Behind the Curtain: Jenny Ballard’s Journey into the Cumberland Community

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” 

Mark Twain

In this life, some are fortunate to discover their purpose early on. Jenny Ballard’s narrative embodies the journey to discover not only purpose, but a profound sense of belonging and community. Introduced to the world of theatre in her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee– just 2.5 hours away from Cumberland University’s Heydel Fine Arts Center– at the tender age of nine, the strains of Cats ignited her spirit, sparking a lifelong affinity for musical theatre. As the years unfolded, her involvement in the theatrical community deepened, becoming a steadfast foundation in her life. Though her vocation as a teacher now takes center stage, Jenny’s heart remains that of an actor and director, a sentiment reflected in the many facets of theatre she has embraced.  

After graduating with an undergraduate degree from University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Ballard stayed local in order to share the love of theatre and enrich the lives of her hometown. Jenny worked for the Tennessee Stage Company as the Interim Artistic Director and the Education Director, as well as the Education Director at a local theatre company called the Actors Co-Op. Ballard was well prepared for her next venture, founding the Knoxville Children’s Theatre in 2007. Her professional and educational experiences simply served as fuel until she realized that for her, theatre was not just a show to be enjoyed, but something entirely more. Jenny described that epiphany this way, “I realized that it wasn’t a passion so much for me, but I realized it was a lifestyle. I realized that it wasn’t something that I wanted to be doing on the side. It’s something that I wanted to be all-consuming for me and I’ve often said that theater in many ways is the love of my life.”

This passion propelled Jenny forward, and soon after, she relocated to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and received a Master of Fine Arts at Louisiana State University in 2010. Upon completing her education, Jenny remained in Baton Rouge serving as an adjunct professor for 13 years then as the Director of Theatre Baton Rouge, a community theatre focused on giving residents the opportunity to participate in live theatre. Over her career, Jenny Ballard has directed 35 musicals. This period of time taught her that the love of theatre can and should be shared through the means of education. 

Jenny expressed that she believes college to be the perfect time as an instructor of theatre. 

“I think students really fall in love with theatre in high school. That’s when they really recognize that there’s some kind of pull towards that kind of work. So when students are moving to college, I think it’s the perfect time to help them make those choices, is it something that’s going to be a hobby for them or is it something that they feel a drive and a calling to do full-time.”

Despite being in its early years, the Musical Theatre program at Cumberland comes equipped with solid offerings including the Heydel Fine Arts Center, Black Box Theatre and now, Jenny Ballard, who sees the program’s youth as a positive. “We are simpatico, there’s just something about Cumberland that feels like everything that I have worked towards. I hope to be here for a really long time.” 

While being far from her hometown of Knoxville, Jenny always felt a sense of belonging; theatre, as she describes it, is a home, an island of lost toys offering lifelong friendships and space for those who feel that they don’t belong. 

The spark that started in Jenny Ballard years ago in her school theatre programs has been nurtured into a hearth flame, one that rests in the Musical Theatre program and spreads warmth to the Cumberland University community. Jenny seeks to share this passion through real-world experience in the future. When asked about the theater program’s potential, Jenny revealed an elysian vision including: upcoming renovations to Heydel, a third show in the annual calendar, state and national level exposure for students, attending showcases on Broadway (the epicenter of American Musical theatre), traveling to see the roots of theatre in places like the West End in England and many other experiential learning opportunities. 

Not all experience can be observed, however. Jenny also has plans to increase the student involvement and responsibility within all facets of the show production process. 

“I think it’s going to be important that some of the students are responsible for directing shows and being in charge from beginning to end of that process. From scheduling auditions, to casting the shows, building sets, to designing the lights and sound and props and costumes” said Jenny Ballard. 

Theatre holds many more elements than just acting and directing, all of which contribute to the successful execution of a production and providing crucial skills to students to produce a well rounded professional. 

For those already in the program, these experiences serve as clarification as to whether theatre is a hobby or a lifestyle. But Jenny has her sights set on collaboration and exposure to those outside of the arts as well, especially within the STEM fields. She cites the need for effective public speaking and interpersonal interaction as skills that theatre is uniquely able to deposit.

“Public speaking has that element of, it’s just me standing in front of a group of people reading or reciting something I wrote. In theatre, you rarely have to do that. These days it’s really, really important that we’re present in the moment, we’re listening and responding to each other, I think theatre is great for that.”

There is a proverb that says, “The child who was not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Jenny Ballard has come to view CU as the place to feel the warmth, she describes her hiring as almost kismet saying, “When I updated my cover photo on Facebook to a picture of Cumberland University, someone said, ‘That’s exactly the type of place I thought you would be teaching.’ So for me, I feel like I’ve come home.”  

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