We had the good fortune of connecting with Jesse Bliss and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jesse, how do you think about risk?
I’ve always been a risk taker. This stems from who I am as a person combined with growing up with a tumultuous childhood in which I moved a whole lot, attending 9 schools K-12 plus shifting cities a few times. Early on, starting over was familiar to me as well as being without my mother which always pained me, but was something I had to live with. It called on a lot of bravery in constant uncertainty, which turns out to be the makings of art. This way of growing up certainly shaped my approach to it. Also, my father was disapproving of my mother and the way she raised me. Her best friend had a strong hand in my upbringing and he exposed me to LGBTQ culture and drag culture, teaching me to embrace and celebrate my femininity and wild spirit. My father’s hatred and judgement was hard on me, yet as something I grew up with, made me less vulnerable to caring what others thought as far as my approach to life and work. I started taking major risks at a very young age that were both positive and negative, ranging from running away to moving to San Francisco at age 20 to begin an acting career. I was living in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city—The Tenderloin. From this risk, I met my acting teacher walking up the street near my place in front of The Phoenix Theatre. A prodigy of Bobby Lewis of the Original Actor’s Studio, she invested everything she had into me and was my guiding light the next 20 years until she passed. From there I moved again to become an apprentice at an Equity Theatre company then straight to New York City in the dead of winter with a suitcase and a few dollars. There I began auditioning and booked a gig with an all-female writing and acting troupe with whom I spent the next four years collaborating. Once 9/11 hit and I was visiting my mother in Sacramento, I was forced to stay with her and wrote my first play as an adult, ROOTS AND WINGS. The play went up in NYC and then we produced it in San Francisco. Many of the performers moved to Los Angeles, including myself—-a city I never wanted to live in, but the work kept taking me to.
After a lifetime of constantly moving, a really bad car accident kept me in Los Angeles and less relying on performing and more on my pen as it was something I could physically do. Risks continued to define my work as I left the troupe, collaborated with dance legend Rennie Harris on a play that mounted at UCLA, and continued to create plays on my own and produce them in prisons and public theatres.
There have been risks I’ve taken, particularly in my personal life, that didn’t turn out well and even have been detrimental. There have been other risks that gifted not only myself, but others around me. My theatre company, The Roots and Wings Project, did a site-specific theatrical tour in DTLA including Skid Row, written by all women and led by Tobias Tubbs who I met in Lancaster State Prison and who was recently released after 30 years and a L.W.O.P (Life Without Parole) sentence. We were told over again that the project was logistically and legally impossible. Had we not fought for it and risked everything to make it happen, it never would have. Everything about it was magical sans the fires that hit and put the Southern state on emergency alert.
We recently filmed a pilot with world-class performers delivering a potently powerful show out of a vintage convertible during this most challenging moment when theatres are shut down. Because we specialize in site-specific theatre, our company is built for this work, though we’ve encountered countless challenges to create it.
Our prison programming is always a risk because it’s so difficult to navigate in a system designed to keep good out. We are met with constant challenges in that regard, and know we are always putting ourselves at risk, in multiple ways, to keep that program running. Everyone involved took a risk to make that program happen. I feel art is based on risk. Each and every time we make ourselves vulnerable, we are taking a risk. Without risk there can be no gain. It’s the necessary, and challenging, step to grow as people and make magic happen.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
My art is informed by my core belief of creating stage and space for voices of the unnamed, unknown and misunderstood. I have a passion for getting those voices out there, particularly the voices of women including my own—which is a lifelong process. My art is there as a place for me to breathe and be. I’m forever grateful because otherwise I don’t know if I would have continued to persevere. I approach it as life saving, for that has been my way of experiencing it.
I’m most excited about our newest, groundbreaking project THE JOY RIDE, an act of political warfare…4 world-class artists deliver a powerful and original new production out of a vintage convertible, much like a singing telegram. It was a very challenging undertaking in the age of the pandemic. I’m grateful and proud from the bottom of my heart to my co-producer Gabriela Lopez de Dennis and to all the cast members, writers and crew that created it. It definitely shines as a piece of work we feel proud of and wish to see continue at a much needed time.
My path in general hasn’t been an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. My parents didn’t support me or believe in me as an artist. I had to trust the universe that my heart’s calling wouldn’t lead me astray. I’ve starved. I’ve squatted in apartments. My mentor was of the old-school mindset that school wasn’t necessary and encouraged me to drop-out of college. I took her advice and hit the pavement hard as an artist instead, getting my degree much later in life. I’ve always lived in cities away from my mother and now that I am a mother myself, that can be a challenging dynamic.
