Episode 145: Theatre Beyond the Stage
Jesse Wilson started life as an actor. Born in LA he started acting young and even went to Juilliard. But that traditional “actors” life is not the one he leads now. A one day novelty experience with at-risk teens turned into a two month monologue creation project. He frequently works with correctional facilities through arts rehabilitation programs. How do you create theatre with non actors? What are the steps to creating a life inspired monologue? What was the end result? In this episode, we take Theatre beyond the stage.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
This is Episode 145.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode145 and I think this is one of those episodes that we should just get right to.
Suffice it to say we’re talking theatre beyond the stag, beyond the entertainment value, beyond working with “actors.” How many of you have to deal with administrators who only see your class as games or fluff? How often have you had to have students or students in your class who are and will always be non-actors? You want them to have the experience; you want to include them and to get them to have a great experience with your classroom – how?
We’re talking about theatre, real people, real life, all together, holding hands – maybe not. But, anyway, Jesse Wilson is my guest. Let’s get to it.
LINDSAY: Hello, Jesse!
JESSE: Hey, Lindsay! How are you?
LINDSAY: Awesome. Tell everybody where you are in the world.
JESSE: I’m in an amazing little planet called Colorado Springs in Colorado.
LINDSAY: Conveniently enough, Colorado Springs is in Colorado.
JESSE: That’s right! Born and raised in LA, lived in the west coast pretty much, well, until I was eighteen, and then lived in the east coast and I’ve navigated my way back and forth between LA and New York and Philadelphia. Somehow, I ended up here and it’s going great.
LINDSAY: Awesome! So, just start by saying, what’s your connection to theatre?
JESSE: Well, my connection to theatre probably begins the day I was born. I don’t remember ever doing anything that wasn’t theatre-related. I grew up in the industry and began acting at a very early age. And so, that’s just been who I am and what I’ve been doing for forever.
I’d probably say the biggest, most pivotal experience in the theatre is when I went to Juilliard and that was right after high school and that’s what really got the ball rolling.
LINDSAY: Awesome. That’s a whole other podcast for a whole other day because that would be interesting to, well, you know, we have a lot of listeners who have students who go, “Where should I go to school?” or “What’s it like to be…?” you know, that notion of LA has a… stigma is not the right word. Well, it has a preconceived notion of what that’s like.
JESSE: It does, it certainly does.
LINDSAY: That is very interesting that that is your background but we’re going to talk about something a little bit different than that. We’re going to talk about something that’s different than the traditional. When we think about theatre or we think about a life in the theatre, we think about those things – we think about LA and we think about going to a theatre school – but that’s not the only thing that you have in your background.
JESSE: No, yeah. Well, I have a lot of pain in my background so I don’t know if you could put that on a resume but…
LINDSAY: Well, I think some – some you really could!
JESSE: That would be great if you could, yeah.
LINDSAY: “What are your special skills?”
JESSE: “I suffered here in this period in my life and I really suffered here. Here, you know, not so much, it was okay. But, here, there’s some absolutely great, rich suffering.”
LINDSAY: Oh, my gosh, yes.
JESSE: I say that in jest but, actually, all of that became the basis for the program that I’ve created and because I think, really, I just got tired of living in pain and I was able to maybe diffuse a lot of that – ironically – drama in my life through the tools of the theatre. I was able to take what I love the most and kind of meet it in the middle.
LINDSAY: Well, when we started, when we were organizing this, a really great thing that you wrote to you was about the notion of the arts in the lives of theatre beyond the stage because we think about it just being, you know, we’re going to put on our little plays. I love it when people say, “How are your little skits doing?”
LINDSAY: And I think that I can certainly, I think that we’re on the same page on this that it’s not that – that there is a role that theatre plays which goes beyond the stage and I know every one of our drama teachers listening is nodding their heads right now because they see that everyday.
JESSE: That’s right.
LINDSAY: Talk about what does that mean to you?
