Unscripted: Theater Professor Leads Student to USC, South Coast Rep

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Jennifer Franco, Cypress College’s 2012 graduate of the year, said she “might be dead” if she hadn’t come to Cypress and taken a class from theater arts professor Mark Majarian in her first semester.

“Without getting too emotional and talk about the past, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning and be happy with what I’m doing with my life. I wouldn’t be me.”

Franco, who started attending Cypress in her late 20s, had no idea how far she would go academically, let alone what she wanted to study. A Cypress counselor suggested some beginning classes, and she ended up in Majarian’s American Ethnic Theater course.

“I didn’t really know anything about theater at the time,” she admitted.

A few weeks into class, Majarian announced he was searching for a stage manager for the College’s dramatic productions.

“I’m looking down and then this teacher’s like, Jennifer, how about you,” Franco said. “I’m pretty sure in that moment, I was shaking my head no, but the word that came out was, ‘Yes.’”

“It was my first semester and it kind of gave me the chance to meet some new people, see that I could maybe fit in here, and I kind of fell in love with theater. I fell in love with stage managing, and then not only that, it gave me a kind of reason to pursue other things in school.”

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Majarian, who has an equity stage management background, said he saw a “woman warrior” in Franco from the beginning.

“It was a good fit and she needed that collective sense of purpose,” he added. Majarian has been teaching at Cypress for more than 35 years.

Following her graduation from Cypress in 2012, Franco transferred to USC in their Bachelor of Fine Arts program. She graduated May 2016 and is now a stage management intern at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

“It’s nice to sort of pass on and and have your students actually take it to another level,” Majarian said. “I think that’s the greatest thing we have as faculty is when our students innovate beyond us, and I think that Jennifer’s done that.”

Listen to Jennifer and Mark’s story in their own words.

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Jennifer Franco with Mark Majarian and fellow Cypress alum Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds, Kill Me, Deadly) at the College’s spring 2012 commencement.

Read Jennifer and Mark’s Story Here:

MP: We are here with Jennifer Franco and with Mark Majarian, and could I ask each of you to just introduce yourselves briefly?

MM: Mark Majarian. Faculty, Cypress College. Curriculum Chair and currently department chair of Theater Arts. Been here, I don’t know, more than 35 years.

JF: Jennifer Franco, graduated in 2012. Transferred to USC, graduated from USC in May of 2016. Currently working at South Coast Rep as a stage management intern. I’m working for their whole season. It’s awesome.

MP: Jennifer, you’ve described Cypress College as being life-altering if not life-saving. Can you just kind of put that in context?

JF: Okay, well, when I decided to go back to school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I had to go do something, and so I picked Cypress College. I saw the counselor, they told me to take some classes, and I took an American Ethnic Theater class—that’s what it was called at the time—to satisfy requirements. It was one class and you can knock out two requirements, art and diversity, and that was like, going to, you know, make me one step closer to transfer if I was going to do that. I had no idea if I would ever do that at the time.

But I took that class and the teacher was crazy intense, was always biting his thumb, really passionate about what he was saying, and I sat in the front, you know what I mean? And it was really cool. I didn’t really know anything about theater at the time and one day, I don’t know, like three weeks, I think, into class, he was like, I’m looking for a stage manager. Crickets, nobody said a word. You know what I mean? It was just like, it was in the morning, it was like a 9:30 class, no response, and then uh—so I thought class was going to go on and he…and I’m looking down and then this teacher’s like, “Jennifer, how about you? You know, what about you?”

MM: That’s very common in casting. It’s called pre-casting.

JF: You know?

MM: That whole first thing was just an opening, kind of just to, you know, get the drop on everybody and then, you know, you have it pre-casted.

JF: And it was kind of like wow, put me on the spot, right?

MM: That’s Hollywood. Very Hollywood.

JF: And I’m pretty sure in that moment, I was like shaking my head no, but the words that came out was “Yes.” You know what I mean? And it was my first semester and it kind of gave me the chance to meet some new people, see that I could maybe fit in here, and I kind of fell in love with theater. I fell in love with stage managing, and then not only that, it gave me kind of a reason to pursue other things in school. You know, I got involved in clubs, I was in clubs, I did Student Government. Like, Cypress, it basically was the start of like a whole new like, oh my God, you know? A whole new adventure. It was—it kind of helped shape me.

MM: She stepped into stage managing. She was on the treadmill.

JF: It was like—

MM: Show had to open and you’d learned all this—yeah.

