Jesse is an actor, playwright, director and an East 15 alumnus. He is Artistic Director of Bear Trap Theatre Company. His play Bound has won various awards including Edinburgh Fringe First in 2010 and has been performed throughout England and abroad.
For more on Jesse and Bear Trap please visit http://www.bear-trap.co.uk/.
Follow on twitter@youbigjesse
March 1st 2012
Bristol Old Vic
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a couple of pieces I’m doing through the company Bear Trap. One we’ve been developing for a year and half. Largely a family drama, part historical epic, set during the first crusades. It’s that classical story telling which we try and make intimate, things we use visually, music as well. This time we are working with a cellist. We are also doing, in contrast to that, quite starkly, a one woman autobiographical show, partly in the welsh language and partly in English, which is about our designer, Bud who designed Bound. She comes from a long family of farmers in Wales. It’s been in the family 300 years. So she’s becoming a theatre designer, her sister has become a workshop/website designer, and there’s no one to continue on the farm and essentially she feels a lot of guilt cause her decision signs the death of that farm. It started off with that as the idea for the piece, we devised it. With first crusade piece I am writing it and directing. With this piece I am devising it with Bud and directing.
What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of being both playwright and director on the same project?
There’s always the issue of distancing yourself from the project, particularly if you’re writer and director. You’re almost ‘god’… whatever you say goes. It can be like that. I try to refrain from being like that when im directing and give the cast as much leeway on the text as possible. And be gracious with how much I let them improvise and let things spill over. Its important, especially with a piece like Bound, which is an ensemble drama and requires a lot of fast interconnecting stuff and they need the freedom to spill over the text. One of the things that being an actor gives me is a sympathy for actors, a love of actors. When im working on a project I’ve written and directed there’s the potential you don’t give the actors much freedom and retain for yourself and allow yourself that width of depth and ideas and don’t neccesarily share with them. It becomes very close to you, its obviously difficult to see things objectively. I find you can become defensive when there noone else to share the blame.
Who or what inspires you.
I never intended to be a writer. I enjoyed creating my own work, but never really thought it was a possibility or an option to do and certainly not end up coming to the Old Vic from Somerset. In the world of new writing, it feels like the plays that are being written and produced are actually quite narrow. I think that’s partly dictated by those institutions, which supports new writing for example, the Royal Court or any of those lovely theatres. As a young writer, you have to write a certain style. I don’t feel what I write fits in very naturally in to that. I’m quite obsessed with classical. I’m not really interested in people who have real angst, inner emotions, domestic violence/abuse, all that troubled stuff. It’s never really interested me. I’ve always been interested in telling more archetypal stories. There is nothing really original about that. The stage I’m at, I really enjoy not borrowing, and not stealing, but looking back. I’m obsessed with history. I’m particularly interested in what’s human, funny or quite tragic, and how very quickly they turn. It’s particularly interesting, very strong comedy, and very strong tragedy, that actually they’re incredibly close. That within great tragedy we see some thing which is very human.
I have trained as an actor, and as a theatre maker. The majority of the work which I go and see, is devised work. I follow companies like Complicite. When they were developing Master and Margarita, they called a load of people to work shop it, I was lucky enough to be called in. I spent a few days working with Simon (McBurney) and it was incredible for me. Simon is like a demi god almost within the British theatre.
What is the best advice you have been given?
From Uri Roodner who trained me, “If you don’t run no one would follow you”. Uri is a really wonderful man, gives quite cryptic advice. That was a particular one for me. In my early parts of training, I was a very nice young man and was very interested in every one having a good time, creating theatre together. What that meant was we never got anywhere, and he said that to me. I was called in by the acting tutors with all the other people who were struggling and weren’t very good with attitude problems and all the rest of it. I thought I was doing all right and they said, you are working here, which is where every one else is working, but you’ve got the potential to be working…. here. And at the time I thought what’s the problem with that? I’m doing what every one else is doing? What’s the problem? I think, and this is perhaps another long conversation, about our British education system, society, and our culture. I was a state educated school kid. Almost afraid of really taking opportunities that I wanted to, and as soon as he hammered that into me, I kind of went through quite a painful process, well I’m going do what I want, I’m going to stop being so democratic in how I create work. I had just been treading water, as soon as I took that decision, I went BOOM.
I‘ve got two views on this. One which is a very kind of glib answer to, is just do your dream project. If it’s a dream project you probably never get a round to doing it. Just do the thing you want to do in that moment. Like for example the piece I’m working on, is a piece which I really love, and desperate to put on, set in the first crusades. Which is a huge effort. You should always put your self under pressure to do the project you really want to do at that moment. And absolutely trust in it.
Second view is on films. Bristol old Vic is my nearest theatre but it’s about forty five minutes drive away. Growing up in Somerset there was really no theatre in the area and I grew up watching films at the cinema. Wells has got a tiny little independent run cinema, I went to religiously. There something in me, where by I want to test myself in that medium as well and would really love to have a crack at that.
Best directorial note?
When an actor is not doing very well, I tell them, “Do it like Daniel Day Lewis would do it.” As soon as I give that instruction, their performance gets better. It’s funny… it never fails to. If you use it in a serious situation, it ejects a kind of note of lightness. People know what you are talking about. It’s committing. Daniel Day Lewis commits straight away, it’s that intensity which we are partly mocking but need to manufacture, for yourself…this is my intense work on acting and theatre. It has been accused by people from different countries, that British actors only act from the neck up. It’s the way we go about learning acting, it’s all psychological, and we separate it. People are entirely disconnected from their bodies. We’ve got an actor in the current company, who has never trained and he’s on par with everyone else in the company that have come from top drama schools. There is something which is just …. about not acting. I don’t think there is any thing really you have to do. It’s just listening. If you are really listening to what some one is saying, if you really hear it, everything takes care of itself. The directors should think as much as they can. They should go away and just think. But actors should be in the moment, just living and listening.
Final question. Is the director dead?
I don’t think the director’s dead. On your blog, you’ve got lots of older, much more experienced directors. And this is very presumptuous, but I think directing is actually very simple. It’s a balance. I try and give as much authority to the performers that is humanly possible. The cult of the director has become unhealthy. Everyone has gone to see shows where the ideas the directors had, killed the show and killed the actor’s natural playfulness. We see the director being somebody of overall charge. And I don’t see that. I see it as being the person helping the actors on to the stage. There is the point when the actors must ultimately own it. For me that’s the most important thing. Quite often it feels like a director owns the production, or a writer owns a production. I don’t think the directors dead. I think that role still exists, but it must evolve.
Thanks Jesse for sharing your thoughts!
“Error is not just acceptable, it is necessary for the continuation of life, provided it is not too great. A large error is a catastrophe, a small error is essential for enhancing existence. Without error, there is no movement. Death follows.” -Jacques Lecoq