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Climbing that Hill

Local actress enjoying first mainstream success on PTE's stage

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It wasn't really much of a choice for aspiring actress Jenna Hill: complete her second year of teacher training at the University of Winnipeg or make her professional debut at Prairie Theatre Exchange.

Hill is the 24-year-old city performer who has made a favourable first impression as a River Heights teenager sharing her home with one of Sudan's Lost Boys in the PTE production of Social Studies, Trish Cooper's debut full-length comedy that exceeded its single-ticket sales goal by the end of the first weekend.

"I've wondered if I got another show and it conflicted with school what I would do," says the upbeat blond. "I'd probably not finish school. If more opportunities come my way and I didn't finish school, I would be OK with that."

This is a heady time for Hill, a newcomer who's making the most of her big break in mainstream theatre. She has been waiting impatiently since graduating from U of W in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in theatre while watching her older sister Samantha star on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera and sing the musical's title song on the Tony Awards broadcast.

Last season, Hill kept busy with an ensemble part in The Mikado, last April's Gilbert and Sullivan Society production, and portraying a goofy character with a thing for Andrew Dice Clay in the fringe festival show Shakey Must Die. In between she heard PTE artistic director Robert Metcalfe was looking for her.

"Her name came up in a conversation about actors who might make a convincing 16 year old," says Metcalfe, the director of Social Studies. "I had to hunt down her contact information through her sister, Samantha. After seeing about 18 other actors audition, many very good, Jenna came in, read the first audition scene, and Trish and I knew that she was the one."

On stage, Hill has not seemed out of place, sharing the stage with two quality local actresses, Marina Stephenson Kerr and Alix Sobler. Her Sarah comes across as genuine while possessing the required youthful unpredictability that allowed her to make the most of her drunk scene.

Hill was surprised on the weekend by her sister Samantha, who made a quick visit home from Toronto, where she plays the adult Cosette in an open-ended run of Les Miserables. Samantha was at PTE Saturday night to see her kid sister perform.

She recognizes that being in the same business will place her in the shadow of her successful sibling. "I don't feel pressure but I find people compare us," she says. "Samantha figured it out a lot earlier for herself. I was very nervous as a kid. I don't think I sang a solo in front of people until I was in Grade 8."

This week, Hill is looking beyond Social Studies, which ends Sunday, and is auditioning for Rainbow Stage's August production of The Little Mermaid. Her castmates Sobler and Richie Diggs are also going out for the Disney show and the three have been heard rehearsing Mermaid tunes backstage. She laments the end of her PTE run and the return to an actor's main pastime -- looking for their next job.

"I wish I could act full time and not having to worry about having another job," says Hill, who works part time as a server at a sushi restaurant. "It can be unsettling at times but you've got to keep going for it."

-- -- --

At least one Winnipegger read with keen interest this week the news that Broadway's current revival of Pippin has recouped its $8.5-million costs and is now earning a profit.

David Asper is one of the show's producers, having invested what he called a small amount in the Stephen Schwartz musical that first opened in 1972 under the direction of Bob Fosse and ran for five years, winning five Tonys. In the high-risk business of theatre investment, Asper beats the odds in his first foray into commercial theatre. Typically only one out of five Broadway shows makes money.

"It's been an amazing experience and we're all very grateful for the audience support," the University of Manitoba law professor says. "The cast just had a fantastic day in the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York and I know they're looking forward to a busy holiday season at the theatre."

Success on Broadway can be seductive, with its bright lights and glitzy opening-night parties full of stage stars.

"I did get the bug a bit and added Scottsboro Boys to the portfolio," he says. "It's playing in London at the Young Vic, got fantastic reviews and is basically sold out for its limited engagement.

"Given my experience and ongoing interest in racial injustice and wrongful convictions, the show was a natural for me, and as difficult as the message is, it's one that needs to be repeated, whether artistically or otherwise."

There is also another Broadway production he is contemplating.

"My mother used to tell me when I had summer jobs to go straight to the bank with my paycheques, and with these shows eventually I will, but just not now... it's too much fun!"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2013 C7

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