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Richard and Sharon Jenkins Bring Oklahoma! to Life at Trinity Rep

The Emmy-winning Six Feet Under vet and his choreographer spouse discuss what it's like to live, work, and create theater together.

Richard and Sharon Jenkins are collaborating on a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island.
(© Mark Turek)

There are a lot of iconic performances that come to mind when one thinks of the actor Richard Jenkins. For fans of HBO's Six Feet Under, his work as the acerbic ghost Nathaniel Fisher immediately comes to the forefront. Others may know him from his Emmy-winning turn as Henry, the caring husband to Frances McDormand in Olive Kitteridge. Viewers could also recognize him from one of his many big-screen appearances, a long list that includes, most notably, his Oscar-nominated work in The Visitor.

What many don't know about Jenkins is that he has a long association with the Rhode Island-based Trinity Repertory Company. His wife, Sharon Jenkins, has served as choreographer with the organization for many years, and Richard even served as artistic director in the 1990s. And while acting is his first love, he frequently returns there to take the reins on various productions.

After last collaborating on the Trinity Rep production of Oliver! in 2014, the Jenkinses have once again turned to musicals, this time, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Oklahoma!. This particular creation process is a different kind of experience than they ever could have expected in that their workday never ends, not even when they're about to turn out the lights. "We're about to go to sleep and we say, 'What if we did this?'" says Richard. And they wouldn't have it any other way.

Charlie Thurston as Curly and Rachael Warren as Laurey (center) with the cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, directed and choreographed by Richard and Sharon Jenkins, at Trinity Rep.
(© Mark Turek)

You both have a long association with Trinity Rep. How did you get started there?
Richard Jenkins: We came in 1970. I was an intern.

Sharon Jenkins: We thought we'd be here for maybe one or two years.

Richard: I was an actor in the company for fourteen seasons. Sharon started to choreograph. I left, and came back as the interim artistic director for a year, and I ended up staying for four years [1990-94].

Sharon: I was still here after Richard left. We live in Rhode Island, so I continued my work.

Richard: Then, we brought Oskar Eustis in, and he started to do musicals, and Sharon really then started to choreograph. We had never really collaborated on a musical. If I was directing a play and it needed some dance, I'd call Sharon.

How did you come to work on Oklahoma!?

Richard: They came to us and said "Would you do Oliver! for us?" and we did it [in 2014] and loved it. Then they said, "Would you do something else?" We looked all over and we found Oklahoma! I love directing musicals. I get to listen to people with beautiful voices sing and people that can move dance. I wish I could sing.

You're both billed as director and choreographer. Is there a way the work is divided up?
Sharon: We wanted the billing to say "Directed and Choreographed by Richard and Sharon Jenkins." Sometimes I think people don't understand how much input a choreographer can have in the process of directing. It comes from how the scene is being played, and the song comes from that, and the dance comes from that. It's all connected. Sometimes a choreographer will help a director decide where on the stage a song should start. It made sense for us to be billed that way. We do influence each other's work.

Richard: We spent about eight months talking about this before we started. I've never had that experience before. As a director, you usually go in the first day and you start. But we both conceptualized the play together, with [scenic designer] Eugene Lee. Everything blends and blurs. The only place it isn't blurred is in the dance steps. I don't do that.

Richard, when you're acting, do you miss directing?
Richard: No. I love doing this. I love doing it with Sharon and Trinity Rep, because I love the company. I love the enthusiasm of this theater, and it's been my home since forever, even though I'm not really here anymore. But I'm an actor. That's my first love. I have to say, I never thought I would direct again, and then when we started doing Oliver!, we both looked at each other and said, let's do it again.

Does this collaborative process consume your lives in a way that it wouldn't if you weren't a married couple?
Richard: Once you're doing something, whether it's Olive Kitteridge or whatever, that's all you think about. Everything you do has to do with Oklahoma! If you park the car wrong, it gives you an idea. You're saturated with the project you're in. We have fun together, and we go home and talk about. I've never had that kind of collaboration before. And to have creative people, not just the actors, but also the costumes, sets, sound, lighting, everybody chipping in and trying to help you bring this thing to life in a way that people may look at it new again. There's nothing like it.

Sharon: That's one of the great things about Trinity, the collaborative spirit of everybody. Everyone is interested in helping you figure out things and coming up with ideas. It's just a joy.

Do you have another project in mind?
Sharon: One at a time.

Richard: We have to get through this one and hope they don't hang us in effigy. [laughs]

Emmy winners Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge.
(© Jojo Whilden/HBO)