So here’s something different for your day. I caught up with Jessi Carri (pictured below), director of Adventures in Failure which you’ll be able to catch in Smock Alley from March 24. Jessi chatted about her background in theatre, her creative processes and the challenges she’s faced in putting together her new piece of work.
KOC: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background:
JC: I would see myself as a theatre maker at the moment, I involve myself in a lot of aspects of theatre, at the moment I’m directing but I also do a little bit of producing and a little bit of marketing.
When I was growing up in Waterford, there was really good contemporary dance classes and I totally loved them and there was nothing like that in school, so it was where I felt that my talents actually lay and were nurtured which was lovely. I ended up putting all of my time and efforts into that.
I got into drama in Trinity and I was there for four years. This was a good basic grounding in such a broad area as theatre. I focused mostly on directing because it meant you almost didn’t have to make a choice about your favourite thing ‘cos you could be involved in the acting, involved in the design, working in all the little aspects of it.
KOC: You were saying that in school you didn’t really have the same creative outlets, so did you find school difficult?
JC: Emm, a bit. English was good ‘cos you could do a bit of creative writing, so where I could be creative I tried to. I found school a bit restrictive, I mean, I did fine but it just wasn’t a very creative atmosphere, and our school focused a lot on sport so if someone did really well in sport this was really celebrated.
KOC: Is your creativity something your parents nurtured?
JC: Oh yeah totally. When I look back, most of what we did in our house was creative. We had pads and pens and paints, and lots of candle-making sets. Our favourite things when we were kids were art, even just lego, it was always about making things.
They paid so much attention to what our interests were so we always had extra curricular activities. Mum was always watching out to see what we were into. She was the one who got me into drama, cos she saw how I was with other people, and thought that it might suit me.
KOC: What age were you when you started getting into drama?
JC: My first ever drama class, I think I was about 10. I hated it. I totally hated it. I didn’t understand what it was, I didn’t understand the word drama. I didn’t know it was to do with theatre or anything like that. I just didn’t understand and to me, it was just a bunch of really weird people doing weird stuff and I was just terrified.
A few years later, some of my friends got involved in drama and then when I saw them getting involved in plays, I got some more context, so I think that was probably around 12 or 13 when I properly started getting into it. Originally, I didn’t understand why we went into a room and these kids were improvising.
KOC: Do you think you were afraid of improvising, in case you’d get it wrong?
JC: Yeah, I was terrified of it.
KOC: Do you think that if you had kept that fear you wouldn’t be where you are today?
JC: I think every job you have to confront fears but I’ve definitely had to overcome that fear or even the fear of not knowing how to interact with people, I’m not great with groups of people and drama forces you to do that. It forces a level of confidence on you.
KOC: In terms of improvising, is that something that you would incorporate into your work now?
JC: I love improvising, and we’re still doing quite a bit of it with this play. By the time we get to the theatre, it’ll be more set in stone but in the rehearsal room we do improvise. I think as long as you can create a kind of safe space where people don’t feel scared or feel that they’re gonna feel stupid if they do something wrong, then it works.
KOC: Are there any particular techniques that you would use to create this safe space?
JC: When we were in college we had this great teacher who had a great process in how to build up people’s confidence in a safe way in which they can start off doing something in a group where the focus is very low on them and then gradually build up to where it’s higher so that you’re not putting someone on the spot by themselves straight away but they can build gradually to that, so I’ve always tried to do that. I wouldn’t throw someone in the deep end by themselves where if they fail they’ll feel terrible.
KOC: Is that something that you would do in the rehearsal process?
JC: Every day I try to figure out what we need to do by the end of the day and figure out how we can get to that in a way that’ll be easy and smooth for them, so they won’t be put on the spot with a whole ‘come up with this’ demand.
KOC: How would a typical day of rehearsals work out?
JC: At the moment, because it’s quite physical we start off with yoga and do some sun salutations together. I really enjoy it. We do this together and try to have the timing together so that we can tune into each other’s bodies and how we’re working physically. The show is three girls and they all have to work really closely together and tune in each other, which is why we start off this way.