JESSE: Well, that is absolutely right and it’s a really, really fascinating thing the more you understand that and then you see how true that really is. Well, to back up, talking about Juilliard and then my earlier theatre experiences, I went from role to role and that’s what I was used to – the transformational process from playing King Lear to some conman or whatever and that became the norm. But, you know, it’s that whole idea of “you can run but you can’t hide” and – to no fault of anybody’s, certainly not Juilliard’s, although I hear that the program is a little bit different now from when I went there – the question is – and the question came later – “Where is Jesse in this?” and the one role that I really needed to be good at was me. That seemed to come later and I met and connected with a lot of people who were phenomenal, and I think this is pretty common in the arts – you know, you excel on the stage but, outside of that, in-between, your life is in shambles. I think, when I was younger, there was a kind of romantic notion to that. “Well, I’m this struggling, depressed, narcissistic drug addict artist.” But, for me, I don’t think you need to live that kind of life. I don’t think you have to live that kind of an unhealthy existence. And so, I guess where I’m going with this is that theatre has the ability, has the power to do something a lot more with people’s lives than simply just provide entertainment and this proved to be powerfully true when I was invited to work with inmates. I don’t know if I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself but…
JESSE: You know, I think, intellectually, if you would have asked me when I was in my formative training years that theatre and the arts had the power to change somebody’s life, I think, certainly, I wouldn’t have made an argument. I would not have said, “No, no, it’s just entertainment.” I think, intellectually, I would probably understand that but I would not have an experience to be able to back that up with. I had no frame of reference. And then, I got to experience that and, even though I was the teacher working with inmates in this arts and rehabilitation program, I really was taken to school. I became the student all over again.
Everything – and I mean literally everything that I thought I knew about theatre – had to be chucked out the window – not in a bad way but it was like, “All right, let’s get rid of the old ideas and the old associations and forget about me for a little bit. Let’s get out of my own light and really come back to this thing, this theatre thing with eyes wide open and see what it really, really could do for people – “non-actors” – and I really believed that’s what the arts were absolutely intended for.
Certainly, there are people who excel in this profession who were born to take the stage, but I think the true nature and the power of theatre is within all of us. Theatre then simply becomes a tool – a doorway to open up and reveal what’s been waiting for us this entire time and I think it’s in our DNA to transform and that is what theatre does. And so, when I had this experience with inmates, oh, my god, it was so eye-opening and that’s what really, really set me on a completely different course where I was able to emerge the best of what I love about the arts with the best of what I love about teaching and that’s what I’m doing. Yeah! It’s really cool.
LINDSAY: Got lots of nodding heads here. Well, I think what this is really honing in on and, really, why I wanted to talk to you is because there is the separation between what is theatre. “Oh, it’s this thing where we pretend and we put on hats and we put on costumes and we are onstage.” And, from my context, when we think about theatre in the classroom, that’s what almost every administrator sees. They see nothing of value.
JESSE: That’s right.
LINDSAY: They see the entertainment side, right?
JESSE: They do, and this is a reason why 90 percent I think of most arts programs are cut nationwide. It’s deplorable. Because of that fixed mindset, you know, there’s the growth and the fixed mindset, and the fixed mindset, the common misperception is that – you’re absolutely right – it’s the thing that the weird kids do down the hall and it has no real lasting value beyond it’s a photo op for a grandpa and grandma.
LINDSAY: Also, what also happens in the Drama classroom is they become the dumping ground for anyone and anything. They’re populated with non-actors. What an opportunity. It’s like, well, what an opportunity that we can use theatre to open a door, maybe.
JESSE: Yes, absolutely.
LINDSAY: Okay. So, what was your preconceived notion? What was your notion before you walked into your first meeting with the inmates? What did you think was going to happen?
JESSE: Well, I had been invited. He was a guy that I worked with. His name is Dave Fine. He’s a CEO of several businesses in Colorado and he’s also just this amazing entrepreneur and he was doing the program that he was working with inmates was Seven Habits – Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits for Highly Effective People. He was getting zero buy-in. The program is great. Intellectually, it was wonderful. It was totally going over the inmates’ heads and he’s like, you know, and I worked at the time with his wife in this theatre program. He comes into my office and he’s like, “You know, I’m not getting any buy-in. could you help out?” I said, “Well, sure,” and it always intrigued me to work with inmates on some capacity so I went in there. What you had said in a previous podcast, the discussion was – and I liked the way you phrased it – theatricalizing ideas. And so, what we did was we found a way of taking these ideas, the seven habits, and bringing them to life – breathing fire into these ideas. And so, they embodied them, they experienced them rather than just intellectualize them.
