Out actor and director talks life and work during COVID-19

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Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Jahzeer Terrell (front); Justin Jain, Taysha Marie Canales, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, and Bailey Roper (back) in “Shakespeare in Love.” Photo by Mark Garvin

Last month, Justin Jain found himself in the same position as every other theater artist in the country. The out actor and director was midway through a run of “Shakespeare in Love” at People’s Light when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered playhouses throughout the region. No one can say for certain when theaters will be able to resume normal business, but it’s not likely to be any time soon.

Artists impacted by the novel coronavirus have sought ways to express themselves creatively, primarily through the creation of digital content that can be produced while adhering to social distancing recommendations. Jain and fellow actor Jaylene Clark Owens, both associates of the Wilma Theater’s HotHouse acting company, have developed #PoppaPank, a weekly streaming show that builds on their years-long friendship and professional relationship. The program, which is broadcast every Wednesday through Facebook Live, mirrors the backstage antics that Jain and Owen have engaged in while performing together in multiple Philadelphia theatrical productions.

PGN spoke with Jain about creativity in a time of uncertainty, parenting in quarantine and artistic resilience. Some responses have been condensed and edited.

Hi Justin! How are you holding up these days?

I’m hanging in there! My husband and I have been holed up with our daughter, and I’ve lost a lot of theater jobs. I was doing a run of “Shakespeare in Love” at People’s Light that closed early, and I was supposed to start directing “No Child” at the Arden Theatre Company, which was postponed. Luckily, I still am teaching at the University of the Arts, albeit digitally, and the Wilma HotHouse is still meeting and doing some work. I am also doing some online content for various theaters. That’s been a nice escape, but for some people, this time has been really isolated, quiet, lonely and boring. For me, it’s very much stressful and full, and I don’t nearly have any free time to myself.

There is something to be gained from the wonderful explosion of content that’s coming out online. Can you tell me a little bit about #PoppaPank, your project with Jaylene Clark Owens?

Jaylene and I have endeavored to do this online live show, and the origins of that come from early on in our friendship. We had known about each other in the community, but we really started becoming friends in 2016, when we did “An Octoroon” together at the Wilma. We found really quickly that we’re two people who can make each other laugh hysterically — our senses of humor really complement each other, and our chemistry as actors is also really fun. The name #PoppaPank came out because every time I would see Jaylene, she’d have a little flash of pink somewhere on her clothing or as an accessory. Suddenly, I’d say in the room, “there’s a poppa pank!” It just stuck and evolved from there. Our friendship started because we were doing this difficult show — and difficult not because of the process but because of the content, which was really serious and hard — and everybody was moving through the fire together. You needed to find light, levity and joy amidst all this pain and trauma. We found a lot of solace as friends. [Jaylene and I] have done a number of shows together now, and we hang out too. 

Was this kind of online expression of your friendship something that you began developing even before the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think we’re both people who really bring joy to each other. She’s always there to help shake when I’m being too serious about myself, and I’m there to do the same for her. We started doing Instagram stories together way back when, and at a certain point, we started to document them on our Facebook pages. There’s a database of them now, and we call them seasons — season 1, season 2, season 3. They’re just short videos of us being stupid, playing with some filter or being at an event together. It wasn’t until the whole coronavirus and home quarantine came about that we started to think that maybe we could make other people laugh the way we make each other laugh. That was the burst of inspiration.

Community and closeness are such a huge part of the theater industry. Does having something like this, which allows you to be together digitally, make the separation easier?

Oh, absolutely. It’s such a testament to our Philly theater community banding together around this thing. I actually feel more connected with the community at large than I ever have before — checking social media every day and seeing what someone has posted. Even more so, I’m getting emails from different companies and artists just saying “How are you doing?” or “Here’s this fund that’s available for you” or somebody saying, “Can you make this quick three-minute video that I’ll pay you for?” Everyone’s been reaching out more and talking more. A lot of us have to have hard conversations, and the immense amount of compassion, empathy and humanity that people are showing each other has been really wonderful. 

New episodes of #PoppaPank will air on Facebook Live every Wednesday night at 9 p.m., on Theatre Horizon’s Facebook page (facebook.com/theatrehorizon).