Muddy meets Jennai Cox
Jennai Cox is the founding principal of Dandelion Theatre Arts and artistic director at The Leatherhead Theatre. She's also bringing up seven kids on her own. We caught up with this super mum to chat theatre, musicals and family.
Why theatre? How did you get involved?
From as far back as I can remember, I have always loved the experience of putting together a show. My three younger sisters and I spent four years living in Peru when we were children, and because we did not understand any of the Spanish-speaking television programmes my mum would rent English-language videos for us to watch, many of them musicals. We spent a lot of our time amusing each other by recreating them or making up our own. We also all had dance classes and played the violin. I guess all the seeds were planted then.
What made you start your own theatre group?
It was when I was expecting my seventh child and facing my 40th birthday. I had been helping one of my sisters do much the same thing, but wanted to see if I could do it on my own. It was a sort of ‘now or never moment’. I did not want to look back a few years later and wish I had tried.
What do you enjoy most about it?
There are many aspects that give me great joy. On a grand scale it is the putting on of the shows, which involve all 140 students, twice a year. I absolutely love the entire process, from coming up with an idea to seeing it all come together on show day. It is sublimely fulfilling. Seeing the transformation in each individual child through doing the classes is also hugely rewarding. It is a bit of a cliché to say the performing arts helps children’s confidence, but when you see it repeatedly first hand, you know it is rooted in truth.
What do you see as the benefits of drama and dance for kids?
There are so many, and I really do believe that in an age when children spend so much time living virtually, in front of screens and through social media, that it is the real-time, face-to-face interaction with their peers and teachers that is of most value. Research also suggests that it helps children trust their own ideas, think independently, be more compassionate, and it can improve their memory skills. Because of the games and exercises they will engage in they also become as comfortable working alone as part of a team, and develop an appreciation of art and culture.
What’s the best theatre show you’ve ever seen – professional or amateur.
Gosh, that is a hard one. What does ‘best’ mean? My favourite recent West End experience was Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which is a musical based on the true story of a 16-year-old boy from Sheffield who wanted to wear a dress to his prom. It is so joyful, hopeful, funny and contemporary. The sound-track is brilliant and so unlike what you might regard as typical musical music. It also has a very important message about acceptance, both of yourself and others. I loved it.
And then I also have to mention the musical version of The Railway Children which was staged at The Leatherhead Theatre where I work earlier this year, and included two Dandelion students. It had a beautiful and original music score, a beautifully simple set, fantastic lighting design and very effective direction. It also featured an engine from Leatherhead Miniature Railway, which gave it a real community feel as it invited in a whole new audience, and that is what good theatre should be about.
Any hot tips for great shows we must see?
Jamie, the show I mentioned above, if you can stretch to it. And although I have not seen it yet, Six the Musical, about the wives of Henry VIII, has had universally brilliant reviews. A little further afield, Murder for Two at The Watermill, Berkshire, which I saw two years ago and is performed by two actor-musicians, is phenomenal. I am going to try and see Dear Evan Hansen, over from Broadway, when it opens in London in November. It is also important to support our local theatres though, even if it just to see a film or a live screening – which is a great and economical way to see big London productions. The screening of a 5-star reviewed production of The King and I is on at Leatherhead on January 28.
You’re also the artistic programmer at the Leatherhead Theatre. How did that come about?
Very much by accident. It used to be known as the Thorndike Theatre, where I did drama classes as a teenager when we moved back from Peru in the mid-Eighties. It closed when funding was withdrawn in the late 1990s, and I was, until fairly recently, unaware that it had reopened. We were looking about four years ago for an alternative venue to put on our shows, and paid the theatre a visit. I just happened to mention that if they wanted drama classes, we would be happy to provide them. Six months later, in March 2016, we were called in to discuss this, and agreed to begin Saturday morning classes that September. Office space also arose during the conversation somehow, and as my then business manager, Kerry-Anne Kitson, and I had been looking for a base, we took it.
Once we were in the building regularly, we quickly became aware the theatre was in trouble. It is not publicly funded at all and is run by a charitable trust that pays a huge amount in market-value rent to a private landlord each month. So, we started volunteering to help. By the end of last year, because we were doing so much for the theatre, it was agreed that we would take all the Dandelion classes in-house and become employed by the theatre. It has been a huge learning curve for us both, but we are pretty determined to do all we can to make sure Surrey does not lose another theatre.
Your background is in journalism, is that right? Tell us more…
Yes. I have always loved English and writing, and once I failed to get the A’level results to study English and Drama at university, I took myself off to South Africa for a year, where I have family. While there I did a journalism course at Cape Town University and discovered I really liked reporting. Once back in England I managed to get work experience with The Times newspaper, for which I freelanced for many years after graduating from the London School of Printing in 1994. I had a regular fitness column in The Times for many years and wrote for other publications, but once I was expecting my fifth child I found looking after a large, young family while working, hard, which was when I started exploring other options, beginning with teaching a once-a-week drama class at my then local primary school.
Am I right in thinking you have seven kids of your own?
Yes I do. I have four girls and three boys, ranging from 7 up to 21.
You must be superwoman. How do you find time to do it all?
One of the advantages of having a large family, and being single (as I have been for nearly six years), is your children become very self-sufficient. They quickly learn that if they do not help themselves, and each other, nothing would get done and we would never leave the house. Even the youngest makes his own porridge and they can all operate all the household appliances, which is a huge time-saver. I am also lucky to get a lot out of what I do, so it often doesn’t feel like work, just how I enjoy spending my time.
Are your own kids interested in theatre and dance? Any budding actors or directors?
Until they go to secondary school, all my children have done the performing arts classes, mainly at the beginning because I had no option but to take them to work with me. And having seen the benefits, that is still the case for the youngest. As well as being confident children, it has definitely rubbed off in other positive ways; they have a huge appreciation for the arts, know the words of many musical songs, and all have a creative streak which I am sure the classes helped to nurture. My youngest is definitely the performer of the family. He attended his first rehearsal at four days old, so has grown up with it. When he hears music we have used for a dance routine in a past show, he will remember and start performing the dance, even years later.
As well as offering term-time dance and drama classes on Tuesdays to Fridays, Dandelion Theatre Arts also holds workshops during the school holidays. dandeliontheatrearts.co.uk