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Dec 14, 2016

Speaking with Jessica Aquila About Beauty and the Reasons to be Pretty

The director talks about directing Neil La Bute's Tony Award-winning play and her role as a visual artist.

David DonovanTheatre Editor
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Smock Alley Theatre

Neil La Bute’s Tony Award-nominated play Reasons To Be Pretty is making its Irish debut in Smock Alley Theatre today. Speaking with the director, Jessica Aquila Cyerman, it is clear that the adaptation is closely linked to Aquila Cyerman’s pre-existing artistic vision.

Alongside being a director, Aquila Cyerman is also a visual artist. This trickles into how she views theatre as a creative medium, as she says when you have a painting “you have to have a composition, which is immediately apparent of what it is you’re trying to say. You have to guide the viewer’s eye in such a way that they are getting what you intended, so when you do a play it’s very similar”. In particular, her series on Skype calls seems particularly relevant to one of the central themes of communication in this play: “In terms of how people speak to each other over the Skype series, [it’s] the same thing. We’re investigating in this play how people speak to each other, how saying something in a certain way can have a different impact than you might have been expecting.”

Aquila Cyerman has a diverse and extensive portfolio of work, and a cursory glance at this reveals that she appears particularly drawn to musicals. This interest leads to plays that have particularly lyrical quality, again showing her malleability in various forms of the arts. She speaks of songs in musicals and how “they add another stylistic aspect of storytelling in the way that we know something is inherently different. There’s an aspect of poetry, analysing verse, analysing wordplay in such a beautiful way that you can give things double, triple meanings, and that happens so much in this play”.

“We’re investigating in this play how people speak to each other, how saying something in a certain way can have a different impact than you might have been expecting”

One of the lasting themes that La Bute puts forward in the play is our society’s obsession with physical appearance. Aquila Cyerman traces this back through the evolution of man as something we’ve always had buried in our DNA. She speaks of how we, as humans in our earliest days, “physically couldn’t stand out or else we would get eaten by a lion or something. It was dangerous to be different from the crowd because you would make yourself vulnerable to predators, and I think that has followed up into modern society in different ways”.

It’s not only what our ancestors dictate but also our own psychology in the modern world: “I think that preoccupation comes from childhood … from the way we grew up and our own insecurities, and we impose it on other people. Until humans can feel comfortable and accepted in their own skin, I think it’s something we will always struggle with.” She doesn’t, however, have a completely bleak outlook on this facet of our lives as she thinks “it’s going to evolve in such a beautiful way”. This is something that she’s noticed from the louder, more far-reaching vocalisation of minorities in the past few years that wouldn’t have been possible decades prior.

Aquila Cyerman brings a fresh perspective to this relatively recent play, but she is thankful to have the support of La Bute himself, with whom she has been in contact with. His own strong connection to the play is evident in how Aquila Cyerman talks of him: “These are characters he loves so much, there’s a sequel and a threequel, these are characters he couldn’t put to bed and nor should he. They’re so deep and have such a long journey to go from this play.” She’s also been in contact with some of the original cast, who have shared extensive notes on how they perceived their characters. Yet support of a financial nature is still a needed, and her passion towards the project is abundantly clear: “It is a lot to put on a play and do it justice. That has been the overwhelming part of it. I want nothing more than to do this play as much justice as it deserves and it deserves the world.”

“I want nothing more than to do this play as much justice as it deserves and it deserves the world”

Bringing any play to The Boys’ School space in Smock Alley Theatre can present a challenge to directors. Its raised space features arches and a ramped design that gives the audience several vantage points to see the stages while giving productions the potential to remain intimate throughout. Despite some of the technical difficulties, it may cause in its staging, Aquila Cyerman has decided to embrace this uniqueness. She speaks most emphatically about the space in regards to the characters of the play: “These are people [whose story] we wouldn’t necessarily know. We wouldn’t get close to them on a daily basis. We wouldn’t even see them during the day because they work nights. We don’t know about them [as a working class] and for the audience to even get physically close to them is so special.”

Smock Alley Theatre’s roots in the very foundations of Irish theatre and its efforts to bring new and exciting works to the fore capture the director’s fascination: “I love that space so much because it juxtaposes the old and the new. It’s helping bring a contemporary story of timeless emotions and struggles to the stage, so you have the juxtaposition of the old and the new in the play and in the space.”

Aquila Cyerman spearheads a project that aims to bring universal themes to a very personal place, and she feels confident it will resonate as much with Irish audiences as it has in many other countries globally. She puts the case for the play’s brilliance best as she quotes the playwright himself: “La Bute says in his foreword to the play: ‘we repeat the rolls and clicks we became in high school’. We’re constantly repeating that throughout our lives while we’re fighting against it, and it’s that duality that he captures so beautifully.”

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