The first thing that strikes you about Jordan Nickles is his youth. The second thing is his youthful enthusiasm. The third is the youthful people flocked around him. This pre-med student at Shawnee State University is the director, producer, and sometimes writer of the plays performed by Wheelersburg’s JAX Theatre, a community-driven troupe that showcases local talent. “I’ve been drawn to theater since I was about 10 years old. I was involved with the Portsmouth Little Theatre, but the schools didn’t seem to offer much of an opportunity to explore the arts. Not all kids want to play sports. What was fun for me was being creative and developing different ideas for different kinds of characters. I wanted to make sure the kids in this area got lots of chances to get into acting and theater.” He took over the JAX Theatre in 2011.
The group provides opportunities for people ages eight through adult to act, sing or do backstage work such as set design, lighting and procuring props. Community involvement has been very strong, with the casts for some plays containing around 60 performers. Differing genres of drama are produced, although musicals seem to draw the most participants, the largest audiences – and in Nickles’ experience – the most fun for everyone.
The JAX Theatre’s recent production of the musical “Hansel and Gretel” is indicative of the kind of exploration of character and creativity that Jordan Nickles promotes. The storyline is familiar to those who know the traditional version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: A brother and sister are cast into the woods by an evil stepmother because there isn’t enough food for everyone. They leave a trail of breadcrumbs and eventually encounter a wicked witch. Beyond that, Nickles and his group have firmly placed their stamp on the story while carefully preserving its Germanic heritage through accent and costuming. The script and song lyrics were all written by Nickles. He gives each participant, mainly children, the artistic liberty to decide what movements, quirks and facial expressions their character displays. The single witch has been morphed into an entire family of witches, each with her own distinct identity, who are being stalked by a band of witch hunters.
When it comes to makeup, the JAX group reaps the benefits of working with one of the best. Theatrical makeup/special effects artist RJ Haddy, who was featured on the SciFi Channel’s reality show “Face Off”and has worked on Hollywood productions such as the Batman movies, did makeup for the group’s performance of “A Christmas Carol,” convincingly turning 20-something-year-old Jordan into an 80-something-year-old Mr. Scrooge. Haddy also designed and applyed the makeup for the witches in “Hansel and Gretel.” “I am so lucky to have been introduced to RJ through a series of strange coincidences and people we have known in common. We started talking and just hit it off. Being in his chair was such an amazing experience, and nothing brings out a character like having all that on. I want other people to have that experience, so we try to get him for as many shows as we can,” Jordan said.
Auditions for the plays are advertised a few weeks in advance and typically include a demonstration of vocal abilities and participation in a cold reading, which is reading snippets of the script aloud with no prior knowledge of it. Every person who auditions is offered a position, ranging from a starring role to an ensemble member. “I feel like it’s important for people who are interested to have an opportunity to participate. It’s good for self-esteem and it helps kids especially develop their creativity and social skills. I think that’s important in these days when bullying is so prevalent,” stated Nickles.
It takes approximately two and a half months from audition to production time for an original play, with rehearsals running two hours, four times per week for an original script, but a familiar piece like “A Christmas Carol” usually only takes about a month and a half to produce. The rehearsals are held in the same venue in which the plays are performed, the SONG (Southern Ohio’s National Gospel Stage), which is a reserved portion of the Wheelersburg Cinemas.
Shannon Bowen, a participant in “Hansel and Gretel” and the mother of Delaney Bowen (who plays Gretel) feels that the atmosphere at the JAX Theatre is unique. “It’s kind of like a little family. Everyone gets along so well and there’s no bickering. My daughter has known she wanted to be on stage since she was about two, and this gives her a great opportunity and a lot of support. She just loves it, and she just loves Jordan!”
The next performance on the group’s playbill is “A Christmas Carol” which Jordan Nickles says is his favorite to produce, direct – and of course – act in. He will reprise his role as Ebenezer Scrooge. “I can’t stay away from the acting! It’s my passion. I want to provide this ‘Broadway’ experience with the lights and music and costumes to as many people as I can. I’m all about going big or going home! I want to put on shows that are fun for the performers and the audience, not two hours of misery out of obligation. I think we accomplish that here.” Judging by the enthusiasm the community has shown for the JAX Theatre, one would have to agree.
Photos Compliments Pam DeCamp Photography