Partners in life and the arts, Jenna Valyn and Christopher Hahn have become bold theatrical game-changers thanks to the creation of their millennial-focused Playground Theatre, a troupe devoted to edgy and raw contemporary works.
Since its inception in 2014, Playground Theatre has shaken up the local arts scene with an impactful and riveting punch on par with off-Broadway venues such as MCC Theatre, the significant home of many premieres by playwright Neil LaBute, and Fault Line Theatre, co-founded by Miami University graduate Aaron Rossini.
Past productions have soared on the strengths of powerful, no-holds-barred acting and directing, the ability to pull the audience into the action with a mood-setting Spotify soundtrack, and making the most of the wonderful intimacy inherent to the Schuster Center’s black box Mathile Theatre, the company’s home since 2015.
Valyn, 31, and Hahn, 27, respectively grew up in Huber Heights and Bellbrook and graduated from Wayne High School and Carroll High School. Both are acting alums of Sinclair Community College, memorably appearing together in “Almost, Maine.”
Valyn’s credits include “Little Shop of Horrors” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Hahn was seen in “The Crucible” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.”
For Playground, the duo notably co-starred in the marvelous 2016 production of “Reasons To Be Pretty.” Hahn can soon be seen in Playground’s season opener “Tape,” a dark tale slated Oct. 19-22 directed by Valyn.
Here’s your chance to get to know this partnership and our Daytonians of the Week a little better.
What do you love about life in Dayton?
We have a really wonderful life in Dayton. We feel pretty damn lucky. We have a beautiful home with our four cat children: Gypsy, Potter, Luna and Stella. We have an incredible support system of family, friends and colleagues. And we are lucky enough to call our colleagues our friends.
We meet new, interesting and inspirational people all the time and are constantly learning from them. We love that we are able to create art on our own terms all the while creating opportunity for other artists to learn and grow and improve their crafts. There is no better feeling than seeing the actors we work with bring beautiful and complex characters to life in our productions, and of course, looking out into the audience and seeing people emotionally affected by the work we are doing.
Life in Dayton is not as fast-paced as in other cities, and we honestly really enjoy that. We did the big city thing for a while, but it gets old at some point. With all of the things happening and all of the growth Dayton is experiencing, it is going to quickly find itself in a place where it offers the amenities of a big city, but keep that small city charm.
What do you love the most about Dayton's arts scene?
The arts scene here is killer. It is so vibrant and versatile and it just keeps expanding. There is really something for everyone here. We especially love how many new theater companies have come on the scene in the last couple of years. We are so glad we can be a part of this new development and we hope to continue to see massive amounts of growth and innovation in the Dayton arts scene. It's an incredibly exciting time to be in Dayton!
What prompted your creation of Playground Theatre? Is it molded after other theaters you've seen or been a part of elsewhere?
We have been inspired in some way by every theater we have had the honor to work with or attend as an audience member. Growing up in such a thriving theater scene in Dayton was a blessing because we were exposed to all different types of theater. From the touring companies at the Schuster Center and Victoria Theatre to the productions at Human Race and Dayton Theatre Guild, they all inspired us in different ways and made us fall in love with theater.
Being exposed to all of these theaters helped us to form an artistic opinion and cultivate our own personal style. Sinclair especially inspired us immensely. Our professors taught us so much about professionalism and how much work it takes to succeed in this industry. We remember our professor, Brian McKnight, telling us that we have to eat, sleep and breathe this craft. A lesson that we didn’t truly understood until we started this company.
However, we must admit, the beginnings of The Playground came about when we were studying and working in Chicago. The theatre scene in Chicago is massive and the type of theatre we experienced while there was very different than anything we had experienced in Dayton. The material was contemporary and edgy. Theaters were filled with young professionals who would rather see a show than a movie, and the productions were presented in a raw, intimate and hyper naturalistic way that we had never experienced before. We were amazed at how visceral this type of theater was as opposed to presentational. The acting was so honest, we would forget we were watching a play and instead felt like we were peering into people's lives. The closeness to the performers and realistic acting made us feel like we were watching a film on stage.
Ultimately, this style of theater sparked our desire to start The Playground. We wanted to bring these kinds of contemporary plays and this type of visceral style back to Dayton so we could affect people the way the shows in Chicago affected us and get new audiences engaged with theater.
Of the shows you've produced, which one in particular has stood as a testament to what Playground is all about?
Oh man... that's like picking a favorite kid, or in our case, a favorite cat (did we mention we have four?).
