“I don’t know where life is going to lead me. I’m realizing that God has lots of plans. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I know I’m going to end up where I need to be.”
Preparing for Throughly Modern Millie, pictured above at Playhouse in the Park, Leiren Jackson feels at home on the stage.
Living the song of life!
By Charlotte Kyle
The Lake News
Hearing Leiren Jackson’s powerful vocals, no one would guess the voice came from such a small body. At only 4’10” the Christian Fellowship School 10th grader uses her height to her advantage. As director of the Children’s Theatre for the Marshall County Arts Commission, Jackson is often mistaken for one of the kids. “That kind of stuff happens to me all the time, but I think I’m more relatable to the kids because I’m kind of on their level,” Jackson said. “Half of them are taller than me, which is hilarious.”
Jackson, 15, used to be teased for being little, but since finding her passion for musical theater, she has embraced her short stature. It has even helped her snag roles. “I played a 13-year-old in ‘13 The Musical’ at almost 16-years-old,” she said. “When I was in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ I played Alice and I would not have been able to get that part had I been taller. In ‘Annie’ I played a 12-year-old and that was just this past summer. I watched the video and I just looked like one of the other kids on stage, even though they were much younger than I am.”
George Milan of the Marshall County Arts Commission saw Jackson perform in “Annie” at Market House Theater and asked if she would volunteer for their summer camp. After that, they asked if she would direct the Children’s Theatre. This experience, Jackson said, helped prepare her for her new role as director.
“(In ‘Annie’) I was in a group with all of these younger girls,” she said. “I got to work with these kids and sort of become the leader in that group. It’s been like that in a lot of shows, so getting to work with these kids is no different than being in one of those shows.”
Jackson began performing in musicals about three years ago when she entered a bookstore in Cadiz where the owner was also the director of the theater. The owner showed Jackson and her father, Dean Jackson, pictures from their production of “Alice in Wonderland” and told them they had auditions for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Jackson had never done a play before, but she loved singing in church and in children’s choir when she was younger.
Above, Leiren signs autographs after her performance in Alice in Wonderland.
“My whole family did it,” Jackson said. “My dad, stepmom, stepsister and I all did the show that summer. It was so much fun, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Jackson said she does not know where she would be if she had not gone into that bookstore.
“It’s completely changed my life track,” she said. “I’m grateful for it. I’ve found a place where I fit in and feel at home and it’s something that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”
As director of the Children’s Theatre, Jackson does all of the blocking and character work. She also serves as music director and choreographer. As a camp counselor, Jackson got to experience working backstage and working with sound and lighting. She also wrote this semester’s Children’s Theatre production, a cabaret-type show featuring songs from other musicals, tied together with a storyline.
“There’s so much that you can do, and that’s what I want people to know,” Jackson said. “Even if you’re not somebody who wants to be on stage, you can be involved. There are so many things and we always need help. You get to be a part of the family and I think it’s very rewarding.”
To prepare for performances and improve her craft, Jackson has been taking voice lessons, training in opera and classical singing.
“I’m not going to limit myself at the moment,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to end up doing. I’m getting all of this experience for a reason, I know. I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed but I know it’s going to be exciting.”
In addition to learning through rehearsals and lessons, Jackson said she learns from the children she works with each Tuesday afternoon. She said she deals with stage fright, but she does not see that behavior in those she is directing.
“I love how fearless (children) are,” she said. “When you get older, I guess it’s ego that gets in the way, and you think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ With the kids, you tell them to do something and they just do it. It never occurs to them that they couldn’t do something and I love that about them.”
Jackson said she is working to improve her stage fright, and pep talks from her mom, Lori Freeland, help calm those nerves.
“My mom’s the best,” she said. “She makes me tell myself, ‘You’re talented and you need to know that. It’s not just me; other people say you’re talented. You get lead roles, you’re talented. You need to start believing that.’”
Jackson will appear as the title role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” next month at Playhouse in the Park in Murray.
Between performing in musicals, directing the children, taking voice lessons and attending school, Jackson said she stays busy.
“It’s worth it,” she said. “It’s so much fun. I don’t get tired – I mean, I get (physically) tired, but I don’t get tired of it because it’s what I love.”
Balancing her school work with her musical work is second nature to her. Jackson maintains a 4.0 and said education has always been important to her family. Her brother, Drake, attends University of Kentucky where he has a full ride scholarship. She said she knows if she wants to do anything else she has to make sure school is her top priority.
“That’s what is expected of me and I’m glad that’s what is expected of me because it keeps me working hard,” she said. “It is hard, but you find ways like doing homework in the car on the way to practice. You fit it in wherever you can.”
Her teachers and classmates at Christian Fellowship School also help, she said.Jackson said she hopes to go to school for musical theater and, if performing does not work out, would love to teach as a director. She said she knows it will be a difficult journey, but she keeps her father’s advice in her mind.
“My dad says to me, ‘You would be better off making very little money and doing what you love to do than hating what you do and being rich,’” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
She said she knows it’s odd to be so confident in her future, but she is also keeping her options open.
“None of my friends, except me, really know what they want to do,” she said. “It’s odd to adults because they’re like, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted at age 15.’ That’s how I am. I’ve always been a driven person in general. Knowing what I want, it doesn’t seem weird to me. My options are open, of course, because I don’t know where life is going to lead me. I’m realizing that God has lots of plans and I don’t know what (my) plan is yet. I’m just going to let it go and keep doing what I’m doing. I know I’m going to end up where I need to be.”