The results were fantastic but I guess my preconceived notion was that, honestly, I really didn’t have any real agenda aside from just interest and I thought, you know, I’d heard about arts and therapy and stuff like that and I thought, “Well, you know, I will do some fun improvisations with them or laugh a little, get them out of their reality for a little bit and go home and tell everybody how cool it was that I was in prison.” It was more of the novelty thing. There was no real humanistic endeavor on my part. And then, all that changed because of the stories that were shared with me. I got to just know these guys and this is just one day. I was only planning on being there for one day doing this exercise stuff with the seven habits. And then, I said to Dave, I’m like, “I know I can do more and I want to do more and I want to be able to really, really take what theatre can do and put it in their hands and see where we can go with this if we have the support of the prison,” which we did which is pretty rare. That’s when I decided that I wanted to help these inmates put on a play of their lives.
LINDSAY: Were they adults or were they teens?
JESSE: Well, the first group they worked with, these were teens. Yeah, it was a group of severely at risk teenagers and, one more offense, I think that they were in for the big time. Now, since then, we’ve gone on to work with a lot of adult prisons, but this group was at a correctional facility out here in Colorado.
What was maybe a novelty for me at first was very few times in my life have I ever really felt like anything was a real mission or calling and that’s what it was. That’s what it became.
LINDSAY: Then, this is an exciting feeling. You’ve gotten on actors. How did you apply the world of the theatre to people who have no idea what it is and maybe don’t even care and they’re not interested in stage left, stage right, you know? How do you apply this world to their world?
JESSE: Well, absolutely. You know, what is it a book or that phrase, I don’t know what it is that says that “everything that I learned in life, I learned in kindergarten”? I think that’s what happened for me. Everything I needed to learn about in life, I learned in acting class. Everybody has something that they’re struggling with. Everybody wants something. I don’t care who you are. If you go back to acting class, the first two things that you learn in acting class – and I talked about this in the TED Talk – is “what do you want?” What is that called? That’s called an intention. And what’s getting in the way of what you want? That’s called an obstacle. If you take the intention and you take an obstacle and you put them together and then you take them in a context beyond the acting classroom, what have you got? What you have is really the blueprints for a life. There’s always something that we want and there’s always something that gets in the way of what we want. Now, the problem is that I think most of us – when I say “us,” I mean the human population – we get stuck in the pain. We get stuck in the conflict and we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know how to tell a new story or find a new meaning to life and we don’t know how to rewrite the script. The funny thing is, if you go back to acting class, the reason why they teach these fundamentals what you want and what’s getting in the way of what you want – especially what’s getting in the way of what you want – is because, if you don’t have an obstacle, I always compare it to the movie, it’s like Jaws without the shark. You don’t have a play. You don’t have a great character.
LINDSAY: It’s a very short play.
JESSE: You know, think about a great play – any play – and remove the obstacle. Well, you’ve got one giant yawn-fest. I always tell actors – or the people that I work with, non-actors – that, if you went to a theatre, if the character – the main character, the hero – immediately got what he wanted in the first twenty minutes, would you want to see the rest of the play? Absolutely not because there’s no journey, there’s no fight. You’re not reaching clawing towards something. But the problem is in life. That makes sense in the arts, right? But, in life, when that obstacle rears its ugly head, we just get stuck in there. We don’t see that the pain is actually a launching point to getting what we want. Most of us run the opposite direction because we want to judge the pain. We want to say, “That’s awful, that’s deplorable,” and sweep it under the rug. The training that I do with people – and I was kind of doing a little bit of this before the prison experience, but the prison experience is what really opened up the doors – is for me to help people change their thinking, change their psychology around the obstacle and to actually see that there was value in those things, those areas of our lives that held us back and, indeed, there is. If you look at any great character, any great story, it all comes from a place, an origin of pain. And so, to say that that’s just a theatre thing is so limiting. That’s a life thing. We are inspired through the theatre but the theatre is that doorway to let us see that we can make those kinds of changes in our lives the same way that great plays demonstrate, the same way, the same journeys that the great characters onstage go through. Those are simply reflection of who we are in life. There shouldn’t be any separation at all.