Every show we have put up has been meaningful to us for different reasons. They all hold a special place in our hearts. We poured our blood, sweat and tears into them (literally). Each show we’ve worked on has taught us something new about ourselves as artists and business owners and we have grown immensely as people throughout the entire process.
If we HAD to choose a show that truly represents who we are as a company, it would have to be Really Really. That play completely encompassed our vision of telling stories that reflect the unique experiences and struggles of coming-of-age in today’s world. The subject matter of the show touched on an incredibly relevant topic and had a profoundly strong impact on performers and audience members. We felt very strongly that it was a story we needed to tell. The play didn’t sugar coat anything or hold anything back. It was raw, real and brutal and the characters were flawed and relatable. Really Really held up a mirror to society and exposed the sometimes ugly and cut-throat nature of humans. We found it refreshingly honest.
Working on Really Really helped us to find our voice and our style and made us feel empowered to continue to take risks as a company. We still listen to the show’s Spotify playlist, and according to the actors and crew members who were part of the show, they do to.
What are your hopes as Playground Theatre continues to evolve?
Where to begin…
The ultimate dream, at least for the near future, is to have our very own storefront theater space in downtown Dayton, very much in the same vein as the storefront theaters in Chicago.
We want to create a whimsical meets industrial Playground space equipped with swings hanging from the ceilings, awesome painted murals, and our signature black brick wall.
Having our own place would give us the ability to have five to six show seasons and month long runs, offer ongoing acting training, and even host events! It would give us the opportunity to truly grow and sustain our organization.
( A not-so shameless plug...we are literally looking for the space described above right now. After this season we will need a place to call home, so if you are reading this and you want to help, get a hold of us!)
Beyond the immediate dream of a permanent space, we obviously want to continue to grow Playground artistically. We already have an incredible group of Playground Artists (what we call our resident artists) and we hope this group continues to expand.
We hope to continue to provide the community with high-quality, entertaining, and emotionally resonating work. Additionally, we want to give artists opportunities to improve their craft and challenge them to do their best work, all while providing them with compensation.
To that end, our goal with each and every Playground production is to make it our best production yet.
In what ways would you like to see Dayton's arts scene improve?
We would love to see more people, especially younger generations, coming out to the theater. Unfortunately, so many Daytonians have a negative opinion of theater. They may have had a bad experience and this has kept them from coming back. We would challenge these people to check out the different theaters in the Dayton area. We all bring something unique and different to the table and they may find themselves changing their minds.
It’s always exciting to meet an audience member who has never seen theater before. We would love to see this number grow!
What are some of your favorite Dayton spots?
The Victoria Theatre and The Schuster Center, of course. We absolutely love to hang out and have meetings at Ghostlight. Some of our favorite restaurants are Tanks, Thai 9, Dublin Pub, and Roost. We really enjoy shopping at Clash, Heart on 5th and Luna Gifts. Finally, we love Dayton's Five Rivers Metroparks. We especially enjoy hiking and picnicking at Carriage Hill.
What do you feel is the biggest misperception about Dayton?
First of all, we want to say that we are lucky to have a huge group of people here in Dayton who absolutely love this city. Unfortunately, there are Dayton haters as well. It's crazy how often we hear the phrase "Dayton sucks." Certain people believe, because Dayton is a smaller city rather than this big metropolis, it is dying and that has nothing to offer. We firmly disagree. We would say to them, hey, we are called the Gem City for a reason. There are tons of hidden and not so hidden gems everywhere. All you have to do is take a look around and maybe change your attitude a little. Maybe you’re the one that sucks. Get out in the city, take a risk, try something new. Let Dayton surprise you. Or...listen, if you really hate Dayton, there are plenty of other places you can live.
What inspires you about Dayton?
The people. Dayton is like The Little Engine That Could, thanks to the passion of the people who live, work and play here. We are a city of fighters who refuse to give up. Dayton is filled with innovators and entrepreneurs who are working so hard to improve this city because they truly believe in it. It seems like every day we hear about a new business or arts organization popping up, or we hear about a business that has already laid down roots here, continuing to makes waves, which is absolutely amazing! The people of Dayton love it here and genuinely want to see the city become the best it can be.
What do you think Dayton will be like in 10-15 years?
The Gem City is going to be shining even brighter in 10-15 years. We will be kicking ass and taking names like never before, continuing to grow and build new businesses, taking new risks and proving to people that we are a city you should never underestimate. Oh, and the theater scene will rival the big cities of course! Maybe there will even be a new Playground space you can come hang out at.
For more information, visit theplaygroundtheatre.org.