Amherst alumni reflect on Jensen Center’s influence on careers and life skills

By Brent Frankenhoff

The Amherst community and Tomorrow River Schools have had their share of alumni who have gone on to successful careers and other achievements across the nation and around the world. Recently, the Spirit reached out to three young men — Seth Barnes, Chandler Benn, and Ben Villnow — to see what they’re doing now and how their involvement in theater at the Jensen Community Center influenced those careers.

 

Seth Barnes

Seth Barnes (Class of 2017) recently closed his off-off-Broadway show, Stupid Boring Straight People, a play he wrote and produced. “This was an entirely self-produced production at The Players Theatre in Greenwich Village,” he said. “We ran for 12 nights over three weeks in April. This has been a huge milestone for me and an incredible learning process as I found what really goes into writing, casting, fundraising, marketing, liaising with theatre owners, and assembling teams for theatrical productions. We also came out with a little bit of money in our pockets, so that was very exciting.”

During his days in the Amherst schools, Barnes participated in three productions at the Jensen Center, playing Lieutenant Brannigan in Guys and Dolls in 2013, Kenickie in Grease in 2015, and Harold Hill in The Music Man in 2017. He added, “I also performed in various choir concerts, band concerts, children and community theatre productions, and talent shows at the Center.

“Without the Jensen Center, I do not believe I would be pursuing a career in the arts today. It’s where I performed in my first musical at the age of 10. From then until my high school graduation, my extracurricular life revolved around time spent in that theater. Some of my fondest, most formative memories took place in that building. I remember being so nervous and so excited to go onstage for the first time in Janet Glodowski and Karen Rutz’s production of Hee Haw Hayride. I remember being so intimidated to have a speaking part alongside high schoolers in Guys and Dolls. I remember what a blast it was to learn the choreography for ‘Greased Lightnin’ ” with some of my closest friends.

“At the Jensen Center, I learned not just how to perform and speak publicly, but also how to work with people of varying experience levels, when to lead, and when to sit down and listen. These are skills that I took with me into undergrad and am still honing and employing today in my professional life. The intensely collaborative, race-against-the-clock nature of putting on a show of any kind is a valuable learning experience for students, regardless of whether they wish to pursue the arts after school.”

 

Chandler Benn

Chandler Benn (Class of 2018) recently completed his first year of graduate school at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and said he has “many things to look back and be proud of. I am in a Master’s program pursuing a voice performance degree, and I hope to be a professional opera singer. I made my Jacobs debut in the lead role of Count Danillo in The Merry Widow and was cast the summer before I even started classes here. I also performed in other shows this year including Sweeney Todd and Romeo and Juliet. I spent the last two summers in Italy performing as Betto di Signa in Gianni Schicchi and as Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro. In the last few weeks, I was named as the lead role of Josef Kavalier in a world-debut opera called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, based on the Pulitizer Prize-winning novel by Michael Chabon. This will be co-produced with the Metropolitan Opera of New York.”

During his high-school career in Amherst, Benn played Tommy in The Music Man and Roger in Grease. He said, “I performed in all of the choirs and bands during middle school and high school as well.

“The Jensen Center stood central to my evolution as a musician and fueled my passion for the arts. Bringing athletes and musicians together as one allowed for my interest in both to be fulfilled.

“My love of being on stage started with the Jensen Center. Bringing joy and art to the community has been pivotal in my decision to choose the arts for my career. It is amazing to have a community space for the arts in a small town like Amherst. I’m not sure I would have found my passion for performance without having stepped foot on the Jensen Center stage, and I would not be where I am today without those early performances.

“I have always loved music and appreciate the support of my parents for piano lessons from age 5 all the way through high school as well as support in band from Jolynn Wucherer and choir from Chelle Baumann. I would also like to thank both Dr. Matthew Markham (UW-Stevens Point) and John Keyes (Amherst) for their direction, support, and mentorship. My goal is to share with others around the world my love of opera and performance.

 

Ben Villnow

Ben Villnow (Class of 2019 and the inaugural Jensen Center Junior Person of the Year in 2018) is a Senior Social Media Manager at The Social Lights, an advertising agency that specializes in social media advertising. In his first year, he has built or improved online communities for such familiar products as Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Reese’s Puffs, Lucky Charms, Fruit Roll Ups, Fruit by the Foot, Gushers, and Betty Crocker.

“I am most proud of my ability to mine for insights on social media and utilize current trends and technology to create content that resonates with our audiences,” he said. “I can only thank my background in performing for the confidence it took to do so.”

In addition to an early promotion at his job, Villnow also received a bronze award from the Advertising Federation of Minnesota for his college capstone project and was nominated by Social Lights for the Federation’s 32 Under 32 award. “I continue to push the boundaries of what someone just a year into their career is capable of and the conversations they can be a part of,” he said. “By ensuring collaboration across teams within my own company to pushing our clients to do what hasn’t been done before, I have solidified myself in this industry.”

Villnow played Constable Locke in The Music Man in 2017 at the Jensen Center, which he described as “an incredible introduction to theatre that got me excited for the next production,” and Horton in Seussical the Musical in 2019. “Some of my fondest memories of high school are associated with the production of Seussical,” he added.

In addition to fond memories, Villnow said that he continues to use the skills he acquired as a performer at the Jensen Center. “Playing a sensitive and caring elephant for our community on the Jensen Center stage introduced me to approaching situations as performances,” he added. “If I can sing by myself on a stage in front of my peers while wearing elephant ears, I can present an engagement strategy and consumer insights to my clients while wearing business casual. The ability to step outside any box you have created and allow yourself to play a character translates to so many aspects of life, whether we are conscious of it or not.”

Villnow said that he uses those skills in many situations, including during his time in student government at the University of Minnesota, while volunteering with the Wisconsin Leadership Seminars, and in his current role at The Social Lights.

Each of these young people benefitted from the opportunity to shine on the Jensen Center stage, learning skills that have helped carry them to where they are today. All three performed on the stage in its current configuration. Imagine how much more an expanded performance space will benefit future generations of Amherst-area graduates, a goal of the 3Stage Expansion Project.

Seth Barnes (upper right) and the cast of Stupid Boring Straight People, his off-off-Broadway show that he wrote and produced, using skills he first learned on the Jensen Community Center stage.

 

Chandler Benn (left) with an operatic co-star.

 

Ben Villnow

 

Ben Villnow as Horton the elephant in 2019’s Seussical the Musical.

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