And then, we usually do some stretching and warm up our bodies as it is so physical. Then we’ll do some choreography and try to come up with some dance sequences that we can use somewhere in the show, and so I might set them a task to put a piece together with some music based on a certain concept or theme.
Sometimes, we do more improvising, where we say ‘we need a scene where this and this happens’ and we might throw some ideas out there and run it a few times and take what is working and get rid of what’s not.
KOC: Would you think that your creative process is quite collaborative?
JC: It’s very collaborative. I much prefer that. I like when everyone is working together and putting in their ideas and contribute. It takes the pressure off [laughs].
KOC: Have you ever done it differently where it’s you making all the decisions as the director?
JC: Certainly in college I did a bit more of that. I had a cast of eight people and there was a lot of people learning lines and acting on stage with me directing. But even in that piece, the best actors contributed their ideas and we had a better piece because of that.
KOC: So say if somebody comes up with an idea and you’re not that gone on it, how does that work out?
JC: [giggles] Oh the actors have got used to me. I have a particular face that I make where I’m thinking about it and then I go ‘hmmm, maybe’. Or else, I’ll try to explain why I don’t think it’ll work or why it’s not what we’re aiming for. Or sometimes, I’ll just put it aside for the moment and see if it’s something that we can work into a later scene. Sometimes it might not fit ‘there’ but it might fit somewhere else.
KOC: What do you think about the biggest barriers to your creativity?
JC: Money. Money is the tough one. When you want to work creatively, not just in Ireland, in any country, being able to support yourself but also being able to make the work you want to make, is a constant struggle. And it’s OK, because you learn good things from that and it keeps you humble to an extent where you can’t go off on a flight of fancy. I came out of college wanting to direct, but had no idea where funding came from or how I would fund my own work. And so it took a couple of years of me watching how the industry ran to even know where to start.
KOC: Where would be your main sources of funding?
JC: On this piece, it’s crowd funding, which is an amazing thing. It’s amazing how much support you get. We ran a campaign on Fundit and people were just lovely.
KOC: On a personal level, do you ever struggle with your creativity?
JC: Yeah, and also with self doubt. Half of the time, I’m thinking that the show is going to be amazing and the other half of the time I have no idea what people are going to think of this. So I think that you have to believe it’s going to be brilliant when you have no idea if it’s just in your head.
KOC: Do you think that failure is a huge part of this kind of industry?
JC: I think so. I think failure comes into everything, but certainly in the arts and in my own process to getting to where I am has all been to do with accepting failures and learning from them, and trying to stay excited about something even if it’s really really tough.
KOC: What kind of failures have you experienced?
JC: A lot. It’s all kind of normal, every day stuff that everyone goes through, but it feels like failure at the time when it happens. Applying for festivals and you don’t get in. Or contacting venues who don’t reply to you. And that’s just part of the process which I’m getting more OK with. You knock on a lot of doors and see which ones open, and sometimes it takes a year before anything opens.
KOC: What kind of discoveries have you made from failure?
JC: I think I’ve discovered that I need to trust in the process a bit more. Sometimes the thing that didn’t work out, shouldn’t have worked out and you see that six months on. I applied for different programmes after college that I didn’t get through to, but what did work out was an amazing internship with Dublin Dance Festival and once I was in that, I was looking back at the other things that were supposedly failures but then realising that I was so glad that they didn’t work out. That makes me think that if people say no to you, you should be OK and calm about that, because it’s probably for a good reason.
KOC: Where do you think your best ideas come from?
JC: Collaboration, definitely. When I started off in college I liked working by myself because it meant I didn’t need to compromise on my ideas. College just beat that out of us, we were very rarely allowed to work on anything by ourselves. And it was great, because within two years of that process, I realised that I needed other people’s skills, expertise and ideas, and you find that you make such stronger work when you’re open to other people’s ideas.
Collaboration is really the best source of creativity. So for example with this play, the lighting and set design is done by this guy called Aaron Kelly with my involvement. But the set and lighting we’ve ended up with, I don’t think either of us would have come up with alone, yet it’s something we both love and makes total sense to the piece.
