Quick Q&A with Jesse J. Perez - Director of the Shiley Graduate Theatre Program

Quick Q&A with Jesse J. Perez - Director of the Shiley Graduate Theatre Program

The University of San Diego and the Old Globe's Shiley Graduate Theatre program announced last fall that they hired a new director, Jesse J. Perez. Since starting his new position this spring semester, and after settling in at USD for a few months, we decided to check in with Jesse and ask how his time at USD has been thus far---here's what we found out!

1.  What is your background and what were you doing before you arrived at USD?

I started dancing when I was 11 years old and got into theatre when I was 15. I realized that dancing wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do. I went to The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) and that’s when I started getting really serious about acting and dancing. From there, at 18 years old, I got into Julliard.

When I graduated, I hit the ground running and just started acting all over the place---mostly regional theatre, but also off-broadway. While I was hanging around New York, the directors I was working with started investigating my background and they found out that I was a dancer. They started having me choreograph their shows. At one point, one of my mentors, Brian Mertes, was directing a show at Julliard and asked me to choreograph it for him. That’s how I started to get connected back with my alma mater. I was asked if I could teach an acting class and was given a third-year master class and eventually became a faculty member at Julliard.

2.  How did you originally hear about this position at USD?

This is an interesting story. The dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre, James Bundy, gave me a call and asked me if I had ever been interested in running an MFA program---I eventually saw myself doing that. He mentioned Barry Edelstein at the Old Globe. Barry was a teacher of mine at Juilliard who taught me Shakespeare. Eventually, I said, “let’s do it!” After I interviewed with all the faculty, the dean and the provost, I got a job offer.

3.  What is one reason you accepted this position?

I feel like I have a lot to offer. It’s rare that an actor gets hired to run an acting program. Usually, they’re directors or people that have been in theatre in some other way, shape or form. I feel like it’s exciting when a program trusts a person that’s still [active] in the field. I assume that I’m going to continue to act and direct---and that felt really exciting.

I'm also really interested in what Shakespeare means to the American youth as opposed to thinking of it as a British idea. What does it mean to be in San Diego and tell these stories through these young actors? Let's not think of it as a royal or classical idea, but as a contemporary play.

4.  Is there anything that has surprised you about the USD community?

How welcoming it’s been! I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Coming here, I didn’t know what to expect and everybody has just been incredibly nice, and it’s been great to have all the information at my fingertips because everybody is willing to help out.

5.  What made you interested in dancing and acting in the first place?

I played a lot of sports and some friends of mine from my soccer team said, “hey, there’s this dance group at the recreational place down the block---you should come and sit in and watch a class.” So, I went and sat up there and it just seemed like a real physical act. As a kid, I thought, “oh, I can do that!” I just started to fall in love with it. I told the director of that recreational company, “hey, I want to do what Charlie Chaplin does,” because it was what I used to watch with my father. He went on to tell me, “well,I think that's dancing.” That's when he took me to my first acting class. From there, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

6.  What is your favorite production that you either directed or choreographed?

That’s a big question! I directed Queens Boulevard by Charles Mee. It’s a contemporary play---that’s a play with music with a fourth-year class that’s at Julliard right now and graduating currently. I did it with them when they were third-years. It was an experience that I was afraid of and I found challenging, but the students stepped up and it just blossomed in a way that was so organic I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of my eyes. It was such a beautiful thing. It was the first time that I thought I might be able to direct musicals, as well. It gave me a lot of confidence.

7.  What is one goal you would like to achieve while working at USD?

I want to make this program the best it can possibly be. It already has an amazing foundation---it's just about how to bring it into the 21st century because I feel like the world is changing. It's interesting to have a lot of leaders of color in positions that can make choices---not only for the students, but for the sort of content that we have here, like the productions we do.

I want the students to act as the template to guide us and I want to challenge them. It’s a time where it’s exciting and scary, but I feel like I’m young enough to be up for the challenge of figuring out the students in 2019 and providing what they need to challenge them in the process, so that they grow and can be the best artists or theatre-makers that they can be. It’s difficult to isolate the word “acting,” so I want to make theatre makers, as well. I want this program to give the young artists empowerment and ownership of what they produce. That’s what we need right now---our leaders going out there and saying, “no, I want to use my voice and I want to bring myself to the forefront and bring who I am to play this character.” That’s exciting to me because that is America.

— Tanya Aubin 

Learn more about Jesse J. Perez and the University of San Diego and the Old Globe's Shiley Graduate Theatre program.

begin quoteThen when he took me to my first acting class. From there, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
headshot of Jesse Perez

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