Kimberly Akimbo, Water for Elephants: Jessica Stone Is Making a Big Impression on Broadway | Playbill

Special Features Kimberly Akimbo, Water for Elephants: Jessica Stone Is Making a Big Impression on Broadway

Last season, she made her Broadway directorial debut. Now she has two shows running simultaneously.

Jessica Stone Heather Gershonowitz

Jessica Stone first came to the theatre scene performing in national tours and making her Broadway debut as Frenchy in Grease. The Kimberly Akimbo and Water For Elephants director had long dreamt of performing onstage, spending summer vacations and school holidays visiting her father in New York City, who took her to see “everything he possibly could” on Broadway and beyond.

Stone was exposed from a very early age to highly creative theatre, seeing a production at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club at the age of just seven. She describes being “bit by the bug” after seeing Annie on Broadway. But whether it's experimental theatre or a family friendly musical, both styles of shows clearly proliferate in the director’s artistic vision today, as she tackles works with a keen intellect and a boundless imagination.

From the very beginning of her career, long before two of her shows were on Broadway simultaneously, Stone has been known for both her out-of-the-box ideas, and her courage to continually share them. “When I was 21, I was in a national tour of Bye Bye Birdie that was directed by Gene Saks, and I got into a fight with him about changing the costumes at the telephone hour…we got into a big debate in the hallway, and he said to me, ‘I think you should direct,’” Stone recalls.

Stone admits that, being so young at the time, she didn’t immediately take his advice to heart. But she always proudly demonstrated her commitment to the larger story at hand, even when playing just one character. “As an actor, I was always interested in other characters' journeys, or how the set design illuminated the story, or the costumes,” she says.

In an industry where an innovative idea can be what makes or breaks a project, and where input from women in particular is not always trusted, Stone has never backed down from pushing the boundaries. “I think people tend to not trust newness. They just want what they know,” she says, noting the additional barriers that women face creatively. “All genders experience it, but I think women experience it a lot."

Jessica Stone Heather Gershonowitz

Despite encountering pushback—even once being told a project was “too big” for her to handle—Stone has refused to shrink (she once even staged a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with an all-male cast).

When asked how she has overcome all those obstacles of doubt, her intuition and confidence rings clear in her reply. “There’s no handbook…just with really hard work, a little bit of faith, a little bit of humor, and a little bit of luck,” she shares.

Last year, Stone earned a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway directorial debut with Kimberly Akimbo, which has continued to wow audiences with its imaginative helming (most notably with an ice skating scene where the cast really skates onstage.) This season, she’s taking on an even bigger, bolder project, with the musical adaptation of Water for Elephants, which will feature circus arts, puppetry, a train, and yes—a life-sized elephant.

Though Stone emphasizes that the goal with Water for Elephants is not just to dazzle audiences with spectacle, but also to capture them with the humanity of the story. “The goal is to tell a story about what it means to lose everything,” says Stone, describing the musical as somewhat of a memory play. 

Set during the Great Depression, Water for Elephants follows a man named Jacob (plays by Grant Gustin) who runs away from his life after a family tragedy, only to find himself with a traveling circus. The work alternates between the present day and the past, as his elder self looks back on his wild youth.

“The idea of this man’s favorite memories being illuminated by the circus, that really cracked the code for me,” says Stone, describing the universal feelings Jacob experiences are perfectly illustrated against the backdrop of circus arts. “What did it feel like when he fell in love for the first time? What did it feel like when he was exposed to the work required for raising a tent?"

Stone remarks that one of the defining characteristics of circus arts is fragility, and how performing in a way that challenges the laws of gravity and safety requires both vulnerability and strength. “That spirit of storytelling has been really fertile,” she says.

Cast of Water for Elephants Sophy Holland

In a theatrical era where an increasing number of film-to-stage adaptions are being produced, Stone assures that the Water for Elephants musical was born from the genius of the acclaimed novel. “While the movie is a really wonderful version of the story, the source material for the musical is the novel,” she states. “What’s amazing about the book is all the historic details. And the score is really reflective of the different music that a traveling circus may have heard as they traveled throughout the country." The musical features a book by Rick Elice, and songs by PigPen Theatre Co.

With Water for Elephants currently in previews and opening at the Imperial Theatre March 21, fans of the novel and film can be assured that Stone is the perfect fit for capturing both the awe-inspiring vision and the emotional depth of the story. 

“The kind of reckless abandon that our entire company of storytellers use is so infectious,” she says. “I think Broadway often tries to bring circus into the fold, and it’s hard. They're two very distinct art forms. They share some territory, but it's a very different process for actors, dancers, singers than it is for circus artists … But I am really, really proud that this is a company of people that has become one. We don't just have singers and actors in one lane, and circus artists in another. We have circus artists who are singing. We have actors on trapezes. Everybody has learned a skill outside of their lane in this show, and it's given a sense of grace and humility to the entire experience.”

Stone attests that the ambition of Water for Elephants was born out of a sense of creative freedom, a willingness to experiment. “From day one, [our producers] were just really interested in new voices, and they were not scared to bring them on,” says Stone. She recalled back to that moment when her ambition had been dismissed, and the wisdom that came from her refusal to dream smaller. “You can be hired and fired for the same voice and for the same talent … And so, the person who said ‘it's too big for her,’ we were never going to make a great story together.”

Below, see Stone discuss the importance of owning your voice as an artist in a roundtable discussion with choreographer Camille A. Brown, actor Amber Iman, and playwright Heidi Schreck (who she's directed before).

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