Written by Juan Hernandez Photographed by Bella Xu & Juan Hernandez
Jesse Bliss is a blast of energy. From the moment you meet her, you immediately feel her exuberance and positivity. She speaks very passionately about her work, especially about the women’s prison industry as she moves really quickly around her Boyle Heights apartment. Even our interview was at a frenetic pace, while talking to me she was getting ready for another meeting, organizing her desk, and posing for photos. So... watch out, world, for Jesse Bliss, the unstoppable super woman! Jesse Bliss is an international playwright, director, producer, actress, poet, and veteran arts educator specializing in both teaching and writing curriculum. Bliss' theatre company, The Roots and Wings Project, was just awarded a Cultural Pathways Grant from the California Arts Council to support the further creation of theatrical productions.She also works on Think Outside The Cage 90.7 FM KPFk, a radio show she produces about all things related to the Prison Industrial Complex.
"The strength of the human spirit to overcome great adversity is astounding."
Why is theatre so important to you?
Historically, we have seldom hear the perspective theatre is a gateway to the human experience and is entirely healing for both those who witness it and also those who create it. We see a reflection of our society, our weakness and conflicts, strengths and dreams mirrored back at as. Good theatre offers not only a consideration for what is, but also for what can be. The ability of the human heart to love...the strength of the human spirit to overcome great adversity is astounding... far past the capacity in which we normally use it. A powerful story told byStellar Artists Awakens is purpose and meaning. With those two elements, life is well-lived and so worth the struggle it so often presents as a part of being alive.
How many plays have you written? I have written 6 ½ plays and am currently in-progess since last year with a piece I am so entirely excited to complete and set free. I started as actress and was disappointed by the lack of work written for women and proper representation by the few written works in existence. Though I had always written, I never saw it as a craft I would take up as my main passion. Historically, we have seldom hear the perspective of women, as we have only been legal citizens on paper since the mid-1800’s (previously property of men) and, working, and in college, for about little over a hundred years. Our voice has been left out so it’s key we tell our stories now.
"Our voice has been left out so it’s key we tell our stories now."
What’s so important about the Prison Industrial Complex? We live in a Prison Nation. Never before in history in any society has there been this many people in prison. We’ve got 2.3 Million people behind bars, 7 million on parole or probation, 8 million kids with their parents in prison, on parole or probation. We are locking up the men and women of our society rather than offering opportunities and healing. It is really big business. The dollar gain alone is the reason for such a monstrosity. This is not the way the rest of the planet operates. Not to say there isn’t prison, but not anywhere near this level. There is this idea in American society: there is us and them. Them being the prisoners. This is a very dangerous and damaging mentality, and most of all, incorrect. We are all one. The system is so incredibly flawed and brutal to humanity, until we take this emergency on as our own, we will not be able to move away from this model. There is much misunderstanding and misperception about prison and the ways people end up there. Bottom line is... our nation was built on stolen land and slavery and what we have now is slavery re-mixed.
"There is this idea in American society: There is us and them. Them being the prisoners. This is a very dangerous and damaging mentality, and most of all, incorrect. We are all one."
What’s the most recent project that you are working at the moment? My projects most often fall under my theatre company The Roots andWingsProject. Right now I am about to launch a very special, site specific theatre project that has been living in my consciousness for about three years. Several powerful female playwrights will get tapped to create work. I can’t yet say more than that for licensing reasons, but the project will soon drop publicly. I am also conducting two pilot theatre programs: One at Lancaster Men’s Prison and the other at California Institution for Women. I am steadily working on THINK OUTSIDE THE CAGE 90.7 FM KPFK, a radio show I produce about all things related to the Prison Industrial Complex. I am writing my play into completion. I have also been writing and performing poetry my whole life. I working on compiling my poetry to release a book and will look for a publisher rather than self-publish for this one. What’s your favorite poem that you have written until now? A piece I wrote when I was 9 years old inspired by my white parakeet bird “Burty Boy”. He was a gift from my grandfather whom I loved enormously. He was, of course, trapped in a cage which always bummed me out. The poem represents his thoughts on freedom.
"I feel the work is a great offering and subjective to any individual experiencing it. I like for people to take with them what most resonates from the work."
Where did you get your inspiration to create your work? The inspiration to create my work comes from observation, imagination and experience. Maya Angelou was so brave to write autobiographically. My work is all of the aforementioned mixed together. Often times, people ask if a certain experience I’ve written about actually happened to me. I feel the work is a great offering and subjective to any individual experiencing it. I like for people to take with them what most resonates from the work.
I am usually quite private about my inspiration for a particular piece. That privacy gives me sanctity to create. Every artist works quite differently. For me, I am always struck by something powerful when a work starts to visit me. It comes to me in visions that I don’t initially understand. It becomes my job to record the visions and commit to following that strong feeling that is visiting and guiding me. I care very deeply about whatever it is I am writing about, else... why bother? If we aren’t extremely passionate about a given topic, then we won’t have the wherewithal to create the work. I have to go with what comes to me whether I initially completely understand it. This involves risk-taking and trust in the creative process. Overall, I love to write through the eyes of women and bring attention to truth, providing stage and space for voices of the unnamed, unknown and misunderstood. That is truly my mission.
I love to write through the eyes of women and bring attention to truth, providing stage and space for voices of the unnamed, unknown and misunderstood. "That is truly my mission. "
Did you plan the stories in detail before writing them? Oh yes!! I decorate my walls in massive note cards filled with ideas/visions and then more specifically with story boards. I even include music that speaks to me while I am working on a particular piece—and it always does. Planning the story really helps me to approach writing it. If a play is technically intact and in good form, it gives permission for massive creative freedom. In this way I can add music, visuals, poetry and yet still provide the audience with a beginning, middle and end tale that is not performance art, but rather a solid play with tight form.
Did you have some advice to new writers? Don’t wait for the muse. Write even when you don’t feel like it. Resistance is a part of the craft. It takes enormous discipline and at times isolation to write. You must let the muses know where to find you. This can only be done by committing to doing the work and sitting down to write for a timed period with no social media use and a distinct commitment. Find your practice that helps. Perhaps play music, burn sage, have a pile of works by great artists beside you---whatever supports your process. Also, find a way to support yourself. It’s not a fallback. It’s a way to give you solid ground to stand on to support your work as an artist. This is key. I know extraordinary artists doing lots of amazing work. They all have jobs. My mentor advised me to drop out of college and “make it” as an actress/writer. That’s an old-school mentality. She taught me everything and I have deep respect for her. I took her advice, but finished college later. I struggled more than I had to along the way. It helps a writer so much to have the means to earn a solid living. Go to school and take up a field that supports your work as a writer. This is essential.
"It takes enormous discipline and at times isolation to write. You must let the muses know where to find you."