JF: I thought that there was nothing for me. You know what I—it really, really is that. Like, I thought—

MM: She was on her journey.

JF: I thought there was nothing for me and then I found this. And it was all because I came to Cypress College, the counselor knew what to tell me, and I just kind of did it. And then, all along the way, you know, I was always encouraged to do other things, everything. I didn’t think I was going to transfer. I didn’t think I was going to get accepted into schools.

MM: Jenn, you always say this, but—

JF: What?

MM: But ultimately, the woman warrior in you—

JF: Right.

MM: Found your quest.

JF: Right. But it—

MM: Found it.

JF: Right, but I had to find it, and I found it here.

MP: Yeah, it’s totally awesome. I want to ask you, Mark, because this is kind of like the Holy Grail of teaching, right? To have a student come in and say, you changed my life. I want you to reflect on that for a minute and just kind of share how that makes you feel, to hear this kind of praise.

MM: Well, I think the theater is a transformative kind of art form. It’s a collective art form, you have to work with people. Strong personalities, a lot of differing points of view create one vision of something. In this case it was—what was our first production together? I don’t even remember.

JF: Three Musketeers.

MM: Three Musketeers, there you are. …To bring to life.

JF (Background): You don’t remember?

MM: She had a woman warr—you have a woman warrior in you and I could see that from the beginning. And that context of discipline coming to bear in a very creative, free-flowing—look at the way she talks, I mean, all over the place—but coming to a kind of distillation of what she feels, was a perfect fit for you as a stage manager. And I have an equity stage manager background, I was getting kind of burnt out doing that by myself without you, so…

[Laughter]

MM: I trained, I trained you to do it and she was pretty soon telling me what to do at rehearsals. Like “Mark, there’s a break.” “I don’t want to take a break”. “Yeah, you gotta take a break.” So, I thought it was great. It’s nice to sort of pass on and have your students actually take it to another level. I think that’s the greatest thing we have as faculty is when our students innovate beyond us, and I think that Jennifer’s done that.

MP: You saw this before she did. Almost a scripting of sorts, you made it happen.

MM: She needed to…it was a good fit and she needed that collective sense of purpose. But also being the social person that she is in a very creative, loving way, it was good for you because it was a good fit. You got to work with people, you could use your persuasive emotional intelligence to bring everybody together, and so… And she’s worked in LA, too, with Urban Theater Movement. She’s been up in LA, in equity waiver production, so that’s really up in…

JF: I did an internship up in CTG (Center Theater Group). I mean, it’s crazy. Spoiler alert, yeah, Mark is still my mentor, my life mentor. You know?

MM: Oh my.

JF: We’ve been doing this for what, since 2009. What year is it? It’s 2017, that’s like eight years. Wow.

MM: Yeah, and then, you know, and she, you know, you created that bridge to Los Angeles for the students, too. You and Alex Alfaro who was with us in our productions. And Luis, Kelly Duarte, are doing, getting their plays produced in LA and you’ve been part of that process. So as our students work into Los Angeles to succeed as artists vocationally, you’re part of that group and you’ve kind of helped them blaze the trail with them, doing productions in LA, too. So that’s good for our students currently. There you go.

MP: Jennifer, what was transfer like and how did your experience at USC kind of dovetail with your experience here?

JF: Well, actually, transferring, graduating, transferring, it was scary because you get comfortable, right? You get comfortable in a place…I was in a place where I knew everybody, I’d cultivated relationships with faculty, staff, students, everybody, you know what I mean? And I kind of liked being where I was. I could just walk in and be like, it’s Jenn op. So it was really, it’s like a safe place for me and I was going to LA, you know what I mean? Leaving everything behind and it was kind of intimidating because again, I was going to be the 30-year-old freshman. I did three years here and I chose to do a BFA program, which was going to be another four years. So like, essentially, that’s like seven years of education just to get this BFA, but it’s what I wanted, and so I knew I had to do it. It was kind of hard in the beginning because it’s like all these people, they had so much more, they were coming out of high school, but they were in school for theater all their life. You know what I mean? I was like, three years for me. It was crazy.

MM: But they had a lot of compliments for you when you started. Come on.

