I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
From the “living film serial” Chang In A Void Moon performed at the Pyramid Club, 1982–84, to his most recent production, Red House, at La MaMa, 1984, John Jesurun has employed a number of devices heretofore known as cinematic: jump cuts, pans, visual and verbal double tracks, and editing crosscuts of time and place to create multiple time frames. Most dramatically, Jesurun creates the equivalents of camera angles and points-of-view by the positioning of his actors against planar surfaces so that, to the audience, the actors appear overhead, below, or simply hanging in space.
Verbal characteristics of Jesurun pieces include verbal double exposures, dislocations via ellipses and non-sequiturs, sheer babble, and the taking of song lyrics (circa 1967–69) such as Hendrix’ “I’m a voodoo chile” to their illogical conclusions.
Craig GholsonDo you go to the theater every night to see Red House?
John Jesurun Yes.
CG To do what?
JJ To watch it. I’ve never not been to one of my own performances. I just feel like I have to be there for some reason. I’d feel weird if I didn’t go. In fact, this time I’m secretly planning to miss one performance and go to something at BAM or wherever. But I’m very wary of doing it because I’ve always been there.
CG Considering your visual arts background, when you first begin working on a play do you get an image first or do you start working with the words? What usually comes first?
JJ Usually everything happens at the same time. I write with a typewriter on one side and a sketchbook on the other side. So then the words and images and ideas happen simultaneously. Sometimes I’ll come up with a drawing for a physical situation and then try and build it as I’m working on the verbal situation that’s going to follow. Then other times it’s the other way around—the words come first.
CG Do you get images of characters?
JJ That’s an interesting question. I don’t. I do get images of certain characters, but generally, when everything finally comes out every character or type of character ends up juxtaposed against the other characters as I write it. I don’t set up a situation where this person is the person who’s the real strong character. I never deal with it like that. I sit down and the whole thing comes out in a big line. In fact, I don’t even put down the names of the characters as I write. I just keep writing and writing and later on I put in letters for each character.
CG That’s the reason I asked because it seems they are beyond gender or characterization. They could be male or female. The characters seem arbitrarily assigned.
JJ In a sense they seem like they are. Although, when I’m writing it I know who’s saying what. And then it could be all the same person saying it rather than five or six. Everybody’s one character in one sense, a part of one mind discussing something with itself in different voices. It comes out like that and I never fully have a plot. I may know that I might want some character to get to some particular point during some type of scene. Or at one point in the play I may want it to get to that point. But it generally doesn’t develop in a plotted-out outline way. It just all comes out very quickly in a day or two. That’s how fast I write it. I also have little notes that I make to myself, ideas or images or little drawings. When I get a sense of what I want to do, I take a couple of these little drawings and sit down and put it all together.
CG In all the reviews in your press kit what was interesting was watching critics trying to grapple with your work. There isn’t really a linear plot they can spend a lot of time describing. So, the thing that they end up describing is the visual aspect. That’s what they give you the most credit for. And the thing they complain about most is the lack of emotion.
JJ Which is always bizarre to me.
JJ Because I think it’s just that they mean they’re used to seeing a certain kind of acting that they think means emotion. To me, there’s an overall sense of ‘emotionality’ that you can convey by having people act in the way that I have them act. Then at certain points let them become very emotional. It cuts right through the acting facade of putting on an emotion. Somebody’s going along and this burst of emotion comes out and it comes out to you as much more raw. I think it’s more striking than the overly-paced, breathy kind of styles that to me are so boring. The actors altogether form something that’s very emotional, but not in an overt way. All working together and speaking in certain rhythms. It builds up some kind of emotion. But I think people tend to look at individual actors and expect that they ‘move’ the audience in a way that they’ve expected to be moved in. You know people want to be performed for in that individual way. They want to latch on to a particular character, to feel as that character feels. Which I think gets off the point.
CG I think it’s ironic that you should come out of Yale because the Yale School of Drama is very much that kind of theater. Meryl Streep and all that.
JJ When all those people were there I was in the art school.
CG Which was probably a good thing.
JJ It was. I remember going to a few of the drama things at the Yale Rep. I saw an early Sam Shepard thing. I can’t remember who else, but I remember not really reacting too much.
