This One Goes to Eleven: Jessica Van der Veen

Hi. My name is Simon, and I’m a playwright, actor, and working theatre artist. I can claim all of these things to be fact today because of Jess. Hers was the very first acting class I was dragged to, by a doorman at some club I was flipping bottles in at the time, 15 years ago when I wasn’t even aware that normal people could even become actors. I wish a teacher like her on anyone starting down the path of the artist. Her eagerly-shared wisdom, love of storytelling, and fierce righteous indignation at the injustices of society managed to stoke something in me that I had theretofore been unable to articulate. That class gave voice to the artist I was born to be. Forgive me if I wax a little poetic, but hey, our mentors’ll do that to us, won’t they?

Jessica moved with her little family of artists from Van to Victoria a while back, where she has been quicksanding herself into the vagaries of bureaucracy to better arm herself in her quixotic pursuit of making the world a better place. Or, to put it simply, walking the walk. She was good enough to spend some time here to talk the talk.

jessica.jpg

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Potent.

2.) With no restrictions on length, describe the present condition of Vancouver theatre.

Oh for God’s sake Simon. How should I know? I’ve been away for some time now, although I just saw two Vancouver shows that kind of personify Vancouver Theatre. One from a senior company struggling to adapt to changing times, while not wanting to lose its core audience – which is tough, by the way: The actress was imported, in keeping with the national reach of the company, but then, is it Vancouver theatre? The acting was very good; the direction and pacing were beautifully shaped; the staging and sound scape were crashingly dull. (Acid test of theatre: why put it on stage at all? Is it really theatre or is it radio drama with costumes?) Some financial whiz thought up this idea for co-pros., forgetting that the big regional theatres should have enough funding to establish companies that can form some kind of continuity and creative identity instead of laying off all the master craftspeople several times a year. Otherwise, what’s the point of a regional theatre with all that fabulous technical potential?

The second show was an experimental work as part of the PuSh festival which was exciting, dangerous, rigorous, marvelous theatre – a feast of the senses — that had no business being so far away from the audience in the safe context of a narrow proscenium theatre. Loved it. Wanted it more in my face, maybe in the round. Someday soon you can do a big production in the round in YVR.

The present condition of Vancouver theatre is: young, healthy and pregnant! Young writers and the opportunity for mentorships at places like Playwrights’ Theatre Centre; new theatre buildings finally in progress; the cultural precincts; expansions with relations with Asia during a surge in interest in contemporary art in both China and India; brilliant young experimental companies; the PuSh festival; the art assembly, pitch sessions and projects like “Hive”; better communications amongst the ethnic communities; the writers’ strike and high dollar leaving creative people at loose ends; and hosting Magnetic North this year. There, that should get you started. The new Renaissance fund, Artspod and changes in capital gains tax laws for donations are going to make a huge difference in the sustainability of theatre in Vancouver.

3.) What is our main stumbling block towards developing a popular theatre?

There are two (of course):

1. Synthesizing cultures. Right now theatre is wrestling with so much diversity: racial; cultural; generational. Seems like people are talking about their audience, instead of trying to figure out who we are now. As a people. Personally, I can’t wait to fire the baby boomers from being in charge of everything – and I am a baby boomer! (Sort of.) There couldn’t be a better time to develop a wider audience for theatre because BC is so nascent, so in the process of evolving and so diverse. Many baby boomers still don’t believe they are going to die and haven’t really taken the time to imagine the world that will come after them. But — even though every generation thinks it is the last – they are gradually becoming interested in working with who is next. Not just who is next that resembles them – who really is next.

This, of course, means re-invention, and that is already taking place. Theatre is about identity. And our identity is in play. From now on. The moment we find an identity it will dissolve and morph something else. The reason Vancouver theatre is so rich now is that a lot of really creative people know that identity is in play and are playing with it. The ideological rut of post-colonial identity theory is being replaced by something far more exciting – precisely because no one has had a chance to define it yet.

2. We are afraid of being elitist, but we don’t want to be populist, but we want to be popular so we tend to neutralize ourselves in the middle and end up producing sitcoms. Face it: Some people are never going to the theatre. In those cases, we have to take the theatre to them. And folks are doing that in Vancouver. Meanwhile, indoors – speaking pragmatically – theatre will be popular when we make it trendy to be into theatre. Lots of people have rejected mass production. Vancouverites will drive across the city in that god-awful traffic to pay $14 dollars for a piece of fine cheese. Theatre marketing is partly about rarity, uniqueness of experience and that if you don’t get it now, it will be all gone and you might die and never know what it was like.

