5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Jenny Fellner

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Production ShotOnly a recluse or, say, a dead person couldn’t know this charming jingle:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

But here’s the thing: While the last century and change since the sensational trial of Lizzie Borden have mostly centered on the possibility of Borden’s innocence — or at least evidence that exculpates her — the creators of the new rock musical Lizzie Borden operate under the assumption that she, in fact, did murder her mother and father.
Still, how does one get a rock musical out of that? Very carefully, as a flotilla of theater teachers might say. But it’s true: advance word on Lizzie Borden, written by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens, under Maner’s direction, is very good. Perhaps this is because they’re inspired by a basic statement about the case: Though Lizzie was ultimately declared innocent according to the law, her infamy lives on.

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The piece opened on Sept. 12 and runs through Oct. 17. Performances are Thu.-Sat. at 8pm, with late shows Fri. and Sat., 10:30pm. For tickets call 212-352-3101 — or kill the idea and follow the Facebook-style or Twitter-style.

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So what’s it like to play Lizzie Borden? For Jenny Fellner, veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway, touring and regional circuits, it’s — well, how about we let her tell you? I only say that because she’s said to be really good with an axe.

And now, 5 questions Jenny Fellner has never been asked:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Good question!!! Someone once asked me how my work affects my personal life. I thought that was a particularly intuitive and perceptive question, as I’m sure it appears that I exit the stage door and leave the show behind me. I can’t speak for other actors, but I have come to realize that there is a certain part of me that lives in each role that I do, even with Lizzie Borden! She is (in our production) a very tortured, wounded soul, and there are definitely emotions that I can only tap into by drawing on my life experiences.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Aside from the ever-popular “how do you memorize your lines?,” I’d have to say the most idiotic question I’ve ever gotten came during my run of Mamma Mia! on Broadway. Someone asked us “So, what do you do during the day to make money?” It made us giggle a little bit!

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I don’t really have any good ones, but a friend of mine was once asked “What is it like walking around with a voice like that?” Her response was “probably about the same as you walking around with yours.”

4) As this version of Lizzie Borden assumes she was guilty, can you talk about the challenges of playing her? I mean, if she’s guilty, she’s not really a sympathetic soul so much as a vicious, contemptible, maniacal, cold-blooded murderer. How do you get a heroine out of that?
“Vicious, contemptible, maniacal…” Ouch!! I’m having character sympathy! I would say this: Our version of Lizzie Borden assumes that she committed the murders, yes. Is she guilty? I believe that is up for discussion, even in our version. There is a line near the end of the show when they are in court and Lizzie stands up and says “I am innocent.” Such a statement is (and was, during rehearsal) open for interpretation, much like a lot of other statements she made. As far as I’m concerned, Lizzie believes she is most definitely innocent. In this production, Lizzie has been a victim of multiple forms of abuse from both her father and stepmother, such that she finds solace in a filthy barn talking to pigeons. She is trapped, and in a very quiet way, inner rage and vengeance has been boiling and rising for so long that it had little choice but to blow.

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It is an absolute challenge to play her for the very reason this question is asked! It is important to me to garner as much sympathy and support from the audience as possible. I went back and watched the Kill Bill movies, as I believe they are a beautiful representation of horrible vengeance-related murders that somehow have you rooting for the killer. Lizzie undergoes an incredible transformation from suffocating abuse to absolute release and freedom. It is important to me to show both extremes, with tremendous help from Bobby [Frederick Tilley]’s costumes, and then down to the drastic physicality changes that I attempt to undergo. There are definitely moments (mostly post-murders) that show a conniving, vain, almost bratty side to Lizzie, but even those attributes are, to me, because of a lack of a loving, supportive childhood. So that’s my best answer! She has become dear to my heart, and I don’t know how else I could be successful at portraying her.

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5) The house that Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her parents in is today a bed-and-breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts. Have you visited the house or stayed there? Would it creep you out to stay overnight? Not only might you get mileage out of playing Lizzie Borden, but maybe you’d get some Ghost Hunters credibility out of it as well, no?
I have heard of the Lizzie Borden bed-and-breakfast! I have never visited, and probably won’t during our run of the show! I’ve already woken myself up with axe nightmares, so I need to pace myself! I’m generally not the type of person that enjoys horror films or haunted houses, and I think I would work myself up too much, although I think the idea is fun for people out there that enjoy a good ghost story/scare.

6) Lizzie Borden’s rock score tells a story that dates to the Victorian era in America. Why does rock music uniquely work, as opposed another genre? Is it because rock is somehow synonymous with rebellion and rampage? Do you think a musical about, say, Ted Bundy would also work with a rock score?
Why not? I think that rock music definitely easily goes hand-in-hand with rebellion and rampage. Particularly with Spring Awakening as well as Lizzie Borden, the rock scores coincide with timeless emotions like “teen angst,” and also abuse, rage, etc. I, personally, enjoy the juxtaposition of these two contrasting elements. It makes for an unexpected, interesting, and nontraditional result.