From Hurricane To Slow Burn

Actress and director Jessi May Stevenson finds truth at the eye of the emotional storm.

By Emily Dodi, Photos by Michael Montano

can’t not do this,” says actor and director Jessi May Stevenson. “I can’t not be a lizard.”

Stevenson is referring to her role as Sarah in Santa Paula Theater Center’s production of Edward Albee’s Seascape. Sarah is a human-size lizard who, along with her reptilian mate, meets a human couple on the beach. The four engage in a witty, heady conversation about everything from relationships
to evolution.

That “can’t not do” attitude is emblematic of how Stevenson approaches her work. A prolific actor and director, Stevenson says, “I’m not afraid to take risks.” Whether she’s embodying a giant reptile or tackling Sam Shepard’s “male driven, testosterone-rich” True West as a director, Stevenson goes for it every time.

“It” may best be summed up as the truth. “Truth is where emotion lives,” Stevenson explains. The goal is to “play the truth, not just emotions.” When that happens, she says, “It’s a beautiful thing.” Listening and being in the moment are key. Also essential is knowing what a character wants, which isn’t always crystal clear — and that’s what can make a character so interesting. “If the character is supposed to cry, you better fight against that if that’s what the character would do,” she explains.

Navigating a character’s emotional storm — whether it’s a hurricane or a slow burn — is thrilling and familiar at the same time. “Being on the stage feels like being home,” Stevenson says. “It’s strangely comfortable. And it’s also strangely cathartic, going through the emotional arc of each character I play. It’s me but it’s also not me, which is deliciously freeing. It allows me to be fearless and bold in ways I’ve never experienced before.”

Growing up in Nebraska, it wasn’t long before Stevenson knew her place was in the theater. “I was 9 years old and I got the most coveted part in our school play: the witch,” Stevenson says. “I had a big scene that ended with me storming off the stage and the audience stopped the play with raucous applause. I was hooked. The instant feedback from the audience was the most thrilling moment of my young life.”

She soon set her sights beyond the school auditorium. “I begged my mom to bring me to act in community theater when I knew there’d be a kid
[in a play].”

Stevenson pursued her love of theater all the way to University of California, Irvine, where she earned an MFA. After that, Stevenson went to Los Angeles, but the idea of acting in television and film didn’t hold its appeal for long. “I didn’t feel like an actor,” Stevenson recalls. “In L.A., I wasn’t putting my degree to use. I felt like I was just a body or set dressing.” So, in 2013, she followed her sister, an artist, to Ojai — and it was there that she found kindred spirits. “There are a lot of creative, artistic people here.”

Her first role in her new home was Viola in an Ojai Art Center production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The experience was illuminating. It “opened my eyes to the quality here.” It also earned her a warm welcome from audiences and critics alike. Rita Moran of the VC Star wrote, “Ojai’s ‘Twelfth Night’ has a lot going for it, most especially Jessica May Stevenson as Viola …” (January 30, 2014). Stevenson had come a long way from playing Juliet in her high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, and yet the memory of that high school experience stays with her. “It was a transformative experience. I had never worked so hard on anything in my life and when it was all over, I knew I would be involved in the theater for the rest of my life.”

After Seascape, Stevenson will play Bella in SPTC’s production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. A “180-degree turn” from Sarah, Bella is a character Stevenson has always wanted to play.

Other dream roles include characters she’s already portrayed but would like to revisit now that she’s “older and wiser.” Others, like Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , are roles she hopes to play “down the road.” There is one role, however, that stands above all others. “The very top of my bucket list is to play Hamlet. … Hamlet has always been fascinating to me. I’ve played Ophelia three times and each time I imagined what choices I would make as the Prince of Denmark.”

Stevenson also has a directing bucket list. “Lately, I’ve been drawn to female playwrights telling women’s stories. I would love to direct The Revolutionists by Laura Gunderson. It’s a fictional tale of four real women in history set during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. [It’s] a grandiose comedy about violence and legacy, art and activism, feminism and terrorism, and how we actually go about changing the world.”

There are a few things Stevenson herself would love to change. In addition to working in productions that speak to women, who make up the majority of theater supporters, Stevenson has her eye on the next generation. “I would love to get more young people excited” about theater, she says. That will require “telling more and more stories about today … There are so many new plays. It’s time to
show them.”

Stevenson is in a unique position to help make that happen. She has been invited by David Ralphe, SPTC’s longtime artistic director, to help select next season’s roster of plays. “I am elated to be able to contribute this way under my artistic mentor,” Stevenson says. “We have been passing plays back and forth to each other and having wonderful, insightful and inspiring conversations about plays, authors
and theater.”

Stevenson played a lizard that leaves audiences wondering how we’ve evolved as a species, but it is her own evolution as an actor and director that’s truly something to see.

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