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Janisheski Brings Worldly Perspective

Published: December 5, 2016

Jeff Janisheski

Jeff Janisheski has numerous accomplishments to boast about, one being the first American to run the acting department of Australia’s famed National Institute of Dramatic Art. Yet, it’s the little things that he is most proud of.

“My favorite are the small moments where I know I’ve made an impact; I know I have helped an individual go through a breakthrough either in acting or directing,” said Janisheski, the chair for the Department of Theatre Arts at CSULB. “I teach and lead theater schools because I sincerely love the lightbulb moments and I truly believe in helping students have a stronger future and be the next generation of theater artists.”

One such moment came when Janisheski was acting as the associate artistic director for the Classic Stage Company (CSC) in New York City. He, along with CSC artistic director Brian Kulick, saw a need for the arts in the underserved high schools of the city’s four boroughs. Together they arranged for actors who had graduated from Columbia University, Janisheski’s alma mater, to come to the CSC, direct short versions of Shakespeare plays and perform them at local high schools. Those actors would then volunteer as teachers at the schools, giving students a taste of theater they may never have experienced otherwise.

“It started as a dream on paper and, by the time I left, we were serving 10,000 students and got a $25,000 NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant,” he said. “That was probably one of my most memorable moments because I realized we were able to have a massive impact.”

Janisheski wants to continue reaching out to the community while at CSULB. One of his future projects is a way to bring the theater to the community. This endeavor would involve a bus or van, retrofitted to become its own stage upon which to perform classic and contemporary plays throughout Long Beach and Los Angeles.

“This mobile performance unit is something that can not only bring a Shakespeare or a Checkhov to the community,” he said, “but actually engage in their stories and work with them on telling their stories as a way of really threading our work tightly into the community and not just pushing what we think is great.”

This idea of engaging the community has a two-fold affect—not only is it a way for the community to be able to tell its stories, but also a way for Janisheski to discover and nurture new playwrights and plays, which he says is extremely important.

“The life blood of theater is new plays and new playwrights and new voices,” he said. “So my job has been to tap into that life blood and know who is out there, who I need to know about and support.”

When Janisheski was working with the CSC, he began offering theater space to local emerging playwrights and directors in the summers when the theater was not in use. One such director was fellow Columbia graduate, Rachel Chavkin, who has since gone on to become an award-winning director, an accomplishment Janisheski is proud to have had a hand in.

Of course, he brings his international experience to CSULB as well, having taught and directed in Australia, Russia, the United Kingdom and Korea. He also spent three years studying under Kazuo Ohno, the Japanese dancer who became a guru and inspirational figure in the dance form known as Butoh. Because of his varied experiences, Janisheski wants to increase the department’s study abroad options, as well.

“I think that’s an invaluable way of broadening your perspective of what theater can be and how it’s practiced across the world,” he said. “When I went to Japan to train with my teacher, it was the biggest eye opener you can imagine and it completely shifted my perspective of what performance could be and how theater works.”

In addition, Janisheski wants to bring that worldly perspective to students at CSULB through international guest directors, artists, teachers and workshop leaders. He will also keep this in mind when choosing the plays for the 2017-18 seasons.

“I want to make sure that we are presenting not only the greatest American writers but the greatest playwrights from around the world.”

Most important of all to Janisheski, though, is to continue grooming new theater talent in his position as department chair, because they are the future of theater.

“I am having meetings with playwrights and people and young directors so I can get connected to who the local talent is that we can support locally in order to be a generator and a supporter of new work,” he said. “That’s my big mission.”