KOC: Do you think you need to have a certain personality type to be able to work in a collaborative environment?
JC: No, there’s a particular personality type that I see a lot in collaborative work which is quite social, fairly confident and outgoing. But I don’t think you have to be that, I think it just helps you make a start in it. I think you need all different types of skills in collaboration.
KOC: Have you ever had someone be a bit too precious about their work which hindered the collaborative process?
JC: Yes, definitely. I think tension is quite common between directors and actors and usually ends up not being that big a deal, it’s just part of the work. Actors have such a tough job because they’re in a vulnerable position where they’re representing the piece of work in front of the audience so that’s a lot of pressure on them. They work quite hard on their piece, their character and their representation of that but they’re constantly having to adjust and be flexible about it for what the director wants or the designer wants. So that can cause some clashes.
KOC: So in comparison to when you started out to where you are now, do you think that you’ve changed tactics?
JC: I like to think that I’m always learning. I think having learned about failure helps. I actually rarely use that word because I think that you’re always learning, so if something goes wrong you’re learning from it.
I think getting older and having more life experience helps. I’m getting less defensive about things because I feel more naturally in control. So I’ve found that experience has chilled me out a bit. Before, I always wanted to appear calm to the people I was working with and that would go really badly because people can pick up on it if you’re stressed and don’t know why you’re pretending otherwise. So I’m trying to actually stay calm not just pretending I’m calm.
KOC: How do you find the balance between a work of art that’s commercially viable and a piece of art that you are happy to put your name to?
JC: I think that’s tough at the moment, because the stuff that’s most commercially viable doesn’t always have the best artistic priorities within it, or certainly not the type of work that I want to be involved in, so that’s tough. I’ve almost given up on being commercially viable because I don’t think I am.
The thing I most look at is ‘have I created a piece that I’ve wanted to present but is also something that an audience wants to see?’ That does come into being commercial in terms of ticket sales. But also, it’s helpful in terms of not being self indulgent as an artist so rather than saying ‘this is my idea and I want to put it on and I’m not going to change it’, that you ask if audiences want to hear your idea.
KOC: Your point about not being self indulgent is interesting. So do you see a difference between being an artist and being somebody who makes theatre that other people want to see?
JC: There can be. I think some companies make work that is very artistic that people want to see and I think when you find that, then you’re laughing. I’d love to get to that place.
KOC: So in putting together Adventures in Failure, have you come up against any problems?
JC: Some stuff that could have been really problematic hasn’t been. I’ve been really lucky with designers and our producer Grainne. Stuff that I foresaw as being potentially troublesome has actually been fine.
Casting was a funny process and I love the cast we’ve ended up with. But because of the collaborative process, it’s taken a huge chunk of time from the actors and it’s a big commitment. We’ve been working on it for six weeks straight, so finding people who were willing to commit that time, even just financially was challenging.
But you know it’s all worked out really well and the three girls we’re working with are really amazing and work really well together.
KOC: What do you think we’re not doing in Ireland to promote creativity?
JC: Our funding looks really bad but when you compare it to other countries, we’re actually amazing. However, I find that Ireland plays it quite safe. We work within the arts really well, but we still push the quite traditional pieces maybe a bit too much. I’d change that, there’s a lot of art from the past that is still relevant but I think we see so much of it that we end up not seeing enough new work.
KOC: So what can we expect from Adventures in Failure?
JC: Pure genius [giggles]. Joy, warmth, glowing atmosphere. It’s set in the storeroom of a lamp shop, so you can expect a lot of lamps. The designer and I are working out how many lamps we can fit on the stage. We’re working with a lot of warm colours so the piece will be visually very attractive and we want the piece to really stick in people’s heads.
You’ll also seem some mad antics from the characters, they’re all silent, so they’re working quite a lot on figuring out other ways of communicating with one another and with the audience. There’s also some really lovely jazzy guitar music.
Find out more about Jessi Carri and Adventures in Failure here. Catch the show at Smock Alley Boy’s School, March 24-29. Quality Waffle readers can grab a discount on the Monday night show (paying just €8 instead of the usual €10 for tickets by using this super magical code at the check out: Adventure24).