Fringe Frame is delighted to publish its inaugural interview with rising star Jassa Ahluwalia! Jassa is currently starring in Wipers, a new play by Ishy Din about the South Asian soldiers who served in World War One. Directed by Suba Das, the play premiered at Leicester Curve in April 2016 and is currently on a short UK tour. Jassa plays Second Lieutenant Thomas Dixon-Wright, a naïve British officer who finds himself in charge of three Indian soldiers. The four men must overcome class, culture and language barriers to secure their position in the face of the advancing German army.
Jassa was born in Coventry and grew up in Leicester. After spending a year studying Russian and Spanish at University College London, he decided to pursue acting full-time, signing with leading agency Independent Talent where he had previously worked as an intern. Jassa’s theatre credits include: Skin A Cat (Vault Festival – Pick of the Year) and Philip Ridley’s Piranha Heights (Old Red Lion Theatre). Television includes Peaky Blinders (BBC Two), series regular Rocky in Some Girls (BBC Three), Ripper Street (BBC One), Unforgiven (ITV), The Whale (BBC One), Legends (Sky Atlantic) and The Bible (Channel Five). Film includes upcoming feature The Rezort alongside Dougray Scott and Jessica De Gouw, and producing the award-winning short film Modern Man.
Fringe Frame spoke with Jassa about his experience working on Wipers, the diversity debate, and what to expect from the new series of Peaky Blinders…
How were you first bitten by the performing bug, and what made you decide to enter the industry?
I was first bitten by the dancing bug! I was three years old and attending my dad’s cousin’s wedding in India. The dhol players struck up and I was off, by myself, dancing for a rapidly growing crowd of friends and family. My mum had to bribe the drummers to stop playing so I didn’t pass out from heat exhaustion. At primary school a few years later I was scouted by dance teacher and ex-Royal Ballet principal Graham Fletcher. Graham could have easily set up a highly lucrative private school but instead he was dedicated to Leicestershire’s now sorely missed Arts in Education scheme. When it became a victim of austerity he set up his own community company. I don’t recall ever making a clear decision to enter the industry, but Graham certainly made me aware that it was possible. He fused discipline and professionalism with creativity and excitement; he allowed us to experience what it meant to be professional performers.
In my mid-teens it became apparent that dance was not my calling. Thankfully Graham encouraged me to relish the discipline of ballet, whilst fostering my interest in musical theatre and later acting. He instilled in me respect for my physical development and the art of movement; now, whether I’m developing a character or filming an action sequence, I’m working from the physical foundations Graham helped me build.
You can perform in six different languages, you’re ballet-trained, and you’ve produced an award-winning short film. Is it useful to have a range of skills in this industry?
I certainly find it useful! Eclecticism very much defines me. It’s reflected in my mixed Anglo-Indian upbringing and has always formed a part of my character. I think we Brits can often be a bit narrow in our focus, clinging to that awful phrase “jack of all trades, master of none”. Language, dance and film are each incredibly powerful methods of conveying stories and exploring ideas. Is it more useful to have multiple tools? Of course. We live in the age of the hyphenate. The wider the foundation, the higher you can build.
How did you get involved in Wipers?
I was browsing the Curve website last autumn, planning to buy my dad a membership for Christmas. I saw Wipers advertised and thought to myself, “I really want to see that”, as I’d been researching the history of British India and the Empire as a means of exploring my own identity. Then I saw the dates and figured it hadn’t yet been cast. My thought then became, “I want to be in that!” I had no idea if there would be an appropriate role but tweeted the director, Suba Das… that tweet led to an email, which led to an audition, and now here we are!
What process did you and director Suba Das go through to create your character in Wipers, Second Lieutenant Thomas Dixon-Wright?
As a new play, the script was constantly evolving and characters changed throughout the rehearsal process. I’m not exaggerating when I say the only thing which remained constant about Thomas was his name! It was a process of improvisations around what was on the page and then adapting the script, grounding him in the reality of the situation and not letting him becoming a generic representation of Britain or of imperialist thinking. What was most important to me was that the culture clash did not become too exaggerated. It’s often forgotten that Britain had connections to India as early as the 1600s; by 1914, India was very much a part of the British consciousness. Creating Thomas was therefore about accessing that consciousness. The imperial festivals and exhibitions Thomas mentions in the play became the gateway for that, but turning those historical events into an individual’s story proved a challenge.
Fortunately my childhood offered some of the answers. The story Thomas tells of the carved wooden elephant and the broken tusks came about in an improvisation and is taken straight from my childhood. My dad still has the elephant at home!
What have been the joys and challenges of the Wipers experience, from rehearsals through to press night and now on tour?
