In this, the first of our interview series here at Town Hollow, we sit down with Jesse Whiting who is directing a very intriguing production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. We met for lunch with Molly and Nick to discuss, amongst other things, the play, movies that aren’t about vampires and Jesse’s must have items for summer fun.
(The Importance of Being Ernest opens at 7:29 p.m. Aug. 16 in the Bangsberg Hall Theater at Bemidji State University. Other performances will be at 7:29 p.m. Aug. 17, 23, and 24 and 2 p.m. Aug. 18. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for children and are for sale at Ken K. Thompson Jewelry, 1080 Paul Bunyan Dr. NW; Shannon’s Art and Soul, 313 Beltrami Ave. NW; and Iverson Corner Drug, 408 Minnesota Ave. NW. They also will be available at the door.)
J: Oh yeah?
C: Yup, and I’m so glad it’s with you. So what I was going to do first was to Google interview questions…and then I thought it would be a good idea to just ask you all the questions that Oprah asked Maya Angelou…but then I read the interview and…
J: They were pretty specific to Maya Angelou?
C: A little too specific, yeah. So I guess we’re going to go real basic and I’ll just ask you to tell me about the play you’re working on now.
J: Oh! Thank you! Thank you for the question!
C: Yes! You are welcome!
J: We are putting on a play called “The Importance of Being Ernest”
C: Which is by?
J: Oscar Wilde. He wrote it in 1895, I want to say?
N: Fact check that.
C: Oh I will. I don’t want to make Jesse look like a fool.
J: It’s the last play that he wrote I believe. And It’s very fun. It’s subtitle is “A trivial Comedy for Serious People.” And it really is. You know, the jokes are very light but they have a real depth to them at the same time.
C: Light and Deep!
J: Which is a difficult balance, I would say…
C: And, so we don’t bury the lead, there is something that your doing that’s quite different with this particular production.
J: Yes! There is actually. The play as written is about two ne’er-do-well young men and the troubles they get themselves into. We have reversed the gender so that it becomes about two ne’er-do-well young women and all the things they get up to…
C: And the genders are reversed across the board?
J: Yes. All characters whether they are onstage or off, that are referred to as male are now female and those female are now male.
C: And is this the first time that someone has done something like this?
J: You know…that I know of? It’s been done before as drag, they’ve done drag shows before. But I don’t think that goes far enough.
C: And your not camping it up per se.
J: No, no. Most of the time there’s not that much of a difference. But every once in a while there’s a line that just has different sorts of connotations. One of the things that Jack says to Algernon, those are the two ne’er-do-well young men, is: “Oh Algie, eating again as usual I see!” So, when a man says that to a man, its…it’s not meant as a compliment….
C: But it’s not a loaded statement either.
J: Yeah. But when a woman says that to a woman, you know, in our culture? Yes, you’re right. It has a different weight to it. So that’s one example of a line where the gender switch changes the meaning. But more than that, you know, in the original play the character Algie goes to the country side to do what he calls bunburying.
(Dirty laughter ensues)
C: Is that a word that makes everyone laugh?
J: Yes! It should be. Because bunburying…well, you think that Algie is going out to the country to have some exploits of a sexual nature. And I think that the audience is more likely to forgive a man doing that? But when a woman does it, it’s more shocking.
C: Are there lot’s of moments like that in the play where it is sort of jarring because of the gender switch?
J: I wouldn’t say lots. But it’s enough that its a good balance. That’s one of the things that impressed me the most when I was reading it, after the transition that, most of the time, it’s not jarring. But then every couple of pages there’s sort of this little spark that comes out of the fire, so to speak, and lands, right on your nose. And you have to deal with that as a member of the audience, you have to ask yourself well, why? Why did that come out differently?
C: How did this whole idea come into being?
J: Well one of the actors, Eric Kuha, suggested that we do it, sort of as a joke because the character Gwendolyn has so many good lines.
C: And he wanted them?
J: Yeah! And she just has these delightful lines. So, I read through it and it’s one of those things where you kind of transition from a joke to thinking “Oh, this can be done.” then to “Oh, this MUST be done.” It has to be done like this, because it has something to say.
C: Have you considered doing, I mean, I know your still right in the middle of this one…but does it make you want to do more in the same vein?
J: I think sometimes the gender switching thing…it doesn’t always work? You have to find the right play to do it with.
C: Is this your first time directing?
