Celebrate Presidents’ Day with us! We are honored to welcome the fourth President of the United States, James Madison, as interpreted by Kyle Jenks, on Saturday, February 15, and Monday, February 17. Jenks is an expert in all things Madison and has studied and practiced his interpretation for many years. Read on to learn about how Jenks brings this Founding Father to life!
Afterwards, visit the new exhibition Meet the Presidents to learn more! Also: Pick up a Presidential History Hunt, available all weekend long.
How did you become an interpreter of President James Madison?
My journey was unplanned and began with a surprise! After a trip to Bennington, VT, for a weekend getaway, it was recommended that we return in August for Bennington Battle Day. Being naturally curious, my wife and I did, and we stumbled upon something I didn’t even know existed—an 18th- century military encampment. It was a hazy, hot, and humid day, yet there were campfires burning and loads of heavily dressed people, some in wool, toting muskets, pulling cannon, and handling other old fashioned paraphernalia of the day. Almost the moment I stumbled across this encampment, I had an immediate and strong gut reaction that said: “I need to do this.” That was the first surprise. I had no idea this would interest me.
Around 2008, I found out that specialized actors interpret real people’s lives. It seemed a natural progression for me to do the same. Everything I had accomplished so far affirmed that this would be the culmination of all my previous work. It was the perfect combination of education and entertainment that added so much value and purpose to my life that it would become my raison d’être. I’ve never even been tempted to turn back.
What is something you admire about President James Madison?
The obvious thing is his intellect. But I believe he was born with that. It’s what he did with his talents and how well he conducted himself that motivates me. His character traits included devotion to principle, high moral standards, strong ethics, a monumental drive and work ethic, purpose, passion, courage, grace, and dignity. He was also humble and very witty. The guy is a rock star.
It is my desire that my audience not only takes away that appreciation, but accepts a personal challenge to better their own conduct and contributions.
How do you prepare for a program in which you portray Madison?
In a word, study. My performances are not standardized: They evolve along with President Madison‘s life. James Madison lived to be 85 years old. I am currently 61. At 61, President Madison was in his second term, conducting the War of 1812. I may prepare for a program where Mr. Madison is younger or older. I may prepare for a program based on my client’s request for a particular topic or anniversary. For example, my latest performance was in Arlington, VA, for the National Conference of the Ministry of the Armed Forces. They requested a performance based on the First Amendment and specifically religious freedom. When I was in Saratoga Springs, NY, I performed Mr. Madison recollecting his 1791 journey with his best friend Thomas Jefferson. They traveled right through the area, including a stop at the Saratoga battlefield.
How long did it take you to become good at portraying Madison?
That is a difficult question because it is an ongoing process. I chose to study the life of President Madison for one year before rolling out a public performance. From that point forward, I made a solemn promise that my duty would always be to portray Mr. Madison as accurately as humanly possible in all aspects of personality and content.
What is something that Madison regretted about his presidency?
President Madison was the one that prosecuted the War of 1812. Upon retrospection, he wished he had acted sooner to replace incompetent field commanders. It would’ve been difficult, however, because there weren’t many suitable replacements.
What can modern Americans learn from President Madison?
I’m glad you’re asking that! As I gain more insight into the value of this kind of acting, I realize that the message doesn’t have to be academic. Because Mr. Madison displayed character traits of only the highest caliber, I believe the most powerful message today’s Americans can learn is to emulate Mr. Madison’s overall goodness; to conduct themselves in a manner commensurate with the highest standards they can possibly challenge themselves to. I know I am trying because of it.
By Cheyney McKnight