This week I shared a coffee over skype with prominent Sydney-based producer, director and actor, Jay James- Moody (and his cat, who contributed to the conversation from his lap).
If I told you his performance credits involved a huge line-up of shows including A Year With Frog and Toad (Ensemble Theatre), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (StageArtz), Jerry Springer The Opera (Sydney Opera House), and The Drowsy Chaperone (Hayes Theatre Co), for which he won Best Actor in a Leading Role in an Independent Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards, as well as directing a long list of incredible shows including the most recent Man of La Mancha, The Original Grease (Squabbalogic) and Bring It On (WAAPA), you probably wouldn’t believe me. What if I also told you this man began his own theatre company, Squabbalogic, in the midst of all this?
You definitely wouldn’t believe me. But it’s all true!
My first experiences with Squabbalogic were going to see exciting fresh shows I knew very little about, such as [Title of show] and A New Brain. Thanks to Squabbalogic, I can now recite the full score of both, book down. Fangirl or nerd? A little of both I think.
On top of the pleasure of seeing Jay perform, I was also directed by him in The Original Grease; the absolute gift he has for both capabilities is incredibly inspiring. I thought it would be a waste to not to share some of his multi- talented wisdom.
First off, I had to ask the obvious…
How did Squabbalogic start?
“It was my idea. I started it by myself to begin with. It was in 2006- so this year is the 10th anniversary. I hadn’t been doing any theatre for a while and I did an amateur production of Rent that I acted in and really liked, and I decided that I really wanted to get into theatre. So I decided I was going to make my own theatre company. On a whim. The short answer is “it just started on a whim. I thought, ‘I’ll find a play and just put it on’. So the first show was a play. It wasn’t really a company – I was just going to pay for it.
“The reason the company is called Squabbalogic is because I just needed a name to put on the application form. If I knew the company was going to last for 10 years, I would have called it something better. It’s a horrible name to remember! Squabbaholic? Scrabblicious?”
What was the motivating factor to start the company?
To be perfectly honest, and this has never been a huge secret, the company was created so I could act or direct or do both. It really is
a vehicle for me to do what I want in this industry. And then occasionally there’s a show and I think “I’d really like to see that”– but I’ve got no idea how to direct it or there’s no part in it that I want to play. But I want to see the show and I know no one else is going to put it on.
So occasionally we do shows like that – like A New Brain. That was the first time I had someone else direct one of our shows.
Who decides on the programming?
It wasn’t until 2013 that we started doing like ‘serious’ programming. I usually pick the shows, or we (Jessica James- Moody and I) do together. It’s usually just us talking really, then we’ll find some things that we’re cool with doing, are within our means, or that we could do a good job with. Then there’s all the licensing. It changes right up until the last minute – nothing is fixed until it’s announced. There’s an insanely long list of alternate shows that we’ve gone through over the years that for whatever reason – either casting or licensing or dates or we find something else that suddenly I’m more interested in – comes along.
“When we were doing our second season at the Seymour Centre (Sondheim on Sondheim, Triassic Parq…) we even had badges produced for a different show to announce at the launch, then at the last second, we couldn’t get the rights for it. So we had to quickly change it to Man of La Mancha, which was our second choice. It’s funny – I forgot to take some badges out of the packs that we were giving out at the launch, so there were some people that got badges for the Squabbalogic show that never was.
Is securing licensing difficult in independent theatre?
The licensing people in Australia are really cool, but a lot of the overseas writers are holding out for a major commercial production. But there is never going to be a major commercial production of, say, Triassic Parq or [Title of Show] or something like that. And it’s unlikely that one of our major theatre companies is going to pick it up either. There are a lot of new companies springing up now, but for a good chunk of time there weren’t many options for that work to be seen. They’re limited runs but they do reasonably well. They are just expensive to be put on without the corporate support of the major companies. It’s the artist life, trying to find someone to pay for your work.
Even like Reefer Madness, that we blew sooo much money on, taught us so much. And from there we’ve had such a great run of successes. It was really when we started pushing up the guarantees for artists and stuff like that – trying to give people more money for working on the shows, that’s when we started to get in trouble, because the budgets went up. But we were no longer comfortable asking people to work for next to nothing.
What are the benefits of being involved in independent theatre?
Independent theatre is the best training because you’re not being told ‘Stand on 2. Stand on 6. This is what the person who did it before you did it like.’ There is so much freedom. And that’s why we’ve been so lucky to get people in our shows like Rachael Beck, Michael Falzon, Tony Sheldon – people like that do it because it’s a relief for them to be able to come in and spread their wings and do what they do and use their instincts. That’s why independent theatre is brilliant and often far more interesting, because there’s more room for creative expression and freedom of choice and you get more of a palette from the actors.
Theatre is weird with long running shows, because it needs to stay so consistent but theatre’s also supposed to be so alive- so how do you reconcile those two things?
What have you learnt from being both an actor and director?
If your instinct tells you to do something, do it. If it’s wrong, you’ll be told. You never know what’s going to come out. Although, I feel my IQ drops 20 points when I become an actor. I suddenly become so dumb – I’m like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing – someone tell me what I’m doing.” Whereas when I’m directing, I’m like ‘Can’t these people just see how it’s supposed to be done? I can see it so clearly!’ It’s really two different brains.
I think a lot of directors are terrified of the actors at the first rehearsal. I know I can be intimidated by them… You think ‘There are a group of people that are going to think my ideas are shit and are not going to do what I want them to do.’ The negative part (of being both actor and director) is when I go and act for someone else, which is rare because I’m usually only acting for myself, all I’m thinking about is all the times actors weren’t giving me what I wanted. And I’m going ‘I’m not giving this person what they want.’ And that is hard to shut off! I look for my facial expressions on the director and think ‘That’s the look I give when I’m not happy with what someone is doing’.
As a director, you’re looking for people who are going to adjust and be malleable, not have fixed ideas. The number one thing I look for is just nice people; Are you going to make my life hell for the next 5 weeks? Particularly when you’re not being paid a lot in independent theatre, you want to make sure you’re having a good time. Otherwise what’s the point?