Esteemed director guides Rep Stage

Role: Ellicott City's Jackson Phippin, a stay-at-home father of 8-year-old twin girls, also teaches acting.

October 02, 2003|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ellicott City resident Jackson Phippin, director of Rep Stage's current production of Fool for Love, plays a variety of roles. He is a director with a national reputation, a teacher of acting and directing, and, he says, a "full-time dad."

Phippin and his wife, Denise Koch, a news anchor for WJZ-TV in Baltimore, are the parents of 8 year-old twin daughters, Jo and Meg Phippin. When the girls were 4, Phippin and Koch decided that family circumstances were right for him to stay home and care for the children. At the time, Phippin was heading acting and directing programs at the Catholic University of America in Washington and was engaged as a freelance theater director with gigs throughout the United States

"I was ready for a break. I felt I had taken my work at Catholic as far as I could take it. ... I was ready to get off the train for a while, so it worked out really well. ... I'm happy that I've been home and watching my girls grow up," Phippin said, adding that his jobs now include being "the homework guy, the driver, the helper, the comforter" for the twins.

"The kids think of me as the sort of anchor for all the stuff that they do," he said. "As long as I'm somewhere around, they feel comfortable that they can have fun."

Several years ago, Phippin met Rep Stage's producer and artistic director, Valerie Lash, while they were working on projects for the Howard County Arts Council. Lash said she knew of Phippin's work at Catholic University and at Baltimore's Center Stage, where he served as associate artistic director from 1979 to 1985.

"He's a find," said Lash, who hired Phippin to teach directing and acting classes at Howard Community College.

"[Lash] was very accommodating to my schedule with the girls, sort of creating classes during the time that they were in school," Phippin said.

In January, Phippin directed The Italian Lesson as his first production for Rep Stage. Fool for Love is his second directorial stint for the company. The play, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sam Shepard, opened the theater's season Friday at HCC.

"I really enjoyed his directing style and his hard work and his work ethic and his artistic sensibilities," Lash said.

Phippin's first professional theater experience came as a member of Herbert Blau's experimental theater company, KRAKEN, from 1975 to 1979. Phippin said the troupe's work was edgy, improvisational and aimed at the "deconstruction of classic structures."

"It was all very personally charged. That is to say, the improvisation was driven by questions that we were asking as human beings," he said.

Improvisation is still part of Phippin's directorial style. Before rehearsals began for Fool for Love, Phippin had the actors involved in "a lot of improvisation work," said Jarvis George, who plays Eddie in the show. "For six days, we just did improvisation off of what we had mined out of the text, and he just let us have at it, let us play," George said.

"He allows you enough freedom to work and then he helps you to distill moments and helps you find truth," said Shannon Parks, who plays May.

Phippin was mentor to Parks when she was a student at Catholic University, and this is her first time working with him professionally. "It's the ideal director, ideal circumstance," she said. "It's sort of a full-circle thing for me because he was so influential to my process."

Phippin said he looks for plays to direct where "my heart pounds - something that strikes my emotional center [and] fires off messages to my brain, going: Wow! Aha!"

He admires Shepard's work, he says, for its raw, emotional power and its emphasis on "love, need, desire, hope and identity."

"Fool for Love is about ... how we sense that the little lives that we lead should have more in them, should feel more important, should have a tremendous passion about something every day.

"The theatrical challenges are always tremendous with Shepard. ... I'm always interested in the subject matter. ... It's like a big puzzle. ... The audience has to jump in feet first because it's already warm. ... You jump right into the complications.

"The director's job is to try and represent the script as written by the writer," Phippin said. "I try and be the best audience member I can be for the play."

Phippin said he always sees something of himself in the works that he directs. Shepard's writing, he said, "always sort of somehow has a reference to the family - to the American family. The American family is very interesting to me. I'm in the middle of one."

Rep Stage's production of "Fool for Love" runs through Oct. 12 at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. Information: 410-772-4900.

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