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A common theme among performers, even the most expressive ones, is a secret innate shyness.
Such is the case for Jana Henly.
“My shyness as a kid probably had something to do with the fact that I was an only child for 12 years,” she says. “I’m still quite shy naturally, a fact no one believes.”
Like many performers with a bashful streak, Henly has used performing to connect with people, make friends, and “come out of her shell.”
Her youth was spent singing in church (from the age of 3), singing along with Freddie Mercury records (“I still hear his influence in my singing,” she says), playing piano and writing songs for a make-believe radio station she and her friends created.
“I don’t write songs so much now,” she says, “but I am always looking for a new craft or challenge. I feel like I draw energy from being creative.”
Henly saw her first musical during an elementary school field trip – a production of Oklahoma! at Huntington North High School.
“I was pretty blown away,” she recalls. “I was surprised at how involved I felt in the story, and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to be in a musical during high school. The few shows I saw growing up made a huge impact.”
When she turned 13, she auditioned for a production of Annie at the Huntington Theatre Guild.
“I don’t remember my audition well,” she says, “but I know I sang quietly and felt shy.”
She was cast as an orphan, and although she was initially disappointed not to play the lead, she fell in love with the experience.
“I couldn’t wait to get to rehearsals and basically just loved every single minute of the show” she says. “It made me so excited to do more and more musicals.”
Henly says that experience was part of a natural progression of creativity and performance that she followed throughout her educational and professional career.
“Piano and choir in middle school led to show choir in high school. I knew some older kids who performed at theme parks over their summers in college, so naturally I wanted to do that, too. Once I was hired at a theme park, I knew people who performed on cruise ships, so I wanted to do that too. I thought it was just what a person did, so I did my best to emulate those performers that were getting hired for the things I thought I needed to do.”
She says that working on a ship “is a different world. You’re on this floating hotel that has the same number of people as a high school with about 70 different nationalities. You live, work and play with all the same people.”
Although she says such an environment could be “confining,” she treasured her time onboard. “I’ve sung ‘Defying Gravity’ more times than any one person deserves to,” she says, “saw some amazing places, paid off my student debt, and made some lifelong friends.”
Henly no longer makes a living as a performer; she currently works at an elementary school teaching in the computer lab and proctoring standardized tests.
“Being a teacher is a lot like live theater,” she says. “If what you’ve planned doesn’t fly, you’ve got to come up with another plan in the moment.”
This can be particularly challenging for this self-professed perfectionist, especially when it comes to researching a role. She says her combination of perfectionism and introversion has led her to what she considers “over-researching” her roles.
“I’m very happy to research a role or song into the ground in an effort to be prepared,” says Henly, who learned flawless ventriloquism from scratch to play Sr. Amnesia in last summer’s production of Nunsense at the Pulse Opera House.
However, she says that such a strict adherence to her own internal notions of who her character is and how she should behave can at times be overkill, especially when it comes time to collaborate with directors and actors who may have a different take on things.
“As I get a little older I’m trying to relax a bit,” she says, “and let things form organically with cast mates and the direction that I’m given.”
Nevertheless, she strives for consistency within her own performances.
“I’m not the best singer or actress in the world by any stretch, but I will work hard and do my best, every time, to give them a performance they can count on each time.”
In return, Henly hopes for supportiveness and kindness from her fellow actors onstage.
“I’ve had a chance to perform with some amazingly talented people, some giving and some not,” she says. “I find those people who view the show as a team effort to be a lot more fun to work with.”
In spite of her adherence to research and consistency, Henly has found that her biggest challenge as a theater performer has been “looking like an ingénue but singing like a character.”
She says this hasn’t been a bad thing, per se, but she has found it common to audition for a gutsy character role, such as Anita in West Side Story, only to be cast as the sweet soprano Maria.
But she says this is changing.
“Now that I’m a bit older I’m getting to do some more of those character roles I’ve always wanted,” she says. “I’m also experienced enough to anticipate what role I’m most likely to be cast as.” This allows her to spend her time preparing for auditions based on the roles she thinks she is likely to be cast in, rather than the roles she might feel more particularly drawn to.
Her current role as Inga in the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s Young Frankenstein, is a perfect example of the type of ingénue role she is typically cast in. But it has presented some unique challenges in itself.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been unintentionally sexy before,” Henly says. “Inga is so interesting because she is very attractive, but she’s also a local farm girl. It’s interesting for me to try and balance those two aspects of her.”
It has also given her the opportunity to add another yet uncommon skill to her resume: yodeling.
“Working on a new skill brings me so much joy and a sense of accomplishment, but it’s also a huge challenge,” Henly says. “I can tell you I’m going to be nervous opening night when that first yodel comes out of my mouth. ‘Does it sound right? Are people going to love it or hate it?’ We’ll find out!”
She says that the combination of the hilarious script (based on the iconic Mel Brooks film starring Gene Wilder), the cast of highly talented and experienced performers, and the resources backing the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre will make the production a memorable experience for everyone involved, including the audience.
“My favorite thing about all the community theaters around here is that all of these people volunteer their time just because they love it,” she says. “In the professional world of theater, it’s easy to lose sight of that.”