in conversation with assistant director, jess daniels

jess daniels

Jess Daniels, Assistant Director of Jess and Joe Forever

One of the highlights of 2016 was Jess and Joe Forever, a co-production with the Orange Tree Theatre which also toured to (most rural) UK venues. Recently we caught up with Jess Daniels, the Assistant Director (a role which was supported by Old Vic New Voices), and she told us about how she found the directing process and life on the road.

Jess & Joe Forever

I’ve just discovered it’s 12 weeks to the day since our final touring performance of Jess & Joe Forever – which I can’t really believe! It was such an excellent and exciting project to be part of. I was assistant director on the show, a role that meant that I got to be part of the rehearsals for the Orange Tree run, and then I went with the show as it toured theatres in the South East.

I happened to see the read through of Jess & Joe when it was at the Old Vic New Voices festival back in 2015 – and I loved it. I loved the story and the characters but I particularly liked the style in which Zoe had written the play. I’m a big fan of audience-inclusive work – in particular direct address. So when the assistant director role came up it felt like my perfect job!

My experience so far of being an assistant director is that it’s very hard to predict in what way you’ll be most useful to the production and that (inevitably) the role varies massively with each production and director that you work with. For the Orange Tree, the show was in the round and so often my job was to sit on the opposite side of the room to Derek (Bond, director) and keep an eye on the sightlines so that no part of the audience would feel neglected at any point. Sometimes it also included keeping lists of sections we needed to revisit, or generally helping make sure the story was clear. We spent a lot of rehearsals swapping stories about being teenagers & tweenagers, helping to build the world of Jess & Joe.

The show ran at the Orange Tree for a month and during that time I visited roughly once a week to watch the show and pass on any notes as necessary.

Then we went back into the rehearsal room for three days to restage the play as an end-on production in order to take it on tour. At times this was quite a challenge as having spent a month performing the show in the round, it could feel pretty confusing trying to work out how to achieve the same feel for the show but in a very different situation. But we got there, and at 7.30am on 13th October we set off for Havant Spring Arts Centre for the first show of the tour.

Tour Life

I’ve never gone with a show on tour, in the same way that I did for Jess & Joe – it was definitely eye opening! We were doing mostly single performances in each venue so often our days consisted of a 10am get-in that everyone helped with, then the actors would set up their dressing rooms & sort props while Lisa, our stage manager, and I focused lights. Well, I should say Lisa focused lights – I just stood in different places around the stage so she had something to focus them to! We’d aim for a 3pm dress run, which would normally happen around 4pm by the time everything was ready. Then as long as everything ran according to plan we’d be able to grab some food before getting ready for the show. On days where we just did one performance, as soon as the audience had cleared out we would begin to sort the props in order to start the get-out. Each venue had amazing technicians that made this job much easier than it would otherwise have been – helping clear gels from the lights, lift pieces of the floor and generally being super.

On tour my job changed all the time – in some venues it involved helping put colour into gel frames and rigging lights, and in others I would work with the actors to re-block scenes as necessary for each venue. Although we had restaged it for end-on performances, which worked in the majority of theatres we visited, there were a couple of places that needed slight adjustments so that the show would look its best. Similarly with lighting and sound, often the nature of the changing venues would mean Lisa and I would make decisions on small adjustments to the show in order for it to work the best in each of the venues that we were in.

I think it’s quite unusual for an assistant director to go with a show for the whole tour – I was really glad of the experience and I think it was so useful for my work as a director. It was good to see the ins and outs of what is needed to take a show on tour as well as how the actors keep the show fresh even after a 10 hour day. I’m looking to tour a show of my own later this year and it was certainly good to know the reality of what that means.

What I found particularly brilliant was seeing how each different audience reacted. In London, you could predict where people would laugh and where there might be some knowing looks. But the tour went to all sorts of places – from Live Theatre right in the centre of Newcastle to Little Theatre in Sheringham, a tiny Norfolk town. I have always loved how the play develops and the audience begins to realize there is more to Jess & Joe than is immediately obvious. It was fascinating seeing how in each different place the audiences would be absorbed by the story but in very different ways and in very different parts. By the end, Nicola & Rhys (Jess & Joe) would have every audience in the palm of their hands, and you could feel how the final scene had people gripped.

A couple of things I learnt on tour that I didn’t know before…

  • Tension Wire; a tight grid of rope above the stage but below the lighting rig. Very useful for quickly adjusting the focus of a light or changing a lighting gel, without having to climb up and down a ladder. Not so good if you want to hang a ceiling piece…
  • Take spare EVERYTHING. Lisa (stage manager) had boxes and toolkits full of things that at the start I didn’t think we needed and by the end we had used everything in some variety. Each venue was different to the last and so what had worked in one wouldn’t work in another, and when you thought you’d encountered all the possible ‘on-tour’ problems, something unexpected would turn up! Having spare everything helped solve lots of things.
  • Never underestimate the power of a great breakfast. (To be honest I did know this before, but a good breakfast was definitely fundamental to the tour!)

Next, Jess is directing The Many Crimes of Hector Cartwright at VAULT Festival 1st March – 5th March 2017.