Victor Esses

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Following great success at the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Victor Esses performs his show The Death & Life of All of Us at Harlow Playhouse on 7 March before a two-week London run at Camden People’s Theatre.

At 19, whilst studying film, Victor found his long-lost great aunt Marcelle in Rome. She had moved from Lebanon to Italy and converted from Judaism to Christianity, changed her name and kept a secret for a lifetime. Inspired by her strength and her rebellion he started to make a documentary about her life. Twenty years later, he still hasn’t finished it…

It’s a moving, poignant and charming exploration of intergenerational shame, family secrets, history and what’s left when we’re gone by this Latinx, queer, Jewish-Lebanese theatre maker and performance artist. 

I had the chance to send Victor some questions:

HC: ‘The Death & Life of All of Us’ sounds very interesting – tell me why it has taken over 20 years to feel ready to make it?
VE: It’s taken me 20 years plus the whole time I’ve been performing it to keep tweaking it. I was actually adding some of my auntie Marcelle’s (who this show is about) audio just today in rehearsals. 

It’s been such a journey of understanding myself, trying to understand my aunt and also the world. When I first interviewed her to try and make a documentary about her life I was only 19, even though I’m impressed with the level of maturity some of my questions had, I wasn’t ready to deal with such an intersectional story, a woman who had left a Jewish community in Lebanon and travelled the world with her Italian diplomat husband. She adapted to his reality, converting to Christianity and carving out a whole new life for herself. I thought she was brave. But what angle should I tell the story from? I’m still figuring it out. But I think I’m closer to knowing it than ever before.

HC: Has it been a labour of love?
VE: It’s been a compete labour of love as most of my work is, as working in theatre often needs to be. This is such a personal work and yet it’s so universal, we all felt different at some point in our lives. We all had to adapt to for it, and if we lived long enough we’ve also had to rethink what that means and might have made different choices as a result. 

HC: What is the underlying theme to The Death & Life of Us?
VE: To me it’s about investigating what it means to live authentically and to question if that concept shifts in our lifetimes. It’s about having courage to go against the grain, an intergenerational fondness and what narratives we choose to live by, whether true or not. 

HC: Were there any particular difficulties in using films from 20 (or more) years ago?
VE: Well there’s always the technical side of things, how can her voice be legible and clear, we’ve had to add captions to her as the way she speaks can sometimes be unclear – but that’s something we wanted to do because of accessibility anyway. We’ve had to give clarity to the sound. But the quality adds to the nature of the material. For documentary work that archive, that document is exactly what you want to show.

HC: In the show your Aunt decides to migrate from Lebanon to Italy, yet around the world many people are forced to leave their homes to live in a different country. Does the show touch on this?
VE: My whole family history has plenty of this story. My mother had to leave Lebanon as the civil war broke in the 70s. My dad’s side moved to Brazil for economic reasons but also for safety in the 60s, I was born in Brazil due to this. 

The show shows us this reality without basically telling us. It shows us how migration affects people’s lives and identities and how intersectional lots of us are. How humans are made of many facets. It tries to open a space of embracing each other, of acceptance no matter what. 

HG: You talk about toxic shame being handed down through the generations, is this something you have first-hand experience of? And how has that helped shape the show?
VE: I have indeed inherited a lot of toxic shame, I guess historically that was the norm, I’m sure it still is. What the show tries to tell us is that at a point when it’s safe we should open up about our pasts, especially if they’re about who we are. There’s no shame in being who we are. That’s why my aunt’s story interested me. She kept a secret her whole life about being Jewish, at that point I was keeping my own secret of being gay. This journey helped shape the show. There’s a care in inviting people to ask questions and consider which narratives are helpful for us today and which we must or could get rid of. Especially in the world today. As an Arab Jew I can tell you that humans are multifaceted and we’re all unique and can’t be defined by one thing, no matter if leaders of your group or outside of your groups speak for you, they don’t represent most people, 

HC: Has this project given you different reflections on your own life? 
VE: Yes I learn so much from each project I engage with. This one has really made me dig deeper into identity formation and allowed me to claim a wider part of my history and to retell a part from my own perspective. Each time I do this I allow myself and others to be included and to free ourselves from the stern domineering narratives that try to own us, and convince us of the truth that suits them. 

