Meet the Director: James Ijames

The celebrated actor, playwright, and director takes on the Lantern’s production of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord

The playwright in me and the actor in me sort of guide the director in me,” James Ijames said while rehearsing The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at Lantern Theater Company. Ijames is directing the Philadelphia premiere of this provocative new comedy by Real Time with Bill Maher writer/producer Scott Carter, which sets three of the world’s greatest thinkers against each other in a battle of wits and wills.

These three sides of Ijames’ career as a theater artist are all celebrated: as a two-time Barrymore Award-winning actor, he has appeared onstage throughout Philadelphia and the wider region. As a playwright, his work has been produced in Philadelphia, NYC, and DC, and has received development with theaters up and down the the East Coast. He is also a founding member of Orbiter 3, Philadelphia’s first playwright producing collective. And as a director, Ijames is a Barrymore Award-winner for Outstanding Direction of a Play for The Brothers Size at Simpatico Theatre Company. Other awards include the 2011 F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist, a 2015 Pew Fellow for Playwriting, and the 2015 Terrance McNally New Play Award. Most recently, he was named a 2017 recipient of the Whiting Award, a prestigious annual award honoring ten emerging writers who exhibit great promise. He joins a list of honorees that includes August Wilson. He’s also an assistant professor of theater at Villanova University.

James Ijames is a founding member of Orbiter 3, pictured here. Photo by Lindsey Ladd

With such a varied and rich history in the Philadelphia theater community and beyond, Ijames is well-suited to direct The Gospel According To…, an actors’ showcase and an inventive battle of wits between three outsize historical figures. “The actor in me — which I would say is the largest part of me, because it’s the thing I’ve done the most-slash-longest — is always really aware of how quickly can I get up a skeleton that the actors have something to hang the world on,” Ijames notes. The actor side of him, the part that works to build a physical space and shape for his performers, is met with the playwright side: “As a playwright it’s honoring the text and trying to get inside what the playwright’s intentions are, what the play’s intentionality is. So that’s my way in, and that’s actually how I approach directing in general: what does the text give me and how can I support these performers?”

Matching performers to their roles — the Founding Father, the Victorian writer, and the Russian philosopher/novelist — was paramount, and the actors in the rehearsal room have been essential collaborators for Ijames as he builds the play. “Usually I have one or two moments in the play where I know ‘this wants to look like this.’ With this play, I have none of that. But it became very clear how things would work once we got into the room. They taught me a lot in the first week.”

When he received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for Playwriting in 2015, the Pew Foundation noted that Ijames’ writing is “often drawing inspiration from historical texts, the media, and stories of his own family. His work deconstructs history and its established figures…[and] is defined by empathy and social engagement.” That sensibility gets at the heart of The Gospel According To…, a comedy that takes an incisive and witty look at Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy. Ijames is well aware of the weight of history behind each of these men, and says he’s excited to build versions of them that are “flesh and blood people who want things and need things and are actively trying to get at those things.”

Photo by Ryan Collerd, courtesy of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage

He also knows that the versions of these figures onstage may not be quite what an audience expects. “There’s this French philosopher named Roland Barthes, and his idea about a book is…there are millions of Great Gatsbys. There’s your Great Gatsby, there’s my Great Gatsby, there’s her Great Gatsby, because when you read the book you change the book. And so, there are going to be a lot of people in the audience, each with their own version of these people with them. So it’s like trying to find the version of these guys that will reach all of those different versions that people walk in with.”

So which version will the audience walk away with? Ijames hopes the audience will be less sure when they leave the theater than when they entered, and that they ask questions of themselves as well: “I don’t think the theater is about answers. I think theater is for query. So I want people to walk away going ‘Hmm. Do I make the world better? Do I change the world? Am I bringing a bit of the divine into the world?’”

To see James Ijames’s work onstage, join us for The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at Lantern Theater Company, June 1 — July 9, 2017. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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