CG Who do you like as a playwright?
JJ Well, I like Sam Shepard. I like Peter Handke a lot, his writing and the only thing I’ve seen of his that was a movie was The Left Handed Woman and then I saw The Goalie’s Anxiety which wasn’t directed by him. I like him a lot. And what I’ve seen of Pinter I like. I saw Betrayal and I didn’t think it was so hot, but…
CG Do you go to the theater? Is it an interest?
JJ I never really was particularly interested in it. I try and go when people bring up names to me and in the past two years I’ve been educating myself as to what the boundaries of theater are, the sign posts that people give out. I don’t really know that much about it, although I try to learn. I like Richard Foreman a lot.
CG Why do rock lyrics and rock stars permeate your work so much? Specifically dead, ’60s icons like Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix?
JJ I think that along with this fascination I have with these kind of people that it’s like a subtitle to an interest that I have in life versus death. Without getting too philosophical, to me it’s such an interesting thing that happened, that all these people happen to be dead. And how people have dealt with it or not dealt with it or just lived with it and how they accept it. It’s a pretty big mass of people that are dead. It’s like some bizarre culture movement and all the leaders have been wiped out. And all you have left is black plastic and sound and styles and imitators. Through a lot of Chang In A Void Moon there’s an underlying connection or fascination or fear or something of death and it’s just something that happens to be running through my work at this time. To me it relates a lot to some of the surrealists and Picasso and the Spanish artists and Spanish writers. Márquez and people like that where there’s this underlying but very fertile type of rutting that’s going on while life continues and rots from underneath. Which is not to say that it’s such a horrible thing. It’s an interesting thing, a natural thing, trying to come to terms with that. So to me it comes out of that kind of attitude. My background is Spanish and Catholic.
CG Your parents are Spanish?
JJ My father’s family is from Curacao which is a Dutch island in the Carribean. He basically speaks Spanish. My mother’s family is from Puerto Rico and I grew up all over the United States as an army brat. It’s a weird sensibility, a Latin-Carribbean sensibility and a totally American-Army-brat sensibility. Traveling around and around and around. So all this death business possibly could be related to those things. Also, I think people of my generation, having been through this death trip or whatever, it’s a way of dealing with it. And I think it’s pretty unique to my generation. Which is why a lot of people my age, or maybe younger, especially the people in their early twenties, pick up on it so easily.
CG Which explains why The Doors have this huge following now. Larger, in fact, than they ever had when Morrison was alive.
JJ Yes. People that are my age have already forgotten. They don’t get anything out of a line that goes, “Jones is dead, Brian.” It just sounds like “Jones is dead, Brian.” These younger people just get it right away. I don’t know why.
CG When you’re younger you take rock lyrics more seriously. You look to those lyrics as real thought, actual philosophical ideas. Maybe they are. But when you, as a playwright, pull lines out of those songs now, they seem less like philosophical ideas and more like camp.
JJ In a way they do, but the way I see that they work or the way I would like them to work is that maybe for a second they seem like that, but what I like to do is bring out their own particular eloquence. Take them out of context and they possibly seem even more eloquent than they did to a 14-year-old kid who first heard it in 19-whatever. It makes them stronger. Once you do take them out of context they work on their own.
CG When I listen to it, what happens to me is that I remember being 14 and hearing those lyrics and those lyrics having a philosophical impact on me. When you hear them now, you consider yourself a little naive thinking that they were somehow equated with Nietzsche.
JJ True. You do. But for some reason you think that and then you see it in a historical context and you also see it separated in distance from any kind of atmosphere that it might of been in then. Suddenly, it’s here in 1984 in some theater space and some character is now saying it. Combining all those things gives it a different kind of power, not particularly the power that it might have meant to have had when it was first written. And also the idiocy of some of those lines. Some of them are totally idiotic and yet they’re always interesting. They’re not all just dumb songs. There are certainly enough dumb songs. It’s interesting to try and take something that someone thinks is a dumb song and might very well be a dumb song and make it for five minutes not be a dumb song, which is a way of appreciating something in a different way, a different angle, a different point of view and seeing it that way.
CG Speaking of points of view and different angles, do you remember when you first got that idea of positioning the actors on their sides or on their backs so that from the audience’s point of view it appears as an overhead shot?
