Growing up on Chicago Avenue and Laramie in Austin, actress Jessica Dean Turner learned at an early age that she could let her imagination run wild.
That realization started with watching old movies, and later grew into entering a profession that would allow her to express that imagination. While acting at her high school, Jones College Prep in downtown Chicago, the 24-year-old actress recalled thinking, “maybe this is something I could do.”
She was cast in productions such as Fiddler on the Roof and Chicago while a student at Jones and enrolled in summer theater programs at Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon.
“In about my junior year of high school I remember doing this one particular scene study,” Dean Turner said. “It was for Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, which is this all-dialect, existential play. But it was an opportunity to throw myself into it all the way.”
Dean Turner’s affinity for the world of pretend was solidified.
She found as she auditioned for different colleges her senior year of high school that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the best fit for her.
“The program had a big emphasis on classical work, as well as voice and movement work. It also did an excellent job of teaching students to be prepared, professional and punctual.”
That included showing up to an audition after a long day of work, looking fresh as a daisy and ready to read lines, Dean Turner joked.
Even though she has been acting professionally for “two years and some change,” Dean Turner said every time she acts it is a major to-do.
Her most recent role is the upcoming House Theatre of Chicago’s Season on the Line. It’s an adaptation about the Bad Settlement Theatre Company’s attempt to put on the perfect production of Moby-Dick.
In the play, written by House member Shawn Pfautsch and directed by Jess McLeod, Dean Turner plays Valerie Dent, a costume director and a character that reminds her of her current life.
“She’s a newbie,” Dean Turner said — a ‘newbie’ with lots of ideas, but is trying to navigate and negotiate the professional space she is in.
“What is great about the production is that I get to sit in a room with people who have been doing this for quite some time,” she said. “I get to see how other people who are more seasoned navigate the rehearsal room.”
Even though Dean Turner is still learning from other professionals, she is making strides in the acting world. And she has some insight for young people who may want to act.
“Read everything,” Dean Turner stresses. “The act of reading engages you’re mind and imagination, and helps you to articulate. And see theatre. A lot of places have [complimentary] tickets or industry nights.”
The West Side native has learned from professionals in the field, traveled to various programs to hone her acting skills, and enjoyed playing parts in a number of productions, but over time she has noticed a disconnect.
“I don’t see many actors who look like me,” she said. “Being from Austin, I have an opportunity to say [to others], ‘you have a right to this art form.’ I would like to be a bridge between my neighborhood and my passion.”