Interview with Jessica Ruano in Female Arts

Sappho Artist's ImpressionSophieWho's picture

by Sophie Porter
 July 23, 2013 – 16:46
Painting by Tamaya Garner

1) Your current project ‘Sappho in 9 Fragments’ sees you working with actress Victoria Grove. How did you come together to work on this project?

She and I worked together over a year ago on another fantastic play called La Chunga by Mario Vargas Llosa. It was my first assistant directing gig in London. Victoria was devastatingly brilliant as the title character – a rough yet sensual Peruvian bar owner – and I wondered how I could convince her to work with me again. Offering her a role as Ancient Greece’s infamous love poet seemed to do the trick!

2) Your adaptation of ‘Sappho in 9 Fragments’ has received compliments and critical acclaim from some of Britain’s finest actors such as Simon Callow and Maureen Lipman as well as four star reviews! How does it feel to have created what critics have called a “masterpiece”? Did you know straight away you were working on something special?

I knew Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ script had power, and I knew Victoria had talent, and I knew our design concept had potential. But no, the success of this production was entirely unprecedented. Up until our opening night, we were incredibly nervous about how the show might be received. Forty five performances later, I still delight in watching this play: I am unabashedly in love with it.

3) Talk us through the process of adaptation. Where did the unusual and striking set design come from for ‘Sappho…’? What challenges did you face, particularly considering the density of the dramatic question (how do you tell a story from fragments?)? How did you overcome these challenges? 

It was Victoria who noticed the repeated use of the word ‘suspension’ in the script and pondered if there was a way for us to ‘suspend’ her in the air for the performance. Our keen designer Ana Ines Jabares Pita took that idea and soared with it, creating for us the most dexterous set of ropes and scaffolding I could have imagined. She scored an ‘Outstanding Design’ award for that one!

The set actually helps us tell this rather unusually constructed story. The structure (playfully nicknamed ‘Scaffo’) is a partner to Victoria, alone onstage, allowing her to weave her story almost literally.

Some of the writing is abstract, especially at the beginning, but I find it beautiful, and I love that the story unravels itself slowly. The line ‘How do you tell a story when there are so many gaps?’ reminds us that we don’t and can’t have all the answers, and we needn’t get all hung up on it, so to speak.

4) Do you think there is equality in the workplace? If not, why?

In a word, no. But statistics can speak louder than I can.

Men still dominate the theatre and performing arts industry. There are far more successful male playwrights and male directors and male producers, and plays about men are still seen as more ‘universal’.

So, among other things, one of my aims as a director is to produce plays by women that showcase meaningful relationships between women, and for these plays to appeal to a wide spectrum of people. Just to even things out a little.

5) Tell us about your career background; where did you train? How long did it take? 

I studied English and Theatre at the University of Ottawa, and I have an MA in Dramaturgy, which is essentially the study of theatre. I have taken a few classes and workshops in directing, but I haven’t directed much: Sappho is my second full-length production.

Primarily I studied theatre by seeing a lot of theatre. I worked as a theatre reviewer for several years and would attend, on average, three shows a week. I learned a lot from watching other theatre artists at work, and this year – in my mid-twenties with a bit of life experience – I felt ready to direct my own productions.

6) Your adaptation of ‘Sappho…’ has inspired other artists to create beautiful works after watching the performance – such as Anna Perenna’s poem The Shining Thread – what has been your favourite artwork inspired by your adaptation? 

Oh, Anna Perenna… her name in itself is a poem!

I can’t choose a favourite artwork, but I will reference a couple of others.

A 16-year-old Sappho aficionado from Scotland has written erotic prose inspired by the show. She will be attending the show with her father in Edinburgh next month.

Tamaya Garner, an exceptional artist and sculptor, attended the show three times in Ottawa and made sketches in the dark theatre. From those sketches (posted on our website) she created the most beautiful paintings, two of which were given to me and Victoria as gifts.

We are so lucky.

7) Do you have any projects in the pipeline; what’s next? Do yourself and Grove plan to work together again?

Glad you asked! I’m directing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It for The Rose Theatre on Bankside. We produced Sappho there in May, and I was delighted when they invited me back to direct another show.

I would love to work with Victoria again. But if there’s any sense or goodness in the world, West End directors will be fighting over her within the year, and I won’t stand a chance. Still, we’ve talked about remounting Sappho again when the next opportunity arises.

8) Do you have any words of wisdom/advice for anyone aspiring to become a Director/Theatre Maker?

Be smart. Be likeable. Be generous. Be frugal. Be passionate. Value everyone who gives their time and energy to your work.

9) What has been the best part of the process of bringing ‘Sappho in 9 Fragments’ to the stage? What has been your least favourite part?

This. This is the best part. We have a show that we’re proud of, and we have the luxury of changing things as necessary, of playing around with bits of the staging, and having a great time on tour. I also love being at the performances to witness the emotional responses from some people after the show… including the sheer joy of a seven-year-old who has just been told she can play on the structure for a bit.

Least favourite part? Balancing the budget. I hate dealing with money. Though it’s nice to actually be making some.

10) You were quite open about your feelings towards bringing the performance of ‘Sappho…’ back to your hometown (in Ottawa) earlier in the year where your friends and family would be… How did it go?

Yes, I’m always open about my feelings. It’s one of my riskiest qualities.

It went fine. It went more than fine: it was stupendous. We had sold-out audiences for almost every performance. We were awarded ‘Best in Fest’ and we were invited to stay for an extra week. We felt like rock stars.

11) Finally… Are you happy with your adaptation of ‘Sappho in 9 Fragments’?

I am thrilled. Get me some full audiences at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and I’ll be even happier! Especially since the playwright, the illustrious Jane Montgomery Griffiths, will be in town for the show, and I want her to delight in the experience.

But yes, happiness does not even begin to describe. I would happily tour this show for years and years. Here’s hoping.

‘Sappho in 9 Fragments’ plays at the Edinburgh Fringe 8th – 10th August.

You can find, follow and read more about the performance through these sites:
Twitter: @Sappho9fragment

Or follow Jessica through her website:

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