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Prof awarded national honor in performing arts

March 21, 2005

Photo of Mercilee Jenkins"I can't help myself. I write because life is so ironic that I just have to comment on it," said Mercilee Jenkins, professor of speech and communication studies.

Jenkins' writing recently earned her one of the highest honors in performance studies, the 2004 Leslie Irene Coger Award for Distinguished Performance. The award is given by the National Communication Association to directors, producers, teachers or performers who have contributed an outstanding body of live performances.

An educator, ethnographic researcher, playwright and performer, Jenkins has more than 20 years of experience in the academic and professional theatre scene. Jenkins started out in 1983 with the experimental house, Antenna Theatre, in San Francisco. Since then, five of Jenkins' full-length plays have been produced nationwide and she has written and performed three autobiographical solo pieces -- most recently, "Menopause & Desire: Or 452 Positions on Love," a humorous account on sex and relationships in middle age.

"She has a unique approach to writing," said Gerianne Merrigan, chair of the Speech and Communication Studies Department. "It's been a niche of hers for the past 20 years to incorporate her research of different communities into her playwriting."

Most of Jenkins' plays are based on oral history, which involves personal interviews, observation, archival and ethnographic research.

"If you haven't lived through it yourself, I think that's the next best thing," Jenkins said. "The other thing that I love about oral history is that you get a sense of people's real speech. And the way people talk is often as important as what they say."

Jenkins uses humor in her plays to deal with serious social and political issues."I'm interested in performance for social change; all my work has that theme," she said.

Her works include "Dangerous Beauty: Love in the Age of Earthquakes and AIDS," a play about the complex relationship between a bisexual woman and a gay man who has AIDS; and "A Credit to Her Country," featuring interviews with lesbians in the military as a response to the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

In 1980, after obtaining her masters degree in speech communication from SFSU and her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Jenkins joined SFSU's Speech and Communication Studies Department. Jenkins has developed and teaches courses in performance studies, oral interpretation, gender studies and women and communication.

According to Jenkins, performance studies is not merely about acting; it is an exploration of expression. Her students examine texts that weren't originally intended for performance, for example, poetry, prose and found texts. These pieces can then be adapted for performance in a variety of venues, not necessarily conventional theatres.

"It's [performance studies is] about adapting, developing or putting new kinds of materials together. I really like that aspect of it," Jenkins said. "I'm not really interested in directing 'The Sound of Music.' I've never really wanted to audition for other people's plays. I just wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do."

Several of Jenkins' students have embraced her philosophy on performance and have successfully created work that many are familiar with. Comedienne Alex Borstein, a comic/actor whose credits include MADtv and Family Guy, is a former student.

This spring, look forward to the show, "The Found Project," which Jenkins and Assistant Professor Amy Kilgard based on a book by Davy Rothbart. Jenkins is also working on a new solo performance, "A Note Left for Sal Mineo" and coediting a book, "Sexual Identities and Communication in Everyday Life" with her colleague Karen Lovaas.

-- Student Writer Audrey Tang with Matt Itelson


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Last modified March 21, 2005 by University Communications