins west, and he then spent nine years in Los Angeles. He appeared on TV shows like Hawaii Five-O and FBI. He even had his own series — Young Dr. Kildare — for one season. He was thrilled to win a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but the part wound up on the cutting room floor.

By the late 1970s, Jenkins was feeling dissatisfied. “Most of the work I was doing was fun to do, it was interesting, but it was really adding up to nothing,” he said. “And I had two children I didn’t want to grow up in Los Angeles.”

Jenkins made the trek north and checked out Seattle. Soon he was living here and winning good parts in all the local theaters. By the late ’80s he was also teaching, and in 1991, he was hired as an adjunct at the UW, helping PATP students learn acting for the camera. From then on he worked more and more often at the University, becoming first a senior lecturer and then an associate professor.

“It turns out that as soon as I started teaching, that actually became more exciting to me than acting,” Jenkins said. “It was something about having more control, seeing a bigger picture than when you’re an actor. I continue to act and I enjoy it, but it’s not like it used to be. What I really like to do now is teach and write.”

What Jenkins would like to do as PATP head is bring a new emphasis on connections with the larger theater world — both regionally and nationally.

“I want to really nurture a more active relationship between us and the theaters in town,” he said. “I want to bring people in to talk to and work with our actors. I want to promote the idea that our actors can work with them.”

Beyond that, Jenkins hopes through fund-raising to be able to bring theater professionals from New York and Los Angeles to the Northwest. “The theater world is so New York and Hollywood-centric and we’re so far from there,” he says. “I’d like these people to see our students in productions and in classes. Our students get seen in a special showcase their senior year, but that’s a one-shot thing. I’d like to build relationships that are more substantial and lasting.”

Drama School Director Sarah Nash Gates said she is thrilled to have Jenkins take over where Pearson left off. “Mark has demonstrated superb leadership qualities and a keen knowledge of contemporary notions in training,” she said. “I know the program and the students will benefit immensely from his expertise.”