Is theatre elitist? One hopes it doesn’t need to be an economic divide that separates theatre goers from not-goers. But there is definitely a divide. This is partly just because we all have so much choice to pursue interests suited to our unique proclivities. But I don’t hate sports franchises because I don’t understand the point or the rules of football – so why would you get mad at theatre because a bunch of people don’t get it? You don’t get mad at Stephen Hawking because you can’t understand the mathematical boundaries he is pushing. It’s a bit pretentious to say that theatre isn’t elitist in this day and age – which is not to say that great theatre can’t have mass appeal.

Advice: Write a manifesto that says what you want to do with theatre that you can’t do with any other art form. Otherwise, like I said, take it outside – especially to children.

4.) How’s theatre doing in Victoria?

Victoria is amazing. Full of accomplished people who live here because they can. It is tiny – only 400,000 people in the Greater Victoria area. Professional theatre is a small world, defined by excellence – mainly at the Belfry. Chemainus theatre survives because of brilliant marketing and smart programming. New work is fostered and developed through the Belfry’s festival and through Jim Leard’s Story Theatre among others.. We have a new artistic director coming in, so the Belfry is beginning a new chapter. Scary big shoes for him to fill. Roy Surette left the Belfry in excellent shape. Then there is Kaleidoscope which Leslie Bland keeps growing, affording opportunities for children of all ages to see and participate in theatre. The Canadian College for Performing Arts is bursting with singin’, actin’ dancin’ folks – brimming with talent.

But there are also just these irrepressible Indies that won’t go away. So you have theatre SKAM and the Fringe and Intrepid Theatre and Theatre Inconnu and community based theatres and – who can keep up? The miracle is that they keep surviving and some are doing quite avant-garde work. UVic’s theatre department is in the mix too – and technically outstanding. The blue rinse crowd is grossly underestimated. They are a different bunch than they were 20 years ago, versed in modernism, weaned on Beckett, curious about form as well as content. The audiences are tiny for Indie theatre (like everywhere for now), but they are keen, by gum.

5.) What is our responsibility as theatre artists to our community?

Curiosity – the most underrated of all human qualities. I want to talk about big ‘C’ Community. We have a responsibility to think about our audience compassionately and respectfully, without being reduced to pandering. Spend time wondering about Vancouver people — their fears, their hopes and dreams, their ideas, their interests. Yes, we need to write what we know, be innovative, be thrilling, be all these things — but finally, when all is said and done, we must care enough about the audience that we want to hand them our hearts on a plate and, more importantly, we care what that means to them. Not whether they’ll buy a ticket. Not whether we hit a demographic. There is too much didacticism in the theatre. We need to care what they think. We need to be interested in them. We need to talk about them instead of having endless discussions about the state of the theatre. We need to wonder about their complex lives in this time and place. We need to spy on them. We need to see physical things around us that are unique to here and now.

You want to write what you know? Study specific people and places in the community that really fascinate you –get to know them – then write about them. You are the unique lens, but they are the picture. Then you will be so damn interested in what you are doing that the audience will be too. Lots of folks are doing crazy beautiful things – like theatre in swimming pools. Some of them are brilliant. All of them are worth trying.

6.) Can you quantify your approach to actor training?

Ah yes. What does it all add up to? Well, independence really. I want you to not need me anymore. I want to teach you how to think about what you need to do next to prepare a role. I want to teach you how to investigate. I want your technique, and your emotional and intellectual and physical flexibility and athleticism to be developed so that you are the artist. You know it and you own it. So I teach all those painfully dis-inhibiting rehearsal techniques – the ones that automatically make demands on you physically, vocally, emotionally, mentally — the ones everyone wishes they could skip because there is no way to do them and be cool or even contained at the same time. And then, somewhere along the way, actors realize that those techniques are like jumper cables and they just chuck them in the trunk and roar off into the distance.

I miss them. I love them. I’m glad they are gone.

7.) In our busy TV/film town, what responsibility do our acting instructors have to the proliferation of a sustainable theatre?

