Meet Palmer Jankens, a self-proclaimed entertainment sound nerd and this year's Distinguished Alumni Award honoree for the Department of Theatre. From designing for prestigious theatre companies and productions throughout Chicago to mixing shows around the world, Palmer has built a career doing what he loves. And by the sounds of it, the experiences he was afforded during his time in the Department of Theatre's design and technical production program had a lot to do with his success. Hear all about it here:
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should we know about you?
I’m a total nerd for entertainment sound! I love my career and the opportunities it has given me. I’ve been so fortunate to have worked for incredible theatre companies, engineered for amazing symphonies, and traveled the world doing my job. Though my educational background is in sound design, I’ve bounced between that, live sound mixing/engineering, working as a system technician, and am currently the Sound Supervisor at Chicago Shakespeare Theater full-time.
When did you decide to pursue a career in sound design and engineering? Was there a turning point or "ah-ha" moment when you knew you had found your calling?
When I started at WMU I actually thought I was going to be a lighting designer. I began paying more attention to sound during my freshman year for two main reasons: 1: I was, as it turned out, one of few students in the department at the time who understood sound. A lot of people seem to think of sound as some kind of confusing “black magic” and don’t give it a chance because of this. I understood enough that I was comfortable taking it on, and the challenge of sound’s “mystique” added a bit of fun to it. 2: There were already several students interested in lighting and I felt like I might have more chances of realized designs if I focused more on sound. That turned out to be a great decision! I did a summer internship with Hope Summer Repertory Theater’s sound department after my freshman year and I knew I was on the right path. I loved doing sound that summer and returned to my sophomore year at WMU with a confident focus on the discipline.
I was also drawn to sound because it is the department that gets to be in the audience. We go into this field because we like theatre, right? It’s so wonderful to be able to experience a show from within the audience; to be surrounded by the reactions, the laughs, the tears, the cheers. While the rest of the crew is (usually) in a booth or backstage, we get to be in the house. We’re often the only department that ever gets to fully experience a show and I am extremely drawn to that.
Let's look back at your college experience. How did you decide to enroll at Western Michigan University's Department of Theatre?
My high school (John Glenn High School in Bay City, MI) was very into the annual MIFA (Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association) theatre competitions. We made it to state finals on a year that WMU hosted the competition and I was very impressed with the department when I was there. I had heard for years that WMU had a really wonderful program and was pretty much sold on it by the time I applied. I actually only applied to WMU when I was looking into college; I had no “plan B” had I not been accepted. That seems a bit silly in hindsight, but everything worked out, so no regrets!
Who was your favorite instructor at WMU? How did they shape your career and contribute to your success?
Matt Knewtson was certainly my mentor and favorite instructor at WMU. Matt was always there for us, both as someone to talk to about school, work, or life and also literally. He was pretty much always there. It was crazy - even on our long, late nights doing calls or projects he was in the building. The dedication he showed in an unbelievably humble way was probably the most important thing I learned at Western. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to no one that my favorite class was Matt’s Lighting & Sound design class. I liked the subject matter for sure, but I also enjoyed watching Matt teaching the topics in such a way that actors, stage managers, directors, AND designers could benefit. On a related note, the other huge impact this class had on my life was that it was the reason I pursued graduate school. I realized that despite lots of designs and experience in sound by my senior year, technically, on paper, I had less than 10 hours of classroom education in sound when I graduated (with the way the Lighting & Sound class was structured, we didn’t get to the sound portion until the final two weeks of the semester, not including finals week). Knowing this, I decided I should continue my education in grad school and that led to the next huge step in my life and career. It’s strange to say that having so little classroom time in sound directly resulted in me having a ton of education in sound, but that’s how it ended up working out.
I’d like to add that I don’t fault WMU for the amount of time we spent in class focusing on sound, or any topic for that matter. The incredible tool Western’s Theatre Department gives students is a breadth of knowledge in theatre as a whole. I left Western as an aspiring sound designer with the ability to walk into a scene shop, costume shop, lighting shop, props shop, and a rehearsal and not look like an idiot. That’s huge! Theatre is a collaborative art and having the education to communicate with everyone in the room is invaluable. Students: learn everything you can! Knowing what all of your fellow artists are going through during a production makes you much more prepared to know how to make things happen.
