Q&A with new Duke Arts Director of Engagement Jules Odendahl-James

We are excited to share that Jules Odendahl-James, formerly the Director of Academic Engagement for the Arts & Humanities at Duke, has joined the Duke Arts team as Director of Engagement!

A women with red hair and glasses wearing a teal top

Jules’s role as Director of Engagement is to establish and maintain the presence and impact of Duke Arts programs and initiatives in all parts of our community (campus, Durham and beyond). She holds an MFA in theater and an MA and Ph.D. in performance studies, has been at Duke since 2005, and has over 25 years of experience in the Triangle theater-making scene. In this Q&A, Jules sheds light on what the Director of Engagement role entails, her theater background, and what play everyone should see!

Can you tell us a bit about your current role, and why you were interested in the position?

I serve as the Director of Engagement, a new role within Duke Arts. The centerpiece of the work is connecting people and the arts throughout Duke, Durham, and beyond, which has been a key dimension of other roles I’ve had at Duke. I’m excited to dream big about the Duke-Durham dimensions of arts engagement while also collaborating closely with Anna Wallace, the Student Engagement Manager, Bill Fick, the Visual and Studio Art Manager, and the Campus Engagement Manager (a role to be filled soon; folks might remember Brian Valentyn who held that position most recently) to support student, faculty, and community engagement with Duke Arts programming.

Which communities or groups are you most excited to connect with in the coming year?

I’ve been a professional theater maker for over twenty-five years and have witnessed many seismic changes in local, national, and international arts spaces not just due to the pandemic but with that recent transformation very much on my mind. I know first-hand some enduring concerns about how we grow the rich and varied artistic community in this area and strengthen meaningful partnerships across arts forms and among artists and between artist and institutions.

I am particularly excited to explore ways to strengthen arts involvement among young people and connect Duke’s outstanding arts faculty, enthusiastic student artists and world-renowned visiting artists via Duke Arts Presents with Durham in ways that include but move beyond the classroom, bringing creativity, imagination, and resilience to a whole range of social challenges and urgent civic questions.

With that in mind beyond the continuing program of Centennial events, I’m very excited for the visits of Ayodele Casel, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater, Gabriel Kahane & Caroline Shaw in the fall and Durham’s own Hope Boykin, the magnificent Taylor Mac, and Meshell Ndegeocello in the spring.

Your background is in theater (MFA) and performance studies (MA and Ph.D.), what inspired you to pursue a career in theater?

A person wearing a black jacket and pants on a stage set with giant newspapers on the floor and dark wooden furniture

When I was primarily an actor, I would say the inspiration was the thrill of performing. Like many, my path to theater was through music – singing – and then dance and only after I’d done many years of lessons in those did I pick up a script and start thinking about lines and character. But I’ll admit I was laser-focused on the kinds of roles I had and how central they were to the production. Fortunately, my liberal arts education exposed me to all aspects of theater production as well as to histories and theories of performance. Slowly but surely, the rush shifted from being on stage to being in the library, reading scripts and digging deeper into worldbuilding: how text on the page became an environment in time and space. I directed a one-act play in my senior year of college and that set in motion the next portion of my career as a director and dramaturg.

In addition to teaching and directing productions at Duke—most recently the play Eurydice this past spring— do you have other creative pursuits that you enjoy?

Theater production consumes a significant portion of my creative time. I’ll be directing over at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall and have a new Theater Book Club venture with Duke alum Tamara Kissane that holds readings of plays every quarter at various venues across the Triangle. On June 21 and 22 we’ll be at Lanza’s Café in Carrboro. But I also crochet (I made a bunch of sea creatures in preparation for last season’s Ocean Filibuster show at Reynolds), love a good cross-stitch pattern, and do freelance vocal work (such as voice overs/narration for video and audio projects) though my commute provides my most regular singing gig these days.

How do you see the Engagement Department of Duke Arts evolving as you step into this role?

This will be the first year all divisions of Duke Arts will have core staff in place, so my goal is to do a lot of listening and connecting to analyze what exists and what is needed for optimal function so engagement can grow wisely and steadily with a range of partners on a range of projects.

I’m hopeful that my institutional knowledge and experience connecting people and opportunities within the arts (at Duke and beyond) will give me a seat at various tables for future planning not as a newbie but someone ready to dig in, who does her homework, can think on her feet, and takes the long view but works to solve problems in the present.

What play do you wish everyone had a chance to see, and why?

My answer today is Peerless by Jiehae Park. A dark comedy that takes the central duo and plot from Macbeth and fuses them into a savage satire (my favorite!) about twin seniors navigating the cutthroat world of elite college admissions. I love how insightful it is about the single-minded pursuit of a “dream school,” which can produce some nightmarish behavior. It’s even more prescient since last summer’s SCOTUS decision regarding college admissions considerations and all that has happened since in the world of higher education. Park drills down to the core dynamics of Shakespeare’s play, so you don’t need any deep knowledge of that play to be on the edge of your seat but if you do know Shakespeare’s play there’s a whole layer of appreciation to be had of Park’s skill as a dramatist. It’s a play that young adults could go to in a group or with older family members and have some really riveting post-show conversations about what was funny, terrifying, and true to their experiences.

Quick Answer: If you turn on Spotify (or your favorite streaming platform) right now, what would you be listening to?

Koop Island Blues. I heard it as the soundtrack for the dance film Heartache (Iker Karrera & Alberto D. Centeno, directors; choreography by Karrera) and immediately sought it out on Spotify. Confession: I’ve been playing it on repeat because it feels so much like summer to me.