Exposure: Right now, academia owns theatre training in Vancouver. That’s wrong, because university entrance standards have been so high for the past 15 years that obedient straight A students have gotten all the spots. Some turned out to be good artists, to be sure. But there has to be room for eccentric, disobedient people to have access to training. The private training studios pander to film and TV wannabees. But fortunately for the students in all the training facilities, many of the coaches hired by the studios are stealthy. They sneak in good scripts. They sneak in theatre history notes while they are teaching technique. They create live performing opportunities. When one of those disobedient, eccentric, talented students collides with a stealthy coach and gets introduced to Canadian and world theatre…that’s what I’m talkin’ about! The rest is up to you.

8.) What’s the best piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?

Take care of your partner.

9.) Given a time machine, what would you tell the young Jessica just starting out on her career?

Travel more! Now I think maybe that isn’t so true because there is really exciting theatrical identity developing in Vancouver now. Just as exciting as Toronto or Montreal or New York. Sorry, nothing is as exciting as London right now. Vancouver is a TV town, and that is mighty distracting. In Vancouver people ‘get together’. In the East they ‘go to things’. I think that will change as all this new money gets bored with SUVs and starts wondering about the meaning of it all and buying art. I think it will also change because of the Asian ascendancy. A lot of Asians remember why art is a need, not a want.

Another good reason to go East: People aren’t so white bread, so afraid of being gooey, decadent, packed with protein, spicy, startling and not very good for you. The further East you go, the less afraid people seem to be of dying, which seems to free them to create and widen their idea of the ‘norm’. By the time you get to Berlin, even the playground equipment is perilous! By the time you get to India, there are way worse things than dying. In Vancouver you get hungry and you keep thinking you just haven’t found what you crave yet. In Victoria you get hungry and you go feed yourself in the galleries and theatres of Montreal or Toronto or Europe, or the temples and galleries and music and architecture of Asia.

10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Can’t stand reading acting text books anymore. Actors need to apprentice and study. Acting is a doing thing, not a reading thing. I’m glad I read them though – for the vocabulary. The really good ones are the rare diaries and biographies where actors actually talk about thrashing their way through preparing a role. Maybe I’ll write one – with a tiny section on acting technique and a huge section on everything else about trying to be an artist.

1. Just finished reading David Hare’s Obedience, Struggle and Revolt. It was so good to be in Europe where social discourse is seamless and people don’t view an impassioned debate as a social car accident.

2. The Annual Service Plan Report and the upcoming Review of Theatre Programs Report from the BC Arts Council. The City of Vancouver Arts and culture policy papers. Read this stuff folks. It affects your future.

3. Almost all of the published CBC Massey Lectures because they are almost always about perpetrating some kind of communicative act on society. Try On the Eve of the Millenium by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1994, Anansi) for a re-grounding in the responsibility to enlightenment thinking and what electronic technology is really doing to democracy. I seem to be returning to classical and modernist rigorous thinking. Post-modernism mostly seems lazy and sloppy, relativistic – and not very fertile. Diversity does not entitle us to make mush.

11.) What’s next?

Well, you know I went and did a Master of Public Administration at UVic. I wanted to really understand how the levers of power work, how government works, how power acts on people. One way or another, my life is headed for wrasslin’ with those levers. And you thought a theatre career was precarious! Meanwhile, I still teach workshops when I am asked, and I still adore doing it.

Oh look! A windmill! Must dash…

7 thoughts on “This One Goes to Eleven: Jessica Van der Veen

  1. Jessica is an amazing spirit and a force of nature! Great interview!

    Lucky enough to study under her and to have opened my defences and let her in to tinker with my inner artist.

    Life changing individual.

    Beautiful Hillarity.

    Thanks Jess!

    Thanks Simon for this.

  2. Jessica, I loved your interview. You are a free spirit. Why aren’t you a playwright? You seem to have what it takes. I laughed when you said: ” In Vancouver you get hungry and you keep thinking you haven’t found what you crave yet.” Yes, there is a big difference in appetite for cultural events between Vancouver and Montreal for instance. It is changing though.
    Thank you for sharing.

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  4. Pingback: Wanted: Theatre Artists for Civic Action « The Next Stage

  5. Beautiful, insightful and inspiring interview. Thank you for it.
    Hope to see you around Victoria soon!

    Nicolle Nattrass

  6. Pingback: Theatre adventures « The Next Stage

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