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Actor, St. Francis grad reflects on Wheaton, the stage and his most recent role

Former Wheaton resident Jake Szczepaniak talks about his hometown, women's history and his role in "Unwilling and Hostile Instruments."
Former Wheaton resident Jake Szczepaniak talks about his hometown, women's history and his role in "Unwilling and Hostile Instruments."

Jake Szczepaniak, a former Wheaton resident and a graduate of St. Francis High School and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a part of the ensemble cast for Theatre Seven’s “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women.” The performance is a collection of small plays dedicated to important women in Chicago history through the 100 years of women’s suffrage in Illinois.

Wheaton Leader reporter Nathan Lurz recently spoke with Szczepaniak, who shared his thoughts about acting, Wheaton and his most recent production.

Lurz: Can you talk a little about what the play is about?

Szczepaniak: Really what the play has turned into is all the actors are playing themselves. I’m a character named Jake – a big stretch – and we all walk in and have a rehearsal of [eight plays written by nine playwrights].

During the process of the show, you see us rehearse the show. We’re rehearsing in one of the Hull House Theaters in Chicago, and the play takes place in a Jane Adams Hull House, and you learn more about the Hull House Association.

Lurz: Who does your character play?

Szczepaniak: In these shows I play [Broadway and Hollywood director] Bob Fosse, who is coming to Maurine Watkins to ask her for the rights to her play, “Chicago,” so I can try to make a musical out of it.

I’m also in the scene about Cora B. Strayer, who was a detective in Chicago who was really cool. She sold her stuff doing a man’s job as only a woman could, which is a really great story. I play one of her lovers, Stephen Ayers.

Lurz: Why would a potential audience member want to go to the show?

Szczepaniak: I think it hits all sorts of different notes. Some realism, some more abstract, but it always comes back to us actors having a discussion or breakthrough about these women.

For people who are already interested in going to a play, the production is really great – we have a whole ensemble of very talented actors and playwrights ... There’s a lot of talent being thrown around irreverently and joyously on stage.

And the show itself is exciting because you can learn a lot. It sounds so dumb, but you can learn a lot about these historical women in a way you don’t usually get to.

Lurz: Obviously you’ve been interested in acting for awhile. What draws you to it?

Szczepaniak: I spent one season in far right field in Little League talking to birds and watching the grass grow. Then I told my parents I wanted to quit, and they said, “Well you have to do something,” so I decided I wanted to try out for a play.

... And my dad, on Sundays, would play musicals. Sundays “Phantom of the Opera” would be playing. One night I snuck down and he was watching “Into the Woods” and I had seen nothing like it. There was obvious talent onstage. The transfer of energy from performers to the audience and from the audience to performers – there was a very deep shared experience.

Lurz: How did your time in Wheaton shape you as a person, actor or both?

Szczepaniak: It gave me something that many people don’t get right away or lose the importance of, and that’s being well-rounded ... I can’t say this for everybody, but I can say for me, I was very lucky to be in Wheaton and St. Francis and having communities that are very diverse and very close knit and having people who are together pursuing one goal for a period of time.

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