Paula Varjack In Conversation With Victor Esses

Paula Varjack: The last work I saw of yours was an online version of your new work in progress - Unfamiliar. Tell me a bit about the decision to adapt this work to a digital work. What felt most challenging, and what was most exciting about it?

Victor Esses: I guess when lockdown hit I first felt very lost, and had no energy and excitement about adapting any work. No one knew how long this all was going to last. I did think from early on that I could explore ideas of putting work online. It’s when I started watching works online, including stuff at GIFT Festival, the Schaubühne streamings, Coney’s work, that it all felt like there could be a life somewhere off the stage or performance spaces. When Forest Fringe TV started to programme work, I thought that it would make complete sense to adapt Unfamiliar, the piece my partner visual artist Yorgos Petrou and I had developed and opened at CASA Festival, at Arcola last year. It is a project that is constantly in development, as it’s about our journey towards becoming parents, our dreams and fears, the start and stop of the process all of the time.

Last January we did a residency at The Marlborough in Brighton where we explored more things in it. We had a tweaked script, our home, and I thought how exciting it would be to perform it there, using our laptops and phones and ipad... to explore camera angles, the idea of the audience having different perspectives of us, to be invited into our home, to use the livingroom and the kitchen, and to control what they can see on each frame. The challenging thing was first knowing if the intimacy of the piece was going to translate, to experiment with connecting with an audience without seeing them, and perform in your front room, making it very difficult to have a relaxing environment when you stop working. But I think these are the times we are in. I’m so pleased with the feedback we got and we’ll most likely do this version again soon.


Unfamiliar Forest Fringe - Screen Grab


PV: Interview featured quite heavily in this work, how did it influence the process? Is it something you often use as a devising tool?

VE: My whole practice is based on interviews and conversations. The first idea when we started working on Unfamiliar, was to interview queer parents, and members of queer families. To be honest this happened even before Yorgos was involved. I still didn’t know how it was going to work, but I knew I wanted an opportunity to learn. We both grew up with no real queer role models, not in our proximity, and not on our screens. I interviewed a couple of friends on camera, the night before they flew to the U.S .to welcome their surrogacy baby into the world. I arranged to then speak to several others. Those conversations definitely fed into our conversations in rehearsals, the politics of doing what we were doing, of being queer, marriage, adoption, surrogacy, nuclear families. A lot served as themes for us to explore. In the devising process we would ask questions to each other, we’d pre-record conversations, some of which were used, creating provocations to each other and answering them into a phone recording app.

In my solo Where to Belong, where I explore what it means to be a Jewish Lebanese Brazilian gay man, a lot of the material came from recorded conversations with my parents about Lebanon, where they grew up, which I transformed into storytelling. It also involved conversations with friends living in Beirut, creating an archive of memories in the rehearsal room. I didn’t use the interviews directly, but I did use clips from conversations on camera with my mom, when I was in Beirut. A lot of oral history is very present. It’s much more my thing than academic research.


Photo Credit: Holly Revell


PV: Do you feel like you would be interested in making online works in future, even when we can be in theatres again? Why or why not?

VE: That’s such a difficult question to answer directly. I think I would definitely be open to explore all different forms. I think online work has a very interesting quality that is unique to it. You can watch it from the comfort of your home, it is live, it’s a window into something exciting for a moment. I feel like with time we will be a bit exhausted from being in front of screens, but I hope we can still do it for some time, as I don’t feel everyone is ready to go back to presentially live work. It still feels a bit scary to be in the presence of crowds, especially indoors. This push that West End producers are trying to get the government to reopen things without social distancing, I find all of it so irresponsible.

I’m curious to explore a hybrid of live and online performance. I love the internationality of it. One of the works I started developing at Shoreditch Town Hall, became two ideas. One is a solo exploring what it means to be enough. I did a sharing of this from my home, on Zoom, and it was very specific for the online moment. I have some ideas of how I will develop this into a presentially live performance... it will be different but this making, adapting and readapting really enriches the work I feel. I definitely see myself exploring live feed projections in the future, with ideas from the online work. I’m also interested to explore performance filmmaking in the near future. I’m very interested in the difference and similarities between the AIDS epidemic, and the current pandemic. I feel there’s a lot to explore there. So basically I cannot tell you exactly what will happen that far ahead when everything is changing daily, but there will definitely not be a going back to before.


Photo Credit: Alex Brenner


PV: We are both in a subgroup of the Freelance Taskforce looking at better representation. What does this mean to you and why does it matter to you?

VE: I think better representation involves a sector that contains multitudes in every part of its bones, different people of different backgrounds, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, abilities, ages, involved in all parts from decision making to artistry to audiences to participants. Growing up in Brazil we would watch soap operas all the time, the whole country would watch it. In a country where around half of the population identifies as black or mixed race, all we saw on TV were white actors, presenters, news people, with the odd person of a different complexion here and there. I studied film, and the books I used to read always talked about universality. But for something to be universal, usually they meant it needed to centre being white, straight, and culturally referring to the ruling majority.

I don’t know how we spent so long thinking that those were the only human experiences we could relate to as a whole, that otherwise it was a niche. But it was a niche for the simple fact that we were all conditioned to connect with the ruling majority’s experiences, while no one else was expected to connect with yours. I rarely saw my story anywhere, a gay boy from a Jewish family. I think better representation considers every part of society, and nurtures all people, creates welcoming spaces and tells the human stories of all of us, it creates multicultural environments that think of access, and thinks of the shortfalls and is responsible for bettering it, constantly in flux, welcoming a multitude of ideas and ways of working as well, as styles and working cultures are also a way to keep people out.


Where To Belong - Photo Credit: Alex-Brenner


PV: I totally agree with all of that, a lot of it echoes why representation, particularly in media matters so much to me. Do you have any questions you want to ask me?

VE: You’ve used autobiography in your work before. How do you relate to this material? Do you feel like you dig deep and stay faithful to the truth or you use it as a starting point to present a message?

PV: In terms of my use of autobiography I think I've always seen it as a tool to talk about something that is a shared experience. Progressively with every show I've made, it's become less and less about sharing my own experience, exploring what it means to me personally, and using it as a tool to explore what I believe is part of some kind of collective experience. For example in my most recent work TheBabyQuestion, looking at what it means to be a woman without children explores - what it means for me to be woman without children, is in the context of two other women onstage who don't have children, in line with a general conversation about motherhood and how you were positioned inside or outside of it - depending on whether you have children or not, as a woman in terms of digging deep and staying faithful to the truth, I think something I find quite interesting about representation of of truth, related to lived in experience - Is you can only really speak to your version of an experience. Even if you tell it truthfully, as you remember it, I always think of memory being composed of other people’s memories who were part of an experience. I believe that all versions are pieces of the same truth. I also think there's something very interesting that happens when you are performing, especially repeatedly performing lived in experience, because you are reliving it, and if you're not careful you can also build a disconnect to it. It can become less real, because it's obviously unnatural to be continually reliving the same experience, and for an audience. I suppose it kind of objectifies the truth.

That’s the reason why with some of my work, I have found that there's a shelf life of how long I feel comfortable performing it. So yes I use my lived experience as a jumping off point to talk about wider issues but also I think that truth becomes nebulous just by virtue of you being one person telling it (and repeating it).

VE: You have an interest in many types of art and people. How do you feel this feed into the work you make?

PV: I think like you I have an identity that intersects many different identities. I'm also someone who has lived in many different places, and made work in many different art forms. So by nature I suppose within that kind of fracturing, I'm interested in lots of different types of people. I'm interested in people who are part of my tribes in terms of shared experiences, but I'm also interested in people who have very very different experiences because that pushes me to grow and see things in new ways. I guess that also connects to liking different forms of artwork, because they enable us to understand experiences and perspectives in diverse ways. It’s something about being interested in being multilingual in experiences. I'm terrible at learning languages (even though I have tried and failed now a number of times with several languages) so maybe I've substituted the desire to speak in different languages to connecting to different ways of thinking and art forms.

VE: A lot of your recent work seems to explore what it means to be a woman today. Do you usually decide who you’d like to make the work for at the beginning of the process? How do you decide what you’d like to delve into next?

PV: Usually a project starts because I have a compulsion to explore and start a conversation about a theme or experience that feels important, and not spoken about enough or at all. From that point I start to think who is it that I most want to start a dialogue with around that experience? And I want to encompass people who had the same experience so that they have a sense of solidarity, and know they are not alone, while opening up that experience to people who have maybe never considered it or wouldn't feel they could connect to it. I guess in that I'm thinking about who it's for. So for example with I, Melania, I have a preoccupation with immigration and with multiculturalism as someone who is a dual national and bicultural and mixed-race. And I suppose I'm interested specifically in what it means to be a woman who is a foreigner, because I'm also female. I 'm interested in an intersection. What does it mean to be female and foreign in England right now, during brexit ?

In terms of how I decide each time what project to make next, I'm constantly thinking and questioning and processing the world around me. Trying to make sense of it by reading and seeing as much as I can , talking to the people who have interesting thoughts to me around it . What then emerges is what do I most feel like I need to explore, and what do I most feel would be served by platforming. The work comes from that generally, but also externally, in terms of others commissioning for example.

Victor Esses is a Theatre and Performance Maker working with live art, storytelling and autobiographical material to investigate belonging and human connection for imagining and creating better futures. He is Associate Artist to CASA Theatre Festival, has been nominated for an International Press Award, and has been associate director to maverick international director Gerald Thomas.

Cover Photo Credit: Holly Revell