It seems appropriate to be sitting in a warm Turkish kebab shop, supping soup and flat bread, talking life and art with that enigmatic, cerebral actor, director, and, as he concedes, pretty good jazz musician, Jack Shepherd. Shepherd's latest venture, Chasing the Moment, which opens at the Arcola Theatre next Tuesday, is a play with as wide a cultural appeal as the locality in which it is now to be staged. The mix of shops and cafes in the area are testament to the mix of cultures that the Arcola obviously hopes to cater for. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Artistic Director of the Arcola, Mehmet Ergen, is himself of Turkish heritage. It is Ergen who is directing Chasing the Moment and it is the clash of cultures that Shepherd's play fundamentally addresses.
As we talk, a passing shopper gesticulates through the steamy window at Shepherd, who smiles and waves as if to a long-lost friend. “That's Wycliffe for you” muses Shepherd, aware that the reruns of his early-nineties success as the Cornish detective have reawakened a public excitement over this particular home-grown Yorkshire celebrity.
Chasing the Moment is a play with a pedigree. First conceived around the time of these early Wycliffe episodes, it caters to Shepherd's self-confessed “obsession with jazz since the age of four”. Shepherd first learnt to play the clarinet, from a musician from the Halle orchestra, in his home town of Leeds . He eventually decided that the clarinet had to make way for the alto saxophone, a wonderfully expressive instrument and one which no doubt was a wow with the girls. After studying Fine Arts at Newcastle , Shepherd continued his drama studies at Central School of Speech and Drama, where he joined a band with John Lord, the founding light of Deep Purple.
This is certainly not a passing hobby for Shepherd. In a way, his love of jazz has proved a blueprint for his approach to acting and directing. “I see the playing of jazz as very mathematical – you have to have a mathematical sense to really improvise well. Maybe its because I don't feel so confident with maths that I didn't progress to being a professional jazz musician.” Even so, the improvisational element of jazz is what Shepherd transferred to his acting career. “I used the improvisational skills of jazz as a springboard to devising workshops – to devising plays.” As with jazz and music, a firm grounding in the skill-base of performance is a prerequisite of any actor, but this must be linked to a freedom to experiment and a willingness to confront danger, all aspects of art which can and should be nurtured.
Chasing the Moment is a play which developed out of this passion for jazz. “I'm in it myself because it's hard to find an actor of my age who can play jazz and act!” Multi-tasking through the rehearsal process never seems to worry Shepherd. When it came to writing the piece, his concern was to “make a text which was like the music – improvised, rhythmic, with slang, idiom, musician-speak. All the characters have a solo in the piece – all can sound off about something.”
Shepherd admits that potentially the most difficult part of his creative process was to write of the loves, joys, angers and frustrations of a black family at the heart of the piece. “I'm a white Englishman – a white man who loves jazz, the art-form that belongs to black culture.” Luckily, Shepherd recalls his own Baptist upbringing in Leeds , son of a pianist mother and singing father, as his lever into the personalities of his fictional black characters.
The effect of these insights is a dramatic exploration of racial tension, what Shepherd calls the “shark under the water.” “What is interesting is that the problems of the last couple of years – the problems of home-grown terrorism and a simmering fear of Islam – have eclipsed the old black/white problems that stemmed from those first families who settled in Britain in the 1950s.” As Shepherd sadly comments, and as the reality of Big Brother prejudice has all-too-wickedly highlighted, the “simmering undercurrent of tension is still here”. Chasing the Moment draws us into this debate, the danger and freedom of jazz a means of expression which is universal in its appeal.
The Arcola has been laid out like a jazz club for the play. “It was a shirt factory six or seven years ago – now you can sit with a drink and watch and listen to actors having the bloody bottle to get up there and improvise.” Shepherd hits the nail on the head. “People love to watch actors play music – to see us up on the high-wire without a safety net. When we pull it off, it's wonderful.” I'm sure the four week run at the Arcola will be ‘wonderful, especially for those who watch this particularity lucid and talented actor and musician walk his own personal tightrope – Chasing the Moment when freedom of expression becomes improvisational heaven.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007