Jessica Phillips on the Time She Accidentally Knocked Herself Out in The Who's Tommy | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Jessica Phillips on the Time She Accidentally Knocked Herself Out in The Who's Tommy

The actor is currently starring in the solo musical Penelope at Virginia's Signature Theatre.

Graphic by Vi Dang

Jessica Phillips, acclaimed for her work as Heidi Hansen in both the touring and Broadway productions of the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen, is currently going it solo in the new one-person musical Penelope at Virginia's Signature Theatre.

The Broadway belter—whose Main Stem credits also include Leap of Faith, Next to Normal, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Scarlet Pimpernel—stars in the title role of the Signature production, which is inspired by The Odyssey and written by Alex Bechtel, Grace McLean, and Eva Steinmetz. Steinmetz also directs the limited engagement, which lets Odysseus' wife take center stage to reflect on 20 years of waiting—with a glass of bourbon in hand. Performances continue through April 28.

Watch Jessica Phillips Sing 'Drunk Iliad' From Penelope Musical

Phillips has also appeared in regional productions of Deathless and Unknown Soldier, while her screen credits include Law and Order: SVU, Why Women Kill, Elementary, Unforgettable, and Royal Pains.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Phillips shares the impact that The Who's Tommy has had on her career, restarting her career after motherhood, and why disappointments may not necessarily be a negative.

Jessica Phillips in Penelope Daniel Rader

Where did you train/study?
Jessica Phillips: Emerson College in Boston, MA.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
Kristin Linklater was on the faculty at Emerson when I was a student there (in fact, she was one of the reasons I chose the program!), and her approach to acting and the physiological voice was mind-blowing and super inspiring to me. She authored Freeing the Natural Voice, which was one of my textbooks as a first-year student.

What are the challenges/rewards of performing in a one-person musical?
Woof, it's a brain teaser, I'll tell you that. The memorization piece was killer, especially for this perimenopausal brain of mine! I truly cannot lose focus for a second on stage, which is exhausting, of course, but also weirdly energizing. I share the stage with an ensemble of incredible musicians, so that part feels beautifully collaborative. But in general I've had to learn to trust myself and trust that whatever energy I'm throwing out into the universe is hovering there in an interesting way, and that even when I'm still and having an internal experience, that it's compelling enough for an audience to watch. That part has been life-affirming for me. Like, we really are enough!

Zachary Noah Piser and Jessica Phillips in Dear Evan Hansen Matthew Murphy

You performed in both the touring and Broadway productions of Dear Evan Hansen. What do you think you learned about yourself playing Evan's mom?
Oh, I loved Heidi Hansen so much because she personified the true helplessness we often feel as parents, making it up as we go along and getting it wrong again and again and wanting so much to connect with our kids and also be in charge, but wanting them to like us and losing our shit and pulling them into our arms in a moment of magic. The whole beautiful mess. She helped make it okay for me to be that kind of mom, too.

Do you have a dream stage role?
This sounds cheesy, but usually whatever I'm doing at the moment is in some way my dream role. I'd been threatening to write my own solo musical for the last year-and-a-half, and then Penelope fell in my lap, so she's definitely a dream I conjured somehow.

Can you share a favorite stage mishap?
Well, there was this time I accidentally knocked myself out on stage (ha!). One of my first professional jobs was back in the mid-'90s touring with The Who's Tommy, a timely story now that the revival is opening. I was playing Mrs. Walker, and in the "Smash the Mirror" scene, I had to pick up a chair and hurl it toward the mirror. In reality it was an optical illusion, as I was staged to be far enough away from the mirror to safely avoid it when I swung. The lights were set to blackout just before impact, and this one night I just wasn't on my mark. I swung, the lights went dark, and the chair hit the steel truss framing the mirror, which ricocheted back and smacked me in the head, knocking me out of my shoes and my wig and onto the deck! I'm not sure if I lost consciousness or not, but by the time I opened my eyes, I was flat on my back in the dark with the band wailing around me, bewildered. I rolled over and took a quick inventory and somehow had enough wits about me to feel around for my wig and then, wig in fist, army-crawled off into the wings. And then, like a dummy, I finished the show!

Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
About 10 years into my career, I took a pause to start a family and left New York for several years to support my spouse at the time in his career change. I was buried in the logistics of supporting my family and parenting wee ones and, honestly, just didn't have bandwidth for much else. I lost connection with the love of my own work and creativity and thought I might walk away permanently. Then, a mentor of mine called and invited me to join a remounted touring production of Tommy, the same production I'd done nine years earlier, and because I couldn't turn down the income, I said yes. I was still nursing my younger son! But with both babies and my mother in tow, I went out on tour and spent five months falling in love with my craft again, realizing how much my life off-stage had new depth and complexity to offer me as an actor. It was a turning point in my decision to return to New York and begin Act Two of my career.

Kendra Kassebaum, Raúl Esparza, and Jessica Phillips in the Broadway musical Leap of Faith

Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
Oh Lord, there have been soooo many of those. That's kinda the gig, just not getting the majority of jobs we go up for. The year before I did Dear Evan Hansen, I was a part of four developmental workshops of shows that all went to Broadway in the next season without me. That was rough. But as these things go, if I had been on Broadway with a different project, I would've missed out on the opportunity to play Heidi Hansen, one of the most beautiful and fulfilling creative experiences of my life. So when I get really down, I try to rack back the focus, hover above myself, and try to see every disappointment as happening for me instead of happening to me.

What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
I think I'm most proud of having raised my children while being a working actor. And now to be in the season of my career where they're grown and thriving and I can do less juggling and set more personal goals. A third act. I've built a life with a lot of layers, and that feels really satisfying.

Photos: Jessica Phillips in Penelope at Signature Theatre

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