VIDEO Jenna Bainbridge finds empowerment through her disability

June 7, 2013


For actor Jenna Bainbridge, playing Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at this summer’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival is a perfect fit. Like her character, she’s spent much of her life pushing against boundaries and expectations set by other people.

“Hermia is a younger and vivacious woman who has kind of decided she doesn’t want to follow the rules her father put in place for her,” says Bainbridge, 21, a student at Denver University. “She would rather marry for love than for any other reason, so she breaks all the rules for her own happiness.”

That’s a little like what Bainbridge herself did when, at 13, she decided she wanted to go into acting, despite a disability stemming from a fall that left her paralyzed from the shoulders down when she was just 18 months old. Thanks to therapy, she is able to walk — not to mention sing like an angel and play Shakespeare — though her mobility and stamina are somewhat limited.

But if anything, that aspect of her acting repertoire will only amplify the message of self-determination in “Midsummer.” Her disability will even serve as a metaphor, as Hermia herself becomes more able to stand on her own and walk throughout the show.

“It’s this empowering story, a coming of age. Then you throw in a disability and it becomes even more important,” Bainbridge says, her long dark hair blowing in a breeze that passes over the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre stage. “Here is this strong woman who has a disability and she is not going to let it stop her. I think that’s such a great message for anyone with a disability to see.”

She began her acting career with Denver-based PHAMALy, a theater company featuring performers with disabilities.

“PHAMALy taught me that just because I was disabled didn’t mean I couldn’t be an actor, couldn’t go out and see the world and do what I want,” she says.

But there were other voices in her life giving very different messages. She remembers girls at Castle View High School in Castle Rock saying things like, “No one wants to see that. They don’t want to see you hobble across the stage.”

But through her work with PHAMALy, and beginning at 19, other Colorado theater companies, she has graced many stages to great acclaim. She is perhaps best known for playing the title role in a 2012 musical production of “Cinderella” at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre.

“Most of what I’ve done is singing in musical theater and opera,” she says. Playing Hermia will be her first role in a Shakespeare play.

Geoffrey Kent, director of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” first saw her as Belle in PHAMALy’s “Beauty and the Beast.” He was so enchanted that when he was offered the job in January following the departure of former CSF head Philip Sneed, who was originally slated to direct, he called Bainbridge right away and asked her to audition. Kent’s hunch paid off.

“Jenna is a terrific Hermia. We are lucky to have her,” he says.

 Tim Orr, interim producing artistic director of CSF, concurs.

 “Honestly, it was one of the easiest casting choices we made. Geoff and I agreed she was the perfect choice for the role," says Tim.

Bainbridge would like to see the entertainment industry catch up to reality when it comes to people with disabilities. While everyone knows someone with a disability — 19 percent of Americans are disabled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — that’s not reflected on stages or screens.

 “If you look at the television and film industry, less than 1 percent of the roles are for disabled people. There is a huge disparity with what actually happens in front of you. … It’s always infuriated me, because artists are supposed to reflect real life and vice versa,” she says. “I was so excited when Geoff called and said, ‘We’d like you to play Hermia.’ Because once again, it’s this empowering story of coming of age. Then you throw in a disability and it’s even more important. This strong … woman has a disability and she is just not going to let it stop her.”