HC: Do you have a favourite memory of your aunt?
VE: I think it’s when we visited Florence together and she showed me around with a lot of care and would tell me she loved me often. She was a strong woman who was also very affectionate and had so many stories to tell.

HC: How did you find the process of writing for the show? The show includes video, music, art and choreography, are you able to tell us how that all fits together & why you chose these formats?
VE: These are all elements that I use in my practice. I think that video has the potential to bring the reality in but also by adding music we can enhance the experience of the audience. I wanted to represent my great aunt when we first met and a younger version of myself. 

HC: You’re working with a creative team, how did you find them and how did you find the experience to work in a small team?
VE: I love working with my team. Being an intimate team means that you can build trust and attention and at the same time have a friendly energy. I was recommended to connect with Jenni Jackson, my movement director some time ago. She is a very generous astute and adaptable artist who brought so much to the table. Yorgos Petrou my co director is my partner and a brilliant sensitive artist who really has a feeling for what works. Enrico Aurigemma, was working with the musician I met when I was doing a residency at Battersea Arts Centre and he was working with Tim Spooner, we kept in touch since. It’s been the biggest joy to create with this amazing composer/musician and also have his support and friendship. 

HC: What discussions do you hope your show promotes?
VE: I hope it makes people consider how we can create a more loving world together, embrace each other and all our differences. 

HC: What’s the best thing about bringing this show to live audiences?
VE: The best has been when audiences have really invested in the story on stage and have given the energy and taken lots from it as a result. Audiences have been so warm and moved but also very entertained, they have come to talk to me afterwards about how it made them think of their own elders and how they’d like to spend more time with them and told me when they have connected to different parts of this story in their own lives. It’s always a joy to be able to be a mirror to people and give them a meaningful and fun experience.

HC: I’m sad that I am going to miss it – are there any plans to take it elsewhere, or online after the Harlow/London run?
VE: Yes we’ll be in London in April for two weeks at Camden People’s Theatre and we might be back to another Essex Town in the autumn, about to confirm…

HC: I see that Harlow Playhouse is credited as a supporter. How did that involvement come about?
VE: Harlow supported me from the beginning of this idea. We were given valuable time to develop the show in their theatre when we were first thinking about this and didn’t have a script ready. Having this time away from where we live was invaluable and to bring the show in its complete form to the theatre that has been so supportive means a lot.

HC: What other shows have you written?
VE: My latest shows were Where to Belong, my solo about being a Jewish Lebanese Brazilian gay man, which I brought to Harlow two years ago and Unfamiliar, where my partner and I explored our hopes and fears about having children.

HC: What is the next step for you after this run? It sounds as though this story could be a book……?
VE: Ha I’d love to write a book about this or a film, who knows? For now we have a 2 week run of the show in London in the spring and more dates coming up in the autumn to be announced soon.

HC: I find ethnic groups are very underrepresented in audiences, can this show change that, or how do you think theatre venues can change this?
VE: I think the more we represent the different people on stage and make the effort to let those communities know and to invite them in perhaps with events around it the more we see different ethnicities and identities attending. It has been my experience. I do hope to meet as many people with an eastern origin, Jews, other minorities black and brown people as well as anyone who enjoys an intimate real story with heart and soul, 

HC: Do you have other stuff going on at the moment or can you concentrate on this project?
VE: I’m always working on different projects at the same time but I do have dedicated time for this as I really want to deliver the best version of it I possibly can at each time. Considering the moment we are all living at the moment  I want to be as caring and also as helpful as I think I can be to the audiences who walk through the doors.

HC: Where can we find you online/What are your links?
On Insta/Twitter it’s @victoresses 
For more info and booking tickets:

7 March, 7.30pm
Harlow Playhouse, Playhouse Square, Harlow CM20 1LS
£pay what you can 01279 431945

2-6, April 7.15pm
9-13 April 9pm
Camden People’s Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Rd, NW1 2PY
£15/£10 concs 020 7419 4841

Photo credit: Christa Holka


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