JJ I’m trying to remember the first time we did it. It was somewhere around the 13th or 14th episode of Chang. I’d had it for weeks and weeks before when we first started Chang and I was afraid to do it because I thought it wasn’t going to work or that the actors would fall off and everything. I was petrified. I kept putting it aside and just saying, “Okay, just sit around this table like this.” And when the day finally came when I told myself, We’re going to try and do it this week and see what happens. We started trying to do it and everybody’s going, “It’s not going to work, it’s not going to work. It doesn’t look right. It’s not this, it’s not that.” It took us a whole afternoon to get it right with the boards coming out and people leaning and actors complaining and getting sore backs and everything like that. Now these people know how to do it very easily. Once each actor saw it, the ones who were doing it, saw what it looked like then they really wanted to do it.
CG So now you have that as a visual trademark.
JJ I know. I’ve used it very little in this particular thing. I don’t want to make a whole big thing out of it. Although, if I had more money I would love to construct something much bigger that would be able to work from that point of view in a longer way. And really make the fact that it is at that angle more of the point.
CG Are you worried about those things becoming tricks?
JJ I’ve always worried about it. In fact, I’ve tried to hold back from doing it a lot. In Dog’s Eye View I did it a lot because I thought, Now we’re out of the club and we have to show that we can do it in an outside space. And that it’ll work. Plus, there was so much space I thought, Wow. We’ll just have to keep trying. But, yes, I don’t particularly like tricks like that which is why I would like to take that and expand it. I’ve also done things from the point of view of below somebody which is even harder. We do it with a piece of plexiglass so you’re seeing through the floor. And other kinds of tilted angles. This one seems to be, structurally, the easiest to deal with. I don’t want to be able to use it as that kind of a trick. I don’t like things to get too theatrical. To me what’s so interesting about showing something like that is that people get the image and they first see it as if they are on top of somebody. And then, as the scene goes on, slowly they realize that that’s not what’s happening at all. The people that are standing are really laying down and the people that are laying down are really standing. Then they start to try and figure out how it was done. They realize the real physical situation which is the exact opposite of what they’re seeing. They realize that these actors are doing these lines in a totally warped way that looks very natural from where the audience is. That’s interesting to me. Not just to have it function as an illusion of some kind, but as an illusion that’s locked into its own reversed logic. They can see it in two different ways if they want.
CG Since your theater incorporates all these cinematic devices, why don’t you just make films?
JJ I was a filmmaker. I didn’t intend to stop making films, I just thought for some kind of project to run this thing, Chang, and try and make a film a week and not film it. That led into everything else. Once I started on this, it was so involving that I thought if I stopped to make a film then I would probably be much less active.
CG Because of the economics of making films? It’s much cheaper to do theater.
JJ At the Pyramid it was. I find that I can get much more done. Much more writing, much more working with actors done, much more thinking and idea work done. If I know that I can do it, that it can be realized. I think if you keep waiting for money for film you become stagnant. Or you start writing a script and it’s just some kind of script. You don’t know when it’s going to be done.
CG It’s frustrating.
JJ It’s very frustrating. And I was tired of doing that. And being around people who are also frustrated for the same reasons. It does something to you. It makes you think that things are impossible. Whereas, if you’re doing something every week, you know every week that it’s possible because there’s always another week.
CG The direction you seem to be headed in would be to be as part of the Next Wave. What do you think would happen to your work if you had to put it on that scale?
JJ I’d design something with that particular scale in mind and go from that angle. Which I think would be a big challenge. It would be very good. I think it could be done because I’m really interested in getting further out in space as far as moving people out into space in performing. It would set up a whole new set of problems. Which is fine. That was the big lesson of the Pyramid and finally we ran through everything. I like the idea of being presented with, Okay, this is where you have to do something.
CG “Where there’s trouble, there’s poetry.”
JJ Exactly. That’s what you have to deal with anyway. You live in this house. You walk in this street. If you’re going to be in a big space then you have to make it further. Which is interesting to me from the sculptural point of view—to always deal with the space that you’re in. That’s where you are. That’s where everybody else is going to be. So let’s not pretend that we’re someplace else.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee