• Amy Toledano

In conversation with Director Callie Nestleroth

Interdisciplinary performance director Callie Nestleroth talks to Amy from Within Her Words about her varied and exciting work and how she is making the transition into new mediums.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and the kind of work you create?

I am an interdisciplinary performance director for both stage and site specific locations, and Artistic Director for The Heroine Chronicles, a theatre and participation company which focuses on exploring literary heroines across their cultural evolution in adaptation. I believe that something magical happens when people share a space, a story and an emotional experience together, and I create work for which the audience presence is intrinsic to the journey of the characters.

Where did the idea for The Heroine Chronicles come from? How has the company evolved since it began?

The Heroine Chronicles’ concept can be traced back to a specific moment I remember having as a teenager…Shy and a bit awkward, I found myself letting others dictate my actions, often with the result of wishing I was doing something else. As an avid reader, I thought about what it would take to actively become the heroine of my own life, as opposed to the supporting character in others. That thought process took me on a journey to become more independent and brave. The idea for The Heroine Chronicles was a merging of a desire to encourage bravery and self-reliance in young people at this crucial developmental stage, deciding what kind of adult they wanted to be, and my creative interest in female characters widely adapted across popular culture. The company in effect grew out of the production Oh Heroine How I Love You! which charts Catherine Earnshaw, the famous literary ghost from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, across generations of adaptation, from Merle Oberon to Kate Bush and beyond. Site-specific to libraries, this heroine haunts our collective houses of reading at dusk turning to night, taking the audience with her to question how their own identities have been adapted in how they choose to share themselves with the world. This performance is still active, with a UK Tour scheduled for this year, but the company now also produces Social Media Suicide and Heroines in Limbo as part of it’s program for young people. As a company our work and our structure continues to evolves as we engage with more audiences.

Have you always been a Director? What sort of pieces do you lean towards? Do you have a particular style?

While I have always been interested in theatre, I didn’t start studying it until a later age. Early signs pointed strongly to my preference for directing, but I had a very holistic education and learned skills covering a wide range of jobs in the theatrical profession, including several years in costume design and costume construction. I lean towards work that surprises or confounds me. If I have to work to understand how the creative team has achieved a particular logic I find that the most interesting. I prefer work that has a complex world structure, and which encourages me to untangle the logic behind it. I am thinking of work by companies like Elevator Repair Service and The Wooster Group. I appreciate performance that has a strong sense of depth, like the work of Katie Mitchell, and theatre that keeps me active as an audience member. My style is informed more by the feeling created for an audience rather than a particular medium. I consider myself an interdisciplinary director, as I like to pick and chose, from a theatrical took kit, a combination of choices that will create the alchemy for my audience in relation to a specific story and set of characters.

Can you tell us about your experience of working with educational company Hidden Tales? How is it different about your other work?

My partnership with Hidden Tales started with a immersive audio adventure in the Sedgwick Museum as part of the book’s launch. I was immediately drawn in by the concept that Producer Sorrel May presented to me of a book which links actually visiting seven different museums, one per chapter, in order to fully read the story. Sorrel felt that while Hidden Tales offered a book, there was a natural link to live performative elements with the work, and I agreed!

The target age group for Hidden Tales projects is 8-12, so younger than the audiences of my other work, and the site-specific nature involves an adventure tied to a specific partner museum. I have found creating new projects within a pre-existing concept for a space very exciting. It is my collaboration with Sorrel that really pushes me to consider ideas and concepts beyond my current understanding, and I love the excitement and learning that these projects bring to my wider creative practice.

What kind of work did you do in New York before coming to the UK?

My time in New York City set the basis for the work I am doing now. Coming from a training at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute, a place with a focus on playwrights and new writing (they are the home of the National Playwrights and National Music Theater Conferences), it was a playwright centric community that I initially found myself working in. From weekly new writing development sessions, leading to staging readings and one acts, I had the chance to hone my skills working with writers and new texts. Under the mentorship of New Georges, a company which produces wacky experimental new writing by female artists, I developed my skills as a script reader and the ability to engage with new writing at multiple levels.

I have always been eclectic in my creative interests, and my New York days at the very start of my career are no exception! I was an assistant at The Wooster Group for my first year in the City, as I had studied their unique theatre making technique and was curious to learn more about it, and have subsequently been influenced by their experimental style. I worked at The Tenement Museum, an interactive storytelling museum, which I believe has heavily influenced my current museum work with Hidden Tales. I began my own experimentations in site-specific theatre, most notably through a new collaborative musical set in a highly trafficked community plaza in Sunnyside Queens. A lot of the work I was doing when in New York City involved experimentation with form, and pursing my instinctual interests as a director without having the language to articulate what that interest was. What completing a Masters at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama provided me with was the ability to further develop and articulate those interests, including site-specific and interactive theatre.

