I Meet Jenna Augen the day after seeing her in her new play, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Even though she should be resting her voice (“I steam every day, I have honey and lemon ready to go”) our conversation is almost a fast-paced as the play. Although happily not quite as confusing —The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a farce.
Augen is American, which (let’s not call it lack of research) comes as a surprise to me. Just as her singing in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery came as a surprise. “I didn’t realise this was a musical” I whispered to my husband as the cast do-wopped as backing singers to Augen’s impressive crooning throughout the play. She is quick to point out that the play is not in fact a musical just “a play in which we sing”.
“I don’t think anybody really knows what they’re coming to —they know it’s going to be a farce, going to be fun and that’s great but I don’t think they really know those other things so when they get hit with it it’s a pleasant surprise. That’s one of our strengths — we’re a hidden gem!”
It’s likely that you’re familiar with Jenna Augen, even if you don’t know her name, because she does seem to be a shoo-in for Jewish roles. She was most recently in the theatre adaptation of Jack Rosenthal’s The Knowledge at the Charing Cross Theatre, and before that Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court , after Bad Jews at the Arts Theatre and the St James Theatre. None of these required her to sing. But she says: “I’m a singer and I have always ended up singing in shows [but] this is the first time in my career in which I’m labelled as a singer.”
Her mother was a singing teacher and although she never formally trained she “just learned” as she went along, sitting in on her mother’s lessons. Augen family lore has it that she was taken to lessons and amateur dramatics rehearsals as “a baby in a bassinet”.
Augen did have some professional training however. She attended Rada in London and has been here “on and off” for ten years. She always had her sights set on London and didn’t even apply for other British drama schools (“maybe I should have…”). “I’ve always been an Anglophile,” she says, “always gravitated to everything British really.”
And this is especially true when it comes to her career. “My earliest experience of the theatre is of my parents rehearsing Gilbert and Sullivan. British comedy has been drilled into me from a very young age.” Her first forays into acting were also influenced by us Brits. “When I was 10 a woman in my little town started a Shakespeare group for kids. I can still remember lines from Shakespeare but I can’t remember what I said last week!”The Comedy About a Bank Robbery comes out of British comedy traditions that she also loves, says Augen: Fawlty Towers, Keeping Up Appearances. She joined the Bank Robbery cast in February as part of the play’s third cast reboot and will be at the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus until the end of the year. “Being on the West End is a dream,” she gushes. “It’s my second time and it’s just incredible. I love doing this show though. It’s such a people pleaser and audiences are so happy when they leave.”
I like Jenna. She’s surprisingly self-effacing for an actress, seemingly saving up all of her confidence for the stage and repeatedly acknowledging how lucky she been throughout her career. I ask her if she feels she gets typecast — her roles in The Knowledge, Chicken Soup with Barley and Bad Jews were all Jewish characters – thanks to her Jewish heritage and her stereotypical Jewish features. She says yes but she also gets seen for Turkish and Greek roles. “I’m half and half so my resume has been pretty much that – half and half!” The Jewish half comes from her dad’s side, for which she apologises, as if she’s lured me into this interview under false pretences. “I didn’t have any religious upbringing,” she admits, “but I come by it [Judaism] honest!”
Augen repeats a Sarah Silverman quote that resonates with her: “I’m a Jew in that it pours out, that it oozes out of my pores uncontrollably. Personally I have no religion, but I’m Jew-y. It’s beyond my control.”
Playing Daphna Feygenbam in Bad Jews was one of Augen’s most ‘Jew-y’ roles. “There were some references that I didn’t grasp right away but I’ve had a very thorough education now!” she laughs, recalling what she describes as “some spooky coincidences”. Growing up, Augen’s father was the only one in the family who could remember enough Hebrew to lead the Seder and her alter-ego Daphna recalls the same experience. Augen lived in a studio flat on the same block that Bad Jews is set in and Melody, the non-Jewish girlfriend in the play, is a singer: Augen’s mother is a non-Jewish singer married to a Jewish man. Her current role as Mrs Monaghan, in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, is not a Jewish one — she has a date in a church — however it’s hard for Augen to fully escape: Mrs Monaghan’s son briefly pretends to be a rabbi.
Although Augen is in her early 30s she has spent a lot of her career playing older characters like the middle-aged Ruth Monaghan. “I’m very lucky, I’ve had a career playing roles I’m not ready for,” she laughs. “Although Daphna in Bad Jews was 22, so I can tick that off!” She describes herself as a character actress and says she prefers it that way, always has done.
“When I was growing up I was very focused on the Wicked Witch of the West, I never wanted to be Dorothy. I used to colour in my face with a green marker and make my mother sing all the Dorothy songs.”
I wonder how she feels about the musical Wicked? “Oh my goodness, would I ever!” she says as I name her dream role. “But you have to be a really wonderful belter for that”.
My toes are still tapping from her performance in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery so I wonder if this is more Jenna Augen modesty. I hope that one day she’ll be applying her green face paint in a West End dressing room.
Jenna Augen is in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery until December