Geographies of Language: An interview with John Jesurun

by John Jesurun

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for Geographies of Language: An interview with John Jesurun

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

CARIDAD SVICH: I think if you were to ask people on the street what they thought of when they heard the word “innovation,” the response might be something along the lines of something to do with technology. So much, after all, of the technological progress in this, the digital age, has been in that area. I would hazard, that unless someone were thinking about 3D technology in film and CGI, motion-capture or other aspects of animation in film, the word “theatre” or “live performance” would rarely come up. But, of course, as practitioners in the field, we strive for excellence and personal, creative innovation, I hope, every day.

When I first came upon your work, it was on the page. It was the play White Water in the TCG publication On New Ground. I never had seen anything quite like that play. I was smitten with it and baffled by it (on the page). in a good way. It haunted me. I was a grad student in theatre at the time. in my first year of grad school, and I had no idea what this beautiful text was, but I knew it was different and that it knocked me off my seat and hit me hard. The innovation for me was visible on the page in terms of structure, use of language – the poetry of it and the possibilities the language offered to re-think everyday life.

Now I would guess that when most people think about your work, they think of your design – scenic/media – first. Perhaps before the poetry of your language. They think about the images and your manipulation of them. That’s just a guess. But we live in a visual culture and often images do come first for folks. However, I can’t help but think that even on the page without copious photographic accompaniment, your manipulation of language is what startles me and continues to wake me up as an artist. All to say: innovation with language. How we hear it in the theatre/performance. How we are conditioned to hear it. And how meaning and form shift before us as spectators of your work because of your use of language. Can you talk about this? In terms of the evolution of your work? Or projects in which you are currently involved?

JOHN JESURUN: I come from a bilingual family (Spanish/English) and early on I learned that language had the potential to be very fluid. For me this generated an endless interest in the mysterious origins of constructions, meanings and incongruous forms inside people’s heads. The idea that thoughts could travel simultaneously in parallel but not symmetrical paths inspired a lot of possibilities. Not only about language but about kinds of space. I tend to think of forms in context to one another so ideas about one form get reflected into another form. For example, I can relate language to architecture in that it is a kind of construction full of support systems fused with design elements that hold it together. To me the difference with language is that the building doesn’t always have to stay up. Conversations can be built and fall apart and altered and rebuilt again to great effect over time in a performance. The nature of logic, persuasion and emotion gives the geography of language its amazing layers and variety. Within these natural ups and downs we can trace bodies attempting to communicate through sound and space. They have ceased to become objects or flat images. Garbo speaks!

My own writing began very quickly out of necessity. I had to write a new episode and present it every week. It immediately set me to interrelate speed, economy and form to content. These demands opened up areas full of untapped content integrated with form. Quandaries like “form follows function,” “the form IS the content” always interested me since art school. Because of this time and form restraint the most important ideas came to the forefront and the rest went on the back burner. I had to fill time and space with words. I was thinking specifically “film/video mediated time” which was different to me than live time. It was a more compacted way of deciphering content. I realized then that as forms, technology, society change, the content also begins to change to address it. These changes influenced my writing, its content and form. A lot of the early work looks like e-mail posts. There is a conversation of short sentences but you can’t always tell who it’s between. In some ways it was more about making contact than telling stories or exchanging content. It juxtaposed the idea of clarity with the rapidly increasing ubiquity and safety of the vague. One thing that was there was the constant collision of word/ideas as if the language was revolting against itself. Sections of the early work were usually punctuated by short monologues which over time have gotten longer and longer. I think what previously was spread out over many consecutive sentences has now merged into longer slower forms. Forms equally as considered but with a different sense of time. All this was developing as the technology integrated with it developed. My writing was greatly dependent on the talents of the actors and their ability to deal with the technology. Many of the more difficult texts I wrote were inspired by their willingness and ability to perform the challenge. Since the text ,design and direction were formed together they always had an intimate relationship with each other. From the beginning, the fragility of the technology made me into a survivalist. Meaning that even if this technology broke we would still have the text and the speaker. So the text had to be able to survive on its own. My directive to the actors was: “If everything breaks, even if we are in complete darkness, as long as you keep talking we still have something.”

As far as the content goes, early on we wouldn’t find out what it really was about till halfway through the run. Not so much anymore but this was the excitement of discovering yourselves through your work. The content usually demands its own form. Part of the challenge is to get them to work together. Often the apparent “story” would parallel the actual stage and media setup. An example, Deep Sleep (1986) was “about” a struggle between mediated screen characters and live performers over who was real, who was trapped in whose world. Onstage the live actors conversed with the screen presences by speaking in the prescribed blank areas of the sound track. The screen actors and live performers were interlocked inside a mediated structure that stifled their identities.

CARIDAD SVICH: I want to chat a little bit about dreaming. not the sleep kind. but perhaps the value of quixotic dreams in the process of making art? This goes to also not looking for the end goal immediately/ the “product” – which I think in at least US culture is quite prevalent model for working – often “what is it?” “what is it about?” are the first questions asked of the work in order to fix it in place but if you are interested in fluid meanings and fluidity itself as an artist, such questions may not even apply.

