San Diego theater artist Jesca Prudencio isn’t defined by labels ... or walls
It’s not easy to define Jesca Prudencio.
She’s a theater director, but also a choreographer. She’s put on shows in traditional spaces (including 2018‘s “Vietgone” at San Diego Rep), but she can easily stage a production outdoors, as she will do this weekend for La Jolla Playhouse’s Pop-Up Without Walls (WOW) Festival at Liberty Station. Prudencio’s piece, “Can We Now?” is a playful look at the slow and awkward transition from pandemic isolation back into social interaction. It’s told through dance, music, hugs and even a flashmob.
Prudencio, 35, grew up in central Pennsylvania and has worked as a freelance director and choreographer all over the world, including New York, Japan, Chicago, Thailand and The Philippines. Recently, the Broadway Women’s Fund named Prudencio a “2021 Woman To Watch on Broadway.”
Right now, Prudencio lives in North Park. Along with creating new pieces for the local theater community, she also works as an associate professor at San Diego State University. She is head of directing at SDSU’s School of Theatre, Television, and Film, teaching young artists new and innovative ways to present theater.
Q: What inspired you as a young artist?
A: My entry point into performance was through my Filipino community, doing traditional folk dances at community events, parades and cultural expos. My parents moved to the United States after medical school and raised me and my two sisters with a strong sense of community and culture, so my first taste of performance was through a cultural lens focused on educating our community and sharing the beauty of our dances. My parents continued to support me through a pretty formal directing training — getting my bachelor of fine arts with a concentration in directing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a master of fine arts in directing at University of California, San Diego.
Q: What personal experience with theater made you want to pursue it as a career?
A: My parents were very supportive of my interest in the arts ever since I was in middle school. My extracurricular activities included voice lessons, speech and debate practice, dance lessons, violin lessons, and, of course, dance rehearsal with our Philippine-American Association. In high school, I went to a summer musical theater camp at Columbia University in New York City. The head of the program at the time was a Filipina theater director and drama therapist. I was in shock because I thought that doing theater was just going to be a fun after-school hobby. I clearly remember sitting her down and picking her brain asking things like, ‘Wait, so you do this theater thing for a living? Full time? With a family!?’ This is why representation is so important. I needed to see someone like me actually doing it. It was clear at that moment that someone like me could have a career in theater, and thus my journey began.
Q: What’s your experience with performing — do you like it?
A: As a Filpino, you learn to be a performer the second your vocal cords start working! I have been performing karaoke for the community since I could hold a microphone. I am also a classically trained violinist and started performing when I was 5. I started acting in middle school, but quickly learned I wanted to be a director in my junior year of high school. Performing is enjoyable, but makes me very nervous. I continue to train in forms of dance and other performance traditions for inspiration in my directing and choreography. It’s always helpful to experience what your actors are going through.
Q: What attracted you to directing?
A: I had vocal issues in my junior and senior years of high school, where I had to be on vocal rest for weeks at a time. This created an opportunity for me to be an assistant director at my school, and I quickly learned that this was my calling. Stepping behind the scenes revealed that I feel most alive being in charge of creating a full live experience that would move audiences.
Q: What kinds of stories do you like to tell?
A: I’m most interested in humanizing issues and investigating the tension between cultures. We can read about something for hours, but witnessing the human experience through storytelling can truly touch our hearts and reveal the complexity of the world around us.
Q: How do you use choreography to tell a story? Why is it different than dialogue?
A: One of my favorite quotes of all time by Martha Graham, “The body never lies.” The body is a great communicator. It is teaching and guiding us constantly. I use movement like another language on stage. What cannot be said by words and only through the body? This is the question I ask myself in choreography. We can fully speak our truth without words.
Q: You take a lot of inspiration from community. Can you explain how?
A: Well, my job as director is to create and cultivate community with every company I lead. It is my strength, and I find it to survive whether it be in Bangkok, New York City or San Diego. I believe we create our best work this way. As humans, I believe we are meant to be in community.
Q: What places in San Diego inspire you to create?
A: I am inspired by the water. The movement, sound and energy is so healing. Whether it be the ocean, a bay or a waterfall, when I’m sitting near it, the ideas pour out of me.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects we can look out for?
A: Right now, you can watch some exciting virtual work and my award-winning short film “American Quartet” at jescaprudencio.com. In the coming months, I will be workshopping a new musical I’ve been developing for over two years called “Interstate” by Kit Yan and Melissa Li. It’s an Asian-American pop rock poetry musical about how two transgender people at different stages of their journey navigate love, family, masculinity and finding a community in the era of social media.
Q: What did you watch/read/do during the pandemic?
A: During the pandemic, I watched myself step into my power and grow into my greatest rendition yet.
I watched myself become a dog mom to the sweetest rescue named Kali, who teaches me every day to be present, play, rest, and kiss often.
I watched my body transform into a warrior as I trained in Muay Thai and yoga.
I watched myself heal through a painful divorce carried by the love from my support system.
I watched myself bravely fall in love again, and their name is San Diego.
I watched a little human take his first steps towards me.
I watched broken-hearted students become teachers in what art needs to be right now.
I watched my global majority family, and queer and trans community fight, mourn and transform, leading with love.
I read a lot of faces on Zoom, and I’m now reading bodies in space.
I listened to my heart. I listened to my breath. Now I’m listening to my intuition.
I made a strong commitment to authenticity in every facet of my life.
Prudencio’s piece, “Can We Now?” will be staged this weekend at the Pop-Up WOW Fest at Liberty Station. Find details at lajollaplayhouse.org. You can follow Prudencio on Instagram, @jescajane.
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