Jen Keefe is no stranger to taking risks.
As any current or former Rivers senior knows, Senior Speeches can be exhilarating, but they can also be terrifying. Standing at the podium in front of all those people – the whole school, the whole faculty, a smattering of parents and siblings – can make anyone’s heart rate skyrocket.
But not Keefe. Never one to play it safe, she didn’t simply deliver her Senior Speech—she rapped it.
“I became a rapper one day in middle school and started rapping about how boring softball practice was,” she said. “And from that point on, I crafted a lot of rap parodies for different things – my Senior Speech, class projects, friends’ birthdays.” During her freshman year, she even served as MC for a softball teammate running for senior class president.
It is that moment – rapping her Senior Speech – that Keefe credits with inspiring her to pursue a career as a television actress. Keefe lives in East Harlem (with fellow Rivers alum Juliana Horn ’08) and spends her days running from audition to audition and from acting class to acting class in the hopes of following in the footsteps of comedians like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. She moved to New York after graduating from Hamilton College in August 2012 and promptly enrolled in the improv program at UCB Theatre.
Her ultimate dream? To have her own single-camera TV sitcom in the style of The Office and Parks and Recreation.
For now, though, it’s all about auditioning.
“January and February is considered TV pilot season,” she said. “Basically, the hope with these things is that the casting directors keep you in mind for any of their future projects.”
While auditions are certainly nerve-wracking, Keefe is seemingly immune to the pressure—and she credits Rivers with helping her develop a thick skin and an even keel.
“It’s a very specific nervousness I get when I audition – it’s more of an excited feeling than anything,” she said. “And I actually first identified that feeling right before my Senior Speech. It’s like standing at the top of a roller coaster—you’re really excited for the drop, and for the thrill that once you start, you can’t stop.”
Keefe said she has always been interested in pursuing a career as a performer – she visited Rivers last year to perform a stand-up routine, which you can see here
– but the acting bug bit her during her senior year at Rivers, when she decided to audition for the school play. As a three-sport varsity athlete, it was an opportunity she had never taken advantage of in her three-plus years on campus, and finally, that fall, she went for it.
“It was kind of a High School Musical situation,” she said.
Keefe quit soccer, and just like Troy Bolton, she came out of nowhere to nab the lead role as Princess Gloriana in The Mouse That Roared, a play about a fictional country that breaks out into war with a neighboring country because it is counterfeiting its main export.
Keefe has never forgotten something that English teacher Jennie Jacoby said to her after her performance.
“She said, ‘Your ability to become someone else is just outstanding,’” Keefe recalled. “She said, ‘Are you going to pursue this? You have to.’ And that, coming from her – who had raised such an amazing actor as Miles Jacoby ’07 – really stuck with me.”
While Keefe is still awaiting her first callback, the moment she calls her “turning point” came just a couple of months ago. She had the opportunity to perform in front of the owner of Actor’s Green Room (AGR), who is also a casting director in New York City. AGR is an organization that hosts showcases for actors, allowing them the opportunity to perform in front of casting directors.
“Coming from cozy communities like Rivers and Hamilton, AGR has been the ‘academic adviser’ that I had been missing in this industry,” Keefe said. “When you move to New York, you kind of just keep chugging until someone notices you, and AGR has made becoming a TV actress seem not only tangible, but inevitable.”
Someone certainly noticed Keefe that fateful day right before Thanksgiving. Her teacher suggested that she perform her scene from Bad Teacher as herself—“deadpan Jen Keefe.” Keefe took that advice, to the delight of the casting director.
“When it was my turn to perform, she was doubled over in her chair laughing and said some unexpected, crazily complimentary things,” Keefe said. “Here was this highly respected person in the business saying that I could actually do this—whereas before, I just kind of hoped that I would make it”
As Keefe thinks back on that day, she credits the Rivers community – the values of excellence with humanity it promotes, the nurturing it provides – with helping her get one step closer to achieving her dream.
“My greatest preparation for that performance was that for 24 years, I have been so lucky as a person to have known exactly who I am, and to have supportive people around me encouraging me to be that person,” she said.
Keefe recalls one specific moment when that realization hit her. It was her freshman year at Rivers, and she was in a progress meeting with her hockey coaches. Math teacher Kristin Harder said to her, “You are unapologetic for who you are.”
Keefe has never forgotten that—and given how much success that credo has brought her thus far, it’s unlikely she ever will.