I felt early on that people didn’t feel I had a right to be an artist and it has been a fight to prove myself time and again. In a patriarchal society, that fight continues. I’m used to it now, though it doesn’t make it easier. My allies, advocates, friends, daughter and students are what keep me strong and inspired. Because I am a survivor of trauma both in childhood and for a time as an adult, I have to be kind and patient to myself. These strategies, when applied personally and to those around me, are highly effective. When we work from a place of spirit and the calling in of ancestors, we know we are not alone and that we are doing the work that we are meant to do.
It’s critical to work with like-minded people who not only see the same vision, but who are also passionate about bringing it to light and supporting one another in that journey. There will be challenges so having a strong, supportive, and loving team is critical. My theatre company is project-based so each show requires a very specific approach and make-up of artists.
All that matters is love. If we keep focused on that in all we work to create, it will always be fruitful. If we approach ourselves and each other with mindfulness, that will always have positive results. We’re all human and we’re going to make mistakes. We’re working in a very challenging circumstance right now. Activating kindness, patience and compassion is key. It’s about the process not the destination. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is not to worry what others think or pay mind to the haters. Those people don’t know the truth of your journey, who you are, or what you have to live with. What’s important is to do our best to stay with the energy that DOES uplift and not worry about the rest. I think of it in terms of science. I continuously ask myself about the science of creating positive feelings within myself, my home, the theatre company and with my students and friends…all those I come in contact with. Honesty is key. Sometimes we are honest and people can’t take it. That’s okay too. That reinforces who it is we are supposed to be on this ride with. I also feel it’s really important to develop practices that help sustain us as human beings, artists and business people. Self-care is an act of revolution. I wasn’t taught it growing up, but I am slowly learning now and finding that it’s an important aspect of thriving and growing.
We facilitate a Theatre and Writing Program in the women’s prison in Chino. Art in there is life-saving. Art on the outs is life saving as well, but our country diminishes its’ value. We have to fight against that. We have to advocate for society and our government to recognize art as essential to the well being of humanity. In a country built on systematized racism and profit over people, art is a critical part of our healing, well-being and transformation.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
In a pandemic world, it is all about being outside. I’d take my friend to the Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, Self-Realization Fellowship, the beach, Garfield Park, an early morning hike in Griffith Park…I’d get food at Cafe Brazil, coffee at El Primer Taza, and baked goods at Porto’s. We could picnic in most of these places.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I want to give a huge shout out to Luis Rodriguez and his company Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural for the work they do and love they have shown to me and The Roots and Wings Project from inside prison to our public performances. I met with Luis and his team. He wanted to know exactly what is happening inside the women’s prisons—what the women themselves are going through. At that point began our collaboration with that Theatre and Writing program at CIW women’s prison in Chino. They came to the prison to support the women in the sharing of their work. This meant everything to them. Luis’ presence alone was the power of 100 men. He’s been going into these environments for 40 years plus and doing healing work. He himself experienced transcendence from life in prison to life as a professional artist. When we shot our recent JOY RIDE pilot, delivering a theatre show out of a vintage convertible, Luis and the Tia Chucha’s family not only accepted our invitation to deliver them a show, but they had it all set up so beautifully with chairs 6 feet apart under a gorgeous awning with cones protecting the space for our show to be able to pull up and deliver. There were stellar people present, making up a teeny tiny audience to keep things safe. That show of solidarity and support meant everything to us! The performers were so grateful to be able to share a first show in such sacred space and company.
This is the makings of true solidarity which in turn fosters enormous growth. When people feel loved, they flourish. It’s that simple, yet why is it so hard for people to do for one another? Perhaps it’s trauma that makes it so difficult. In these times, and always, love and support is the real gold of the world. We are so grateful to Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural.
I also want to shout out Diane Rodriguez who passed recently. She was a giant in the theatre and had a giant heart. She elicited love and solidarity among artists. She shared her insight. She passed along her wisdom. She believed, with all her heart, in the work. I am so grateful to her for all that she did for all of us and for me and The Roots and Wings Project specifically. I must shout out Leon Martell and Linda Lowry, my acting and writing mentors as well. There are no words for the gratitude I carry in my heart for both of them. Their love grew the work and instilled faith in me as a person. They taught me craft and tapped my prowess as an artist and most sacred aspects as a human being.
My daughter, Orelia, has been raised around my work her entire life. There are no words for my gratitude for her and the love and happiness she brings. She kept saying in the days coming into our recent show, ¨God bless THE JOY RIDE.¨
Instagram: jesse__bliss _theraw_project
Youtube: The Roots and Wings Project
Angela L. Torres picture of Jesse Bliss Danitza Guerro picture of LUMINOUS STREETS Cast THE JOY RIDE Cast Photo Courtesy of The Roots and Wings Project Ava Alamshah picture of MATRIARCH Cast