Interview editor Aimee Dickinson speaks to Durham alumni Isobel Jacob about Durham Student Theatre, her plans to pursue directing at drama school and the continuing importance of theatre post-coronavirus.
Anyone who has been keeping up with the theatre industry in recent months will know it has been hit by coronavirus especially hard, with many theatres around the world being forced to close their doors. However, it is important in these dark times to remember the talent and passion still at work within the industry, as my interview with Isobel Jacob reminded me. Isobel attended Durham from 2017 to 2020 studying English Literature and Philosophy BA (Hons). This coming year, she has snagged an incredibly competitive place at the Essex drama school East 15 studying MA theatre directing.
I started the interview by getting right down to brass tacks, asking Isobel what had made her decide she wanted to pursue directing as a career. “I’m very interested in activism through theatre and using theatre as a vehicle for social justice movements and creating social change”, she tells me. “[Theatre’s] a career path which allows me to combine all my interests into one, not just the production side of things, but also the political. By doing it as a profession- hopefully” she laughs “I can do both of them at once, and there’s very few jobs nowadays where I feel that you values can be fully upheld in the job you do.”
With this, our conversation turned towards Durham Student Theatre, and how Isobel’s extensive involvement in DST allowed her to gain the valuable experience necessary to enter the industry. Starting off primarily with directing musicals, Isobel explains that her involvement with productions such as All Over Lovely and Sparks made her realise that she was more interested in “small scale, more experimental and political work”. Isobel also got involved with DST’s production Lord of the Flies, which “was a big career moment” and provided her with “an amazing experience to work in a more professional context”. Isobel’s only regret seemed to be that she couldn’t get involved with even more projects, as she was conscious about getting experience that would benefit her in her career: “I think it would have been nice to have just thrown myself into everything, but at the end of the day, that’s not always feasible”, she says. However, she values the opportunity Durham gave her to crystallise her ambitions, stating “I have come out with an even clearer idea of what I want to do”.
When asked why she chose the course at East 15 over other courses, Isobel explained that East 15 aligned closely with her interests in “more experimental avant-garde theatre”, allowing its students the freedom to “work on the things that interest [them] as individual directors, to find out what your style and vibe will be”. Isobel explained that this works “hand in hand” with the school’s ethos, which is centred around “being inclusive and diverse and really having that community emphasis”. This to Isobel was a “massive selling point”, tying into her own aims and values as a theatre creator and providing a change from the “bubble” of Durham. “It will definitely make my work better, to get a different perspective on things”, she says. Compared to other schools, Isobel said she felt the application process for East 15 required less “jumping through hoops”. Importantly, there were no fees attached to the application, which helped the school to feel more accessible; however, as Isobel acknowledges, she may not be the “best judge” of the school’s accessibility “coming from Durham, having a background in already doing theatre and being white, middle class”.
As much as I was enjoying chatting to someone about theatre, I knew that sooner or later we would have to confront the looming shadow of coronavirus. Luckily, Isobel and her new school are both very organised, meaning she interviewed in December before any of this lockdown business. We touched on the difficulty prospective drama school students this year have faced in interviewing or auditioning online, both agreeing that having a screen which prevents you picking up on body language and overall vibe makes the process infinitely harder. As Isobel so eloquently put it “you can read a room, but you can’t read a zoom”. Isobel seemed generally impressed by her course provider’s plans to minimise the impact of corona on her training, enabled by small class sizes and clever timetabling. There are some disadvantages, she admits, such as being confined to one studio and unable to work with a wide variety of her fellow students, but she accepts these with a shrug: “we can still be there and learn in person rather than online, so I’m not going to complain.”
When asked about whether she was worried that coronavirus will impact her chances of entering the theatre industry, Isobel was optimistic: “I feel like I set myself up anyway for the fact that the theatre world is not the easiest industry to enter. In some ways I think I’m lucky, because the sort of productions that I’m interested in creating are much more suited to a corona-friendly situation, so intimate productions in interesting non-commercial venues”. Isobel is determined that “the arts will always bounce back”; however, she also argues that this allows governments to ignore arts funding due to the knowledge that the industry “will find a way to keep going”. As she puts it “The sort of people who end up in the arts are resilient and persistent […] that’s not to say that they don’t need support […] It’s not acceptable to ignore us just because we will do it anyway.”
To finish off our interview, we turned to the issue of the lack of accessibility within the theatre industry, which Isobel passionately believes “needs to change”. We discussed practical issues such as training costs and the commonality of unpaid work, as well as deep rooted attitudes which mean that theatre is not valued socially or is viewed more as a luxury, which contribute to the industry’s historical inaccessibility. As Isobel acknowledged, a solution will not be easy, as change needs to come “from everywhere […] Those who are at the top need to be making active efforts for representation”, but also “places like university student theatres and drama schools need to be starting this change” by ensuring greater diversity within university communities. Isobel believes the issue of the industry’s accessibility must be viewed within the frame of a larger systemic problem which theatre itself can highlight, something she hopes to do by creating work which will “pass the mic to those who are not given the same opportunities to access or even discover the arts.” Her final words emphasise her passionate belief in the power of theatre: “I really strongly believe that we need to shift the way we see theatre as this sort of commodity […] when we shift seeing political theatre to being a right that we all have and an integral part of the community, these issues will become easier to tackle.” We wish Isobel the best of luck with this next stage of her thespian journey.
Image: Sam Harrison Photography