On November 5, we talked with 2019 English alum Jennifer Steward about her position as COVID Compliance Officer for the HBO Max limited series "The Flight Attendant," the influence of internships, and the importance of fully exploring the ways an English degree can combine with other interests.
Tell us about your new position.
I recently had the opportunity to be part of a new position that was being integrated into media production as a COVID Compliance Officer (CCO). The main responsibilities of a CCO are to work alongside the tv/film production team to make sure that everyone is adhering to CDC guidelines (i.e. social distancing, wearing masks, properly disinfecting high touchpoints, etc.) as well as making sure that everyone is healthy and safe while filming.
The job position was offered to me by my boss at Write Act Repertory who has done both theatre and media production for several decades and was asked to put a CCO team for the HBO Max limited series, "The Flight Attendant," which is based on a novel by the same name by Chris Bohjalian. I had never heard of the position before, but I thought it would be an interesting opportunity. When was I going to get the chance to do something like that?
The best part about the job was being able to experience what it was like to be on a film set, especially during a pandemic. I got to see how the sets were built and where the prop houses were as well as getting to be on set while filming.
However, there were times where it was challenging because this was a production that had started filming before the pandemic so when people came back to continue filming it took some time for everyone to be acclimated to the CCO position and how serious we were about keeping people safe.
There were other precautions that the production had to partake in such as getting tested two to three times a week, having daily check-ins which included temperature checks and questionnaires, as well as zoning which was introduced to help the CCO team track everyone and make sure that there wasn't any cross-contamination between zones.
The overall experience was interesting, but I realized that it was something that I wouldn't do again. I enjoy working at my current job for an independent theatre company; going from a more laid-back work environment to one that was more fast-paced was something I wasn't used to. It was a great opportunity to be able to do something like that even if it was just to see if it was something I wanted to further pursue. At the end of the day I learned so much about what it takes to run a project of that scale as well as becoming more familiar with COVID-19 in the process.
What were key courses, experiences, or actions you took at Stevenson that you think helped you to get where you are now? Any advice you'd give to current students?
Out of all the courses I took at Stevenson the one that helped me most was the Internship class because it helped put into perspective that an English degree can be applied in a multitude of job fields. When I initially applied for an English degree, I took it because I liked to create stories, but over time, I realized that I had a soft spot for theatre so when it came to my internship in my junior year, I knew I wanted to do something with theatre. At first, I wasn't sure I would be allowed to do it because it was completely different than doing something in publishing or teaching.
Fast forward to the beginning of this year: In January 2020, I was asked to come back to Write Act Repertory, the same theatre company I interned for junior year. Since then have had the opportunity to work on two off-Broadway productions at two different theatres in New York as Assistant Stage Manager. One was a noir comedy musical called "Wicked City Blues" which was set up like a mystery theatre radio show. The other one was actually a musical I had worked on during my internship called "Frankenstein: A New Musical" which was a dramatic retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. We were also in the process of renovating a theatre in New Jersey, which we opened up in March right before lockdown.
The best piece of advice that I would give current English majors/minors is to not let your preconceptions of what an English degree is applicable to stop you from pursuing something. If you have additional interests, why not try to find something that can cater to those interests and look at job opportunities related to English in those fields? I would also take the opportunity in college to take courses in multiple areas of study because you might surprise yourself and find out that there was a potential avenue that you hadn't considered before and try to figure out how a degree in English can be useful in that field. I think what a lot of students will figure out is that there is a lot of flexibility in an English degree in terms of what it can be used for later down the line, so I strongly encourage people to keep those prospects open.
What's your five-year plan?
This is an interesting question because I honestly don't know what I will be doing in five years, I don't think anyone does. I'll probably still be working in theatre, but with the pandemic it's still up in the air as to when theatres will be opening back up again. Fortunately, I'm working with people who have other creative endeavors that I have helped with in some capacity, so that has been fun and has been keeping me busy. I think I would like to have at least a first draft of either a novel or a script together within the next five years, but then again who really knows what might come up in the future? That's kind of the weird thing about life, in general, is that anything can happen or change at any given moment so it's best to stay on your toes and be ready for anything.