Jen Bender has to be the busiest woman in showbiz–her work on one of the biggest shows on Broadway, as one of the leaders of an inspiring Arts Education outreach program in South Africa, and as a regular volunteer herself makes me feel like I’m running in place while she leaves me in the dust.
Jen Bender is the Resident Director of Broadway’s The Lion King and the Artistic Director of Broadway in South Africa. She was the Assistant Director of Avenue Q (Broadway and Las Vegas), The Wedding Singer, and the revival of Steel Magnolias. Regional: Godspell (St. Louis Muny). She has taught theatre students of all ages at The Broadway Experience, Camp Broadway, The Artist’s Crossing, and the BFA program at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She is one of the founders of the New York Musical Theatre Festival and a graduate of the theatre program at Northwestern University. She is the Artistic Director of Broadway in South Africa, a non-profit that brings professional artists to South Africa to teach and perform. www.broadwayinsouthafrica.org
Broadway in South Africa aims to develop a cross-cultural exchange between youth who are in need and artists who seek to use their talents for change. The project is comprised of professional artists who believe that, through performance and outreach, art can impact the development of youth throughout the world.
What possessed you? It’s not like you weren’t already busy and up to your eyeballs with creative projects. There must have been easier things to start—why this?
Sean Bradford, one of the cast members in The Lion King, told me he was making a Broadway version of the Cape Town Project he had started in college at Northwestern (coincidentally, my alma mater, too) and asked if I would direct a benefit concert for them. I said that not only would I direct the concert but I wanted to be part of the whole organization. So I became the Artistic Director.
Why South Africa specifically? What called the group there?
Northwestern has an a cappella group called Thunk and they were traveling all over the world performing and someone recommended they go to Cape Town. Four of our co-founders were in the group at that time. They went for the first time in 2004 and after that there was no question that they would keep going back there.
What obstacles along the way almost stopped you?
Raising money! There has been an outpouring of support from other artists, organizations, friends—but financial support is much harder to come by. It’s our greatest obstacle and it’s even harder because we’re a relatively new organization. So if you’re reading this, go to our website and donate! (link here)
When pulling it all together, did family and friends support you or think you were nuts?
All of our friends and families have supported us. I suppose after telling your family that you’re moving to New York to work on Broadway musicals, then starting an organization to teach children in Africa doesn’t seem so crazy.
Any advice for others wanting to create a service organization or charitable effort?
When we started, everyone we talked to at other non-profits said, “It’s great that you’re so passionate, but you have no idea what you’re getting into.” And they were right. But if you have that kind of passion, that feeling that you just HAVE to do this because it’s what you were meant to do, then by all means do it. Change the world!
How do others get involved, and can I be a part if I am not a performer/creative person?
We have a participate link on our website with lots of options. Of course the most helpful thing is for people to make a donation. $20 from everyone reading this would be incredible! We are always looking for volunteers to donate both time and resources. Digital media is also a huge influence—when people join us on Facebook and Twitter, they can expose us to their friends, who expose us to their friends. Once people know who we are and what we do, they will want to be involved in other ways.
If not this, what? (What service/charity work might you be doing if not Broadway in South Africa?)
If not directing Broadway musicals and doing Broadway in South Africa specifically, I would teach. I teach theatre classes and computer education classes to students of all ages. I hope I am always able to share knowledge and improve people’s lives, in any way I can.
What has been the best reward for the work you do?
Seeing the kids light up when they sing a song we taught them or they read a play they wrote in our playwriting class. As a director, it’s also hearing the songs written for the concert since they are all world-premieres that were written just for that night.
What has been the greatest disappointment along the way?
Just that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done! We all have full-time jobs in addition to running so it’s like working two full-time jobs, but without the income. Thank God for the internet and Skype so I can work on BSA in the wee hours (it’s 3:00am now).
What’s next for Broadway in South Africa?
Our second annual benefit concert at Symphony Space on October 5th, a concert called “Women Who Rock for South Africa” in November, our annual Holiday Party in the lobby of the Minskoff Theatre in December, and our next trip to South Africa on January 10th, 2009. We also perform at events all over New York so check the website for updates. And this is where joining Twitter and Facebook keeps you in the loop!