Jade McLeod: You Oughta Know

Jade McLeod and the company of "Jagged Little Pill." (Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022)

As I reflect on the new year, it’s also a time to look back at how far we’ve come as a community. Not long ago, it was hard to see representation of ourselves in a way that wasn’t tragic or the brunt of tasteless jokes. We still have a ways to go, but in terms of visibility we have made some significant strides. In film, on TV, and in music we can find at least some aspects of most of us that we can identify with. On the stage, one such work is “Jagged Little Pill”. The musical, based on the songs of Alanis Morissette, features a multi-cultural, mixed gender and non-binary cast with a queer plot line that runs through the show. Playing the role of Jo is queer actor Jade McLeod. A talented actor, writer, and singer, McLeod delivers their passionate rendition of Morisette’s powerful, “You Oughta Know” every night. We caught up with McLeod before showtime to learn a little more about their journey. 

So I understand that you’re not from Philadelphia, and in fact that you’re a foreigner! 

I am! All the way from Canada. I think it’s about an 8 hour drive from here to Toronto. This tour is not my first time in the states, but it’s definitely my first time getting to see such a variety of cities. Before this, I’d only been to New York and Florida. This tour, we’ve been to almost every major city so it has been a cool opportunity for me.

What’s been your favorite so far?

Seattle, the Northwest is stunning. But Philly’s hot, it’s high on the list. I came here to do the Thanksgiving parade so I got to dip my toes in and now I get to explore it further. 

Canadians have a reputation for being super nice, is it justified or just tourist hype? And what’s a difference that you’ve noted?

[Laughing] We are definitely polite as a country, for better or for worse. One thing I’m learning here is how to claim my space which is something we don’t usually do. I’m in America surrounded by people in the theater industry who are at the top of their game and they keep reminding me that it’s okay to breathe and exist and to be comfortable taking up space. So that and the coffee is better at home! 

Photo credit: Gaelan Beauty

Tell me a little about growing up in Canada?

I was pretty nomadic in that I started in a small, suburban town about 45 minutes from Toronto, and then we moved to the country, with horses and all. My mom’s an EMT, but she loved horses and got us involved too. My first job was mucking out stalls at a stable, then I ended up going to an arts high school pretty far away, so I had a 1.5 hour bus ride every day! 

Wow, did you come from a theatrical family?

No, I was the only one. My family is full of very, very smart people, they all work in computers, except for my mom the EMT. I was the weirdo who fell in love with the arts. 

Any siblings?

Nope, just me. 

When you were a kid, were you into sports or strictly theater?

I rode horses which is sporty. We rode both English and Western. My mom was into rescuing horses, so we spent a lot of time training them. In fact when I was a kid I wanted to be a vet. 

I used to ride as well. What was your scariest horse experience?

I’ve had a few nasty falls. One where my horse went down going through a jump, which was scary, I was more worried about her than me. I’ve had so many concussions. One of them happened after I started working professionally as an actor; that was a bit of a wake up call. I had several auditions coming up and it made me realize I needed to prioritize my career. It was the end of my daredevil days until the pandemic hit, then I had all the time in the world to injure myself! Now that I’m working again it’s back to trail rides, nice and calm. 

So what made you audition for an arts high school? Were you involved in the arts in middle school?

Not really. Well, when I was in elementary school, the band teacher was also the drama teacher. I was not having the easiest time in school, so when I was in 6th grade, she invited me to join the grade 8 band. It helped me get out of the social situation I was in because it was not good. Being in a band with older people was better; the kids were really nice to me and I learned musicality from there. Eventually she convinced me to audition for the school musical, Aladdin, and I played the genie which was hilarious; from there she talked me into auditioning for the performing arts high school. I was always a very artistic and creative spirit, which is probably why I was having a hard time. I was pretty out there. I played the trumpet so I actually auditioned for the band program. I also joined the choir and took whatever extracurriculars I could. That’s when I first found my people and started figuring it out from there. 

[Laughs] So does playing the trumpet, with the vibrations on the lips, help with singing?

It totally does! I know it sounds insane, but it very much helped. It taught me breath control, it taught me about musicality. I played in a jazz band, so it helped me with… and let’s be clear, I was NOT a great trumpet player! I don’t know how I got there. I was 4th trumpet, always, bottom of the pack. But I learned how to read music and I think it gave me that music brain. I can speak musician now which is quite helpful.  

What was your first “professional” job?

In college I sang in a cover band, but in terms of theater, my first gig was “Mamma Mia” with a small regional production. Later I did it again at an equity house, which was my first equity job and it was also the first show I saw on Broadway!

You have that MM connection!

Yup, in all its silly glory.

How long ago was that first professional job? 

That was right after I graduated in 2017. And I was very lucky, I pretty much didn’t stop working from then on right up until the pandemic. Not something a lot of people get to say. When I started out I was at a lot of smaller theaters, but I think it’s important to point out to students just graduating that taking those small jobs is important. It’s how you learn the craft and how to be in a company. My first big gig was working on a cruise ship in 2018. 

Fun, what were the best and worst parts of that?

I would not be the performer that I am without having done those shows. It’s a really rigorous schedule which taught me a lot about stamina and about vocal care and how to pull people in. Because it’s an environment where people are there to party and you can lose them on a dime. I was one of the leads so I learned a lot about how to own a stage and the energy that goes into doing so. The hardest part? I had just turned 21 and was just trying to figure out how to navigate relationships, and when you’re working and living in the same space, it’s difficult. Also cruise ship culture is not overly welcoming for LGBTQ+ people. You’re interacting with people from all over the world, some from countries where it’s still against the law just to be queer. It’s getting better, but still. 