J: Yes well…
C: You did Out of the Hat, though. My FAVORITE out of the hat with the scene with the red light and the Japanese petals…
J: I did do that. And for your readers, Out of the Hat is a one day sort of deal. You write a play in 12 hours and then you have to take that play and put it on stage within another 12 hours. So it’s not this sort of thing where you direct a play over the course of a few months. So that’s my only experience directing until now…
C: Is directing creative in the way….you know, like, a writer sits down and writes. Do you sit down outside the theater and create and brainstorm? I guess I’ve never really thought about how a director directs. Does it take place when your there in the moment or is it something that you work on outside of the play, writing things down etc…
J: Oh, it’s both. A lot of the gross sorts of things like, how do these bodies move around stage, that’s done, for me, while sitting on my sisters bed at home.
C: I feel like maybe we should explore that statement a little more. So you’re saying that your “Creative Place” would best be described as your sisters bed? Does that get on her nerves say, when she want’s to go to sleep and you’re busy creating?
J: (Laughs) But to finish that thought, Yes, a lot of the gross blocking gets taken care of at home or at my parents place in the country. But the finer movements, you have to see that. Then you say “Stop everything! Stop the play!”
C: A bullhorn?
J: Well, I just use my voice.
C: You do have a bullhorn of a voice. What is the thing that you struggle with the most while directing?
J: The hardest thing for me was finding people to do tasks. Like, finding people to do lighting? It’s hard to find people who have technical skills. This is something your readers might not be familiar with but Bemidji State university….
C: I really want you to finish that sentence with “Is a shit hole”…
J: No! I’m not about to say THAT. But BSU made a really bad decision and they cancelled their theater department. And having a theater department in town means that you have this sort of resource of people who know how to do the technical things. I mean, any one can act.
(Nick groans and looks skeptical)
J: It’s true! but not everyone can do the lighting and the set construction.
C: What do you think the solution is to that? I mean Bemidji always strikes me as a pretty heavy theater town for it’s size. Though maybe that’s just the circles we run in…
J: That’s the sad thing, because it is. And with the canceling of the theater department there’s been a real brain drain where people have gone elsewhere. And I’d like to help change that.
C: You gonna fill some shoes?
J: I have some very big shoes to fill.
(We take an eating break. We were at Tutto Bene, so imagine very satisfied chewing noises and talk about pickles. Imagine rose’ being drank and the sun being very warm on the patio. Imagine…Oh shit, we missed something!)
C: Could you repeat that?
J: Yes. One of the best things is that the show is in the public domain so people can bring their cameras and take pictures or video. It’s very much in the public domain, in fact there is no Wilde estate. So it can be passed along. Say, What kind of arts happen in Duluth?
C: We’ll my friends had a baby so I’m out of the art scene now, I can’t do it by myself! Can you guys come to Duluth and do a secret show?
J: I’d love to do that but the whole cast would have to agree to that and I don’t know if they could…I haven’t asked them.
C: You should! Just think about that. Also, since we have the three of us here can we use our combined will to make Nick want to be in a band with us again?
M: Can it be a Doors cover band?
C: You are very much like Ray Manzarik.
J: Do any of us like the Doors?
C: That’s an excellent question Jesse.
J: Maybe if we all disliked the Doors we could do it.
C: Yeah, we just all need to get on the same page. But moving on. Creative process. And it doesn’t just have to be about uh…Directorialship? Is that how one would say that? It could also be writing or music. Because I’m interested in how to become a productive creative person….
J: Oh, I don’t think there’s just one way, Chelsy.
C: Well, say, where do you get ideas?
C: Just from Kuha? You just wait for Eric Kuha to tell you something?
J: You do get a lot of your ideas from collaborating with other creative or non creative friends.
C: Oh! Poor non creative friends!
J: No, No, they’re still part of the creative process. Sometimes they stumble across something.
C: Those Dolts. Those Dullards!
N: Well, Jesse, you’re also an actor and an interesting conversation we’ve had in the past is about the place you go as an actor…just to get there. Just to get to the spot where you can act.
J: Well, I dunno. I don’t know how to answer that nick, except like this…
C: And then he bursts into song!
M: I thought you were going to say flames.
C: Fire and Song!
J: I think there’s a lot of actors that when they take on a role they try to become that other person. You know, and they maybe lose themselves in that process. And then there are other actors who are always playing themselves on stage. They just look for something in this character that they can find in themselves. And that’s what they put into the performance space. And I’m more like that second type. I’m always playing myself when I’m onstage. And that’s how I do it. It’s probably not for everybody. It’s probably not even the best way to do it.
