Celebrating “Lit” Women in Literature

By Hoda Fakhari

Acting and academia do not always appear in the same train of thought, but Tess Jonas (ΦBK, Wesleyan Univeristy, 2015), an outgoing bookworm from Boston, always knew she wanted to be an actor. 

“I think the performing arts have huge impact, particularly on young people,” said Jonas. “It’s a form of self-expression. It teaches confidence, empathy, public-speaking skills, humility, willingness to risk and take chances and make a fool of yourself.” 

Just over two years into her professional career, Jonas has already realized the beginnings of her dream of being on stage with critically acclaimed performances as Jo March in Ethan Paulini’s production of Little Women and Jane Erye in Danielle Howard’s Jane Erye

On April 7, she starred in her first solo show, Anything but Quiet: The (Lit)erary Women of Musical Theater, at 54 Below in New York City. Jonas, who wrote and developed the show, said that “it’s all about female characters in musical theater who are pulled from literature. It’s a celebration of volume, of women who are loud, who take up space.” 

“Probably the most exciting feedback I got was that it allowed the audience to really get to know me, what I’m about, and what excites me in this field,” said Jonas regarding the show. “The biggest compliment I received was how smart the show was, that it was a synthesized evening of entertainment with a point of view, with something to say.” Selections from the show can be viewed here

Much of Jonas’ inspiration for her work as a performer comes from her strong liberal arts education. “Having a liberal arts education is such a huge part of who I am as a person and artist, particularly on this show,” said Jonas. As a triple major in English, dance, and theater, Jonas drew from her studies to develop Anything but Quiet, a show that she said has merged her love of musical theater, English literature, and strong women.  

Her academic background in the liberal arts influences the manner in which she approaches performing. “My show itself is also structured like an essay,” said Jonas, “as much as I want to perform songs, it’s equally important to me that I’m sharing information and ideas about the cannon. Thinking outside the box allows me to add layers to my work. That’s a skill I wouldn’t have developed without a liberal arts education.” 

When asked about her thoughts on being a ΦBK member, Jonas said, “Being part of ΦBK is definitely a source of pride for me. It’s a reminder of my intellectual accomplishments and background in rigorous academia, which isn’t necessarily the norm for musical theater actors.” 

Echoing ΦBK’s commitment to the love of learning and sharing ideas, Jonas said the performing arts are “a super engaging form of communication, an exciting way to spread information that people don’t soon forget, and I believe [they] enrich people’s lives.”

Hoda Fakhari is a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago majoring in biochemistry and English. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa during her junior year. The University of Illinois at Chicago is home to the Iota of Illinois Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.