Meet Various Stages Artistic Advisor.... Jessica Walker
Dr Jessica Walker gives an insight into her role as Artistic Advisor for the Various Stages Festival 2020
Tell us about yourself and your work
I work as a singer and writer. I was operatically trained, but fell out of love with the traditional canon of work, and became increasingly fascinated with new work. That led me to start collaborating with composers and directors, and writing a mixture of new music theatre works, solo shows and theatre pieces with songs. What I realised, was that I needed to be involved at the inception of work, and new creative expressions, to feel fulfilled as an artist. I got so interested in this, I did a PhD about it! Specifically, about how performing artists can understand more about their own practice by creating as well as interpreting, and also claim back a bit of agency in a difficult professional world.
What is the role of a Various Stages Artistic Advisor?
I see my role in terms of asking the right questions. Sometimes it’s really hard to start something. What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter much what you start with, you just have to take the plunge. You can talk about things for ages and not get anywhere, but if you start creating, even if you later discard the material, it will lead you to where you need to go. I’m most interested in asking why something needs to be staged – music is often wonderful even with your eyes closed – so where is the urgency for a new piece to be realised visually and dramatically? That is key for Various Stages, so that will be my focus.
What excites you about the projects in the Various Stages festival?
The projects are so diverse, imaginative and bold. It’s always exciting to be involved at the stage of an initial idea – it could fly, or it could stutter, but either way it will be fascinating, and the artist will learn so much from the experience. It’s only through what doesn’t work that we start to learn what it is we want to say, musically and theatrically.
Why are programmes like Various Stages important?
Where else is there for an artist to try out ideas with proper support? So much funding has been cut from the development of new work, and without new work, what is the future for music theatre and opera? We need to look at what opera means for today, and for the future, and that’s not possible without schemes like Various Stages.
What are your top tips for getting a new project off the ground?
If I had the answer to that I’d be constantly in work! All I would say is, do everything with artistic integrity. Don’t try to fit in, or to give a company what you think they want, because the project will feel creatively empty. It’s better to make the creative work you want, and to fail to get it placed, than to try to mould yourself to a list of funding requirements. If you have something to say, your work will find a place. It might not earn you much money, and you might have to make that work in conjunction with other professional work, but that it ultimately more rewarding than hedging your bets. Practically speaking, I think starting small is key. You don’t need much money or many resources to trial an idea with a small group. The difficulty is in getting people to pay attention, and all you can do there is keep knocking on doors. This is why Various Stages is such a gift to artists.
What advice would you offer to someone to help them get a project beyond the development stage?
Do it yourself, if nobody else wants to put it on. I self-produced my early projects. It was a steep learning curve, but the pieces did get attention, and paved the way to other commissioned work. If you want to do something badly enough, you will. I’m a great believer in this, while also acknowledging that it places a lot of risk and burden on the individual artist. That is, sadly, the world we live in. As long as there are too many artists for too few opportunities, and as long as the funding situation is as it is, artists have to be proactive, and push their own work, if they want their voices to be heard. I think the key is to know if something feels exploitative, and to speak up if an arrangement with a venue feels too unequal, when they agree to host your work.