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Interview: Jessica Rose McVay Chats WRITTEN ON THE WAVES

The artistic director discusses creating interactive theatre online for audiences in lockdown

Interview: Jessica Rose McVay Chats WRITTEN ON THE WAVES

Jessica Rose McVay is Artistic Director of 45North, the women-led production company. We spoke to her about the Written on the Waves storytelling project, a season of theatrical works crafted for audiences to enjoy during lockdown.

Who inspired you most growing up?

Wonder Woman is the first one I remember, but not the "real" Wonder Woman. When I was about five years old, I spent a lot of time in the hospital to fix a hole in my heart. My mom told me Wonder Woman stories sitting next to my hospital bed. In these stories, Wonder Woman's alter ego was a strong, brave young girl called Jessica.

Through those stories, I projected myself out of my body and out of the hospital into the world to try and make it a better place. For Halloween, which was sometime around then, I dressed as Wonder Woman - the ultimate homage from a five-year-old.

How have you found the past year? And what brought you hope or joy in 2020?

I have been filled with joy when speaking to any and all of the incredible creatives we have worked with this year. They inspire me with their creativity, ingenuity, and determination, and have kept us going through this horrible time.

There is nothing more joyful and inspiring to me than hearing creatives talk about their work. On a personal level, video calling my nephews and nieces back in the States on the weekends is always an absolute joy.

And I was filled with hope when the U.S. election was finally called for President Joe Biden. As Americans [McVay is from Minneapolis, Minnesota], we have a lot of work to do, but I felt relief and hope, which I felt again when he was sworn in earlier this month.

How did the Written on the Waves venture come about?

It would not have happened without Ellie Keel. When the theatres closed in March 2020, Emily Carewe, 45North's Creative Producer for Theatre, and I had just met Ellie and started to talk about working together.

We spent a lot of those early weeks of lockdown talking about what we could do to create exciting and engaging content for audiences, and especially how to keep freelancers working. The original trilogy, Loss and Hope, came to us through Ellie and [theatre company] Atticist, and from there, Ellie and I decided to create a season of work. The rest, as they say, is ongoing history.

What can we expect with the season?

The pieces unlock your imagination, each in their own way. Your imagination creates the images of the story so that everyone will experience these pieces differently. That doesn't happen in TV, film or theatre. And as we close out Season 1, the shows will include a family/kid focused piece, the story of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and a final piece that will expand upon what Written on the Waves does even more. Stay tuned!

How did you find developing and producing the season?

The You Plays were supremely exciting to develop and produce. Both small acts and The Haunted Woman ask the audience not to sit back and listen, but to engage with the world around you while you listen - and in the case of The Haunted Woman, to make something. It is exciting to push the boundaries of the genre, and Rafaella Marcus does it elegantly and imaginatively.

What inspired you to incorporate interactive elements for the audience, and were there any challenges?

The really pragmatic problem was when we asked ourselves, "What can people reasonably do wherever they listened to the piece?" Then Rafaella and Jessica Lazar, the director of both You Plays, worked through the development process to integrate the interactive elements, giving the audience enough time to do them without interrupting the momentum of the narrative.

Rafaella came to us with The You Play: small acts wanting to look at ways that during the first lockdown a piece could allow audience members to have the feeling of being together: the communal heartbeat, the synced breath.

There is a moment at the beginning of The You Play: small acts where Rafaella wrote: "You can do this at any time. But why don't you wait until the hour reaches sixteen minutes past? That way you'll know there's a chance that someone, somewhere, is doing it at the same time as you." I read that, and I was hooked. Even reading it made me feel connected.

That was the first interactive element. The You Play Volume Two: The Haunted Woman pushes this idea further - how your actions when listening affect your fear response, your body, your breath, temperature, etc.

Why do you think we should be continuing to create theatre at the moment, even if it's for an online audience?

Creating is an act of hope, determination, and defiance in the face of everything we have faced this last year. I miss the theatre deeply and sometimes soul-crushingly, but the need for creativity has not stopped for the artists and audiences alike.

If nothing else, this time has been a call to arms for me as a producer - how do we as a small company employ as many freelancers as we can when they have been so badly left out of funding offerings.

What do you think makes a good ghost story?

Ooh, this is a tough one for me. I am a huge wimp with horror and ghost stories - I blame my brothers, who made me watch Poltergeist when I was about seven. But I think the best ones tap into the psychology of the audience.

Ghosts appear at breaking points for the protagonists a la Beloved. Sethe is on the verge of some happiness when Beloved arrives to remind her of the horrors of her life as a slave, her escape, and the death of her oldest daughter.

Toni Morrison is a master, and I think it is an incredible example of the fact that the best ghost stories are also metaphors for larger evils in the world, lives unlived, and reflections of our darkest selves.

As a company, you've also launched the Seed Commission Scheme. Can you tell us more about that and how we can get involved?

We launched our original Seed Commissions in 2020 which ran throughout the lockdowns and through which we have worked with six amazing artists and teams to create first drafts of new works.

In 2021 we are pivoting that scheme, engaging with two individual artists we admire to work with specific groups of underrepresented artists to create first drafts. Our first group for the year will be led by the incredible Tabby Lamb and is open to all Trans and GNC artists.

We will announce the second lead artist and group in the summer. Watch our social channels for more information.

Any advice for aspiring producers and directors?

As both a producer and director, the best advice I have ever read or heard was "don't be afraid to ask for help or say you don't know". You have a team, and somewhere in the room is the best answer to the question.

Most of the time, the answer won't come from you. Your job is to hear the best ideas in the room and grow them to create the best production.

If you can, do or at least learn about every single person's job. Not so that you can do the job, but so you understand the artistry of all the people you work with on stage, off stage, front of house and everywhere between.

Additionally, leave the ladder down for others. And as Samuel Beckett so beautifully said, "Fail again. Fail Better."

Why should people tune in to The Haunted Woman and the rest of the Written On The Waves season?

Rafaella is pushing the boundaries of what audio drama can be. The Haunted Woman is terrifying and exciting in equal measure; it's an intimate experience that still sends chills down my spine, so dim the lights, get your paper, pencil, tape and scissors, and follow the prompts.

And after you listen, engage with some of the other digital work that is being offered at the moment. Right now I am really excited about the newly announced season from Northern Stage.

The Haunted Woman is available online now

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