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Five Questions for Jennifer Perry


Photo by Michaela Ristaino

Teacher. Director. Choreographer. Jennifer Perry is a force in the East Bay arts community, just like her grandmother, the founder of Lareen Fender’s The Ballet School Performing Arts in Walnut Creek. Diablo caught up with Perry—the director of Contra Costa Musical Theatre’s current production, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical—to talk about growing up in the arts, directing kids, and the future of the Ballet School. 


Q: Your family has an extensive legacy in the local arts community. What are some of your first memories in the field?

A: As a baby, I was at the Ballet School all day and taken to rehearsals at night. Between my dad [Scott Denison, general manager of the Lesher Center for the Arts] directing and my mom [Kerri Shawn] acting, I grew up watching rehearsals. I got to watch and listen to live theater, which turned out to be the best training of my life.


Q: Did you always know that you wanted to work in the performing arts?

A: I couldn’t imagine another life. I used to think maybe I wanted to manage a hotel or be a flight attendant. Those things still seem exciting, but I could never leave the Ballet School. I even got a full ride to USC and didn’t take it, because I wasn’t sure that the Ballet School would still be here when I came back. In retrospect, I’m so glad I made the choice I did.


Q: You took over as owner of the Ballet School in 2011. Now the school is moving locations. What prompted this change?

A: We’ve been in this space [on North Main Street] for 42 years, but it’s time for us to upgrade. It was the hugest decision I’ve ever made, because so much of my life has been in these walls. But my grandmother doesn’t live in these walls; she lives in all of us.


Q: Matilda the Musical, like most of the shows you direct, features a lot of child performers. What about working with them inspires you?

A: I live by the words live, joy, create, hope. And the philosophy behind that is if you live joyfully, you can create hope in others. … The hope is the students—because they are so eager to learn, and they haven’t received any of the bitterness that some adults possess. Working with kids keeps me feeling like the glass is running over.


Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

A: The words thank you. Especially from students who have gone on but appreciate what they had growing up. That letter or text or Facebook message that says, in essence, “Thank you.”


Matilda the Musical runs through May 12 at the Lesher Center for the Arts. The Ballet School’s new location, at the corner of Botelho Drive and Locust Street, is expected to open by July 1. lesherartscenter.org, theballetschool.org.


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