Jan Turnquist Celebrates 28 years with Young Audiences!
Aug 3, 2022
Young Audiences of Massachusetts is over the moon, as this month we get to celebrate theater artist Jan Turnquist! When she isn't busy bringing visitors into the past as the Director of Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott's ancestral home, Jan brings the past to YAMA Audiences.
Jan Turnquist got her start in theater as a child playing pretend with her friends. With advice from her father that 'to be a good teacher, you have to be good at drama,' she studied both theater and education and taught in a high school. Introduced to YAMA through one of our most beloved (now retired) character performers, Marcia Estabrook, Jan has developed several informative and engaging living history programs for Young Audiences. With a passion for history, and sharing the stories of women who made an enormous impact, Jan visits schools and enchants student audiences as prominent figures Louisa May Alcott, Phebe Emerson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
We had a great time connecting with Jan and talking about her experiences performing for YAMA.
What is significant to you about performing for young people?
If you can go into a classroom or an auditorium full of children and connect with them, you get such gifts. You’re trying to give them a gift, but they give so much to the person in front of them. You don't have to work too hard to get their imaginations going. I mean, if you believe in what you're doing, they go right along with you…You come in and bring a time period with you, almost like you're in a huge bubble and that's your time period. I never want it to seem like, ‘Oh, I’ve come into your century, how interesting!’ No, they are coming back in time with me. Children don't blink an eye. They're there with you, they understand the world of pretend, and they're willing to just give it their all. I just think that children give more than I can give them.
What draws you to the historical figures you portray?
I've always loved history and I especially love the woman's perspective, and women who were important in history. I just think it's lopsided to think of history being all about these important men. The men were important, I'm not trying to take a thing away from them, but the women are important too and they often are under-represented.
Lousia May Alcott is a remarkable example of a woman way ahead of her time, she was extremely talented and generous and unexpected on so many levels. I also read a lot about Harriet Beecher Stowe, and I just thought people probably misunderstand almost all the women characters. A lot of people think ‘Oh Louisa, she was a prissy little female author, she wrote some old children’s book,’ and they don't know how amazing and dynamic she was. It’s the same thing with Stowe, people mischaracterize who she was and what she wrote, and I think her story is important. And then I love [United States] revolutionary history, and the fact that there was a woman, Phebe Emerson, living in the house right at the North Bridge. Not much was written about her, so in a way that performance tends to be more about the events, but her perspective is in there as much as I can put it in.
So the personality of these women is a big draw for me, but the times they lived in and the history also draws me, probably almost equally. To be able to do the two together, to talk about a time period in history and what's going on, while portraying these women it's like I’m a kid in a candy store. I just couldn't be happier, I love doing it!
What is your wish for the future of arts education?
My biggest wish is for more people to understand how important it is because children vary. Some children are really happy just sitting at that desk, and they get all the math problems so fast, and they’re the best reader in the class, and they just sail right on through. Some children need other options. Well, I think every child benefits from other options, creative things, artistic things. For some children, it’s essential to help them grow. Their minds work differently, and when they can see something, whether it's music that brings out a wonderful side of them, or any of the other performers…They all do something for some children that can't happen on an ordinary day without some extraordinary program in front of them. I think that people don't always realize that. They think of art as a nice little extra, maybe it's fine, but they don't think of it as an essential thing. I think it’s essential.