JF: Yeah, yeah. So it was kind of intimidating, but it was also exciting. But USC, I was very fortunate to be in this BFA program because there were many similarities. Like I didn’t just start, go to this big university and end up in a hundred-person classroom where I didn’t get to meet the teacher. I was in this program where we had intimate classrooms and the production manager for the school was our stage management mentor and it was really great. I felt like I was in a good place. I was nurtured there as well. I got to work on many, many productions. It was a very similar format. I don’t know, I loved, I loved being at USC. Football was awesome. I went to every football game, on top of being in rehearsal every night, took a full load. It was, it was really, really great.

They have a great network. It opened up a lot of other, more—more other, who says that?—other possibilities and opportunities for me. We had guest lecturers and guest teachers come from Center Theater Group teaching us about producing theater. I got to work with the company manager of “Bridges of Madison County” when it came to the Ahmanson in LA. I worked with Chalk Red Theater, like different organizations, you know what I mean?

MM: And Oliver Mayer, Oliver Mayer.

JF: Oliver Mayer, who actually is a huge reason—

MM: And a connection.

JF: And a connection, that I met, through Mark, that came here to Cypress, you know.

MM: He’s a professor at the playwright program. He’s a professor in residence as well at USC, and he’s a wonderful playwright himself, and you got to work with him.

JF: And he’s good. Yeah, and I got to work with him.

MM: And we’ve worked with him before at Cypress as a guest artist playwright, so that was a bridge into there as well, that Cypress has been so supportive in the past with, our new play festival every summer. There’s a plug.

JF: Yeah, yeah.

MM: Remember when we did that reading at USC together.

JF: Okay, okay.

MM: So talk about this.

JF: Here’s what’s crazy.

MM: This is a funny anecdote.

JF: This is the best thing.

MM: This is a funny anecdote.

JF: No, this was crazy.

MM: This was payback. Okay. Let’s go to something juicy.

JF: So here’s what’s crazy. So, four years. Went to Cypress, Mark was my mentor, he’s a USC—UCLA!

MM: UCLA Bruin.

JF: Excuse me, he’s a Bruin.

MP: I know, we’re killing him. We’re killing him here.

JF: He’s a Bruin, right.

MM: Let’s mention that.

JF: He got his MFA. It’s huge, he’s a UCLA Bruin, MFA, the whole nine. He’s a very proud Bruin.

MM: Okay.

JF: And I, about to graduate, right? Trojan, senior year, and at USC they always do this playwrights, a playwrights festival, new work festival for their third-year MFA playwriting students. There’s only three in their program. Anyways, they always bring guest directors in, right, and then the students, the stage management students, stage manage the reading and work with this guest director. And it’s like, a two-week process.

MM: Yep.

JF: Right? It’s a two-week process. You rehearse and then you do a reading in front of an audience and that’s it. Well, they hired Mark to do this reading, okay. This reading for this student.

MM: Always, you know, controversial.

JF: They hired Mark, right? They hired Mark to do this reading of this student and they asked me to be the stage manager. And so it was like, it was so, it was like, such a huge full-circle, déjà vu weird thing because I worked with—I mean, I worked with Jim for like two productions—but every show I did at Cypress was with Mark and I hadn’t worked with Mark since going to LA because, well, how can we? He’s teaching and I’m over here in class. And the last thing I did at USC was work with my mentor.

MP: That is really cool.

JF: Yeah.

MP: I want to put the spotlight on you a little bit here, Mark. I want to ask, hearing this kind of experience, I guess, two parts. One, is this what keeps you motivated as a teacher; and just on a personal level, what does hearing all this mean to you?

MM: I’m going to get all mushy here.

JF: Are you going to get mushy?

[Laughter]

JF: Are you going to get mushy because you love me?

MM: Yeah, he’s gone on to the mushy part.

JF: I’m like your other—I’m your adopted child.

MM: Yeah, another daughter of mine.

JF: Actually.

MM: Yeah, yeah. Another daughter. I have a daughter, but this is my other daughter. Okay, so, I think what really means a great deal to me is when these students go on to make a difference professionally in American Theater and in their own way, promote the evolution of it because it’s a, you know, evolving art form. And Jennifer is part of that wave that is happening now that has taken a long time coming in terms of just more and more successful students who are also in this generation, more diverse than ever. Bringing that unique perspective of diverse students, and this includes all races, all ethnicities. This, the millennials are, my gosh, the most diverse generation ever, and you’re part of that.

JF: Am I a millennial?

MM: Yeah, yeah, in my mind you are. You’re all—anyone under the age of 35 is a millennial. It’s just the way it goes.