C: Yeah, do you feel like there is more artistic merit to one of those methods over the other?
J: I don’t think so. I think that it’s just that different people have different ways of finding that acting space. Because, ultimately what the actor does really isn’t that important. It’s what the audience does, because it’s really the audiences job to enjoy and to get something from the show. The actors are just there, and the crew and director, they’re just there to facilitate that. The audience are the ones doing the heavy lifting. We’re just providing the scaffolding for that.
C: That’s lovely. Good soundbite Jess….I kind of want to ask you things like “Hey, what’s your favorite food?” Those kind of questions…
J: Oh! I like, well…first of all this soup is fantastic. Tutto Bene’s olive soup is really quite good.
C: Can I dip my knife in it?
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But normally I like sweet tastes? I don’t enjoy bitter flavors, as much. As you’ve probably noticed but what your readers can’t see is that I’ve put a lot of sugar and cream in my coffee. I can’t take the bitter. I don’t drink beer primarily for that reason.
C: So pie or cake?
C: What kind? Ideal pie?
J: Actually, I think Strawberry pie.
C: Like the sort of gelatinous neon kind with the whipped cream on top?
J: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
C: What’s another stock interview question I can ask you?
M: Favorite movie?
C: Yeah! Movies, books, music… It doesn’t have to be of all time, maybe just something that’s inspiring you right now?
N: How do you fill your pot?
(Jesse looks confused)
C: They call their creativity well a pot. It’s weird.
J: Oh yes, a well, yes!
C: Also, is there anything that used to inspire you as a teenager that manages to now that you’re an adult?
J: No, not really. Like when I was a teenager I thought the movie Reservoir Dogs was really good.
C: Really? That’s strikes me as very uncharacteristic!
J: Doesn’t it? Because I don’t think it’s very good now. I did like Django Unchained. And though he’s certainly not one of my favorite directors I think he has made a lot of progress as an artist.
C: So do you have a favorite movie? Is it Don’t Break The Silence by Nick Sunsdahl?
J: That’s very good
C: We’re cross promoting! We’ll link to that! I’ll hyperlink it!
N: The thumbnail is a very intense moment on Jesse’s face….
C: Oh I’m going to use my scene as the thumbnail. It’s my blog dude.
N: You’re a big Blade Runner fan aren’t you?
J: I am.
C: I’ve never seen that. Is it futuristic vampires?
J: Oh no. It’s about androids who come back to earth to find some meaning in their lives.
N: It’s like a clone slave revolt in the not very distant future.
C: What’s vampires? Wesley Snipes?
J: Oh, just Blade.
N: Not to be confused…
M: Oh yeah, I’ve watched Bladerunner! Wesley Snipes! He’s a vampire with a coat! A leather coat!
J: But as far as movies…some of my favorites are made by Verhoeven and Cronenberg. Verhoeven did, like Robocop and Starship Troopers. And Cronenberg…
N: You’re into the whole man meets machine thing.
J: I am! I like person meets machine or machine meets person.
N: Where the organic and the mechanic converge…
M: If you were a Kate Bush song you’d be Deeper Understanding.
J: Is this a Facebook quiz? Which Kate Bush song are you?
M: Definitely Deeper Understanding!
N: Oh yeah, you were really into Cronenberg. I remember that for a few years your favorite movie was Crash.
J: Is that true?
C: Is that were they lick the wound on the leg?
J: Yeah, it’s really gross. I don’t think that was ever my favorite. But I did like it, yes.
N: It’s the penultimate 90’s movie.
C: I thought Walking and Talking was…
N: Well that’s the girl version and Crash is the boy version.
C: Well. That’s confusing to my ideas of gender. We’re really developing a gender theme…
J: I like Cronenberg because a lot of his movies are about how people can change, though it’s usually for ill in his movies. I think he’s pretty pessimistic in his outlook. But I think his movies are largely about how a person has some sort of transformation and it’s usually into a worse person or to something that maybe is not even recognizable as a person. And sometimes its because of what technology can do to us as humans and how does that transform us or like, how does drug use transform us.
M: Did he just do a new movie with Robert Pattinson called Metropolis?
N: Yes, he did.
C: Again I’m going to ask…Is that about vampires?
N: It’s just about the day in the life of a rich kid. i thought it was one of his worst movies but I did just see a great one by him with Jeremy Irons called Dead Ringers. He plays his own evil twin. Its awesome.
