I’m up at 6:30 a.m. to catch a subway downtown filled with dozing New Yorkers to meet Jessica Fry, the day before she leaves to kick off the national tour of a Broadway show.
I’m barely awake, but when Jessica strides into the coffee shop two minutes late, her eyes are bright and the smile that won’t falter for the duration of our interview is already firmly on her lips.
Onstage, her dancing exhibits a powerful grace undiminished by a 5’4″ frame: legs capable of catapulting her to any height or contorting into any shape, everything from the placement of her fingers to the curves of her toes speaking movement without an errant word. In person, her animation and energy is restrained to her hands and elbows. With a nondescript black backpack, distressed mom jeans and dark green crop top, she fits right in with all the other 20-somethings roaming around.
Unlike most of the artists, actors, dancers and writers hoping to jumpstart their careers in the city, Jessica can already support herself through her gigs, without having to take on a side “survival job.”
“It was definitely a unique audition,” she says, thinking back to the first time she tried out for a Broadway show and taking a sip of her drink. “I actually flew out from Stanford in the middle of spring quarter sophomore year … I took a Tuesday-morning red-eye [flight], auditioned on Tuesday with three different dance competitions, and then I was back by Friday on another red-eye.”
It’s unusual to fly cross-country for an audition, but months later Jessica was making her Broadway debut as Kurogo in “M. Butterfly.” Her mom may have first put her in dance classes hoping it would tire out her energetic 3-year-old, but after 17 years of rehearsing, it’s safe to say her efforts had the opposite intended effect.
Besides “M. Butterfly,” Jessica has starred in an episode of the Emmy-winning show “The Americans” and is currently an ensemble member and understudy for Veruca Salt in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” With eight-hour rehearsals six days a week (which climb to 10 or 12 hours during tech week), this isn’t an after-school drama club.
“When I come home, even after an eight-hour day, I go over my notes, and then when I’m in performance mode I’m auditioning for the next gig, so it really is almost like two full-time jobs,” Jessica says, spreading her hands wide and shrugging.
Still, on her days off she finds time to read and watch other shows, many of which star her friends. “The theater world is just so small!” she says. “There’s only a certain number of roles and a certain number of shows, and in the audition room you’re seeing a lot of the same faces, so there’s a fine line between having a professional relationship, but also a friendship. It’s definitely a balance.”
She’s used to working balancing acts. After all, Jessica fell in love with physics in high school, a field where she could apply math to understanding the universe, from the microscopic to the planetary. Despite having aspirations to be a professional dancer, she set that aside to focus on academics at Stanford, majoring in physics alongside TAPS. In the two months before arriving in New York, she even worked at SERN in Switzerland, doing research with a particle collider.
“I guess I’m a person who either does something 100 percent – sorry, I mean 110 percent – or not at all,” she says. She may be focused on dance and on performing for yet another gap year, but she emphasizes that she’s “completely passionate” about both aspects of her life, and would like to pursue each of them given the time and capacity.
When asked what she’s looking forward to most about going on tour, she says she’s just excited to be performing, and that there are few joys like being on stage. But when it comes to sharing where she’ll be going in the future, she does what most of us do: She says a lot that boils down to, “I have no idea.”
“I’m very grateful for my two years at Stanford, which allowed me more time to mature as a person and find more of my artistic voice through experiences,” she says. “Going into college, you have to experiment with party culture. I loved having the safety of the Stanford community and knowing that I could go out and socialize in that sense, and still be safe, even if I realized that wasn’t who I was.”
Now, Jessica seems to know exactly who she is. Her scariest experience has nothing to do with the stage, and everything to do with a treacherous stairway to the highest point in Oahu, Hawaii. Her proudest achievement is catching a 60-pound halibut in Alaska at age 12, a fish that was as big as she was. She’s been dating a fellow Stanford student for two years, but doesn’t see the long-distance element of their relationship as an obstacle, asserting that it enables each of them to be their own person and pursue their ambitions in their own way.
Jessica combines idealism with practicality in other areas as well. Diversity in casting has lately become a mainstream topic with the release of films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” She has experienced being the only non-white person in a cast, being somehow expected to speak not just for the Asian-American experience, but for the experience of all minorities.
“Seeing faces that look like you on stage matters,” she says emphatically. But she also emphasizes that some shows necessitate cast members looking a certain way.
“In the theater world, ethnicity plays a role in your ‘type,’ and that involves your height, your weight, what your skills are, your hair color and your ethnicity,” she explains. “I couldn’t have gotten my role in ‘M. Butterfly’ unless I was Asian.”
The only time Jessica stumbles when speaking is when I ask what she can’t live without. After a lengthy period of glancing around, she finally comes up with “oxygen.” But when it comes to imparting advice to those back on campus, especially freshmen, she’s earnest and articulate.
“In life, there is no straight path towards your dreams. Ever. There are very few things in life where you don’t have a choice. You always have one, like actively making the decision to come back to Stanford each quarter, even though there is high opportunity cost if you don’t come back. Don’t feel stuck. Make being at Stanford an act of choice, because I think you’ll be a lot happier.”
She pauses, then smiles. “I know that when I do return, it’ll be an act of choice.”
You can watch Jessica perform in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater from April 16 to May 12 of 2019.
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Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’ stanford.edu.