Interview with director JESSICA LAZAR on award winning Atticist Theatre and their upcoming show OUTLYING ISLANDS
by Heather Jeffery
It isn’t often you get a text saying, ‘I’m in the café, wearing a gold jumper and soaking wet’. Wouldn’t a button hole flower have sufficed? It turned out the fire alarm had recently gone off, leaving everyone standing in the torrential rain.
The gamin Jessica Lazar looked more fragile than ever but the dark energy she exuded was burning hot. While she steamed nicely, we had our interview. We kicked off by discussing the future of theatre. It’s difficult to pin her down on this because for Lazar it’s more about the journey and experimentation. “Barriers are coming down for audiences as well as for smaller companies” says Lazar, citing gig theatre which bridges the gap between theatre and gig. “More generally, we expect smaller companies to explore different styles of storytelling. Is it right for the piece? Even if you don’t have experience of it to date.” Personally, she’s drawn to story, and that can come from any source.
Lazar is a founder member of independent production company, Atticist, which was set up in 2015 purely as a vehicle for LIFE ACCORDING TO SAKI. It went on to win the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Fringe Award 2016 and transferred to New York in 2017. She’s best known on the pub theatre circuit for her direction of Steven Berkoff’s EAST at King’s Head Theatre which won five OFFIE nominations and a raft of four and five stars from the critics.
Off the back of this, King’s Head Theatre announced Atticist as one of their associate companies and over the summer engaged Lazar in some freelance work. She was invited to direct Mart Crowley’s FOR REASONS THAT REMAIN UNCLEAR (2018). Something of a curved ball for Lazar who knew it was going to be challenging. She is not spooked easily. “It was a divisive play, and everybody was prepared for that” explains Lazar. “Frankly I think it’s really exciting when something divides people. When it makes people really angry … what else are we doing?”
Atticist is less interested in realism in theatre; but they do love well placed revivals when they get the opportunity. At the heart of everything they do is collaboration, on stage and in all aspects of the company. “We all pull together, I just help to steer it. I’m the cox and everybody else is making the strokes”, says Lazar. “We enjoy bringing that ensemble storytelling style to pieces that are not necessarily traditionally ensemble plays” she adds. “We tend to be drawn to things that are quite dark, witty, maybe magical realism with potential for something really physical within that, even if every choice we make is rooted in text.”
“Outlying Islands was a case of loving the play and being lost to the world while reading it” says Lazar. She thought “we’ve simply got to put this on, it’s so beautiful and it’s so weird.”
It has a powerful storyline which looks at Individualism versus socialisation. “It has interesting resonances for Britain in early 2019” says Lazar. “There are questions about identity in a very wide sense of the word, about loyalty to country versus loyalty to self. Also, expectations and realities of sexuality and sexual identity.” She is impressed with the breadth of its themes. “These weave together with the fascinating role of wildness and nature in a modern industrialised world. Competing value systems are incredibly important.”
One of the actors was also in Life According to Saki which gives the production an immediate link to this past success. During the audition process Lazar recalled three actors who “just worked”. She clicks her fingers to emphasise the point before explaining that she knew immediately that there was a spark between them. “The audience, everybody will recognise it. There’s a game, some fun held between actors, it’s more than rapport. You can build it but sometimes people just have it and when they do have it, it’s really exciting”. It has the Atticist stamp as Lazar explains: “It can be profound and witty in almost in the same breath. David Greig is a masterful playwright; he manages that extraordinary balance.”
It hasn’t been on in London for almost 20 years but was a huge success at the Royal Court. Perhaps the reason it hasn’t been performed regularly is the tricky nature of the stage directions. When Lazar spoke to the playwright for the first time, he immediately apologised about the door. Jessica calls it “door slapstick” but that’s not the end of it. There’s an “exploding stove, someone dies and gets used as a puppet, and the door repeatedly falls out of its frame”. Working in the round, with audience on all sides, it’s crucial that the door falls in the right place. “That is the biggest challenge so far”, says Lazar.
They certainly don’t shy away from challenges. They stipulate that they want to work in spaces where there is wheelchair access. “It’s the right thing to do”, she says. “My father’s in a wheelchair (he has multiple sclerosis). I’m lucky in that although I don’t come from an industry family my parents have always loved theatre. They took me to theatre at a very young age.” Whilst many theatres are wonderfully supportive, she acknowledges that it “won’t always be possible at fringe theatre because of money, but we all try and do our best”. Atticist haven’t yet done a captioned performance but they are working towards it. King’s Head have lots of experience with stage text.
Atticist is a company that wants to do more frequent shows. “For better or worse, we always pay people as much as we can” says Lazar. “We want to give a decent budget for things like design and these costs severely limits the amount of work we can do”. To offset these costs, Lazar is still free-lancing and hopes she always gets freelance work as she really enjoys working for other people outside of the company. “It would just be amazing also to be able to do more with Atticist too” she adds.
This is a company that’s keen to expand, to take work abroad and continue to push the boundaries. With Lazar at the helm, it is easy to believe the possibilities for them are stellar.
Jessica Lazar was chatting with Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres Magazine
OUTLYING ISLANDS by David Greig is at The King’s Head Theatre 9 January - 2nd February 2019
Box Office: http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/
Transporting audiences to a wild and insular world, Outlying Islands is inspired by real events and is set the evening before the outbreak of World War II as tensions run high in a society shadowed by imminent and immense change.
@December 2018 London Pub Theatres Magazine Ltd.
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