J: You know what I loved about that was that in identical twin movies they always give the audience something to differentiate. Like a scar or a mustache. But he didn’t throw any bones to the audience as far as… I got confused so often as to who was who, because not only are they identical twins, they are also pretending to be each other…
N: Well it turned out that one was slightly more extroverted. But they take the same lover and she could tell. She knew. She didn’t know they were twins but she thought it was one guy with a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
(Jesse seems distracted and looks above our heads)
C: What is it? A squirrel?
J: Oh no. A Wasp. It’s a wasp.
C: That wasp has a weird butt.
J: It does!
N: I was talking to Jesse about William Shakespeare and he had an interesting take on it, on whether Shakespeare was one person and how he could write all that stuff…And he’s like, well, surely Shakespeare was one man and how he was able to conceive all these characters was that he worked with these acting troupes and they would all have demands. So they would come to him and they would say, I want a play where I am a king and I have these qualities and another person would say, I want a role and I want just as many lines as him and I want to be funny and I want to die.
J: Yeah, Yeah. In Shakespeare’s time, the origin of play didn’t start with the playwright. You would have an acting troupe who would say, we’ll we have this many people and we want to put on a tragedy. We need to find a playwright. These are the roles we need, these are the strengths of the different actors and the playwright would then write based on that. I don’t remember which play it was but there’s a line in one of his plays that says that a character leaves chased by a large bear. And the reason that’s in there is because that acting troupe had a bear.
C: They just had a bear handy!
J: And I think in opera, a lot of writers for opera wrote for the specific singers so…
N: I was inspired by that in thinking of writing movies, I mean, we could write an ideal movie but you’re better off saying, who do I have to work with? who’s willing to do this project? And then to start identifying those peoples strengths and to give them good lines and scenarios and characters that are going to be believable. That will read visually. Starting with the actors, the specific actor. Writing a role for Jesse, writing a role for Chelsy.
C: Remember how we were discussing how I don’t really know how to interview people and how I was Googling interview questions? And this sort of comes back to the issue of gender, but what I noticed was that there’s a real discrepancy in what women generally get asked and what men do. And I toyed with the idea of only doing interviews where in I ask the men “lady questions” and vice versa. Like, I pictured myself asking you what your Must Have item of the summer was….
J: Of this summer? Um. Oh my. I don’t know…friends?
C: Awww! That’s so nice. Friends. No accessories? Not a new pair of shoes?
J: No. All you need is friendship. This summer.
C: Next summer it might be a whole different story. Next summer you might not need anyone. Let’s forecast out about 5 summers. And…go! Ok, maybe not. Hey! Who did your poster? It’s great.
J: Nicholas Jackson, he’s a friend of mine.
C: Do you ever think about having the actors and crew call you coach?
J: No. Not until right now.
N: Lord Jesse?
C: Sweet Lord Jesse?
M: My Sweet Lord!
C: Oh, My Lord? I really want to know you! I want some lifestyle recommendations.
J: I have an aquarium in my apartment.
C: Anyea has an aquarium too! Is this a hot trend? Is this the must have summer item that we couldn’t think of earlier?
J: Well, I’m attempting something called a Walstad style aquarium. It’s basically that aquariumists don’t like algae in the tanks, generally.
J: Well, lets not say that. Single celled, photosynthetic, sometimes colonial…
C: White wigs? Ruffled collars? Ale?
J: Well the Walstad Method changes the environment to favor plants which will outcompete the algae. So it’s about giving the plants what they need. And it works.
C: Is it like companion planting in gardening where you pick things that will assist each other? Like the three sisters thing…what is it? Corn, Beans and squash?
J: In a way. But its more like, if there was a certain kind of weed that you didn’t want in your garden and that was the only thing that you cared about. So you might plant certain kinds of plants that would shade out that one kind of weed or strangle its roots.
C: Thank you for working with in my analogy even though it makes no logical sense….Do you have fish in your aquarium?
J: I do have some small fish.
C: But is it mostly about plants for you?
J: For me it is, yes.
C: So it’s not really about pets…it’s like an indoor water garden?
J: Yeah. The whole idea is to capture a nitrogen cycle in a very small space. It’s fun. And not expensive!
C: I feel like aquarium stores are like video stores in that they are something from my youth that doesn’t really seem to exist in the same way anymore….
M: There’s one in the the Superior Mall.
C: Exactly. Who goes to the Superior Mall? C