Jess received a Barrymore Award nomination for Outstanding Ensemble in "A 24 Hour The Bald Soprano" and for "Pay Up" with Pig Iron Theatre Company. Other acting credits include work with Shakespeare in Clark Park, Flashpoint Theatre Company, The Walnut Street Theatre, Cabaret Red Light, Revival Burlesque, and The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret. Jess has a BFA from Arcadia University and is currently studying at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training.
1. Who or what inspired you to work in theatre? When I was going into 5th grade, the middle school came to the elementary school and gave presentations about extracurriculars. I remember watching a scene from Damn Yankees--my eyes were as big as saucers and I said "I want to do THAT," and my 4th grade teacher said "Oh I can definitely see you doing that." So I was an early in life, traditional theater bug, school play kind of kid. My first lady inspiration was PJ Harvey--listened to her stuff over and over growing up. The way rock musicians tell stories and have this power surging from their feet to their fingers is theatrical delux to me. I was a big rock concert goer growing up too. Wasn't until recent years when I put it together that I could mesh my love of these two things into something that is concrete for me as an artist.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? My Philly fantasy baseball team is some kind of wild installation piece collaboration with Thaddeus Phillips, Kate Wawa and James Sugg. Something with music and modern dance that feels like an event rather than a play. Those three are so good at creating worlds that actually transport an audience somewhere ELSE. They are playing ball on a whole 'nother level.
My global fantasies are touring the world with the Spiegel tent in some kind of cabaret context, ala the likes of Camille O'Sullivan (Irish cabaret singer) and creating a metal cabaret that opens for Ozz Fest. A gal can have it all, right?
3. What made you start the "Rock & Awe" series? I've been dabbling with narrative cabaret at the Late Night Cabaret in the Fringe Festival for the past few years. Scott Johnston (who runs the LNC) was really pushing me to experiment as a vocalist and take the risk to use the Festival as an opportunity to do whatever crazy thing I want. So I got some friends together and we made a night of 80's hard rock/metal tunes that later turned to A is for Anna Condain the October production of the Rock and Awe series. That was in 2009. Then in 2010, I put together a band and dancers and we covered Radiohead's Hail to the Thief Album in its entirety in the next LNC. Both of these shows had a lot of synergy and got great feedback from audiences. I was hooked. When BRAT offered me a residency, I proposed doing a quarterly rock cabaret series because I really wanted to dig into this form that I had been dabbling with. Focusing on rock cabaret for a whole season lets me play with many genres, explore working with a variety of musicians and actors and gives me the time and space to figure out what about this style works for me. It's like a big speed dating session for me to discover who and what I like to work with.
4. This installment of "Rock & Awe" is called "Let's Start A War." What made you want to tackle politics and class warfare? I think the conversation about the haves and the have nots is probably one of the most important issues we are facing as a country and a planet today. There is an incredible gap between the rich and the poor and incredible anger about that fact. I feel like we are living in a time where more and more people believe they will actually end up worse off than their parents (myself for one), and where people care less about humanity and more about things like celebrity and material possessions. That's the American dream walking backwards. Plus, with the election looming, there is a great buzz about our political system and how it is influenced/corrupted by money. All of this sets a great stage to use art as a conversation starter.
5. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing "Let's Start A War"? I hope audiences will see our hyperbolic world and be jolted a little bit by the thought that we are actually not that far off from this kind of distorted reality. I hope they will think about how money influences politics and how that can really skew perceptions of what is fair and right. But I also hope that the show does not come off as one sided. It's not as simple as "rich people are bad and poor people are good." There is a great anger at the core of the actions that some characters take in the play, and I hope audiences can discuss how anger does not make things better. Anger can mangle the well-intentioned. In this cabaret, everyone does awful things, thus leveling out the playing field and making everyone's problems all that much more difficult to solve and come to terms with.
6. How did you decide to use the music of the Dead Kennedys for "Let's Start A War"? Originally I broke each cabaret up by musical genre. This third one was going to be the "punk rock cabaret." In looking at punk music, the scope of subject matter is so broad and varied, one can't really be all things punk in one show. So I started thinking about the Dead Kennedys, who are one of my favorite punk bands because they are so theatrical and because their song writing is so complex and musical, not just your typical three chord punk song. Jello Biafra is such a master of satire, and his lyrics pack a punch with deep, clever insight. He's awesome. I was especially inspired by this particular Dead Kennedys song, "We've Got A Bigger Problem Now" (a version of the song "California Uber Alles").
It has this great lounge section that runs throughout the song. That was the jumping off point for everything in this show. I saw a setting for a cabaret in that song. I wanted to go to the specific cocktail party in that song. So we set the show at that party. It's a location that is handled satirically in the song, but in our show it's very real--we are imagining a cocktail party that is a political fundraiser for a candidate who has some disgusting beliefs, but who is loved and admired by the wealthy. It's a dystopia--it's a fictional America, maybe one 50 years from now, if money keeps being at the center of political decisions.
7. What have you learned about yourself from your various ventures in theatre? I know that I work best collaboratively--I'm not the kind of artist who likes to be alone in my room writing scripts or have a solitary artistic process. I feed off of the ideas and energy of a group. I know that I'm "too musical theater for rock and roll and too rock and roll for musical theater," and am working to walk that tightrope and spin that reality in my favor.
8. What's the best advice you've ever received? "Sometimes you gotta kill your babies," a spin on the old William Faulkner quote about killing your darlings when writing. You make a scene or a bit or whatever and ultimately if it doesn't serve the story, let it go. Sometimes your best idea isn't right for the piece; or it was until the direction of the piece changed everything. Or, in a cabaret contect, sometimes you have a 17 song set list, and you're better off playing 12 songs. I have a friend who says write something, and then cut a third of it immediately. This kind of thinking and ability to edit without feeling precious helps the audience get the most clear storytelling possible--and that's ultimately who we make the work for.
9. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? Gee I don't know, maybe Alice in Wonderland? She had some adventures that would make for good visuals.
10. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? Flying. How badass would that be? Plus, I wouldn't have to rely on trains, busses or cars for my daily commute.