A conversation with Jacoba Williams about starring in the play Before I Was A Bear and creating theatre at The Bunker: “it is not tick boxing … it feels like we are doing just what should be done”

Award-winning actor Jacoba Williams (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe; Queens of Sheba) takes an animalistic turn in Before I Was A Bear, the debut play from Eleanor Tindall. The play revamps a Greek myth and comically explores issues for women in today’s society. I got to chat with Jacoba about the play, creating art at the Bunker and the power of theatre in tackling issues facing the modern woman.

What is the play about?

Ultimately it is the story of a woman who turns in to a bear. But also, we’ve been talking about this a bit in rehearsals. The play itself is based on Ovid’s metamorphosis and it’s Callisto, the story of Callisto who is raped by Zeus and turned in to a bear by Zeus’ wife and this is a reclaim of the narrative. This is finally Cally’s, and it is set now and it’s now Cally’s story. It’s not some honorary writing to Ovid. It is just about a woman reclaiming her story. Cally is a young woman, you know, a young millennial who is who is pretty normal. She moved to London with her best friend and works in a pub and she does all those normal things that, you know, young women do.

She is living this quite normal life and then an event happens and suddenly she feels like she could be more than normal but actually what it does is make her feel less than normal in the end.

Jacoba Williams, Before I Was A Bear, Rehearsals (credit Tara Rooney) (17)
photo credit: Tara Rooney

From what I’ve read from the press release the play is about smashing expectations down from how you would normally think of them. As you said, you become a bear during in the play, is that something that drew you to this part as an actor?

Erm, yes… the first thing that drew me to this was the honesty of this woman. She is so honest and I think, so rarely in life am I, or generally are we as honest about who we are, about how our circumstances, you know, define us. How the factors in our lives make us, you know, us. I think she is… well her honesty is so compelling for me because, often and this might be because I’m a woman, I often feel like I might have to think, ow this might not be as digestible for certain people before I speak. I think her honesty, was just a relief. Maybe for me as actor or even a person to be that honesty and to be seen as being obnoxious when it is actually just being honest, it feels like a funny line. If a man is brutally honest we call him courageous and when a woman is brutally honest we call her obnoxious or, you know, rude. I think we would all love to be honest. You know we all over apologise as well, it’s funny isn’t it?

That is quite a female thing to over apologise, for sometimes, we even say sorry for taking up too much space. To explore those issues can be really difficult. You are doing it in a surreal way, does that make it easier to talk about serious issue when they have a sort of mask to them?

I wonder if it makes it more… through metaphors and through these stories and lessons they become more digestible. I wonder. Yeah and it must make it easier for people to go; “oh it must be really hard to be a bear”. Callisto is transformed in to a bear by Hera and banished to the woods to live, in modern day references being banished to the wood is just being cut off from everybody. If we have to go to that extreme for people to go; “oh, gosh imagine being so alone and it’s all because of this thing that happened”. Maybe it will make someone question or challenge their ideas of women and the treatment of women. What it can also mean, which often becomes true of one woman plays, is it is easier for it to become autobiographical. This is not, you know there are lots of elements in it that myself and the rest of the team have gone; “yeah, I’ve experienced that”. There are common things we experience as women. It is a story and if you relate to it that’s amazing. If you don’t then maybe it will challenge your beliefs. Maybe you are guilty of imposing these things.

Making you think about your privilege, I suppose?

Yeah I think there is an element of that. Cally wasn’t written for a specific race I guess. It’s been performed, as role, plenty of times before by women of different ethnicities but we can’t ignore the fact that I am a mixed race woman. I’m a woman of colour. There is politics in that and about who in what spaces tells what narrative. Who is allowed to tell the narrative? Theatre, itself is quite white, quite male and quite heterosexual. You know, it opens up discussion.

The play uses ancient Greek myth, how did it marry up with the modern? How did it contrast?

I’ll be honest with you, when I first read the play, I had no idea it was based on a Greek myth. I was passed on the script to read and I thought; “This is an amazing play about a woman who has been wronged in her life.” It sits by itself and you don’t need any prior knowledge before you see it. It is not a play to be; “oh this is very clever” and pats on the back for knowing it. It is just a story about a woman. There are bits where you go; “oh this is so important” when you are thinking about the narrative but it exists by itself. What I think is absolutely mad is that there was this story that was told centuries and centuries ago, it is an ancient story is so relevant now. Somehow the story transfers to where we are now. How is that still a thing?

Before I Was A Bear, Jacoba Williams (Credit Fran Cattaneo) 2
Photo Credit:Fran Cattaneo

Like…. How much has a woman’s place in society really changed?

Yeah… and that power balance between male and female hasn’t really dramatically changed. You know, essentially it is the same as it was back in the days of Ancient Greece. Once I knew it was, Ovid, I was… erm… I was impressed but it works by itself. You can read it and hear it as just a story. It’s not about how good is your knowledge which is part of reclaiming the narrative. The classics are kind of owned by…

Yeah, they have that Oxbridge label on them….

Yeah, incredibly academic….

