Editor's Note: Veteran Orange County actress Jennifer Bishton was found dead in her Fullerton home in the early hours of Feb. 2. She was 38 years old. Fullerton police are calling the death an “apparent” suicide, though the case remains open pending toxicology results. OC Weekly theater critic Joel Beers–also a playwright in whose work Bishton had appeared–offers this remembrance.
Jennifer Bishton was one of local theater's most towering presences in the 1990s and early 2000s, performing scores of times, with nary a bad review, on stages ranging from Fullerton College and the Tribune Theatre, to STAGESTheatre and Rude Guerrilla.
She tackled impossibly complicated roles with a dedication and intensity riveting to behold. As written, the characters she portrayed were elusive and turbulent, be it the eerily fractured Mae in Marie Irene Fornes' Mud, to the domineering Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
But though she played plenty of angry, controlling and wounded characters, Bishton possessed a scary talent at making even the most monstrous characters feel keenly real.
“It was uncanny how every time I interacted with her on-stage it was like I was dealing with the most private part of another person,” said Michael Brainard, who played William Blake to Bishton's mystically-bent Joanna Southcott in a 2001 Stages production of my play Prophets, Profit and William Blake. “It was a part that I'm not sure manifested often off-stage but, in that moment, it demanded an actor respond with everything they were capable of. She was one of the most challenging, and rewarding, people I've ever worked with.”
Anyone familiar with Bishton off the stage knew that her intensity and commitment weren't limited to performances. She possessed a mighty spirit that manifested in her refusal to ever back down in a debate, and an unyielding zest for championing the underdog, from helping to save abandoned animals to speaking in favor of the campaign to preserve open space in Fullerton.
Bishton hadn't worked much in local theater the past decade, choosing to pursue film and theatrical workshop opportunities in Los Angeles. But those fortunate enough to see her at her peak couldn't help but be blown away by the raw emotion she channeled.
Whether her characters trafficked in calculated subterfuge or explosive volatility, they were portraits of frustrated human ambition and emotion. She forced her audiences to reckon with her characters. She was a steely-eyed, serious thespian and multifaceted artist who used every role as a canvas to explore some aspect of the human condition.
What that exploration led her to discover about herself is anybody's guess, but this much is for certain: Few local actors have ever brought as much of themselves to their craft as Jennifer Bishton. Fewer still could claim such a legacy of consistent, searing excellence.
A memorial service for Jennifer Bishton will be held this Saturday at 1 p.m. at Oak Canyon Nature Center, 6700 E. Walnut Canyon Rd., Anaheim.