My Theatre

17 March 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Jessica Hiemstra

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

She may be experienced in design and installation but Pencil Kit Productions’ The Hungriest Woman in the World was Jessica Hiemstra’s first theatrical set design. She blew us away with her creative and elegant work, so much so that we nominated her very first theatrical endeavour for Outstanding Set Design. We can’t wait to see what she does next.

What was your first experience with theatre?
Oh that’s such a good question. Do you just mean like, experiencing theatre to begin with? Or doing something in theatre?

Whichever one you want to go with!
Well because what’s really exciting is this is the first time I’ve done a set, ever. So I do work as a designer, I do design for my day job. I’m an artist for my day job and a writer at night, so that’s great, and strange. So this was… there was a call out for doing the set for this, and one of my good friends wrote the play, and I thought well, I guess I could try, and I did it and I don’t want to do anything else, ever. I loved it so much, it was so fun to do!

Wow! I want to come back to that, but first I want to step back and ask what the trajectory was of your coming to design, and art, and writing.
Right, there is no straight line in my life, so this is a very hard question to answer! But you know what, I grew up, from the time I was … I started drawing when I was about three years old, I was making art, I was in a home that was full of it, I’ve lived all over the world, but the thing that mattered in my childhood and that has mattered in my adulthood is creativity as our way of understanding ourselves, and each other, and how to get at empathy and all that stuff. So, what’s the line… I don’t know. I dropped out of art school, I have a degree in linguistics, I don’t know, there’s really, there’s no line. But… yeah. Should be an easy question, but it isn’t.

That’s okay. How did you get started with design as your day job, then?
Um… fuck. [laughs] Um… you know the stories you’re not sure how much you want to tell? It’s one of those. But I think that’s fine, I can just go for it. I had a really difficult event happen in my life, I left a relationship, everything went down in flames, or up in flames not down in flames that’s not how it goes. And I reached out to all my friends and family, I sent a note, and I said I’m broke, and I had no job, no house, no nothing, just like, zip, zero, zilch. And I said if you ever wanted to buy a piece of my art, now’s a super good moment for that. And I have family in Atlanta who have a company, who I work for now, and my aunt wrote me and said come make some art for us, and that was six, seven years ago, and I’ve turned into their concept artist. And that’s my thing now. So, have your life fall apart and then get a dream job! Easy! [laughs]

I’m glad there was a silver lining to your flames. So have you always written poetry or did the poetry start after the design stuff started?
I think I’ve always made visual art, so that I knew I would always do. And the poetry… I grew up reading poetry, you know, it was a part of my life. It never occurred to me that I would write. And then, in university, um… I don’t even remember why I took a poetry course, I just, I did. And I tried writing a few poems, and I shared them with my professor. And she said, ‘Oh, you can write.’ [laughs] And I kept writing it, and I think in poetry I try to… it’s one way of asking questions, and visual art it’s another way of asking questions, and so, I think, it comes from the same place but it’s a different way of articulating it. So I didn’t start doing that until I was in my early 20s.

I was also going to ask how you see your interest in poetry relating to the design?
This is one of those questions I get often, so I just make a different answer every time. [laughs] Change it up! Lie, just basically, lie. No, I think, I really do think it’s like speaking different languages. It’s two different ways of expressing the same question. So in a painting, even though it takes time to make it and you do it line by line, or stroke by stroke, or piece by piece, at the end what you see is that finished thing. And so the way it is in space and time is different than the way a piece of writing is. You read word by word no matter what you’re left with. You can never see the whole thing at once. Maybe the feeling you have is singular afterwards. So that makes them very different things, even if they come from the same place. And then set was so exciting because it’s both at the same time! So it’s like taking the poetry of a script and what the actors are doing – all of that, it’s not static in any way, and I’m used to working in these static fields, but a set is like this totally dynamic thing. So it’s a new medium. So it blew my mind!

That’s really interesting. So what kinds of things do you design
It’s everything from golden crocodile heads to, plaster kites flying through rooms. Like, if you think of really fancy storefront windows? I kind of do that but at a really large scale. So I do that in ten-thousand square-foot spaces, with a team of people.

Who do you design for?
So I design for a company called Accent Décor, and it sounds really boring but it’s not – they’re a wholesale company that sells containers. So anything you put a flower in, they sell it to retailers. And so people who have shops come and shop at these stores that I work in that are open only twice a year, in a bunch of different locations.

So are the things you make just decorative, or do they have utility value?
They are backdrops, essentially. So I hope they have some aesthetic value! [laughs] And then, I also work for them as a designer. So I also design stuff where I get to work with crafts people in factories, and they’re producing it. Like, all kinds of… like, I’m along for the ride. I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing.

