Jessica Phelps West Manipulates a Play’s Energy to Create Riveting Theater

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Jessica Phelps West
Jessica Phelps West

An award-winning director and actress, Jessica Phelps West has proven that she strives for excellence in whatever project she pursues. Her peers and fans alike have awarded her with accolades such as her recent Atlanta Theater Fan Award wins for direction of a play (Theatrical Outfit’s The Young Man from Atlanta) and leading actress in a play (Theatre in the Square’s The Little Foxes).

Now, West finds herself directing two plays: Ghost-Writer at Theatre in the Square and Freud’s Last Session at Theatrical Outfit. These are the same two theaters for which she has won her two Suzi Bass Awards for directing Theatre in the Square’s Tradin’ Paint and Theatrical Outfit’s The Sunset Limited. Directing one play provides enough challenges on its own, but directing two plays back-to-back can be a test of endurance. While it may not be an ideal situation, it is one that she is proud to have the opportunity to do.

In the past few months, West has had to “prep two shows at the same time,” which has resulted in her undertaking an amount of reading a graduate student would be apprehensive to pursue. Through it all she has had to keep her own energy up. The two shows have even overlapped with Ghost-Writer opening the week that rehearsals for Freud’s Last Session began.

“I attend a rehearsal for Ghost-Writer during the day and go home and do homework of Freud’s Last Session,” West mentions just before Ghost-Writer opened. “It is challenging for any director to do two plays back to back. You need breathing time between them.”

However, the hard work with the research created a benefit for her direction of Ghost-Writer. As she prepared for Freud’s Last Session, Sigmund Freud’s idea of repression became something that could be used in her direction of Ghost-Writer. She mentioned that feelings, especially relationships, were repressed in the time period of the play.

When the research is completed and the rehearsals begin, West works to find the energy in the play and the energy in the performances of the actors to create a balance and rhythm within the production. Her style of directing is something that she says can be difficult to visualize, but it is noticeable during rehearsals and in the production itself.

“My directing, as well as my acting, is actually based on a kinetic style. Some people may interpret that as just movement based, but it’s not just movement,” she explains. “My directing is based upon how energy plays out upon the stage. How it plays out between individual characters and moves around on the stage and between the characters.”

According to West, every production, whether it is a concert, musical, play or light show, has energy, and that energy creates a rhythm that adds to the story and brings out an audience’s reaction. The goal of this approach is to create an engaging performance.

“You have to know how to control the energy on the stage. If you’re flailing about and energy is flying everywhere, [the audience gets]tired of watching that. If you don’t know how to control energy, you are not interesting to look at.”

West works to be “aware how actors move on the stage, how lights move, how sounds move and how that creates tension or dispels tension in a room.” For her, directing (and acting) is “knowing when to contain energy and how to use energy as it’s used in real life.”

“Even if you have two people sitting at a table, such as in The Sunset Limited, energy is still moving. It is manipulating that to a point where it makes a statement,” West states. This process “ensures the rhythm of the scene” and “creates exciting theater.” According to her, using this method allows the production to “elicit something from audiences, whether it evokes a memory or creates something they can identify with.”

This method of directing can easily be seen in the production of Ghost-Writer. The play, which is an “ode to punctuation,” provides the chance to feel the play’s energy since punctuation and the rhythm of the language have a large role in the production. Accenting this rhythm are the sounds of an antique manual typewriter, which added a challenge to both West as director and to the actress Elisa Carlson. “We are using a Royal Standard No. 10. It’s challenging to just type on the typewriter, and it takes a lot of effort to type on it,” she mentions.

Another aspect of her directing style is considering the audience. West makes sure that the production doesn’t force the audience to come to any conclusions. “I don’t like to tell an audience what to think. I like them to figure it out for themselves. It is more interesting that way,” she says. With Ghost-Writer, she has a play tailored to this idea. At the end of it, the “audience decides for themselves: Is he a ghost? Is he writing the book? Is she faking it? Is she crazy?”

Freud's Last Session at Theatrical Outfit
Jessica Phelps West directs David de Vries and Andrew Benator in Freud’s Last Session at Theatrical Outfit. Photo courtesy of Theatrical Outfit

Just as Ghost-Writer leaves audience members contemplating the play, Freud’s Last Session will inspire just as much thought. West remarks, “Freud will make you think. It’s the eternal debate, the existence of God.”

Based on the book, The Questions of God, written by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., Freud’s Last Session is “a play of ideas.” The play features a hypothetical meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis shortly before Freud’s death. “The play takes place in Freud’s office in London,” she comments. During the visit the two men discuss God’s existence and life’s meaning.

At Theatrical Outfit West and the creative team have the opportunity to create a set that builds on abstract ideas of the play. “I think it is an ideal theater to take it on. It has enough ceiling height to do something a little more abstract that is more in tune with the ideas in the play,” she says. “It won’t be just a realistic office.”

Currently playing at Theatre in the Square, Ghost-Writer by Michael Hollinger runs through October 30. Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain begins previews October 12 at Theatrical Outfit. The show opens on October 15 and runs through November 6.

By Kenny Norton