Jess Conda, impresaria of her punk-theater kingdom
During a hectic St. Patrick's Day weekend, Jess Conda went to her usual jobs - waiting tables at Fergie's Pub downtown, heading north for her gig at Northern Liberties' after-hours Ruba Club - then biked off to the Crane Arts Building's new Pig Iron Theater School, where she's part of the freshman class. "I've had a helluva time with finals at Pig Iron, St. Paddy's at the pub, and rehearsing," says Conda, 31, sounding surprisingly fresh despite the weekend's wear and tear.
During a hectic St. Patrick's Day weekend, Jess Conda went to her usual jobs - waiting tables at Fergie's Pub downtown, heading north for her gig at Northern Liberties' after-hours Ruba Club - then biked off to the Crane Arts Building's new Pig Iron Theater School, where she's part of the freshman class.
"I've had a helluva time with finals at Pig Iron, St. Paddy's at the pub, and rehearsing," says Conda, 31, sounding surprisingly fresh despite the weekend's wear and tear.
Fergie's might occupy her hands, elbows, and feet, but the Ruba and her job as artist in residence at Brat Productions, the club-based theater company, has been occupying the rest of her in recent months as she's developed a distinct mix of snarky glam-and-garage punk and brassy vocal-narrative cabaret under the banner "Rock & Awe."
"The series is designed to stretch me professionally in all directions," says Conda, who conceived each show - October's heavy-metal odyssey A Is for Anna Conda, the glittering explosion of the nuclear family Eternal Glamnation, this weekend's punk-politicized Let's Start a War - and assembled each creative team, playing the producer card. She flexed her marketing muscle creating photo shoots and news releases. She built a fund-raising campaign into the residency for the experience of raising money to support her own vision. And, of course, she's in every show - a 5-foot-2 blonde with big eyes and a bigger voice.
"I think the smartest decision in the structure of the series is forcing me to wear all these hats at once," says Conda. "It's a hardcore jump into the deep end. That's a direct parallel to the reality of being a working artist."
Yet the working artist she most sees herself as - the mien she finds most attractive - is that of an unconventional theater performer forging a down 'n' dirty rock-and-roll performance-art hybrid of self-made shows. Eternal Glamnation contained songs from glitter icons David Bowie and Lou Reed, Let's Make a War is mostly tunes from Cali-punks and the Dead Kennedys, and June's Get Behind Me, Satan will be a take on the bluesy White Stripes.
Conda is a thriller whose work is as brash as she is audacious. And pragmatic.
"I'm big, broad, and rough around the edges," she says matter-of-factly. "I am not pretty. I am not vanilla. I've had difficulty fitting into the molds of the traditional theater world and have been struggling with the mystery of how to define myself as an artist who wants a place in the theater world. Discovering rock-and-roll unlocked that box for me. Music provides such a heightened energy and that energy speaks to me."
Being from suburban South Jersey - "Mount Laurel, to be exact" - probably gives her just the right mix of the upbringing bliss and summertime blues that fuels a love of punk rock.
"Uneventful, suburbanmediocrity, good family, good school, went out to eat at restaurants in strip malls, weekends at the mall, etc., etc., yawn," she smiles. She did do Annie in middle school, in the title role, but was disgusted she couldn't play the dastardly Miss Hannigan instead - "I always fancied villains over ingénues."
Before she got to Brat, Conda earned a BFA in acting at Arcadia University, hooked up with the Tribe of Fools company at St. Stephen's Theater, and acted amply as the bawdy Mae West in Looking Pretty with Cabaret Red Light at InterAct last year. "The more companies you work with, the more you work and get to see different people's processes, pick what works for you, and scrap the rest," says Conda. "Three cheers for polyamory." This summer, she'll perform with Shakespeare in Clark Park in The Merry Wives of Windsor. "It's a totally different hat than my rocker hat, and I like the variety."
Conda cast her lot with Pig Iron's company members as teachers, and with Brat boss Madi Distefano as mentor, because they're kindred spirits, twisters of pop-cultural myth, rough-edged punk-era practitioners of wilding performance theater. Through the Pig Iron School, she's learning to make ensemble-based work and craft something out of nothing, as well as how to be a physical master of her body - "the way my individual body tells a story. They train the hell out of us physically." Distefano, who put rock theater on Philly's map with events like the white-trashy Eye-95, has been a mother figure to Conda's apprentice.
"But the transition into making my own work has felt natural and supported - every mother wants their children to stand up on their own," laughs Conda. "I take in their advice, inspiration, work ethic, and make it my own as I move forward on my own individual path in the art world. Just like any good child."
This good rock baby uses music of the smartest and sassiest order. A Is for Anna Conda was a strong showcase for Conda's vocals. "I don't think a lot of women cover Danzig and Iron Maiden, so that was empowering." She'd like to add stage effects and a striptease number to Anna, in which actresses would peel out of their skin for a possible Brat Halloween show. "Use entrails as boas, really push the grotesque, make it as bombastic as possible - it could be an act at OzzFest."
Eternal Glamnation - a Fringe 2012 candidate - was fun to sing because of its lush harmonies. "As much as I love to solo, I've got a church gospel choir singing in my soul," she laughs.
Let's Make a War is a satire set at a cocktail-party political fund-raiser for a candidate who has some appalling beliefs, but who is loved and admired by the wealthy - "It's a place where money has distorted the populace into gross, exaggerated versions of themselves, a dystopia" - and the show is infused with a deeply serious societal soundtrack, including the likes of the Dead Kennnedys' "California Uber Alles."
So it's a punk-rock cabaret that opens a Pandora's box of problems. such as what is punk rock. "We're focusing more on the side of punk that focuses on socioeconomic differences, so the punk-rock avenues with themes about the music industry, racism, or even comical."
Conda's got a fire in her to make that sort-of differentiation, to make sure rock and theater truly merge, to make it meaningful and to make it her career. "It ain't American Idiot," she jokes sarcastically, referring to Green Day's shiny Broadway hit. "It's real punk tunes infused with theatricality, but very loyal to the form." Punk infused with theatricality but loyal to form - sounds just like Conda.