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Profile: Dr Jessica Lazar

Profile Dr Jessica Lazar

Dr Jessica Lazar (2009, English)

Jessica is a freelance director and part of award-winning theatre company Atticist (which she co-founded in 2016). She was an EVOLVE Artist in Residence at Oxford Playhouse in 2019/20. Since March 2021 Jessica has been a beneficiary of Mercury Creatives. Her productions have won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award 2016, the inaugural 2018 SIT-Up Award, and been nominated for ten 2018-19 Off West End Awards as well as the 2017 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.

Why did you decide to do a DPhil?
As the end of my MSt loomed, I felt I hadn’t finished with research. I liked and respected my supervisor, Professor Tiffany Stern, enormously and I loved my topic. I was writing a dissertation about the accession pageants of James VI as James I, which would turn into a thesis about accession literature and propaganda called 1603. The wonderfull yeare: literary responses to the accession of James I. It’s remarkable how often my subject, especially my wider research on theories of propaganda, continues to infiltrate my professional work.

Profile: Jessica LazarHow did you change from starting at Univ to graduating from your DPhil?
I gained a priceless understanding of my reserves and tenacity, and of what can be achieved with work, judgment, and the right support. I learnt that I could instigate, lead, and complete a major project, whether the DPhil or a theatre production. In a lot of ways, I learnt who I was and who I thought I could be.

How has your life changed because of the pandemic?
I did not expect to see a plague close the playhouses. (And there are a handful of things I really wish I could add to my thesis.) In March 2020, a year of upcoming work vanished almost overnight; at the same time my caring responsibilities increased massively, as one of my parents is severely disabled and had to begin shielding. I had to adapt. Development (preparing scripts and productions for a time after lockdown) became a priority. I gave attention to writing and film, which I’d neglected for several years as my theatre work gained pace. I worked as an audio director for the first time. One of the most interesting pieces was an interactive audio play, THE YOU PLAY: SMALL ACTS by Rafaella Marcus, starring Katherine Parkinson for 45 North and Ellie Keel Productions. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, you find yourself placed at the heart of the story, participating in the creation of a unique piece based on your reactions to a set of instructions. There really isn’t anything like it. Companies and venues and individuals in the creative industries have suffered extremely since last spring, but there has been an outpouring of invention and creativity. It will be exciting to see where that goes next.

Jessica doing a workshopDo you have any advice for aspiring directors who are current students?
Do the best you can in every sphere – the best artistically, the best academically.

The monologues can wait; put twenty-seven people and a band onstage at Oxford Playhouse doing Brecht. During the first years of a directing career, you will be practically limited in what you are able to direct. (Professional rights could be unavailable. Casts above three could be unaffordable. Fringe slots limited to 50 minutes. And so on.) So take advantage of what the University can offer. Challenge yourself to direct a range of pieces in a range of spaces. Make yourself uncomfortable. Use large casts. Devise new work. Try classic texts. Produce. Work on builds. Assist other creatives and learn from them.

At the same time, your official education matters too. Putting aside the “safety net” argument, you will hone vital transferable skills in the process of gaining a good degree, not least an ability to research and interpret, no matter your subject. A good degree is also reassuring in a career that can be isolating and deliver long periods without validation. It reminds you that you have succeeded in the past, and can succeed again.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced? How did you overcome it?
I’ve grown up with a very disabled father and that affects most aspects of my life to varying degrees. There isn’t a way to overcome it. There’s no magic apple. It’s about getting through. You just have to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Lisa’s D’Amour ANNA BELLA EEMA 2019
Photo: Holly Revell
Cast: Gabrielle Brooks

What is your proudest achievement?
Personally: completing my DPhil. (I regularly remind myself that, if I can get through that, I can probably get through most things.)

Professionally: winning the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, leading to an Off-Broadway transfer, with Life According to Saki by Katherine Rundell. Kate and I became friends over the MSt and DPhil, and working with her was formative for me.

Describe Univ in three words.
Wisteria is marvellous.

You can find out more about Jessica’s work online

Published: 17 May 2021

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