THEATER | Off-Leash Area’s Jennifer Ilse on crime, society, dance, theater, and “The Jury”


“I remember begging my mother in 5th grade for dance lessons but none were to be found in a 50-mile radius of our small town in northern Wisconsin,” remembers Jennifer Ilse, co-director of Off-Leash Area and choreographer of the company’s production The Jury. “I now continually appreciate dancing because of my lack of opportunity to learn to dance as a child. I really made the choice to become a dancer at the age of 21.”

The Jury is an original production based on Ilse’s experience of serving as a juror for a young women charged with murder. The young woman had not “pulled the trigger” but brought about a volatile situation in which a shooting could occur. Thus, she was charged with second-degree manslaughter. The jurors deliberated for a full week, eight hours per day debating the questions: Who is responsible for young people who use and experience violence as a part of their daily lives? Is it society or the individual?

Off-Leash Area is partnering with Amicus, a non-profit organization that works with inmates, ex-offenders, and juvenile offenders, to build successful lives and communities. Amicus has helped with research, plus Amicus representatives will answer questions in a discussion after each performance.

“The preparation for this play has been a year and a half,” says Ilse. She and co-director Paul Herwig initially presented the piece in a shorter form in their home garage theater in 2008. “In preparing, we asked questions of everybody that we could and some of them were: Why is there now an increase of violence by women? Why are these choices being made when over the past years women have had wide-open choices? What brings us to commit violence? And is it in our nature as women to be violent?

“I was raised in a small town of 3,000 people in northern Wisconsin,” continues Ilse. “There was only one school and we were all together. Although my family was stable, I saw poverty and alcoholism that resulted in physical abuse of children.”

Off-Leash Area has been in existence since 1999. When asked what advice she’d give someone who wants a performing arts company, Ilse said, “It takes a lot of talent and a burning drive or desire. It takes hard work and a long time. You have to be in there for the long haul. And you need to keep building.”

The Jury, with an eight-member cast of dancers and actors, will play at the Red Eye Theater from January 28 through February 6.