The Artist Formerly Known As: Jess McLeod

So Jess, how did you become interested in theater? How did it all start for you?

In theater, I’ve been interested forever. I used to do shows with the San Francisco Children’s Opera, and I did a couple of shows in high school, acting. But I was also involved in speech and forensics, and I became the coach of the team. I guess this sort of directed me towards acting. As a freshman, though, I came to Williams wanting to act, and I grew really dissatisfied with it.

I was depressed that my ethnicity limited my opportunities as an actor, and that I did not feel safe on stage. On the other hand, I knew what could be done to make other people feel safe on stage, so I decided to try directing.

I think I started directing because I stopped being able to answer or understand anything by acting. Being able to look at scenes rather than worry about how I looked or existed in them allowed me to focus, to ask clearer, bigger questions about the world we are in or are trying to possess. Directing lets me be as active as it is possible for me to be in the creation of a show.

I guess I just love the idea of theatre, the idea of someone so affected by a person, a place, an emotion that he or she must record it, order it or disorder it, so they make it into a play. I love that their experiences in some way touch another group of people so much that they actually want to spend four to six weeks of their life in a small, cramped room trying to figure out how it all works. It’s uplifting and terrifying and fascinating all at once.

So how did it start for you?

My sophomore year I directed a scene for Two Chairs and a Box and was totally bitten by the directing bug. Then, I co-directed the department fall production with David Eppel and that was wonderful.

And then I did a winter study play that Sarah Thomas [’01], who has graduated, had read and wanted to do. We had really good characters and great actors. I met some of the best actors I would later work with, doing this play.

So I came in my junior year having decided I wanted to direct. I wanted to have my own theater group and be able to just direct. I was kind of dissatisfied with the plays picked at Williams; I wanted to give actors more opportunity. I did a play called Zoo Story with Ian Lockhart [’02] and Peter Van Steemburg [’03] and I realized that’s exactly what I wanted to do. The three of us realized we had spent more than 100 hours together working on it. After this show, I needed a break. But then I did a winter study show called The Marriage of Bette and Boo.

Oh, I auditioned for that.

Be glad that you weren’t part of it. It was crazy, 10 actors, 33 scenes, done in three-and-a-half weeks. It left me emotionally wrecked, especially because while working on it, I was trying to exorcise some demons from my own family. But it didn’t get where I wanted, so I decided to do smaller shows. I did The Brick and the Wall, which was written in the ’50s about Brooklyn, NY. It had 10 actors, cast in three to five roles. We created a sound sequence that, if you closed your eyes, would make you think it was a city. We experimented with how voice and tone affect characterization.

And then, I had always wanted to do a musical, so I did Hello, Love, a one-act, 45-minute musical review. It consisted of 13 songs and a cast of seven. The cast were very courageous and talented people, and we really had a good time. Many people who saw the show thought that it was what Williams has been missing. After all, musicals are America’s theater art form, a tradition that is good to preserve.

What is a play or a musical you always wanted to do?

Oh, there are tons of them. Anyone Can Whistle by Stephen Sondheim is a musical done in the ’50s about sanity and bureaucracy and what people perceive as sane. It’s a huge-cast, blow-out musical that I don’t think we can do here. Another one is In Trousers by Bill Finn. It’s a four-person, quick, sharp and poignant musical about a guy who realizes he is gay.

When you hold auditions, what do you look for in an actor or actress?

If I call you back or cast you it is for one of two reasons: either you are really good or you fit a character really well, hopefully both. I have my favorite type of performer, but I have learned a lot from different types of people. I want the actors to like doing the show. Also, discipline and work ethic are key for me.

What is the most challenging performance you’ve directed?

The Marriage of Bette and Boo, by far.

Tell us about the plays you are doing this year.

For First Days, I did Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, a one-man show that was really hard to direct since the character speaks very little, spending most of the time listening to tapes he made in his youth. It was challenging to start with Beckett, who is perhaps the most influential figure in modern drama.

Now, I am doing Harold Pinter’s The Lover, a fantastic play. I can’t say enough about how good my actors, Dana Nelson [’02] and Ian Lockhart, are. I feel that the way the actors fit with each other, the show and me as a director is better than ever. I am also co-writing and directing the theatre senior seminar production. We are writing a murder mystery set in an insane asylum. It is really hard to both write and direct at the same time, but the people in the seminar are great to work with.

I am also going to do Romeo and Juliet as my thesis. I felt like I should do a classic play, a big show that is about youth. It’s the only show I am doing with no idea who I will cast. But I am convinced, since it is a show about youth, I will find the right people.

I am also going to do a show called Wonderful Time by Jonathan Marc Sherman. It’s very funny and brutal, poignant. The subject is the life of college students, and, I guess, feeling lost and not knowing what to do in life.

In the end of the year, I am going to do some modern drama, maybe Chekhov.

Sounds like a great plan!

Yeah, I’m excited. It’s crazy, it’s hard. I have some great parts for actors .I just want to say that none of the work I’ve done at Williams would be possible without the incredibly gracious support and encouragement I’ve gotten from the Theatre Department –– Deb Brothers, Cosmo Catalano, Bernie Bucky, David Eppel and Paula Shoots in particular.

Do you plan to continue directing after you graduate?

After graduation (and more or less for the rest of my life), I just want to keep making theatre –– directing shows, writing, seeing, watching them, talking about them. Any way I can do that in New York and still manage to eat, sleep and go to bars every now and then will be okay by me.

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