EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Nescha Jelk, Resident Director at The State Theatre Company of South Australia and Co-Founder of Tiny Bricks Theatre

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Nescha Jelk. Photo credit: Tiny Bricks Theatre

Arguable Adelaide’s hottest theatre director at the moment, wunderkind Nescha Jelk has dazzled local audiences with electrifying productions as diverse as ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Jesikah’. In COLLAGE’S latest interview, she talks about the sanctity of theatre and her latest show, ‘Deluge’, one of the most sought after shows at this year’s Adelaide Festival.

Q: Was there a particular theatre show that you watched that sparked your interest in theatre directing?

A: I don’t think I can really pinpoint one show that made me want to be involved in theatre. My passion for theatre was mainly sparked through being involved in drama through school. I remember really enjoying it from a very early age. I still remember the first show I did at school in reception, it was about the alphabet. I had to hold up a big letter ‘N’ and say ‘N’ was for number.

In terms of shows I’ve seen recently that has really inspired me, it would have to be Roman Tragedies that was at the Adelaide Festival.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 3.02.27 pmA scene from ‘Roman Tragedies’

Q: You went to Pembroke, was it a good foundation in building your interest in theatre?

A: I had some amazing teachers when I was there. I had Mrs. English who was an amazing influence. I really enjoyed the International Baccalaureate programme, and I remember picking it because it meant I could do drama five days of the week instead of four, I just really wanted to do drama everyday.

Q: And what about Flinders University?

A: Flinders was pretty formative and incredible. All through high school I did drama outside of high school with Actors Ink. I always thought I wanted to be an actor, but then when I started Flinders, it was at the end of my first year, one of my teachers who I still keep in touch with today, Anne Thompson, asked to have a meeting with me and sat me down and said, “Look, I think directing might be something you’re interested in.” So she asked me to do directing in my second year as well as acting and it was a ridiculous workload but I enjoyed it.

Q: So directing was something you really only discovered at Flinders then?

A: Yeah, I never considered it before. I thought I was too young, and I didn’t know any young female directors, and so I didn’t really see it as an option for me because I didn’t know that they existed. I remember when I was in first year and I was doing tech for a director studying at the time I think her name was Kerry Fausto, and I was like, she’s young and female and that kind of blew my mind a bit that they existed.

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Left to right: Anne Thompson, Sarah Goodes, and Lee Lewis

Q: What would you say your inspirations are in this field or outside of it?

A: Anne Thompson is a pretty monumental person in my life. Throughout my directing, training, and still to this day I keep in touch with her. She’s at Flinders still at the Drama Centre.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really awesome female directors in my time. There’s been Amara Savage, Sarah Goodes was one who I absolutely adored working with. Lee Lewis who’s the artistic director of Griffin Theatre. There’s an awesome plethora of female directors out there who are pretty kick arse.

Q: Do you like having absolute control of the production as a theatre director?

A: It’s not so much absolute control, I just like the process, where the start of the show is to be coming in with an idea, and offering that idea to a group of people or provocation I suppose and just being able to collaborate with a bunch of people. I kind of thought that directors had to be this all knowing, omniscient being that knew the answers to every question ever and the wisdoms of the world to pass as divine knowledge to audiences.

One of the things I learnt at Flinders that Anne got me thinking about is that you don’t actually need to know all the answers. A play should never be an answer; a play should always be a question that you’re asking the audience. I view it as my job as a director is to come with a strong provocation and an idea of where we want to travel to but still being open to collaboration and the fact that I have all these other brains in the room to feed into the show and I don’t have to be the one to come up with everything.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 3.10.25 pmA scene from Nescha’s 2014 production of ‘Othello’. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Q: I thoroughly enjoyed your 2014 production of ‘Othello, how do you decide which acts to direct? Do you get a say in which shows you want to direct?

A: Well at the State Theatre Company of South Australia where I’m currently in my final year as Resident Director, Geordie Brookman will ask me to pitch some ideas for him or he might have a specific genre or period, and other times he might have a show that he’s like, “Can you direct this?”, and luckily every time he’s done that, I’ve been “Yes I can”.

