There should be a space for people of colour in theatre– An Interview with Vanessa Jev
By Rais Clarke Mendes
Vanessa Jev is the founder of Vanessa Jev Productions, a theatre company that aims to provide Performance Arts opportunities for Black creatives. Her latest works include directing Dreamgirls: The Musical and Cind-ah-rella.
Why use theatre as your medium for expression?
I like theatre because it is a way to escape reality, a way to literally become anybody that you want to become. There isn’t just one way to do theatre. There are different things you can tie into it, different ways you can perform. There is no right or wrong. If you want to do a show with no dialogue, it’s still theatre. If you want to do a show outside, it’s still theatre. There is an array of possibilities, nothing that puts you in a box. You can express yourself in any way you please. There are no rules. That’s why I love it.
What inspired Vanessa Jev Productions?
When I started at the University of Toronto, I wanted to be involved in the arts. I wanted to do theatre shows but I felt like there weren’t any shows that catered to people of colour. There weren’t any opportunities for a person of colour to be a lead character. Opportunities for people like me were lacking. I started writing my own shows and after that I figured I should start a company. This is a space that should exist. There should be a space that gives primarily people of colour lead roles.
There were a lot of negative criticisms surrounding your last production Dreamgirls: The Musical at the University of Toronto. How are you able to navigate your production company within that kind of environment?
I just don’t care. There is always going to be someone that has something negative to say. What I’ve started benefits so many other people so I don’t care for a select few people who have foolishness to say.
I think having a black director and all black cast, there was a space of “Oh so they want to try to do musical theatre? Well we’ll see”. Yeah we’re going to do this and we’re going to show you that we can do this and why we need to do this and we’re going to do our best to blow this out of the water. There were hiccups, and of course there will be hiccups with anything you’re doing that’s new but our end production was phenomenal. People are reaching out to me saying “I really want to do a show that features people of colour”. This is why I’m doing this. It’s crazy to think that people don’t know that there are people of colour at the University of Toronto that can sing and act and have passion for theatre arts. Students are going to enter UofT and see that there is a space for them within theatre and they’re going to feel welcomed.
Do you see it as important to have acting training or experience in order to be a director?
Not necessarily. It is beneficial. When I look at a fellow actor who is struggling, I can say, “If I was acting this scene, how would I do it? Or what would I want someone to tell me?”. I’ve been in shows where it’s been a great show, but I feel like my director could have given me more, or pulled more out of me. I use those experiences now to direct people who act in my shows. I like to sit down, break down characters with them, push them to go further than just what you did in your audition. The audition is just the beginning. If that’s what you can do in your audition, then imagine what you can do on stage. That’s where being an actor helps. You see it from a different point of view.
What qualities do you seek in an actor when you work with them?
Passion and vulnerability. I don’t want to work with somebody who’s just good. It’s difficult to push somebody who already thinks they’re amazing. You should never settle for just being good. If an actor says “I want to grow, I want to do more. I have this talent and I want to see where it takes me”, that’s amazing and it makes me want to work with them.
Vulnerability because it’s not easy to go up on a stage and be a character. There are things that people find very difficult to do on stage so being able to have vulnerability as an actor makes you ready to go for anything that a character asks of you. You want to have that openness to experiencing where this character can take you.
You mention “Africanizing” plays, can you speak more to that experience?
I don’t really like to say “Africanizing” as it’s a very general term, but what I mean by it is pulling in themes of what it is to be West African into the story. That means changing jokes that are generally centralized, to primarily West African jokes. It is about normalizing Africanness. A lot of people would ask questions about when I did Cind-ah-rella and it being African, but it’s Cinderalla. There is more than one way to do Cinderella. I kept the storyline but I changed the themes of it to be more about self empowerment and what it means to be an African woman. I like to also get African designers in for the costumes, whether they’re West African or East African, they design a lot of the costumes. This way you can see it’s in a normalized setting. People dress like this. Just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I also like to tie Caribbean themes into it as well as a lot of the actors I work with are from the Caribbean. It’s a lovely melting pot of different cultures. This is why I don’t like to say “Africanize” as it homogenizes Africa. There are so many cultures and stories that I like to tie into my shows.
Is there any advice you’d give to a young actor?
Go to as many auditions you can go to. Audition experience is very valuable. You can’t recreate an audition at home. Rehearsing at home is very different to performing in front a stranger. Get as much training as you can. You don’t necessarily have to go to university or college. Go to classes. Just put yourself out there. Work on honing your craft. Do research on your talent, read literature, the internet is your friend. Learn about what you want to do and why you want to do theatre. If you’re going into it for the fame, then it’s going to be a rough path for you. It’s not going to come easily. If it’s something your passionate about and you’re ready to fight for, then go ahead. There is nothing that can stop you.