The joys were exploring both sides of my heritage, the British and the Indian. I often find myself straddling two worlds that both feel equally a part of me. Bringing those two worlds together makes me feel whole in a way I rarely experience outside of my family.
A major challenge has been the constantly evolving script, as we were continually striving to better the play. Getting it in front of an audience during previews was crucial to gauge what worked and what didn’t, and it made the run-up to press night incredibly challenging. Scripts were being dated per performance at one point!
How does working at a regional theatre compare to working in London?
Lunch is cheaper! Beyond that I’m not sure there is much of a difference. The creative team at Curve are some of the most talented people working in the industry and the quality of their output now rivals anything in London. I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of that growth.
Wipers is now entering the final leg of its tour. What will you miss most about the production, and what will you take away from the experience?
The set! No offence to the wonderful people I’ve met on this job, but Isla Shaw’s set is stunning and I’ll certainly miss it. I get a real childlike joy out of stepping into her beautifully-realised world. I remember seeing the model box and thinking, “That’s awesome. Sucks we’ll have to compromise on the real thing.” No compromises were made- if anything the real thing is better! As for what I’ll take away… the costumes. Sadly not the actual garments, but the knowledge of them. They are such perfect replicas. Looking at photos of World War One now feels incredibly bizarre: I know what the jacket feels like, how the straps feel, where the belt clips catch and the buttons rub. That simple knowledge has had a profoundly humanising effect on those images for me.
You’re soon to be seen in the new series of the BBC’s immensely popular Peaky Blinders. What can we expect from your character, Dimitri?
He’s Russian. And I get to speak Russian. Not much else (by order of the Peaky Blinders)! In truth I don’t actually know much. I was sent all the scripts but I only read my scenes. I’m a huge fan of the show and I didn’t want any spoilers. It was a huge honour to visit that world briefly. I show up in episodes 4 and 5. I can’t wait to see how it turned out.
Debate about the lack of diversity in the arts continues to rage. How do you feel the industry can better serve those who are not white, male and middle-class?
I believe the arts reflect and thus help shape our society. If we are not accurately reflecting our society I think we have a problem. The reason I’m so proud to have been part of Some Girls [BBC Three’s hit female-led sitcom] is because of how brilliantly diverse and honest it was, without it ever being an issue-based show. And the fan-base is so wide and varied as a result; I’ve met male and female fans of all ages and backgrounds, most recently an Italian guy in his 40s!
The decision-makers in the arts need to be listening seriously to organisations like Act for Change. And I do think quotas are the way forward at this moment in time. The argument against them is always about the risk of compromising quality, but I don’t for a second believe there is a lack of talent out there. There’s a lack of opportunity. We need to transform the landscape.
What advice would you give to aspiring performers who are looking for alternatives to drama school to break into the industry?
My personal philosophy is that there’s a big difference between being great at acting and being a great actor. Learn the business. It’s called show business for a reason, and business is the bigger word. Work behind the scenes in as many areas of the industry as possible: talent agencies, casting directors, production companies, theatres, post production studios… These are all aspects of the business you’ll be interacting with as a professional actor, so learn how they work. Learn how to make other people’s jobs easier. You are a product, so become the most attractive item on the shelf. In doing this you’ll also be able to block out workplace distractions and focus on the most crucial element of all: your performance. You may be able to nail the scene at home in your bedroom, but you need to be able to nail it on set with a boom mic over your head and a camera sliding through your eye-line. Or on stage with lights blinding you and an audience member trying to silence their phone.
If you could only have one more acting job after Wipers, what role would you most like to play?
I’m tempted to say Richard III… being a Leicester boy I can’t help but feel it’s a perfect fit! Such a delightful cocktail of darkness and levity, a wonderfully self-aware character. Or I’ll hold out until my sixties, become a panto dame and go out in a blaze of camp glory. They’d probably be very similar performances.
Aside from the World War One centenary commemorations, why is it important that Wipers is performed now? What relevance does it have in 2016?
The British Empire and its legacy are at the heart of modern society, and as an Anglo-Indian with truly diverse extended family and friends, I find the current political climate heart-breaking. That said, Sadiq Khan’s recent success in the London mayoral election gives me hope. He said in his acceptance speech, “London has chosen hope over fear and unity over division.” Now more than ever we need to share these stories of people of all nationalities, ethnicities and faiths, eating together, fighting together and dying together, so more people can make that choice.
Wipers is at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from Thursday 12 until Saturday 21 May 2016.
Follow Jassa on Twitter: @OfficialJassa.
Read our ★★★★ review of Wipers from its premiere at Leicester Curve.