What's your favorite memory from your time in WMU's Department of Theatre?
I loved feeling like I had free reign of the building. Being one of the two TSAs (Theatre Systems Assistant) at the time, I enjoyed the responsibility of handling some building operations, running calls, and taking care of building rentals alongside staff members. The random one-off events and even weddings we got to design as TSAs were a blast. Having these responsibilities, even just having keys to the building, made me feel like I was trusted and valuable. That made me want to be the best I could at my craft, and as a bonus I earned some money. It was great training for life after graduation; each event was like a mini show that we had to pull off for a client, and at the end of the night they leave happy, you leave smarter, a bit prouder, and make a little money to boot. I also really began to learn about business politics from these events; having a client in charge makes you realize that sometimes your opinions just aren’t going to matter in this business because the people with the money know what they want. Knowing when to just say “got it” and make people happy is a big part of professional work, for better or for worse. Working these events made me feel like a professional instead of a student.
Other thoughts that come to mind, years later, about working these events:
- You begin to get used to being a professional in the entertainment industry, which includes a lot of watching other people have fun while you stand by. It’s a big part of what we do; if you’re going into entertainment, you will be busiest when most people have time off.
- It’s fun to pull off something crazy-impossible at the last minute and cruel that no one will ever know.
- People will never ever stop asking for crazy-impossible things at the last minute, and that will eventually get old - but - pulling these things off is a big part of keeping yourself employed, so… it’s a trap!
- Being nice to the catering company will keep you fed. Fun fact: Still to this day I have yet to work with a cooler catering company than MRG in Kalamazoo.
Tell us about starting your career. How did you land your first job after completing your education?
It was all baby steps! I got my first theatre job in Chicago from a production manager I had met in graduate school; he knew I was moving here and called me with work shortly after I arrived. It was a very unglamorous load-in call at the Royal George Theatre. When I did that first call, I met people who knew how to get work at other venues (you hear all the time that theatre work is all about networking, and it’s true). The more places you can get your foot in the door, the better the chance that you will begin to work often. Despite having an education in design, all of my first jobs were technician or engineering calls. I knew that the odds of me getting hired as a designer right off the bat were slim, so taking work calls was my way to make the connections I needed with theatre companies. It was really tough at first if I’m honest. I was working part-time at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Blue Man Group, and Million Dollar Quartet and I still had to get a position at an Apple Store to make enough money. I worked that retail job at Apple for almost a year until I had to make a decision: I could keep the safety net job at Apple and say no to theatre work or take the work and hope for the best. The gamble on theatre worked out in the end, and I managed to keep busy until I accepted a full-time job at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
What are some of your top career highlights?
I have been extremely lucky to have been given the chance to work around the world. I’ve mixed shows in Romania, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.A.E., as well as all across the U.S. and Canada. Seeing firsthand how similar theatre families are all around the globe makes me feel so proud be a part of it. Artists, no matter where we’re from, are a lot alike as it turns out.
What tips would you give to current students and graduating seniors as they prepare to enter the "real world" and secure work?
Treat every call you work as an interview for your next job. Weird fact: None of the theatre jobs I have had were a result of submitting my resume to a company. Not a single one. Every sound-related position I have held was the result of meeting someone and making a connection.
When you’re working, take initiative. Ask questions instead of assuming. Go above and beyond. Never half-ass. Offer help when you see the opportunity. Most importantly, be fun to work with. Personality is so important in the workplace, and being a good co-worker is just as important as any skillset you may possess. Nearly every person I know in a hiring role prefers to employ people with a good personality before a good skillset, myself included.
What do you wish you had known when you were a freshman at WMU?
Still to this day I wish I had begun working at Miller Auditorium my freshman year. I can’t remember if I finally began working there during my junior or senior year, but I do remember regretting that I hadn’t looked into it years sooner. I learned SO MUCH working at Miller while studying design & production right next door. Even if you end up on a call as a box pusher or a truck loader, you begin to build your vocabulary and experience while working with professional crews, big shows, and fast load ins and outs. I also got to see all of the different ways sound designers (as well as all of the other disciplines) tackled touring and learned something from every single call. It’s also a good way to measure your own skills, knowledge, and personality; road crews have no problems at all calling you an idiot and I think that’s important. You’re not going to know that you coil a cable or tie a knot (or any other bad habit for that matter) in a stupid way until some old, tired road guy yells at you in front of a room full of people. That’s the type of character building you don’t get in a classroom! Despite sharing a loading dock with the theatre department, Miller Auditorium was a whole different world and I wish I had discovered it sooner.
