Welcome back folks, to our second instalment of the Multi-Hyphenate Series! Today, we get the pleasure of deep diving into the world of directing with multi-hyphenate Jacob Wolstencroft (he/they). Jacob has many years of experience as a theater performer and, through his journey in the arts, has found his way into the world of directing (as an assistant, associate, and a director), choreographing, filmmaking, producing and writing. Keep reading for some excellent insight into directing and what it’s like to work across many fields in the arts!
Q: Let the people know who you are & what your multi-hyphenate title is!
Hi, my name is Jacob Wolstencroft (he/they) and I am a director-choreographer-maker. There’s probably a bunch of other hyphens I could add, like educator or performer, or I’ve even done things in my career like having been an Assistant Stage Manager or a Designer. But right now, my main thing is directing, with a bit of choreographing, and I’m also always working on making some of my own ideas come to life. I grew up in Vancouver and spent a good chunk of time living in Toronto; now, I’m currently based in London, UK. I like to change things up every few years it seems (laughs). Most recently, I directed a production of Bright Star for Garner Theatre Productions in Toronto, Canada, was the assistant director for the UK tour of The City and the Town, and I am developing a new play, With Love, Juliet, which uses Shakespearean text to make a new narrative about a drag queen, which will premiere in London, UK at the end of June 2023.
Q: When did you first become involved in the arts?
I’ve been involved in theater since I was a kid. I started in a musical theater class at the age of 5, and hung onto it through all the big changes I went through while growing up; things like moving across the country as a kid, going through high school, ya know? All those shifts in life. Theater definitely gave me a sense of security. There was a period of time where theater was my entire personality (laughs). It brought me a lot of joy. It wasn’t something I thought seriously about as a career until I was 17, but it was something I was actively involved in all my life. The first week I was at my high school, I walked into the theater on a lunch break and asked what I could do to help out in the space. Over the next 5 years, I was involved in any and every show happening in that theater, in addition to my community theater and outside-of-school theater projects. I found lots of joy and some really meaningful friendships through the theater. Whether or not someone decides to pursue the arts professionally, I think those skills you develop in theater stay with us even as we move on to other stages in our lives.
Q: You’ve worked as a director, associate director, and an assistant director. Can you describe how the job of an associate or assistant director is different?
All three of these positions are big jobs in their own right. Working as an associate or an assistant director will be a different experience every single time, and a lot of what the job is has to do with what the production or the process needs.My first assistant directing job came when I realized I wanted to transition into more full-time directing. I connected with a mentor of mine to talk about directing, and asked if he could benefit from having an assistant in the room on his next project. On that production, I was given some specific tasks around the movement vocabulary of the piece, and I was responsible for holding space in the room for when the director was away simultaneously working on other projects. I sat beside him throughout the entire process, watching what we were making unfold. I watched him closely; I would feed ideas, be a sounding board, and just share what I was responding to in the piece so that we could deepen the production. This director was very generous in how open he was to having my creative input; I think it was partially because we had already worked a fair amount together, but I remember being a bit amazed at how much trust he placed in me. It’s not always this case. The job of an assistant director is to understand the lens which the director is working from, have a thorough understanding of the material, and assist the director in achieving their vision. The tricky thing about being the assistant is that you’re not there to make your own vision come to life; you’re there to uphold the director’s vision.
I have now been an assistant or associate director on roughly seven shows. Sometimes the job is to keep track of changing dialogue; or to run and get the director lunch so they can have a meeting with a costume designer; or to simply observe what’s being made and not say anything, but being there and incredibly present so that if someone needs anything or asks you “What do you think?”, that you can be there to help. In a way, because I came from the performers background, I’ve also had the ability to swing through the shows I’ve been rehearsing “unofficially”. There’s been many times as an assistant director that I’ve stepped in to play various characters through the rehearsal process. I’ve yet to go on for an actual performance with an audience, but I’ve played all the parts in rehearsals (laughs).