LINDSAY: It’s such a cliché to say that theatre is life and life is theatre but, when you think about it just in that format of what do I want and an obstacle to what I want, that’s it.
JESSE: You’ve got it.
LINDSAY: That’s the meat of every play. That is where a troubled life is.
JESSE: That’s why we’re here on this planet.
LINDSAY: Yeah, it is, actually. I mean, I’m not keen on troubles but that’s what makes good choices and that’s what makes your life interesting.
JESSE: Well, absolutely. It’s not like you’re wishing for the pain, like, “Oh, god, please, just rain on my parade today.”
LINDSAY: Ah, some people do, some people are real good at it.
LINDSAY: But I know what you mean.
JESSE: Well, that’s a whole other podcast – prima donnas and drama queens. Yeah, I would love to talk about that one. No, what we pray for, what we ask of ourselves is, “Can I approach this with grace? Do I have the tools within me to be able to find the artistry or the curiosity in the things in my life that are holding me back?” That was the breakthrough with the inmates. I didn’t say, “Hey, cheer up!” I mean, yeah, how do you do that?
LINDSAY: “Buck up, it’ll be okay.”
JESSE: Yeah, hard core drug addicts and gangsters, you know, “Look on the bright side of life.” They would have shanked me and I would have deserved it. No, what I was asking of them was to be able to say, “Let’s use this stuff. It’s there. We might as well use it so let’s go through the fire rather than going in the opposite direction and doing something that was inauthentic.” What the theatre asks us to do – what the great playwrights ask us to do – is to be able to go and say, “You know, there’s something there behind this barbed wire fence of pain. There’s a gift there. Let’s investigate. Let’s explore. Let’s use it.” And so, when you start to use all these areas of your life that you feel are holding you back – the pain and the conflict and the troubled relationships and this and that and dadada – then you find that that drama, ironically, becomes diffused and a new story has the opportunity of emerging. It’s fascinating when that happens. It’s magical. It’s theatre.
LINDSAY: Yeah, no, it’s wonderful.
LINDSAY: So, that’s the psychological, analytical… the looking. How does that become a structured play or does it become a structured play? Did they write? Did they do it orally?
JESSE: The tools that I primarily worked with and there’s tons of different improvisations and all the different stuff that we do along the way to get to this point but it’s going back to the monologue and I know you’ve written a lot. You’ve created a whole program on the monologue and the monologue, for me, I’ve always loved monologues. I find them just the ultimate communications tool. It really is. I mean, I think everything that you need to know about great acting and communication, I mean, it’s all there because it’s such a simple form but what it does is really creates transformation.
LINDSAY: Well, it’s a mini-play, isn’t it?
LINDSAY: Beginning, middle, end, character journey.
JESSE: Yes, a monologue comes out of a character’s deep need to speak and all changes happen in the moment whether you’re talking about a past event or a future, whatever that is, we see the change happening in order for it to be an effective monologue. There are four essential steps to the monologue that I teach. What the monologue does is creates the opportunity for that change. I have the character’s characters. I have the people that I work with – and I work with a lot of different groups – I work with trial lawyers now which is really interesting. I work with therapists and, well, I work with addicts. I just came back from a recovery place in Tennessee. It’s all pretty much the exact same lesson – a little bit of different language in order to create more buy-in but it really comes back to the monologue. Anything that you want to change in your life, you experience it through this format. And so, once you identify what I call the crossroad – the place where you were, the place where you want to go – then the monologue becomes the vehicle to experience that change and I’ll give you an example. Now, I love my father but let’s say I’ve hated my dad my entire life and that anger is just really driving me down to the pit and it’s not doing anything for me and it’s certainly not doing anything for the people around me. What do I need to experience in my life right now? I need to experience forgiveness. I’m not saying that all of a sudden I’ve got a love and embrace my dad but I need to experience at least a shred or a semblance of what that word forgiveness. And so, now, the monologue becomes the opportunity to experience that change in my life. What do I do? I write a monologue to my father. That becomes the scene.
