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An Interview With Jan Pearson: Image
An Interview With Jan Pearson: Text

You studied at Crew and Alsager College (now part of Manchester Metropolitan University) what was it like when you were there? How did it set you up for what you are now doing?

I was at Crew and Alsager College in the first year they ran a Combined Arts degree. It was the first place in the country to run such a course. I didn't want to go to drama school because I was scared they'd all be 'luvvies' and I wanted to make my own work. I was excited because of the mix of the five arts Alsager offered: theatre, dance, writing, fine art and music. What I didn't realise was that it was a bit of a Mickey Mouse place. Most of the staff were fresh out from doing PGCEs so much of the teaching was rubbish, but because it was the first place to run such a course, loads of extraordinary people were there: Adrian Rawlins, Paul Bown, Heather Ackroyd, Cornelia Parker was artist in residence. There were more, my memory is appalling.

The course gave us a chance to make work, but there was no real formal acting training, just workshops and game playing. Working in collaboration with other artists was important but it wasn't a vocational course.

After I left Crew and Alsager I applied to do a Post-Grad course at Bristol but they only offered me the two year course. I had wanted to do the one year course and then get out into the big wide world. So I turned the chance down.

I left college with no sense of where to go. I was living in the Welsh valleys working in miner's bars and a paper factory. I was applying to things in The Stage but with no experience and no recommendations it was impossible. Eventually I got a Theatre In Education gig playing a princess and my first professional wage, £25. It seemed like a fortune at the time.

Then I got a job as a dancer for a year. I did ballet from being a small child until I was 16 and loathed it. I was only trying to fulfil my mother's ambitions. I did dance at college and so am trained in Cunningham and Graham techniques.

I remember seeing video footage of you in Insomniac Production's, The Sleep eating and vomiting up newspaper and being impressed by that, it seemed pretty committed to me. I was even more impressed when I learnt it was your idea. Sometimes directors of devised shows (including me) take or are given too much credit.

I tend to agree

What do you think your strengths are as a deviser?

I like the opportunity to play and respond to a director's ideas. That's the key to the relationship with the director, being able to respond and interpret a set of cues or ideas. I don't have many boundaries except I don't like hurting people - I will go until I'm told to stop. We had long night rehearsals for The Sleep and ultimately that eating paper idea was born out of boredom. You keeping trying to find fresh material, if you are working that long you go to places you wouldn't find otherwise and it was edgy material that was needed.

There is something that working out of hours gives you, a certain licence or freedom. It felt a little racy. I don't think you should work under the influence of drugs, you lose your ability to monitor yourself or the safety of others, but that 'out of time' space is a replacement for that.

Does your experience devising prove useful or just frustrating when working in other fields?

You can always bring imagination and play to anything that you are doing, so devising has only ever been helpful.

I think I've got a good eye and I think that is useful. When I was devising with Scarlet Theatre a number of ideas were brought to the table and I was able to spot what would make the better piece. I came in to Constance Brown late and felt disadvantaged. Some of the material like the Negotiation Scene had already been set. A number of sequences were already quite prescribed.

Mixing the worlds is quite difficult. I had always got my own work and didn't have an agent until I was 35. I got an agent in order to get some telly work and as soon as I got into TV it took off. I did seven years of TV and lost my theatrical career. I couldn't get any theatre work for four years. I'm terrible at auditions. I've had a thirty year career and only once got a theatre job through an audition. I must be doing something deeply wrong, but I don't know what it is! After I'd come off Holby I worked at the RSC and then thought it would be nice to do some theatre work near home so auditioned for a local seaside theatre company. Unfortunately they didn't think I was good enough for them. They gave me a recall but told me they weren't sure about my voice. Cheek! Thank God Anthony Neilson asked me to do a show and someone saw that and things have taken off again. Now I've been working in theatre for a full year and decided to abandon it all for TV!

A skirt suit from Holby City appears in The Cleansing Of Constance Brown. Have you learnt skills on TV that you have back with you to your devised work?

I think TV and theatre are two different jobs. Certainly they employ different skills although there are subtle crossovers. In TV you are more isolated from the creative process and have less time to be imaginative.. I was scornful of TV acting until I did it and realised what a tough and demanding job it can be. It takes some learning - mostly on the job in front of a crew and camera rather than in a rehearsal room. The secret for me is to relax and lose the level of anxiety I normally work off on stage. I can only give a performance on set if I'm totally relaxed and at home. That's a difficult thing to achieve.

Because the set is an stressful place?

Because of the process, the long day, the people, getting used to being looked at in a different way. Eventually I found myself scratching my arse on set and I realised I finally felt relaxed. I was doing inappropriate private behaviours in public so I knew I must feel at home.

You have worked in a huge range of performance fields, what has been the most challenging role?

I think of them as jobs not roles. Usually the last one I did. Most recently the most rewarding job was This Wide Night by Chloe Moss, which was an extraordinary piece of writing. It was a real opportunity for me to play in a totally grotesque fashion. I found the grotesque part of me and tried to lose my vanity and fear of appearing truly ugly. Lorraine was a lovely character and the whole experience very rewarding on an emotional level.

You are an icon for a number of actors I know...

I am?

definitely, who are the actors you admire?

My passion for performance was born out of film and those are my heroes, those old movie stars, such as Ingrid Bergman, all those extraordinary women of the 1940s, but there are loads of actors who I admire now.

What bit of The Cleansing Of Constance Brown do you most like performing?

The party is my favourite moment without a shadow of a doubt.

And your least favourite?

Having to wear white face. . Please mention I have to clean my face so quickly and roughly my mouth started to bleed today and mention that the stage manager bought moistened sandpaper to clean my face.

Have you ever been interviewed about your stage acting before?

I've been interviewed a lot, not about my theatrical career but a lot about being a very minor player in the TV game; interviews for TV Quick and the like. It's horrible, you have to do these round table interviews where there are six or seven interviewers and you file in, one actor after another, they're all looking totally bored. You feel you have to be entertaining so I said when I was growing up I wanted to be a surgeon but I've got shaky hands and they all sat up and pounced like wild animals because there was a miniscule piece of personal information. They were pumping me about why my hands shake, what was the problem, was it drugs, all that sort of stuff. They all twisted it, and it appeared in all the articles. It was ridiculous.

I promise not to mention it.

Bucharest, 6th November, 2008.

Devising started for The Cleansing Of Constance Brown with just six of the seven cast places filled. When it was finally resolved that the seventh performer should be a woman and that we were after an experienced performer, Jan Pearson was suggested. That Jan was both interested and available seemed semi-miraculous. For years she has been a secret Stan's Cafe idol and now she was to be in one of our shows!

We knew of her through fantastically strong performances with Insomniac Productions in The Sleep, The Fall of Lucas Fortune, If We Shadows, L'Ascensore and the Utopia Trilogy. With Heather Ackroyd in The Uses Of Enchantment and Graeme Miller's A Girl Skipping. She also devised shows with Scarlet Theatre before suddenly she was on mainstream television including five series of Holby City and two series of Cops. Having also done stints a the RSC, The Royal Court, The Bush and a series of shows with Anthony Nielson Jan has a rare breadth of acting experience. It seemed sensible, whilst we had Jan at our disposal to hear a bit about this experience.

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