So I think that’s exciting. They bring an energy, especially on the West Coast where there’s so much creative work done by so many diverse theater companies in LA, and to have you, have all of you that are moving on to be a part of it, you know what I mean? You a part of it.

To move along the evolution of theater-making in America, you know, and that’s exciting, when they’re part of that evolution. ‘Cause otherwise, what’s theater for, an art form for, if it’s not evolving? So we give you the tools, but then you take those tools to another level, you make them your own. So that’s what’s exciting for me. ‘Cause to me, that’s, that’s one of my greatest rewards in teaching is seeing them become the next artists working and promoting that evolution.

And of course, the campus is to be thanked for supporting our new play development and supporting what we do so that you folks can go on and make a living and forge those changes, those necessary changes to keep theater alive and vital.

Hey, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Hamilton. This generation, that bespeaks of them, the Tony Award-winning musical. Do you know what I mean? And not to mention Moonlight. I mean, we’re seeing huge changes happening that are really exciting, that are embracing everybody in a new way that I think is really exciting. So, that’s my reward.

And seeing her, you know, invested and you still call me in the tos and fros, occasionally, of things. Or she has to listen to me talking about the tos and fros of trying to—[inaudible] the funding issue of keeping the campus alive financially and we have a lot of growth money coming in from the state, so it’s all very exciting. So there you go. Being part of that.

MP: Definitely energizing. Jenn, maybe a good way to kind of go out here is just to ask you if you’ve pictured your life if you had not enrolled here at Cypress College.

JF: Oh my gosh, yeah.

MP: Have you done that?

JF: I have pictured it. You know what’s really funny? I also just realized, even though we’re opposites, UCLA-USC—obviously the better choice—

[Laughter]

JF: But—

MM: Oh, you’re killing me. You’re killing me.

[Laugher]

JF: Just kidding, I’m just kidding. Fight on.

MM: Our campus has more acreage, just remember that.

JF: Just kidding. Fight on. Just kidding. Fight on. Okay. No.

MM: We’re close to the ocean.

JF: But what’s crazy is we’re different in a sense, but we’re very much alike and I feel very fortunate to have, kind of in a way without even knowing that I was doing that, fallen into some of the things that Mark has done. When I found theater, when I was like, oh my god, theater is the thing. Because I came to Cypress, because I took Mark’s class, a friend of mine took me to South Coast Rep to see my first professional theater production. Up until then, until going there, it was all just in school, in school, everything was in school. I had never gone to a theater, sat in a seat, and watched a production. It’s always just been at school.

And so he took me to South Coast Rep and I saw “A Christmas Carol,” and it was mesmerizing because you see all the things that you don’t see in a school production because you’re the person that’s making it happen. Like the set moved by itself, you know, all these things, right? And I used to make a joke, maybe, or just like say it, but I was like, “I’m going to work here one day. This is where I want—I want to check this place out.” Because it was the first place that I went to see a production, right? And it’s like, it catches you, right? Well, I’m there now. I’m there—

MM: And she’s following in my footsteps.

[Laughter]

JF: And he went—he was there. That’s what’s crazy, right?

MM: When I got out of grad school, that was my first job South, Equity Stage Manager, South Coast, yeah.

JF: That was his first job out of school, and he knows the founder, the artistic, founding artistic

MM: Martin Benson and David Emmes. She’s carrying the torch. David said, she’s carrying—David Emmes, who’s now kind of an emeritus artistic director, he said she’s carrying the torch.

JF: And it’s crazy because he did go there and I’m there now. And, you know, I’m hoping I can stay there after this season. I really like it there, I’m okay there. And it’s funny, and I brought him to the first show that I did there, and so it’s like, these are all these things.

And so you ask me and you say, where would my life be if I didn’t come to Cypress, right? If I hadn’t chosen to come back to school or come to this campus? Well, to be honest, from where I was before coming here, I might be dead. I might be in an institution; I might not have made it. That’s really true, without getting too emotional and talk about the past, I wouldn’t have made it. I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning and be happy with what I’m doing with my life. I wouldn’t be me.

Another thing, I wouldn’t have met my husband if I hadn’t come to this institution because this is where we met. You know what I mean? So yeah, I think about my life and where I could have been and… I wouldn’t change a thing. You know?

MP: Mark, any closing thoughts?

MM: It’s good to see your face.

JF: It’s good to see your face.

[Laughter]

MM: I, you know…

JF: I just saw you last week.

MM: Yeah, yeah. It’s always good to see her face.