Spotlight: Jessica Burr

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On Facebook and here on the SITI Company blog, SITI has been spotlighting alumni of our many training programs. Today, we have the great pleasure of introducing you to Jessica Burr. Jessica is the Artistic Director of Blessed Unrest, a company committed to producing dynamic, disciplined, and exuberant new works for the stage in New York City and abroad, building original pieces and reconstructing established texts with its diverse ensemble of artists. She is the director of Body: Anatomies of Being, which is running at the New Ohio Theatre in the West Village until May 21, 2016. She recently answered some questions for us and we are delighted to share her answers with you!

1. When did you first train with SITI?

It was around 1998 in a sun-drenched wooden studio on Wooster Street. We were working very unrigorously when Ellen said calmly to the room “Do you know why this is difficult for you?” and meeting no response replied “Because you are weak.” In that moment I understood that making theatre is a physical act. It is tangible, not some elusive magic that mysteriously evokes emotion. Making theatre, and creating universes full of detail and truth, is an act of will.

2. What are you most excited that you’re doing or working on right now?

The New Ohio and IRT theatres commissioned Blessed Unrest to create Body: Anatomies of Being in a two-year Archive Residency at the New Ohio Theatre in the West Village, where it’s running now through May 21.

I was compelled to begin working on a piece from the beginning, which for me is bodies in space. No ideas, no title, no themes, no narrative, and no recognizable structure. Just bodies, space, and light. We don’t need anything more than this to begin. Within our bodies is contained our history, breath, memory, movement, voice, stories, secrets, the unspeakable, inherent understanding of time and physics, ideas, language, passions, and ancestry, to name a few elements. This is enough to fuel infinite plays. Because the performers of Blessed Unrest train together regularly, they can work with very little imposed structure. We can essentially enter a room, and say “Go!” It’s thrilling.

After some initial workshops, we began working with a trauma surgeon, and a painter of nudes. Their very different perspectives on the body exploded our own understandings, and eventually became narratives within the piece. Because we had two years to develop Body, we were able to work very collaboratively with everyone involved, and other narrative lines began entering the room and weaving themselves into a structure.

Occasionally at Blessed Unrest we make a piece of theatre that, when asked what it is about, I throw up my hands or else murmur something about exploring what it means to be human. I realize now that really if you want to know you must come to the work. Enter our space at a specific time, disconnect from your telephone, and take the ride. If I could convey the experience of seeing this show in a sentence, I would be a poet. Body is one of those shows, and I now recognize it as one of the most complex that we have made, and I love being able to continue investigating what it is about. (More Body info is at www.blessedunrest.org)

3. What is the most important thing you learned from SITI?

· Pondering, discussing, and researching are important tools, but there is no substitute for entering a room, full of terror, and beginning.
· How to forge work by force of will.
· How to follow an impulse without knowing where it will lead.
· To continually explode the form.
· To question and articulate my own process and our process as a company.
· That the work must have a cost. I’m feeling this one right now!

4. What in your creative life are you proudest of?

I am proud of the fact that I engage the things that terrify me. When we began working on Body, I did not intend to put naked people on stage. That seemed almost too obvious a choice, but during the process it became clear that working together naked was a necessary part of our exploration. I was completely blown away by the beauty of working with naked performers. They know exactly where their bodies are in space, and so much new detail pours into the room. Suddenly, the line of the ear, the breast, and the ass becomes repetition, or matching nipple shape—things that you simply can’t observe with clothes on. At the same time the stakes are very high, and actors are extremely vulnerable. I am highly aware of the privilege and also the responsibility of being able to work so intimately with actors.

5. Tell us about a piece of art that has recently inspired you.

The body of work by painter of nudes, Francis Cunningham. He explodes the body onto a two-dimensional canvas in the most shocking and extraordinary way. He was a great inspiration for Body: Anatomies of Being.

Keep up with our blog to read and learn about more SITI Alumni and what they’re up to by following SITI’s blogs at siti.org/blog. If there’s an alum you want an update on, email us at alumniupdates@siti.org!