Just sort of unobtainable…

Defiantly, yeah.

To me, talking about gender and the media seem unavoidable, how did you explore that for yourself?

I think, you are right they are inseparable but in what area do you mean?

Like… did you think about your own experiences? Or perhaps thinking about someone like The Duchess of Sussex and her, very prominent, experiences?

I see what you are saying. What I will say, is that throughout this story, there are so many similarities between myself and Cally. I haven’t been in the press, negatively, but there are lots of similarities between us. When we were talking… together as a creative team… I don’t know if it was by chance or was selected that way but it is an all-female creative team. There are so many moments where one of us would just say, “oh yeah, that happened to me too”. It is universal a lot of her experiences. In the play for a while it is in the press but then it moves on but actually it never moves on for Cally… She will forever have that scarlet letter on her back… she is forever know as that. It is so instant and, I think this related to online media, everything is so instant and so sudden… it is so dramatic. It has to be because, you know, to sell papers and what not… but to what level is that detrimental… some women become like that… like they become a bit of a punching bag, don’t they?

How urgent does it feel for you and the other women working on the creative team to talk about these issues right now? Do you feel the need for it to be addressed?

Oh for sure, definitely! Ellie would not have written this story if it felt comfortable to just leave it with the narrative it has at the moment. I guess, if everything was equal and fair and everyone was represented… I guess she wouldn’t have felt the need to write it at all. Balance narratives and perspectives and equality isn’t present. Those things are not there. You don’t feel it, you don’t live it and I suppose I’m lucky to be at The Bunker and part of this season where, you know, there are so many female writers. There are so many women of colour as well and so many people with an X or identity in a different way. It feels like a really inclusive space and it feels like somewhere… it is not tick boxing, you know… it feels… it feels like we are doing just what should be done. Giving people voices that haven’t had it before… it is just an amazing season. Have you seen the line up?

Oh yeah!

I’m just so excited about it… I’ve got a friend who has got a play coming up “Little Miss Burden”, it is gonna be fantastic and there are just… the whole play just feels electric and after us is “Dear My white best friend.” Other spaces wouldn’t put on these plays and I am really satisfied with the line up at The Bunker at the minute.

It is great to hear stories and voices that you would maybe not see on the BBC or ITV or even on a west end stage….

It has always been the case hasn’t it. You know, Fringe theatre is where the revolution starts. In Edinburgh is where you see the waves of what new theatre is coming through, with waves of conversation that is just starting… it’s the same in everything… theatre, politics… art… the backstreets of somewhere is where it starts… and that’s where the power comes from eventually. If something is passionate, if something is heartfelt then things will transcend won’t they? Stories will transcend and emotion will transcend… points will transcend I guess.

Jacoba Williams, Before I Was A Bear, Rehearsals (credit Tara Rooney) (12)
Photo Credit: Tara Rooney

How has it been for you guys working on the play?

It is so much fun. The possibilities here. Keep the play alive and keeping the space alive when there is only one person occupying is so exciting. It is gonna be live. Every night is going to be different in that it is a different audience every night because Cally is speaking to the audience and they will all see it differently because of their experiences. It is so exciting and so supportive. I’ve been quite blessed that since I graduated I have worked in really inclusive spaces and companies. May that always be the pattern. I know this is not the case for everybody. I’ve worked with people who want to create an equal space. Egos are left outside and it is just one of those things where, it feels like a family and it feels special. Everyone has their one job but together we are the ensemble, we are the team. That in itself is riveting to me.

It sound like for you, working with a team doesn’t just make it a better experience for you but for the audience?

Yeah, definitely! I think that our experience does influence what the audience sees on the stage. A big part of the play is Cally’s relationship with Carla and in the story that is about growing in to the person that you are while the person you are closest to also grows in to who they are going to be. It is that thing of, Carla and Cally are so linked. We are all women of a certain age and we are women of different backgrounds… together we are what we are but for a lot of us it is quite early on in our careers. That’s the story of Cally finding who she is but still having these relationships around her. We as a creative group will be together, some days they will be the only person I see but that can be empowering… supporting each other. It is exciting… that energy… like being a cat waiting to pounce out of a box. Don’t how you are going to put that in.

(Laughs) I will find a way…

Ah do you know what I haven’t done? I haven’t put any bear puns in!

(More laughing)

No honestly, I think this is the first time I haven’t put any bear puns in. Since I got the script all I’ve been doing is thinking of bear puns… umm… Look if you can grin and bear it, maybe come along and watch the show. Done!

(Both laugh)

I’ve exhausted them all but that is the one I keep using. I love it! That’s all we do, we send gifs of bears to each other… erm… I mean we are working very hard but it is just fun isn’t it? Another way to express ourselves.

It is what culture is all about… bringing it in to your own world. It is why we quote films.

Exactly

See Before I Was A Bear at The Bunker Theatre from 12-23th November 2019. Tickets are £10 and can be purchased The Bunker Theatre website. Click here to buy tickets.

Thumbnail photo credit:Ruth Crafer

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