Feature Real. Strong. Women.

MacDowell Month: A Rekindled Passion at a Rooftop Performance

By Jessie Rogowski (Alpha Chi, Butler University)

“Wow, there are a LOT of talented people in New York City,” I kept saying to myself as I watched the audition line trickle down, closer and closer to my turn. Here I was, at an Into the Woods audition, sweating from anxiety of strangers about to judge my performance. I was one of the thousands of people trying to live their dreams of being on stage in New York City. It’s a very competitive industry, especially here, but I missed singing and theater and wanted to bring it back into my life, regardless if I was 32 years old amongst a sea of sprightly 22-year-olds.

I remember those young days – my passion for theater started in junior high and continued into college at Butler University, where I joined Alpha Chi Omega. A big reason I joined Alpha Chi was because of its musical heritage. It was the Alpha Chi skit during recruitment week that secured it for me – they did a mashup of Broadway musicals old and new, with words changed to fit Alpha Chi’s mission. I knew it was for me then and there

My 3.5 years as an Alpha Chi Omega were spent diving into as many theater and singing activities as possible, from participating in and/or directing campus-wide skits for Alpha Chi (“Geneva Stunts” and “Spring Sings”) to choreographing dance competitions between sororities (“Lipsyncs”) to being in charge of all the homecoming decorations in our front yard (which was basically like building a theater set) to even taking part in the recruitment skit that had lured me in! These were the first opportunities that I took a leadership role in this field, and I felt a lot of confidence when I graduated because of Alpha Chi Omega and the sisters’ support that I had around me during this time.

So here I was years later in NYC. Although I am a professional television editor by day (working on Food Network shows mostly!) I wanted to get back to my musical theater roots. I didn’t need to be on Broadway, but I would love to just be in a community theater production of Into the Woods even if it was in the deepest, furthest corner of Brooklyn. I did my best at the audition, but I didn’t even get a callback. It’s really easy to take it personally when you don’t get a part in a show, and eventually the stress of auditioning really got to me, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

At this time I was living in an apartment building in Brooklyn that had a really amazing rooftop overlooking the skyline of Manhattan. One beautiful night, I decided to bring up my ukulele and play a French song that I was working on. And the next thing you know, I had a circle of friends and strangers around me cheering me on. It was the perfect setting and the perfect night. My boyfriend said to me, “You should do a performance up here with some of your friends.” And I laughed but then thought more about it, and slowly an idea came to fruition.

The idea was to cast some of my friends in my favorite musical, Rent. Everyone could invite a few friends and we could put on a really cool show up here. I asked my musically-inclined friends (who all have full-time day jobs like me), and they were all on board. We rehearsed for a few weeks when we had time. I loved the growing trend of immersive theater – my life was completely changed when I saw Sleep No More (an interactive show in NYC, an adaptation of Macbeth in a cinema noir style). I wanted to bring interactive theater to the musical theater scene. My plan was to have the actors interact with the audience in character before the show and during intermission and really make it fun for the audience.
And then the day came, a cold day in September. Everyone gathered in the makeshift “Life Cafe” I created in the basement lounge. Then we shuffled about 45 or so people to my rooftop (even though the building rules were technically that you were only supposed to bring up one or two guests total). And we did it! A one-night event, a concert version of Rent on my roof and in the basement lounge. Free. I had no idea what was going to happen and how it would go…and even though it rained the entire night, it was a huge hit. And the audience wanted more! So, I gave us a name – “Rooftop Musical Society” – created an LLC, and started promoting our company on social media. This was the birth of my company!

I still wanted to keep the immersive element going, but I wanted the location of our next show to make sense for the plot of the show we were producing. This show was Spring Awakening, and I found a pretty amazing church, St. Paul’s Theater, that was happy to host this group of excited actors. Pretty quickly, we sold out three shows of 80 people! To make it immersive we moved the audience to a new location for act two, as if they were really part of the very emotional funeral scene. It turned out beautiful, haunting and very unique.

That fall, we decided to put on a third show, the very Into the Woods that I was rejected from a year prior. It felt so good to play Cinderella, like a role I was destined to play! I got artsy too – I built trees, cows, harps and pub signs from scratch in my small Brooklyn apartment! It was truly a labor of love. We gained more press for this show – and got featured on TodayTix as a show to see. We even had some people show up that were visiting from different countries!

Now, we are on the way to creating our fourth production, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, which hits the stage this May. It’s a raucous house party set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s. I found a 5,000 square foot loft space in Manhattan to put on the show. It’s definitely a step in a more professional direction and scary in a lot of ways. But I am so excited to see what we can do with the space and our show, and to see where the business goes from here! For those Alpha Chis in the New York area, I would love to meet you and see your faces in the audience!

Owning a theater company was definitely not something I thought I’d ever do. It was a dream just to be a performer here. But now I have this growing collection of very talented friends who have helped me create something truly magical! I can’t lie – there’s been many days when I’ve wanted to give up from the stress of it all. But I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of supportive, hardworking, genuine people who have helped me along the way, and I’m so proud of what we’ve created! (And a fun fact – The music director of the very Into the Woods that I auditioned for and didn’t get a callback for is now our director and music director for The Wild Party! I met him on a whim in a vintage shop in New Orleans. Small world!)

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