The real difference in assistant vs associate director lies within how much responsibility you have to the generation of creative ideas and, perhaps, the amount of responsibility you have in the process of making it. Sometimes as an associate, your level of creative contribution is much more active, as you may be the person to do the initial staging of a scene. They are very vague roles, which is why the most important thing is to have a conversation at the beginning of the process around what the role will look like and how you can best support the director throughout the production. Sometimes I offer things upfront that I’ve done for other directors, and try to make sense of what the working relationship will be, and how my skill set might contribute beneficially to the process. This also takes some self-awareness; know when your perspective is needed and when to give space for silence. You need to find out how your role differs from just being an observer in the room. You can learn so much through observation, but your purpose in the room as an assistant or associate should involve actively contributing to the production in some way.
Q: How did you first become involved in directing?
As a three year old, I would line up my stuffed animals on my bunk bed and charge my parents 5 cents to see the show (laughs). I share this because I am a very firm believer that the things you do as a kid kind of leak into where you might go. I directed some shows at my high school. My 2nd year, I brought in a play that I had written and wanted to direct the older students in. . . it was catastrophic; I was fully micromanaging. That’s what I thought directing was. Then the following year, I started to teach myself how directing isn’t about being always in control and making every single decision in the exact way it should happen on stage, and I did this by co-directing a smaller play, which is possibly when I started directing things for the joy of making, rather than for the “prestige” of being the “person with the vision”.
After finishing my training as an actor, I began performing. The day after I closed my first show out of school, I approached my friend, who’s a writer, to create a Christmas musical together. We wrote a draft in 10 days. We brought friends together to read it, tried making some music, and then I decided I was going to produce the show as a one-night only event. Within 3 months, we went from an idea to a full production as a charitable event.
Following that, I directed & produced Sondheim’s Marry Me A Little, which was a flop because we didn’t market it enough. We lost money on the production, but that show still remains something I’m quite proud of having done. Having lost money on it, I got scared and stopped producing and directing. In 2015, I decided to only work as an actor for a while. I did a few more shows and worked on a cruise ship for a year, but in January of 2018 when I was on a red-eye flight from finishing a show in Vancouver, traveling to start Day 1 of rehearsals in Toronto, and I had an “ahhhh” moment. I was living the life I dreamed of having when I was seven years old, but my dreams had changed and I didn’t want to do this anymore. I love the theater. I love making shows, telling stories, and performing. With directing, I wet my toes and got scared. At that moment, I realized that as much as I love performing, I really wanted to be involved with bringing people together and be a part of the puzzle earlier in the process that most actors are able to be.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of directing, what do you find the most challenging, and what has surprised you the most about the job?
My favorite aspect is how a show almost seems to “unlock itself” throughout the creative process. I can start working on a show with my gut instinct of what it is about, but the more I research around it and ask questions and interrogate my own instincts, the more I learn. And the moment where I start working with other people on it and getting their imaginations involved, I keep finding more treasures in what the show is and what it has the potential of being. Whether through a designer presenting an idea, or an actor making a bold choice, or the audience reacting to something in a way I couldn’t have imagined. When the project starts to unlock itself, I’m always surprised and delighted by what we have found.
In terms of what is challenging, as a director, people look to you, thinking you know all the answers. In reality, I have hunches and I mostly have questions. I think the director’s role is to hold space and ask questions to help everyone unlock the answers throughout the creative process. Part of the challenge with that is holding onto my initial responses and what I first imagined from reading the text. Those initial impulses are why I’m directing the show and are my unique perspective that I’m bringing to the material. Sometimes, holding onto those ideas can be difficult when receiving new, vibrant, exciting ideas from collaborators. Knowing when to hold my ideas, and knowing when to put those on the shelf so that other ideas can come forward is a real skill.