Q: What’s it like being so prominent in theatre at such a young age?

A: I don’t see myself as being particularly prominent, but I have been extremely lucky. I’ve also worked really hard. I’m so fortunate having this job at State Theatre Company and opportunities like ‘Deluge‘, but I also know that I have unemployment ahead of me, which is the nature of being a freelance artist.

Q: Why should theatre still be a relevant medium in the age of Netflix and YouTube where entertainment is instantaneous?

A: Because theatre is live and it’s in front of you and it’s visceral. You’re amongst an audience and it’s a shared experience and for these reasons, it still has value.

Q: Where do you see the local Adelaide theatre scene going in the next five to ten years?

A: There are some really exciting companies coming up. There’s Back Porch Theatre for example, they’re doing a play this year called “Schmidt” with Lachlan Maybury directed by Sarah Dunn who is another local female director. There’s also five.point.one, and the Duende Collective have just gotten together again and are doing shows at the Fringe.

I think the independents in Adelaide these past few years have been gearing up again and reenergising a bit. And I think the city in the past four, five years has changed a lot and revitalised. I feel like there’s sightly less of an exodus, with people either wanting to stay or come back. I think there’s a bright future ahead.

Q: Tell us about Deluge.

A: Deluge started 3 years ago when Phillip Kavanagh asked me to come in for a creative development. Phil wanted to write a large cast play and so we worked with Flinders University acting students in developing the show. The idea that Phil came in with was information anxiety and information overload that happens in a world where vast amounts of information is constantly available to you at your fingertips at any given time. And that we’ve been thrust into this existence which we wanted to explore further.

So we’ve developed this show for over 3 years and it’s five micro plays running simultaneously in the same time and space. There has been a lot of trial and error, a bit of manipulation of it to try to have that experience not be horrific for our audience.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 3.26.38 pmThe official site of Tiny Bricks Theatre

Q: And this is with Tiny Bricks production? How did that get started?

A: Around the same time Phil and I were developing and working on this play, Phil was working on an education show for the State Theatre Company in 2014 called ‘Jesikah’ which I worked with him on. We really loved working together and for us we feel like we’re sharing a language when we’re working and we both have the same goal in mind.

First, ‘Deluge‘ was supposed to be a grad show for the Flinders students but then we realised we needed way more time to develop it. Secondly, it felt like it was more for a Festival audience. So we pitched it to David Sefton, Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival, and luckily it was around the same time as ‘Othello’ and David really liked it so he programmed the show. It was kind of an amazing moment for Phil and I in the elevator after our meeting with David we were like “Okay! We are doing this show! We actually have to do it now! We should probably make a company to mark our collaboration.” So Tiny Bricks is basically the collaboration, a creative partnership between Phil and I.

Q: What other productions do you have coming up this year?

A: I’m directing ‘Gorgon’ for the State Theatre Company this year, rehearsals start in April. And that’s written by a local playwright who’s also an actor and director, Elena Carapetis. She was Emilia in ‘Othello‘.

Q: Could you give us a plot summary for ‘Gorgon’?

A: So what Elena was interested in is how men are taught from young age not to be “girly” or vulnerable. So ‘Gorgon’ is the idea of the feminine monster, sort of like Medusa, a demonization of the feminine. Ultimately, it’s centres on one teenage kid called Leigh and his relationship with his best friend and his best friend’s twin sister.

And the other one I’ve got this year, is ‘Straight White Men’ by Young Jean Lee. She’s based in New York and she makes a lot of theatre about different types of identity, like for example being Korean. She explores really offensive stereotypes that kind of attacks and mocks the stereotype.

She did a workshop with a room full of women and she asked them what is the ideal straight white man? And they listed all these characters and she went home and created this character and she brought him in the next day and the women were like, “who is this loser?”

So the play is about three brothers in their 40s and they’re at their dad’s place for Christmas. It also looks at the idea of privilege, and the guilt associated with privilege as well.

Q: We like to end our interviews with a bit of a novelty question. Here goes: what would you want written on your tombstone?

A: (Laughs) She tried.

-Masya Zabidi

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