Five Questions with Jess Barbagallo
Note from the Editors: We’re bringing back Five Questions, and our first edition features Jess Barbagallo, whose show MY OLD MAN (AND OTHER STORIES) will have performances at Dixon Place opening on October 7th and running through October 22nd. You can get tickets here. Additional, sub note: Culturebot erroneously assumes that Jess is performing in this show (see below for the gentle correction on Jess’s part). This has been left intact due to excellence of response. The all-star cast, it should be noted, is comprised of Drae Campbell, Aron Canter, Emily Davis, Cecilia Gentili, Gabriella Rhodeen, T. Thompson, & Monica Wyche.
1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I grew up in Upstate New York and then moved to the City when I was seventeen to attend NYU. And then I stuck around after I graduated, went to Brooklyn College to study playwriting, performed a bunch, toured with some theater companies. I supported myself as a barista, a server, a bartender and a teacher during this time. A few years ago, I segued out of service, a real turning point in my life, and started working in a very low-level capacity for a magazine, which has at least allowed me to focus more on a direct engagement with words at the near-daily level, beyond the avid reading I already do. But moving away from a night-centric lifestyle, for me, was the way that I feel like I started to get more serious about being an artist, to more specifically answer the question of what I wanted to do with my love for theater and performance and people. Directing a full-length work that I had written, as I have seen so many of my peers do, feels like the arrival at something inevitable.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
I’ll be really myopic and answer this question as I am feeling at the end of today. Harold Budd and the Cocteau Twins have this collaboration called The Moon and the Melodies, which I really wished I owned on vinyl. For the last several years, I have probably turned this on more often than any other music I am familiar with (except maybe some Joan Armatrading records). And I guess you just have to listen to it. It really calms me down and transports me to another time-emo space. I should also note though that my current play is heavily influenced by the writer Joy Williams. It’s shocking to me that I didn’t discover her until I was 32. Her stories are perfect, she writes alcohol like a genius. It’s funny and hard, the second descriptor in every sense.
3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
I really wish I knew how to drive. I mean, I kind of know how. But I don’t have a license. And this sort of makes the gulf between me and home even larger than it already is. When I visit my family, I’m dependent on so many people to get me around. I feel like a burden and I can’t run away. So, there’s childhood for you. Or, I guess, certain childhoods. Also, there is so much of this country I haven’t seen and it is hard to fulfill old-fashioned American fantasies without a car. Or to be much of a romantic hero, even at the modest scale I envision.
4. How would you characterize the experience of directing a work that you also perform in? New freedoms? Sudden fears?
Well, I’m not performing in this work so that I can direct it. And because I didn’t think there was a place for me in it. I mean, I’m still toying with some version of an appearance because it might be the play’s destiny. There have been certain moments in the theater where I think director as actor has worked beautifully, in moderation. I remember Brooke O’Harra had a great cameo in Drums of the Waves of Horikawa many years ago. And Sibyl Kempson’s appearance right at the end of Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag was probably the best moment of that show. I have acted in work I was directing, but I think it proved problematic because I didn’t have anyone from the outside tempering my worst impulses or pushing me. I was largely performing on charisma in those instances and had the (probably) false impression that I was carrying the work on my back. I’m a ham, but in my heart I hate showboating. And I care quite a bit about composition. Your ability to see the bigger picture is limited by your body’s ego desires up there. In a more languorous process, probably what Mark Rylance gets when he is working in company, I don’t know, there is the potential for a kind of group mind to iron out these formal concerns. But I’ve never experienced that kind of luxury in a process I was driving.