The four steps then once I’ve identified that crossroad become pretty easy. Step number one is, “Who are you talking to?” Step number two, “What do I want?” We talked about that – the intention. Step number three, “What’s getting in the way of what I want?” That’s called the obstacle. Step number four, “What changes?” Those four steps become the blueprint for the change.
LINDSAY: I think that’s really great because one of the biggest difficulties with monologues is the lack of change. Just from a pure technical standpoint, when working with students and working with someone who doesn’t know how to write a monologue, I think a monologue is not an inherent thing. It’s a skill. I think it need to be practiced and you just can’t fake a monologue. There needs some kind of structure and I think that the key to the structure is change. I love that notion of crossroads so that the change is being experienced in the monologue and your last question, your last step, “What is the change?” That is the thing that makes a monologue.
JESSE: That’s right. It also has to be authentic. The change doesn’t have to be some big Hollywood ending. It’s not all of a sudden, “Oh, I love you dad!” Maybe it’s not even anything with words. I mean, I’ve seen incredible monologues done with maybe one or two words where most of it is nonverbal and we see the change, maybe it’s just a smile or maybe a character goes from sitting in a chair to standing up. Something that small becomes major and very, very significant and meaningful in the arena of theatre. That change could take on a lot of different things or a lot of different meanings but there definitely needs to be that change and the difference being I think between a bad monologue and a good monologue will just maybe be some kind of confessional or a speech and that’s wonderful. We’re hearing the character talk, we’re hearing the inner dialogue or the inner monologue but, again, there’s no transformation that occurs.
LINDSAY: I just love that. I really like too this notion of it doesn’t have to be with words. You know, here is a visual medium and, as much as we would like to think it is a wordy medium, we watch, you know, we are visual learners these days.
JESSE: You bet.
LINDSAY: To give somebody the option, and I think that’s the big thing when you’re dealing with I think non-actors is that they feel that the structure of theatre can sometimes be a trap – that, if I don’t conform to this structure, then I’m not doing theatre, and that’s not true at all.
JESSE: No, you’re right.
LINDSAY: We can have theatre with just one or two words. We can have theatre that’s nonverbal. That, I think, must be very freeing for who you work with to know that.
JESSE: Oh, it’s incredibly freeing. It’s incredibly freeing and I’ll give you an example of that where I’m working right now with a leadership team at Center for Creative Leadership up here in Colorado and this is with CEOs and managers. This is a leadership effectiveness program through lessons from a stage. These guys give business presentations all the time and blah blah blah, words, words, words, words, and I work with white masks. The white mask is a really wonderful instrument to tell the story nonverbal because you’re taking away your primary communications tool – your voice and your face. Now, you have to embody what you’re saying. These are people who probably have spent 85 percent of their life – and that’s I think being generous – being completely disconnected from their bodies which is a communication instrument. And so, the nonverbal work we do, number one, allows them to embrace silence which is a very rare thing but, two, to be able to find a different way of communicating the story. It’s very out-of-the-box and like, well, what’s going on? But when you put the words back into their mouth, then the words become intentional and they’re trusting the silence or the space in-between the narrative. What you do is you pull the audience more and more into your story when you do that rather than just barraging the audience with just blah.
LINDSAY: Well, you know, that happens too.
LINDSAY: Well, that gets right back to it is the heart of what is acting – what’s your intention? You know, what’s your intention?
JESSE: Absolutely. You bet. If you have a strong intention, then you can try and use a lot of different ways of trying to accomplish that goal. You can use music, you can use dance, you can use masks, you can use anything you want to help tell that story if you have a clear intention. You’ve got to know what you want.
LINDSAY: Yeah, absolutely – and what’s in the way.
JESSE: That’s right.
