Actor, director and faculty member Jacqueline Thompson continues to wow crowds

Jacqueline Thompson in front of mural in the Grove

The assistant professor of theater looks back on a year packed with key roles on stage and off as she helps lead a relatively young department at UMSL. She’s pictured here in front of a mural of her face that still can be seen along St. Louis’ Manchester Avenue in the Grove neighborhood, where she starred in a 2013 Shakespeare in the Streets production. (Photos by August Jennewein)

The last 12 months are a bit of a blur for Jacqueline Thompson – mostly in a good way. As she attempts to recall a few of the high points from this especially busy period of her life, the University of Missouri–St. Louis assistant professor of theater is all smiles.

Starring in a local Super Bowl commercial in February certainly stands out. Then there was her leading role in a recent New Jewish Theatre production around the same time. And in March she directed a whole host of students and community members in UMSL’s presentation of the musical “The Wiz,” which was no small feat for anyone involved.

“I’m used to running myself ragged, but for them – having to balance school and rehearsal six days a week and jobs and family – it’s a huge sacrifice,” says Thompson, who joined the university’s theater faculty in 2012. “But I think it also teaches them the discipline and helps them make some big decisions about what they really want to do with their life.”

While Thompson admits that sufficient sleep has been hard to fit into her schedule of late, 2016-17 has also stretched her in the best of ways as an actor and director – and made her even more passionate about her role at UMSL, where her central aim is to train students for the rigors of the professional theater world.

“We’re a young department and a fresh department, and I think we have been unapologetically that, exposing our students to a lot of newer playwrights and work,” she says. “I’m excited about [department chair] Felia Davenport’s vision and fearlessness. We try not to simply conform to the norm or what’s typically done in college theater or in the area, and I think that has been the momentum to keep us going.”

Along with pouring energy into helping her students grow both in the classroom and on stage, Thompson has been doing a lot of growing herself.

“‘Intimate Apparel’ was a very dear project to me,” she says of the New Jewish Theatre play in which she portrayed Esther, a seamstress living in Harlem in 1905. “The character is close to my age, and it called you to be extremely vulnerable and honest. I had to allow myself to connect with that character and be transparent and open in front of the audience every night. And it’s an intense emotional piece, so that was challenging.”

The Super Bowl public-safety-announcement gig was a big deal for Thompson as well – in part because she had once worked as a drug- and alcohol-prevention specialist for NCADA, which teaches young people to resist pressures related to drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

“It was a complete full-circle moment when I actually booked that,” she says. “Not only did I have a stake in the work that the organization does, they had called in people from Chicago and St. Louis, so it was a big pool of actors. That was a personal moment for me.”

Equally critical this past year have been Thompson’s outreach-oriented efforts, ranging from working with local military veterans to put on “The Telling Project” in June 2016 to directing Civic Arts Company’s inaugural production, “Race,” a one-act play based on Studs Terkel’s book of the same name.

Each show around the St. Louis region – whether it’s at the Missouri History Museum or a local school – includes a talkback session with the audience, fostering “very transparent conversations about race in St. Louis.”

“Civic Arts is a new organization, and I hope they continue to get funding and be able to do these things,” she says. “We went to Ladue High School right around the time they were having some racial issues right after the [U.S. presidential] election, we went to Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, and those school visits are still going on.”

Not every one of her projects has been so serious.

In December, Thompson morphed into the Ghost of Christmas Past every Tuesday through Sunday during the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ rendition of “A Christmas Carol,” the biggest-selling show in Rep history.

“That was something really different for me,” Thompson says. “I do a lot of social-justice work in theater, so it was a new part of the repertoire to float out of an armoire every night. And it was a whole St. Louis-based company too, so to just to be on stage with other people from our community was pretty rewarding.”

Although she is hoping for a slightly more sustainable pace as she balances her teaching and directing at UMSL and her professional work in the field over the next 12 months, it doesn’t seem like she’ll be slowing down too much anytime soon.

Next week she’ll be starring as one half of Upstream Theater’s two-person show “A Human Being Died That Night” at the Kranzberg Arts Center in Grand Center. It runs through May 28.

The UMSL Experience

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