Tell us about why your are drawn to Site Specific work?

At the heart of my interest is work that considers the audience first, work for which the presence of the audience is vital to the story being told and the journey of the characters. I believe site-specific work provides an excellent platform for prioritizing these things, as working in a space not originally designed for performance requires unusual thinking. I think it is incredibly important when making a piece of site-specific theatre that the space is not altered in a way akin to a set on a stage. I believe the challenge of working with a site enriches the work. And most importantly, when an audience arrives at a site-specific performance their expectations for behavior are different than in a theatre. Their behavior is in part informed by the qualities of the site they are in. I have found this allows for the development of unique audience engagement with the work.

Some of my original site-specific projects came from a desire to create atmosphere on a very small budget, so I worked to set a project in a site that came with the atmosphere that I wanted. Now I have a much more nuanced appreciation of the benefits but also the challenges of making site-specific theatre.

How was GLITCH at VAULT Festival 2020? Tell us about the experience of getting your work seen by audiences and industry during such a busy festival.

Glitch is a wonderful character driven play with accessibility at it’s core. We prioritized integrated captioning as part of this performance, and our VAULT run was in large part a chance to see how this element worked in practice. The production very well received, and we were lucky we got to complete our run before theatres were shut! We always viewed our VAULT performances as a first pass at the show, and I am looking forward to when I can get back into rehearsals for our next performances, to integrate the things we have learned, specifically from working with the captioning and working with audiences.

And you are now transitioning into Opera? How did that come about, and where are you in terms of beginning to work professionally in this field?

Yes! I am at the very start of this journey as, indeed, it took me a little while to understand what the journey itself is. I have a background in instrumental music (piano and clarinet), as well as vocal singing on a less serious scale, so I have long been comfortable reading music and working with music theory. However opera, for a long time, felt like something inaccessible to me. While I was studying for my Masters, I took on a part time job working as an usher at the Royal Opera House. This introduced me to so many different operas, started developing my opinions on opera, and sparked my interest in understanding more. After about a year of seeking advice for how to break into this field, and studying Italian, I got access to the first stage in this transition, a Directing Observership on a revival of Richard Eyre’s seminal production of La Traviata at The Royal Opera House. This experience has only made me more keen to work in this medium, and I’m excited to now be the 2020 Young Artist Director with the Waterperry Opera Festival this summer and have the opportunity to work on two additional operas, one as an assistant director and directing the other myself.

I’m excited by working in opera because at my core as a director I love creating a curated emotional response in an audience of people, and opera is a form that does this intrinsically. I still have vast amounts to learn, but now am aware of how to proceed deeper.

Who are your biggest influences when it comes to theatre?

I am influenced by work that is doing interesting things with audiences, performances like Underground Railroad Game, What the Constitution Means to Me, Fairview, etc. I am inspired by company work, for example Belarus Free Theatre for their unapologetic bravery, Kneehigh for their unapologetic playfulness, Publick Transport’s humorous deconstruction…Pina Bausch, Min Jeong Seo, Valerie Hegarty, Surrealist Artwork…I get very inspired by landscapes and spaces. I read a lot and tend to get inspired by specific things for specific reasons in specific moments in time and then move on. For example, when I first encountered Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” music video, I stayed stuck in her musical works until Oh Heroine How I Love You! completed it’s development.

Do you have any new projects coming up that we should keep our eyes peeled for?

As with us all these days, there is a lot of uncertainty going forward. Postponed projects waiting to be rescheduled and the entire theatre industry on hold waiting for when it is safe to start up again. I can say that a new play I have developed with The Heroine Chronicles, Heroines in Limbo, will be performing at the International Youth Arts Festival, now in 2021, and a tour of Oh Heroine How I Love You! is currently being rescheduled for performances in libraries across the UK spanning the upcoming year. Hidden Tales will reschedule our show in the Museum of Cambridge as soon as we have a better sense of the end of closures, as well as plans for Glitch to happen again. I am part of a collaboration of international artists developing a new project on the subject of Fake News, and that is scheduled for early 2021 in South Korea! Fingers crossed that one upcoming project stays upcoming - this August I will be the Young Artist Director at the Waterperry Opera Festival, assistant directing Donzetti’s The Elixir of Love and directing Jonathan Dove’s Greed.

An eclectic mix, of course, and hopefully an exciting one as and when the world of live performance reawakens.

Amy x

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