I’m surprised by how solitary this job can be at times. Collaborating is one of my favorite things, but being the person who’s holding the space for other people can make the job lonely at times. I have worked to make friendships and bonds with other directors so we can communicate with each other and not be completely alone in the work. But a lot of directing is a very personal and quiet process, and sometimes part of the work of directing is just giving myself the space to go for a walk, sit by the river, and think about other things.
Q: For anyone looking to get into directing, what advice would you give them?
Make something! Make something you want to make. It doesn’t matter if it’s “good”; the act of making will teach you so much. Make something by yourself; collaborate with others; make something you never show anyone, ever, and then be brave to show someone. And talk to people! If you’re interested in getting into directing, reach out to directors whose work that you admire. Let them know what about their work inspires you and ask them questions about it.
Watching the world around you also will teach you so much. There is theater everywhere you look. There was a great event in London recently called The Second Woman, a play performed over 24 hours performed by one actress and hundreds of scene partners. I didn’t have a ticket, but went past the theater at midnight and saw there was a queue that wrapped around the building. I spoke to some of the people in the queue, and they had been waiting for 3 hours. Yes, there was an incredible performance happening inside the theater space, but watching people in the cue waiting to go in? I think that was the real show.
I also think assistant directing is an invaluable experience. For me, as someone who is also working as a director, directing and assistant directing are two very different jobs that require different skill sets. I don’t think everyone who is a director could be an assistant and vice versa. But I think being an assistant director, even if your main thing is performing, will teach you so much about all sides of the theatre-making coin. If you can take on an assistant position, do it.
Q: What is your favorite part about being a multi-hyphenate?
That every day is different – It’s hard, the balancing act of everything. Sometimes you have to put your blinders on and only focus on one discipline, but inevitably you find ideas in another area that attract and excite you.
Being a multi-hyphenate helps me to create freely. The skills from one discipline compound and contribute to other parts of your “hyphen”. Like, my work as a choreographer informs my understanding of space as a director, which allows me to feel at ease when creating staging that is conducive to storytelling and that helps to clarify the moment of the story. I know some directors really struggle with spacing because that discipline hasn’t been part of their creative experience. My work in dance also taught me about gestures to help unlock moments for actors. Or when I’m choreographing a moment, it becomes fully motivated by what story we are telling, as my director’s mind contributes to the creating of shapes on the body. Or when I’m writing, my work as a director helps me understand intentions, characters, and plot.
Although all these disciplines exist separately, they are unified within who I am as an artist. Working in multiple disciplines also allows me to choose which stories I want to tell on specific platforms. While I direct a wide variety of styles for theater, my film endeavors have been much more specific. I’ve chosen to really prioritize queer narratives in my film work because it has the capacity to reach a larger audience, so my personal politics around telling queer narratives is met on a larger platform as a filmmaker. I try not to limit myself in the work I do, so being able to dip my toe into multiple disciplines helps me to stay creative.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
There’s so much to say . . . take big risks and make choices. As a director, I’m looking at your essence and seeing how it fits into the world we’re creating. It’s not helpful to try and twist yourself into what you think the director is looking for. If we’ve brought you in for an audition, it’s because we want to see your interpretation of the material and character.
Tell people what you want, because otherwise they won’t know. If you ask for something, the worst thing they can say is no. You never know what will come from asking. You never know what asking or making a bold choice is going to lead to; you have to listen to yourself and trust yourself.
Oh, and take care of yourself. Creating work can be really hard. Listen to your body and what you need. Running yourself dry by constantly working to get to a certain place will not be as enjoyable as if you took a little bit more time. No one has the same path. Some days, you can really feel like you’re doing amazing. Some days, you don’t feel that way. But every day is a new day.
No one else is going to make art the way you make it. We’re all dying to see it. Go make your art.
A massive thank you to Jacob for sharing his insights on the world of directing with us! Keep up with Jacob’s projects through his website or via Twitter @_JWolstencroft. Be sure to check out his new play, With Love, Juliet, running in London at the Tramshed Theatre from June 28 – 29, 2023.