The Book of Exodus director Adena Jacobs on the ethereal connection between the stage and the audience. By Kate Holden.

Theatre director Adena Jacobs

Adena Jacobs
Adena Jacobs

The play begins with a long, steady gaze at stillness. A white wall and a floor white with snow: we are in the avant-garde; we are in old, winter Europe; the vacancy of memory. In reality it’s chunks of polystyrene. We wait. Wait. And eventually there is the softest rustle and a small hand flutters into view.

“I never see on the stage what I originally thought,” says Adena Jacobs, director and co-creator of this scene. “I always get a shock on opening night and I think, ‘How have we arrived at this place, what is this?’ It’s like magic. Frightening.”

A little person rises from beneath the white and it is both reassuring – a child – and terrifying, for this child wears a wig and headscarf and the drooping, crevassed visage of an ancient old man. It totters forward, scattering white; taps a microphone and says, uncertainly, “Hellooo? 

Jacobs, mid-30s, long dark hair, fine eyebrows and a loose, patterned scarf, sits on the wooden benches outside St Kilda’s Theatre Works on a Wednesday afternoon with dappled autumn sun in her eyes. Quick, friendly and preoccupied, she has walked us out of the black pit of the theatre, where she is directing rehearsals, into light. She is a creator much interested in the metaphysical; inside, she and colleague Aaron Orzech have been fashioning tableaus of such gnomic allegory and beauty that it’s evidently a shock to emerge and have to remember her own history for an interview. “You’ve come at a very vulnerable point,” she admits, and laughs anxiously, describes the adrenalin surge of working towards opening night. “It’s part of the energy that drives the theatre to come to life, for decisions to be made and creative terms to occur. It’s genuinely very thrilling.” She evokes an enviable creative evolution of continued risk. But she does wake in the night.

The play is the first half of the diptych Book of Exodus, an original creation evoking trauma and memory as experienced by children. “It’s about the necessity to remember and the difficulty of inheriting a violent past that you may or may not remember.”

“Show me your arm,” says one venerable child, filming the other, and the small old woman bares a slim young limb so the camera reveals the welted scar of an incision that is never explained. “Show me your gold,” she is instructed, and as she obediently removes earrings, bracelets, necklaces, the audience falls with that sentence into a world-memory of annihilation.

“My work is not overtly political,” Jacobs says, “but I hope that in its veins there’s a kind of political imperative in some way. It’s not always clear what the exchange is between yourself and the audience. It’s a very ephemeral and very personal set of interactions.” She a thoughtful speaker, concerned to explain herself in truth. “I think it’s something to do with a desire to keep changing as people; you encounter art and hope it might do something to you.”

Art, she suggests, is something that changes you over and over again in the same ways. Transformation, becoming, incarnation: here primary schoolchildren clutch their aged backs and wade through bewildering history, chew solemnly at a gingerbread house, and nurse each other’s painted wounds. They point at invisible epiphanies and wear their innocent skin so beautifully that we can only see sorrow. Reaction without understanding, tenderness without memory: in the past Jacobs has magicked versions of Antigone, Hedda Gabler, Oedipus and a hallucinatory Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz; each has brought her through risk towards resonance. Each has embodied a numinous force we respond to in silence and deep recognition. In her conversation Jacobs often uses the words “particular” and “difficult”.

“I find it hard to know what art can do,” she says, and she’s smiling but utterly earnest. “But I definitely know that the experience of making it with people generates something, in and of itself, which is alive and which communicates.”

The children, in school uniform, have arrived to rehearse, and they warm up with dramaturg Orzech and artistic associate Alex Walker with a madcap disco. A weird medley of ’80s pop dins at them as they cavort; the kids are relaxing, Jacobs is looking through the script. Everyone’s laughing. The music fades out.

Questions about life outside this production leave her abashed. “I look at my bookshelf and think, ‘If only I was the person who lived here, and actually read all the books.’ ” Everything is the production now: her head is filled with images and parables, technical issues, concern to keep the children focused and comfortable; ancient wounds on young skin; the sound of memory washing in like white noise.

The children reappear in costume: small boy in a dress, slim girl in a beard. They slide under the polystyrene to await their cue, quiet falls, and Jacobs withdraws into the shadows to contemplate the stark mysteries she has made.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2017 as "Sight en scene".

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