A woman holds onto the bannister of the staircase while her daughter looks on.

Client Spotlight: Jess K. Smith & Shelley Virginia’s What Gets Passed Between

This is the first installment in a series of Client Spotlights, featuring Typecoast customers Jess K. Smith and Shelley Virginia. Written by Jennifer Lane, a playwright who has worked with Shelley and Jess during their time at Columbia.

This isn’t another article about theatre in the pandemic—there have been enough of those, and I swear, if I have to read another think-piece about how Zoom Theatre is—or isn’t—“real theatre,” I’m going to hurl my laptop into a volcano. Instead, I want to think a bit about how performance can, necessarily, transform in a project that requires COVID considerations from all of its participants.

Shelley Virginia and Jess K. Smith are two of my favorite theatre artists in the history of the art form. Jess is a visionary director with an unparalleled eye for how to use space; her work focuses on generative pieces, “adaptations, interdisciplinary collaborations, and imaginative interpretations of classic texts.” And Shelley is an ideal artistic partner: a gorgeously nuanced actor and stunning aerial performer, Shelley’s work explores “the marriage of physical storytelling, heightened text, and emotional truth.” Theirs is a long-standing collaboration—one that began when we attended graduate school at Columbia University—that has continued across state lines and time zones, and now, through the tumultuous landscape of a pandemic. And despite working in various rehearsal rooms and theatre spaces and site-specific locations for years, they’ve taken their collaboration to an entirely new realm altogether: Instagram.

A woman is propped up in a doorway. Her daughter reaches for her from below.
Photo by Shelley Virginia

Their latest project, What Gets Passed Between, is described as follows: Created by Shelley Virginia and Jess K. Smith, What Gets Passed Between is a site-specific, multidisciplinary, cross-country COVID collaboration centered around a house in Marietta, Georgia (traditional land of the Cherokee and Muscogee Creek). It is a story about mothers, daughters, and what gets passed between. Told through image + text, released bit by bit on this account over time. The audience is invited to take in the whole story by viewing the Instagram profile feed, engage through comments and stories, and share what resonates by using the #WhatGetsPassedBetween hashtag and tagging @whatgetspassedbetween.

“You know, I think that I was just looking for something to work on with Jess,” Shelley said when I asked them how the project began. “We started with a question of intergenerational trauma and mothers and daughters, and I feel like it’s just kind of taken on a life of its own.” 

I had the privilege of speaking with the co-creators of this compelling new project and when they talked about the genesis of the piece, they hit on a lot of my own personal thematic obsessions: What did my mother pass down to me? Can I change it? Do I want to? Who am I as a parent and what am I passing on to my child? They began with questions about patterns, and those questions turned into physical patterns that Shelley explored in a daily movement journal that she videotaped and sent to Jess. But it didn’t necessarily start out as a long-distance collaboration.

“COVID has forced a total shift in how we would normally work. We thought, at first, that we were making a play. Our approach has had to be responsive and reflective to what’s happening, and we’re learning what the piece is as we go.”

“Shelley came to [see me in January 2020],” Jess said when I asked them when they first started the project, “and at that point, we knew that we wanted to make a piece together, we wanted to keep building on our long-term collaborative relationship. We are both really drawn toward stories that center complicated women, and we thought initially that we would tackle these big, juicy characters like Blanche and Medea and put them in conversation with each other. But there was also a real thrust toward creating something generative.”

COVID, of course, meant that they were forced to think outside the rehearsal room. They knew they wanted to create something generative—and to give Shelley an opportunity to work as a creator and writer as well as a performer. But they hadn’t originally anticipated that they would be so far removed from a traditional stage. “COVID has forced a total shift in how we would normally work. We thought, at first, that we were making a play. Our approach has had to be responsive and reflective to what’s happening, and we’re learning what the piece is as we go.”

The project went through iterations where it was a play, then a feature film, then a short film, and perhaps it will be any or all of those things down the road. But for now, it is a story in words and pictures. Has the medium shaped the arc of the project? “In a lot of ways,” Shelly said, “it has entirely shaped it.” At first, they had anticipated working the way they’d always worked, but the pandemic made that impossible. So they created a Google Drive folder and began sharing things back and forth. “In the very early days, I started doing a daily physical journal where I would just turn the camera on and move and write something about it. Or Jess would send me a prompt and I would respond to it in movement. Then when I moved across the country, and I moved into this house, all of a sudden this project became site-specific.”

The images are truly arresting, very much evoking the feeling of what it’s like to be parenting during a pandemic: trapped inside with a child’s ever-reaching hands.

The house was the one that Shelley grew up in, and she now lives in it with her husband and their five-year-old daughter, Hunter. The images—which are stills from the movement videos that Shelley shot—are truly arresting, very much evoking the feeling of what it’s like to be parenting during a pandemic: trapped inside with a child’s ever-reaching hands. As a mother myself, I immediately saw my experience abstracted and reflected back. “The first images I got, which I think were the ones of me in the doorframe and [Hunter] reaching up to me was a little bit of a fluke. I set up the shot, and she just kind of rolled through and had a conversation with me. And I just filmed all of it, and pulled the stills from it. After that, I was like, well, this is great.” It’s a beautiful image, a very happy accident, indeed. When I asked what it was like to work with her daughter, Shelley said so much of it was about play. “This is an activity we can do together, and she’s very into art. She has seen me in several plays now, and I’ve taken her out of town three or four times to do shows, so she understands the artistic process. And we just play together. I keep [the camera] running and we play and explore and we have conversations.” The result has been a series of images that evoke the unique bond between mother and daughter, the real or imagined usurpation of a mother’s power, the transfer of the power into the daughter, who looks boldly out while her mother’s face is obscured.

A woman hangs from the frame of her shower door, her child's feet visible below.
Photo by Shelley Virginia

So what are their plans for the release of their story? “There are six chapters,” Jess explained, “and our plan is to release a full chapter over the span of one week. Between each chapter, we’ll take a week, so as to create opportunities for engagement. So by the end of the project, someone could look at the Instagram feed and read the whole thing in reverse chronological order, in one fell swoop. But for the folks who are part of our audience now, as it’s being unfolded to them, they’re getting it sentence by sentence, image by image.” And right now, they’re not thinking beyond the platform of Instagram.

“Someone suggested we create a coffee table book,” Jess laughed. “And, I mean, maybe? Who knows what the next iteration of this might be. Perhaps it will exist on a website, or in a theater, in a publication, as a film, or as a coffee table book. But right now, we are considering all of the possibilities.”

Shelley Virginia is an Atlanta-based actor, teaching artist, and movement director. She has worked in television, film, and theatre all over the country. Favorite credits include Young Woman in Machinal, Lulu in Lulu, Woman in Not Medea, Ariel in The Tempest, W in Lungs, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and most recently in Juneau, Alaska playing Henrietta Swan Leavitt in Silent Sky at Perseverance Theatre. She holds an MFA in acting from Columbia University in the City of New York and is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA and AEA. 

Jess K Smith is a freelance director, the Founder and Co-Artistic Director of ARTBARN, and an Associate Professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Puget Sound. She focuses on generative work, adaptations, interdisciplinary collaborations, and imaginative interpretations of classic texts.