So what’s the difference for you between approaching that kind of project, and the set design?
I like that question, a lot. I’ve been thinking about that. So, these… the projects that I do in my work, I already think of them as kind of temporary. They last for six months and they’re gone. But the theatre offers this… it’s temporary to begin with. Like, it exists in the imagination of the person that comes into the theatre and leaves and that’s it they’re just left with it. So it’s still pointing to the actors, it’s still pointing to the play, it needs to embody all of that which of course marketing all of that is doing the same thing except in theatre, it’s… all of it is dynamic. So, the set is almost a character, it’s expressing that in a way that I just started exploring and I can’t get over. [laughs]

So when you’re approaching designing a set for this play, which is the one, the only one…
This is it, this is my repertoire! [laughs]

Do you start with themes, or feelings or words, or…?
Um, I read the play, and read the play, and read the play, and read the play, until it was inside me. And then tried to figure out how to express it, given a limited budget, and the constraints of.. you know, I mean, with most projects you start with your constraints, and then you figure out what you can do inside that. And I really wanted to honour the play with this set. And so there’s one moment in this play that – all the parts of it are pointing back to this moment, and so it felt like that was where the set needed to be born. And so it was. And then director came over and I shot her a whole bunch of ideas. I love collaborating so it was like: here’s idea A, B, C. And we just kind of … spitballed. I haven’t used that word before, ‘spitballed things around’ – it’s really gross! [laughs] Yeah. And we came to this set design.

Can you tell me what the moment in the play is?
I can’t do it justice with language, I don’t think. It’s one of those plays with theatre within theatre within theatre, so the audience, for most of the play, is part of the play. And then there’s one moment where the protagonist is alone. And so, in that moment, I closed the set, and she’s contained inside of it and we’re excluded from it. And she refers back to it all the time as being beautiful. So I had that rain that she talks about later in the play, and this staircase, and just things that she alludes to later, and which all the characters talk about. And that was the moment when I feel like it needed to come alive and the audience actually gets to be separated from the stage rather than a part of it.

photo by Magnus Berg

What were the elements that you used to show that?
So the set is a cube made of two-by-twos, and for most of the play, one plane of the cube is missing. And so it opens to the theatre, it’s facing the theatre. And in that scene – the cube is on hinges … so good in an interview that’s being recorded to do everything with my hands! [laughs] And the actors close it, and put that last pane… what is it called … the last side of the cube on, and then she – the main character – is inside. And that, yeah that seemed to work. Also the play’s about an octopus, so it alludes to her being in an aquarium. So there’s all these kinds of … I wanted it to be subtle. I gave it my best shot, being subtle! [laughs]

That’s definitely part of what I appreciated about it. It felt like it had a beauty, and simplicity, and elegance, that helped to frame the show and let the story come out. It’s hard to articulate. But I think you did achieve that.
Thank you! I don’t know, I just feel like when something’s really working… I don’t have a desire, I’d never had a desire to be in theatre in any way until I did this. And being that secondary character, being that support for a story, if you are seeing it, if it’s complicated, if it’s elaborate, if it’s taking over, it’s not doing its job. So I wanted something that expressed the wonder of the play, was a little bit mysterious, you could think about later but that it was background. Because it is! Setting is a character, but it’s background. Setting is where the things happen, it’s not what’s happening. So all those pillows in the play that are dark on one side and coloured on the other or the bedspread that turns over, it’s contributing to the audience, in some part of themselves, wondering if the four characters, you know the two sets of partners, if they’re the same. Because you never know where the main character, Amy, is exactly, you know? So I wanted the set to contribute to that mystery. But then, in that moment when the cube closes, that’s a singular space and she’s there, and you kind of know it, even though you don’t know it when the play is over. But you know it, because I think the set gets to say no.

Is there anything that you particularly liked about that experience, or would do differently?
I can’t think of anything I didn’t love while doing it, which is kind of amazing. I just fell in love with the theatre, with everything about it, I just got smitten, completely. I’m working with this new production company, I think it’s their first season – Pencil Kit Productions – and I just think Claren Grosz is… she’s young and she’s intelligent, she’s on it. So a play that I loved, and a company that I loved, and of course at Theatre Passe-Muraille, it’s at this great space. So it’s easy to love everything. What would I do differently? That thing about it not being static, like the rain that’s in the backdrop, I feel like my static installations didn’t allow me to make that a dynamic kind of thing. I wanted originally for the actors to walk out with the rain, and put it in front of the character, and that was impossible, because it would all get tangled, and bang. So I think, going forward, if I’m lucky enough to do this again, I would be able to really play with how dynamic that space is, and push the envelope for the raindrops or whatever needs to be pushed.

Do you have any concrete plans to do anything else in the future?
Oh I hope so! But you know, I just kind of landed in this. So hopefully Pencil Kit will want me back! I’ll just stalk Craigslist! [laughs]

It must be nice to have discovered this, even by accident, that this is a medium that works for you.
Yeah. It was amazing.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?
No, nothing, I’m just glad you asked me some questions! Thank you.

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