Theatre-making as Activism: In Conversation with Isobel Jacob

Back in June, MEDUSA caught up with Isobel Jacob, a recent Durham graduate and theatre maker about to embark on a Theatre Directing MA at the East 15 Drama School. Over Zoom we discussed activism, inclusion, feminism, and cliques in student theatre. Isobel was disarmingly honest and open, making our conversation a delight, which, after a whirlwind two months, I got to relive typing up this interview. 

Theatre is a paradox. To consume it is a privilege that takes place, quite literally, behind closed (auditorium) doors. Far from merely a pastime, theatre becomes a location to trade in exclusive cultural and intellectual capital. Yet, when it’s done right, this art form also radically opens new spaces in our collective imagination. Theatre transforms the everyday into chambers of reflection and has the potential to dismantle the systems it all too often upholds. Simply put, theatre, like the society it reflects, is knotty

Isobel, a self-described ‘anti-oppression activist and environmentalist working for collective liberation’ recognises this knottiness. She is the first to admit the challenges of creating ‘modern and didactic’ theatre in apathetic spaces, like Durham University. During her time as an English and Philosophy undergraduate, Jacob navigated a ‘very stationary and static’ student body while directing plays that included All Over Lovely and Sparks.

‘People don’t recognise the weight of being apolitical. I want to create work through which I can be an activist’.

Enter the role of ‘theatre maker’ (and a Theatre Directing MA at the East 15 Drama School). Unlike the more commercialised title of ‘director’, this position favours genesis over interpretation by creating plays from scratch. ‘It’s where stereotypically, and for good reason, the best activist theatre comes from.’ Why? Because, as Isobel explains, it offers the space to ‘create work that, from the start, is connected to the issues you care about, rather than just selling it as something’ that engages with those topics.

These comments are pertinent at a time when social justice, particularly antiracism work, is being commodified. For the establishment, it now pays – economically, socially and culturally – to be seen to engage with social issues. ‘People doing theatre want their art to be “passionate” and “feel powerful” but they don’t recognise the baggage that comes with that.’ When you approach stories with political or social tendencies, ‘you have to take responsibility for how it’s received’. 

Let’s take feminism as a broad example. From the theatre maker’s approach, you can choose a topic, like the male gaze, and use that as the foundation on which to build your play. This is a move away from theatre that takes preexisting work, the obvious choice being Shakespeare, and adds a feminist message. As a vehicle for facilitating meaningful change, Isobel is ‘quite wary’ of the classic “we’re going to do a feminist take of [insert well-known play]”’.

Sparks promotional poster, Durham University (2019)

The risk is that by self-consciously labelling a production as ‘feminist’, theatre reinforces its own echo chamber and biases through the kind of audience it attracts.

Isobel agrees: ‘feminism in theatre is white feminism, cisgendered, and non-disabled… it’s definitely a problem, myself included, and it gets to a point where there is not necessarily enough choice in the industry to escape that because it’s so systemic’. 

And so, rather than a feminist interpretation of The Tempest being a space for inclusive and meaningful conversations around what it is to be a woman, plays of this nature have to ‘live up to certain expectations of what feminism is and also a very specific genre, including the sorts of actors and venues involved’. Jacob recognises that in the commercial world of theatre, works shaped in this headspace are preoccupied with the question, ‘how are we marketing it?’

The damage of labelling the creative process was a common trend in our conversation. Although meant to liberate theatre practitioners by indicating an alternative way of working, labels all too often become a form of entrapment. Even the discrete need to define ‘theatre maker’ has its issues: Isobel explains, ‘I don’t do a lot of writing; I’m not a playwright, yet, and I don’t know if I ever will be. But I feel like I shouldn’t have to choose between doing one or the other.’ 

It’s clear that the pressure to operate through conventional channels is something that Jacob rejects. Instead, she wants to champion collaboration in the creative process, a term which she is acutely aware also risks becoming ‘another tick box exercise’. ‘Collaboration is a way of being radical, because it allows us to actively do the things we’re preaching about, and listen rather than following a vision unquestioningly. It escapes non-intersectional ways of working that are holding theatre back.’  

Speaking with Isobel gave me the impression that she actively challenges the ground beneath her feet – her world view, how it influences her practice, and how she can strive to reach beyond her current location. On the cusp of starting her MA, Jacob is ‘excited at the prospect of being able to experiment and push the boat out’. We too are excited to see where this focus on grassroots, community-led, practice will take her. Performance, after all, ‘can be fuelled by rage in a way a painting or a sculpture cannot’. And, my, there is plenty of fuel about. 

Isobel’s steps for taking an activist approach to theatre: 

  • Be collaborative.
  • Choose work from writers and actors of colour. Make an active effort to be diverse in casting and work with companies that are diverse.
  • Pass the mic. This is a complicated issue in theatre because it’s very ego-based and there’s always a name attached to work. But, the industry needs to ensure that the names attached to a work are not always the most privileged. We need to have more conversations around where your ownership starts and ends. 
  • Being open to learning when you’re working – there isn’t one ‘right way’. 

Further Reading

Lyn Gardner on Protest and Performance

Staging a revolution: can theatre be an effective form of activism?

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Theatre as Human Rights Activism

Interview and Research by Eden Szymura and Emily Walters

Written by Eden Szymura 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: