Jessica Lefkow: The first play I ever directed was, ‘Crimes of the Heart’, in New Delhi. We had arranged for Shakti Shailini, the only shelter for battered women in the north of India, to receive a huge chunk of the box office profits- enough to buy a van for their street theater troupe. The troupe was comprised of the women themselves, who had lived through beatings, burnings, and- for many- the loss of their children and family identities. They would set up in town squares and begin to play out their own, true stories, soliciting feedback from the crowd that would inevitably gather, in an attempt to start a conversation about domestic violence. It was for many of them the first time they had appeared in public, much less to speak- and then to speak of events that were supposed to be hidden away from view! When the Shakti Shailini troupe attended our dress rehearsal- women who in spite of profound loss on so many levels were open and cheerful and so curious about our work- we brought out the remains of the prop birthday sheet cake to share with them after the performance. The women broke with all sincerity into a fractured, gentle but warm ‘Happy Birthday’ for the actor playing Meg. When they finished... There was nothing to say but, ‘thank you’.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Jessica Lefkow: I first got seriously into theater as a lazy teenager looking for a good excuse to hang out after school for hours, (a bunch of us students ran an independent theater company out of the basement of the school building) and to not do my homework. Very quickly, I started to work harder at theater than at any other thing!
JL: What kind of work do you do to pay the bills? How do you balance this work with your work as a director?
Jessica Lefkow: Until this year, I was the primary parent for my three sons, while their dad brought home the salary that pays for the roof and the insurance. His was also the job which we followed around the planet for 17 years. That said, I’ve taught, done voice-over and coaching jobs between directing and performing gigs, and am always working on something.
JL: In DC, we have the Capital Fringe Festival, the Intersections Festival, the Source Festival, the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival, the Black Theater Festival, and the Hip Hop Theatre Festival. We also have the Mead Lab at Flashpoint Theater Lab Program. Have you participated in any of these? If so, can you speak about your experience?
Jessica Lefkow: I’ve directed for nearly every Capital Fringe Festival until this year, (and performed and produced there, too.) I’ve also worked in the Page-to-Stage and Source Festivals. Each of them is a glorious mess in its own way. I love these festivals for the abundant opportunities they provide for running into the unexpected, from new production companies to actors fresh to DC stages, to directors, designers and playwrights testing out fresh ideas and collaborations.
JL: How many plays have you directed in the DC area? How many of them were written by women? By playwrights of color? How conscious are you selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season?
Jessica Lefkow: I've directed 18 full productions in the DC area. eleven of those have been by women, none by people of color- though I have directed work by playwrights of color when Iwas living elsewhere.I think I'm probably more conscious of gender than color, though I am aware of the cultural or ethnic differences between playwrights that may not be about color. I'm always pleased to direct plays in voices less represented in the mainstream, but rarely consider gender or ethnicity above other things unless asked to by the producing company.
JL: How do you feel the DC theatre community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to work?
Jessica Lefkow: Our community speaks with more comfort about gender than race, as does our society. Unlike many industries, however, ours should be a destination for conversations about these and other issues with which we grapple. Even we theatre-makers do a better job addressing these issues in our work than we do when we do as ‘civilians’- we need the theatre as much as our audiences do! I embrace all the things which I can bring to the table- my identity is comprised of my gender and ethnicity as much as by my interests, knowledge and experiences. I have experienced being excluded from the creative table on the basis of both my race & my gender when living in other cultures. Here, I believe that my gender registers much more often than not, and occasionally my race as well, as a defining directorial qualifier on some level. As long as this is true, my ability to work will of course be impacted. Perhaps on some level this is okay, as our community strives to tell a variety of stories through many lenses. This is not to say I don’t mind the present reality, where the impact is arguably much more negative than positive; I do, and very much so! Women and people of color are still too often seen in the American conversation as offering an ‘other’- as opposed to ‘another’- point of view. I’ve definitely failed throughout my life to fulfill expectations of how a woman ‘should’ react, or should behave & speak, and I do think that this has impacted my career.
JL: If you could direct at any theatre in DC, which would it be and why?
Jessica Lefkow: Helen Pafumi of the Hub has both passion and an idiosyncratic ear for the poetry of so much new work. I know few producers whose seasons are so motivated by the sheer love of the material. I gain new perspective about every play that I’ve discussed with her, and every play I’ve seen at her theatre- usually something that I have or would have overlooked. That’s the best kind of daunting.
JL: DC audiences are ...
Jessica Lefkow: Partisan.
JL: DC actors and designers are ...
Jessica Lefkow: Invariably hard-working.
JL: DC playwrights are ...
Jessica Lefkow: Growing in number and distinctive voice.
JL: DC critics are ...
Jessica Lefkow: Becoming more skilled as a group at commentary, thank heavens!
JL: What advice do you have for an up-and-coming DC based playwright or a playwright who has just moved to D.C.?
Jessica Lefkow: Find the playwrights! This is an incredibly collegial town, and I am inspired by the conversation and support I see amongst the playwrights I know here.
JL: What's next for you as a director? Where can we keep up with your work?
Jessica Lefkow: I’ll be directing the reading of a triptych of plays by Allyson Currin, Renee Calarco and Jason Odell Williams for Pinky Swear Productions on October 21. Look for me at www.dogandponydc.com or keep up with current productions on the news page of www.jessicalefkow.com