JOHN JESURUN: I do think the value of just making “work” has been devalued in search of a “product”, complete and saleable, ready for the gallery, ready to eat. The message is that it should mean only one thing, rather than possess fluidity, that confuses people. Meaning we don’t want to see any “artist marks” on it. It should look like defineable, accessible work otherwise it has no “value” in the market. And that may be true for a certain kind of market. This removes the artist’s fingerprint from his/her own work. It diminishes any real out of the box searching. It makes it a different kind of art work. There is work now that artists show each other that they would never show an art bureaucrat. I think this expectation of showing the “market” work removes the conversation between artists, each other and the audience. There’s now kind of a private work and a more public work going on which is too bad. This reticence to reveal one’s real direction is a mark of the conservative, cautious times. Its too bad to see such a lack of real instinct and fearlessness. It seems the stakes are high though with so much competition. It sounds like I’m talking about the business world doesn’t it?

This makes me think of probably the dozens of rock songs I can listen to for years and I still have no idea what they “mean” but they do have a meaning. And they mean something to many people. But they aren’t sitting around judging the value of the meaning. They are experiencing it. That these songs continue to resonate is a testament to the powerful, fearless intent in their creation. Luckily they will never be subject to stifling academic arbiters the way much “independent progressive” theater is nowadays. But I think that’s because that music culture rejected those controls and was able to survive long enough to make some great work. Certainly with the help of some enlightened music companies of the time.

Alas, I don’t think the non-profit industrial complex is half as enlightened as those apparently more commercial music producers were. They really believed in that work and the people that made it.

CARIDAD SVICH: What are you working on now? What new or old questions are you asking and demanding of the work and why?

JOHN JESURUN: Right now I’m working on several things. I’m in Japan researching the 17th century writer Saikaku Ihara for the second part of my last work Stopped Bridge of Dreams. Saikaku wrote many amazing stories about daily life at that time. I’m also working on my continuing webserial Shadowland. Part of it is written by me and part of it improvised by the actors. This is a very different way of working for me which I have found very enriching to the whole experience. Also, shooting and editing everything is much more immediate and satisfying way of working for me right now than theater. We can cover a lot of ground and content in a very intimate way. There is no desperate need for narrative. It’s film, video, poetry, internet so in that way it’s a very liberating experience in many ways and has opened up the door to working with many new people and ideas. The form allows for fluidity and exactitude at the same time.

CARIDAD SVICH: Do you think of your poetry differently now than when you first started writing?

JOHN JESURUN: I think my writing has gone through different periods. It developed from short episodes to longer high speed pieces full of urgency which would stop once in a while for a bit of poetry. There was a real period of “the fast and the furious” in the writing which gradually slowed down some and became more poetic and intricate as far as use of words. Now it seems to be a mixture of both. With the work on my new serial it has opened it up to all of these things mixed with natural conversational tones and improvisation. Since the beginning I’ve tried to bring the world into the writing with multiple references to all kinds of history and culture. Now with the serial it has brought even more of the world into it in terms of content. The simultaneous combination of personal, social and political ideas for me is much more expansive with video. It puts even more demands on the writing I find. The camera and the editing are writing tools as well for me as they are in my stage work.

CARIDAD SVICH: How do you keep challenging yourself? And how have you maintained commitment to your vision as an artist over the years?

JOHN JESURUN: For me, in terms of creativity, one show usually leads into another. Finishing one show always leaves questions and new challenges that need to be met. Making them happen is another question. Thankfully there is still an underground economy of artists that work beyond the marketplace. I think these artists keep each other going. You really have to go where the work is. I’ve been able to work a lot in other languages which greatly interests me. Its also expanded my work in many ways I hadn’t imagined. Challenging ideas in our world are not only associated with technology. All kinds of innovations are happening without technology as the reason. In some ways technology has taken over for what is thought to be creativity. Forms are repeatedly tossed aside only to return again with a vengeance. Remember when painting was “dead?” I think fluidity of connections between all these forms regardless of technology is important. If not you are just following the technology or technique when it should be following you.

John Jesurun: Since 1982 he has written, directed and designed over 30 pieces including: the media trilogy of DEEP SLEEP (1986 Obie), WHITE WATER and BLACK MARIA, his serial play CHANG IN A VOID MOON, FIREFALL and PHILOKTETES. Fellowships: NEA, Asian Cultural Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MacArthur, Rockefeller and Guggenheim. Varied work includes Harry Partch’s opera “Delusion of the Fury”, Faust/How I Rose at BAM, and Jeff Buckley’s music video “Last Goodbye”. Published by TCG,PAJ, NoPassport Press. STOPPED BRIDGE OF DREAMS at La Mama, January 2012. His new video serial SHADOWLAND now on Vimeo.

Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus).