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Director Jesscia Lazar: ‘I want the audience to be repulsed, threatened, surprised and charmed’

Jessica Lazar Jessica Lazar
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Jessica Lazar is directing the upcoming revival of Steven Berkoff’s East at the King’s Head Theatre, where the play made its London debut in 1975. She tells Roda Musa about her unconventional route into theatre.

Did you always want to be a director?

I started off, like a lot of people do, with an interest in acting. I always wanted to work in theatre from when I first realised that you did something when you got older. I only really found about performance roles when I was in my mid-teens. I was doing a RADA short course at the Old Vic and about halfway through it they did a talk about the profession and what it is actually like being an actor. One of the tutors warned us that acting is an incredibly demanding and draining profession that can be hugely rewarding but also soul destroying. And that if you don’t wake up every morning determined to be an actor then it is something you should reconsider. I then had this horrible, daunting feeling acting was not for me. A few years later, when observing a friend of mine working, I realised it was directing that I wanted to pursue. When I found directing it was so obvious to me.

What do you love about theatre?

It’s two things: firstly, the capacity theatre has to transport you into another world and into other minds and experiences. The second thing, which may seem like a contradictory point, is that it encourages you to engage with things you might have no experience, interest or have ever begun to think about before. It has the capacity to open us up to something wider, more vivid and extraordinary than we would necessarily have in our daily lives. It’s very important to me, on some level, that theatre originally came from religious practice because there remains something quietly religious about watching and creating theatre. There is an alchemy to it.

What have been your biggest struggles?

Having come from a slightly unconventional route. My training has always been with experts in their fields, but it was always a piecemeal thing and – coming from the academic and research route – the biggest challenge has been making the jump from student theatre to professional theatre. At this point, the struggle is understanding the transition from fringe to larger companies and venues. There are so many people attempting directing, which is brilliant, but there is then a lot of competition and a lot of assistant directing roles require previous experience in a similar role, so it is a catch-22.

How did you approach East?

East is about five characters in east London and there is no clear, linear plot to it. We dip in and out of vivid moments and everyone lives moment by moment. It is an extraordinary piece that has been quite influential and it is an exciting challenge to work on. Each character is carefully constructed and each moment is cleverly balanced so that you are never at a loss as to where you are and why you’re there, unless the writer is intending to purposefully bamboozle you. It is a play that doesn’t tolerate half measures. It is physically engaging and it is exciting, funny and often confusing. I would want the audience to be repulsed, threatened, surprised and also charmed.

CV: Jessica Lazar

Training: Ecole Philippe Gaulier (2015), Met Film School (2015), Little Angel Theatre (2016), University of Oxford (2015)
First professional role: Life According to Saki, director, 2016
Agent: None

East is at London’s King’s Head Theatre from January 9-February 3