Well, that’s a perfect segue to asking about your coming out experience.

Yup, it took me a long time to come out. In high school one of my best friends and I used to kiss sometimes and I thought, “That’s normal, that’s just what good friends do, right?” It took me until just before that cruise ship to realize, “Oh, wait, there’s something here, I’m totally gay.” I mean, I was an active part of the LGBTQ community, but as an “ally.” Finally, I realized, “I am so attracted to women, why am I trying to deny it?” 

I came out to friends and partner at the time, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that I began to analyze my relationship with gender, which had always also been a thing… like, I’d never been comfortable in a dress, but I put it on because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re a woman. I’d wear heels and makeup and think, this is supposed to make you feel hot, but I didn’t. It just didn’t feel right. Then Demi Lovato and Sam Smith both came out as non-binary and it got me doing research on it. It had me reflecting on how I exist and how I feel. 

I asked my partner to start using they/them pronouns and slowly but surely I started changing my pronouns on social media and talking about it with my friends. My mom and I are pretty close but I was like eeergh just thinking about coming out to her, but what did it was this “Jagged Little Pill”! When I booked this show and knew they were going to see it, and see all the media attention about my character Jo and their gender identity I knew I had to have the conversation properly. I did and everyone responded, “No problem, we’ll do our best to get it right, but we might slip up with pronouns” and I was like, “That’s totally fine, I don’t expect people who have known me all of my life as a she/her person to suddenly be perfect with they/them. But if you’re willing to try, I’m happy.” 

The funniest was my grandmother; after I came out I said, “So, for the next 15 minutes, you can ask me ANY questions you want, stupid, silly or whatever, I’ll answer them.” She asked me a bunch of questions, and at the end said, “You know, I had a crush on my teacher, she was a woman and you know your grandfather was very effeminate, that’s why I liked him.” [Laughing] And I was like, “What? Is my grandmother coming out to me?!? That’s awesome!” 

Is your character Jo queer?

They are, yes. The way I like to think of it is that Jo doesn’t fit into any box in terms of gender, and to be able to portray that as a non-binary person is thrilling. The roles don’t happen very often in commercial theater, so yeah, this is like the first time I ever saw a character and said, “That’s just me, it’s 100% me.” It’s the first show that I haven’t had to put on a pair of heels. Oh my God, it’s everything! It’s so wonderful and there are a lot of non-binary and trans actors in this company who are just breathtakingly amazing, so talented, and as a group we’re all adding so much light and nuance to this show, our angst and heart and humanity. It’s pretty incredible. 

Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022

Traditional theater tends to have mostly binary characters. As a non-binary person, how do you negotiate that, or is it something you haven’t had to address yet? 

I was lucky in that I came back from the pandemic in the summer of 2021 for a show with a company I’d worked with before. They gave me a direct offer, which meant that I didn’t have to audition. The scariest email I’ve ever had to send was my response that yes, I’d love to do the show, but I want you to know that my pronouns have changed since we last worked together. I’ll sing whatever you want me to sing – it was a review show of pop songs – but I just wanted you to know. We always have a round table at the start of a show and I asked if I could address it with the cast before we started, and they said yes. Stage West Calgary, wonderful people. The next show was “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and I was one of the Divas who are super feminine. For me it was just like doing drag, wearing a sparkly dress and a huge wig. But to answer your question, Jo was the first time I got to walk into an audition and bring my whole identity to the table. It was the most freeing experience of my life. And I don’t think I can do another audition where I don’t do that, whether I’m auditioning for a female, male or NB role. I don’t think I could go back to what I was doing before. Hopefully, people will be on board with that. 

I think your talent will supersede those considerations. Speaking of which, how do you get so much vocal power out of that little body

[Laughing] I don’t know! Sometimes it’s just like a firehose! It’s impossible to control. But thank you, it’s my superpower! I love what I do very dearly. 

Okay, let’s go for some random questions, what movie would you choose to live in? 

“While You Were Sleeping”. I love that movie and the family is so cute, I would love for them to be my family. 

Have you had any paranormal experiences?

Yes! I’m totally witchy! The latest one? My friend Sid and I were staying at an AirBnb in this old southern mansion in Greensboro, NC, and there were definitely ghosts, Sid heard singing and the dog would bark at random things in the corner, but it was a nice ghost. 

Last time you bought someone flowers?

I bought my partner sunflowers not too long ago. 

A time you got lost?

All the time! I got very lost on Christmas Eve. There was a blizzard and we got totally white-outed. We got lost and had to turn around and follow a truck back. We picked up another family that had gone into a ditch, it was demonic! We finally made it to Christmas dinner at 9:30pm. From Toronto to Kingston, Ontario is usually a 2.5 hour ride. It took us 8 hours to get there! 

Yikes! Do you have any hobbies? Collect anything?

Yes, I have a pin collection, I get one from every city when I’m touring. And I love to read. I’ll try to read at least 25 books this year on any and all topics from self-help to sci-fi to biography, usually with a few books at the same time. 

A favorite saying?

I have a lot, I try to do daily positive affirmations and practice gratitude each day. Some of my favorites are “I protect my peace.” When I’m feeling anxious I say, “I stand firmly in my capability” and “I have nothing to prove, only to share.” The biggest one right now is from Heidi Blickenstaff who plays MJ in our show. She always tells me, “Take your space,” which is a good one for me right now. 

Well, thank you for taking your space here in my column! 

“Jagged Little Pill” runs at the Academy of Music from January 3 through January 15. Tickets are available at kimmelculturalcampus.org/.

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