On a related note, I was the sound engineer for a Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra pops concert this spring, and it was such a great career achievement to be back in Miller, but this time as the “road guy.” It was one of those wonderful full-circle moments, and I hope everyone gets to feel that at one time or another in their career.
How do you find inspiration?
I love this career because every once in a while I will be part of an audience - either for a show I am involved in or just attending as a patron - and I am caught off guard by how moving it is to be told a story by real human beings, surrounded by other human beings. Those moments make all of the hours and stress worth it.
The WMU College of Fine Arts has deemed this year "A Time for the Arts." Why do you think now is a time for theatre? What is the role and importance of theatre in society, politics or public discourse?
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like the world right now is lacking in positivity. There are so many events, figureheads, politics, and disasters inundating our news feeds with no relief in sight. These things have revealed an unbelievable amount of divisiveness in our country and our world. Art brings people together. Art makes people think. Art can change a mind or influence a decision. Art can make people react. Art makes people feel.
One example: I recently saw a production of Trevor the musical at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL. It tells the story of a 13-year-old boy in school coming out and the insane amount of stress that can put on a kid. I was sitting there in a house full of mostly elderly patrons thinking to myself “this play really needs to be shown to middle school students, not their grandparents” until I realized that if even one of the patrons during the entire run of this production treats their grandchild better when they come out, it will have made the world a better place. Little things like this happen every day through art; stories are told to audiences who might see the world a little differently when they leave, and I think that’s huge. Art is consistently beautiful in that it nearly always aims to make the world a better place.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love the constant change. No two shows will ever present the same challenge, and solving each one is very rewarding. Chicago Shakespeare Theater has a packed schedule, and often hosts productions from around the world. Working with so many skilled artisans from all corners of the globe is an incredible opportunity and never stops teaching me new things.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Finding a good work/life balance is by far the hardest part of my job. To pull off the aforementioned packed schedule requires a lot of very long weeks. Nights and weekends are often spent at work, and my girlfriend and I can be on completely opposite schedules for weeks straight. Most jobs in theatre will demand that you spend lots of hours in a windowless room and it can take a toll on anyone.
What does it mean to you to be recognized as a distinguished alumnus?
It’s a huge honor. So much talent has come out of the College of Fine Arts at Western Michigan University, and I’m humbled beyond belief to be recognized like this. I certainly don’t do what I do for recognition; I don’t think most of the people you’ll find “behind the curtain” are looking to be put on a stage, but I am so appreciative that the Bronco family cares so much about its alums and that they keep a good eye on what we’re all doing. I’m so proud to be a Bronco and would not be where I am today without my amazing years at WMU.
Palmer Jankens is the Sound Supervisor at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where previous design credits include Ride the Cyclone. Other Chicago credits include: Mary Poppins, 42nd St. (Paramount Theatre); Days Like Today (Writers Theatre); Juno(TimeLine Theatre); Annie Get Your Gun and Oliver! (Light Opera Works). Assistant design credits in Chicago include: Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas (Broadway Playhouse); Pullman Porter Blues(Goodman Theatre); Sunset Blvd., Singin’ in the Rain (Drury Lane Theatre); Eastland (Lookingglass Theatre Company); and Freud’s Last Session (Mercury Theater). Regional credits include productions with: Utah Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Repertory and Hope Summer Repertory Theater. National tour credits include Here To Stay: The Gershwin Experience and Play It Again, Marvin! A Marvin Hamlisch Celebration. Mr. Jankens has also worked as sound engineer at Black Ensemble Theater, Blue Man Group Chicago and Million Dollar Quartet Chicago. He received a BA from Western Michigan University and an MFA from University of California Irvine.
In honor of Western Michigan University's annual homecoming festivities, the We Will Reign series celebrates and highlights the successes of College of Fine Arts distinguished alumni.