LINDSAY: As we wrap up here, what was the end… for these inmates in this process, what was their takeaway? What was their takeaway at the end?
JESSE: It was pretty incredible. Afterwards, what began as one day turned into two months of working with this group and they gave a culminating performance for the entire facility and the warden and the security guards and family members and it was a real unknown. I mean, talk about going into the dark. To be able to have it be in a safe bubble environment was one thing but then to open it up to the rest of the group was really an unknown thing. I’m telling you, you couldn’t hear a pin drop in that entire place.
When everybody came in, all the other inmates, I mean, there was cheering and yelling and catcalling and I’m like, “Oh, my god, this group that I was working with, they’re going to get really, really, really real for them. Every single one of them performed a monologue from their own life – a play of their own life – for this group and they received a standing ovation – a long one, not just a polite one – and they got it. The group got it – the prison staff and the teachers and they all came up to Dave and I afterwards and were so unbelievably grateful because you really felt that there had been a major shift. And so, it was really a seed that had been planted for ongoing programs that would continue there. We would come back and do this but it was really amazing. You know, I can only hope that this changed the inmates’ lives – that this would take them on a trajectory of a new place, a positive place in their life.
There were a couple of kids that I did see outside afterwards who told me that they were no longer doing the gang stuff and I saw one guy at Chick-fil-A, this big towering dude who’s about eight-feet-tall or something, he made me look like a midget. He came up and he gave me this huge hug, man, and he thanked me so much. Those little moments, I mean, I can’t measure anything right now because that program was so new and it was really hard to keep in touch with him but those little moments right there says that, you know, it did make a difference. It wasn’t just some fun runaround theatre experiment – that this gave them the anchor or the emotional tools to be able to navigate the new waters in their life. And so, I look at that as a total success.
LINDSAY: Absolutely, I think you should, and I just think that, well, it all gets down to that pre-perceived notion that we think that because they have led this kind of life that they could never, well, they could never change or they could never experience theatre or they could never this and I think that that is where people go wrong with theatre. I think theatre is for everybody, right?
JESSE: It really is, and the keyword is “experience.”
JESSE: You can have all the wonderful, intellectual, brilliant ideas but theatre gives you the opportunity to make those ideas comes to life where you get to choose what road you want to go down.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. Absolutely awesome!
LINDSAY: Jesse, this was a great talk. Thank you!
JESSE: This is so cool, Lindsay! I love it!
JESSE: I love it! I want more!
LINDSAY: Ah! Well, we can arrange that.
LINDSAY: Thank you for talking to me today.
JESSE: Totally! Thank you for having me!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Jesse!
Oh, what a great talk!
Speaking of talks, Jesse did a TED Talk about his experience working with at risk youth which I have put a link to in the show notes. If you want to learn more about what he does, his website is www.lftstage.com but you can find a link in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode145.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
All right, ‘tis the season! Happy Holidays! I have to say, I like saying, “Happy Holidays!” I like the word “holiday.” It just feels what it is. If you stake “happy” in front of it, not only does it make me smile but I’m an alliteration happy camper. I’m so happy happy! Happy Holidays!
Is someone asking, “What should I get you for Christmas? For the holidays?” What do you get the theatre teacher aside from a trip to Florida? I cannot offer you a trip to Florida, we don’t have those but we do have a number of resource books. No, it’s not a trip to Florida but that’s what I’ve got to work with.
Resource books, perfect for the classroom, Scene-Speares – a collection of photo-based writing prompts. The set includes 35 different writing spurs along with an instruction guide to integrate them into your drama classroom. We have the Monologue Everything program. Jesse talked about writing monologues. I love his steps! I just think it’s so important to have steps for writing a monologue. A monologue is not a natural thing. It’s not instinctual. You need to practice it. You need to build that skill. Let us help! You know how difficult it is sometimes to get your students to write quality theatrical monologues – Monologue Everything program. Lastly, Emergency Lesson Plans, we have a book of them – perfect to leave with a sub to enhance your program or just for a rainy day – or a snowy day, depending on where you are.
You can find links to all of these resources in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode145.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”