When Jason Craig met Jessica Jelliffe they were both dabbling in the technical side of theatre. Neither of them had settled into their respective roles of playwright/performer and actor/producer, and the two were working at a now defunct theatre in San Francisco. Jelliffe was mostly stage managing while Craig was building things.
“One day I walked by and we chitchatted in the courtyard,” recalls Craig. “I invited her to an outdoor event I was taking part in.” Popcorn Anti Theatre was a monthly event, and Craig had written a string of five-minute pieces with a friend that were featured in that month’s performance. “It was short-attention-span theatre,” he says, adding in a tone both dubious and self-deprecating that this was the start of his career in writing for the theatre.
“It was a pretty big to-do, actually,” Jelliffe interjects with cheerful abandon. “It was low-budget but really well thought out and very striking and cool.”
A self-deprecating description followed by an upbeat twist is classic Craig and Jelliffe. The night of Popcorn Anti Theatre was the start of their romance and many late night dance-a-thons with friends. The two began dating and soon hit the road as traveling actors in a British-led pantomime troupe.
“We drove through something like 30 states in 3 months and did 30,000 miles,” says Jelliffe.
“We hit all the elementary and middle schools,” adds Craig. “I’d be Odysseus and Jessica would play all the other characters. We were in a van and given a binder with the locations. We didn’t have cell phones.” (It was the late ’90s.)
While on tour, the two hatched a plan to submit an application to the San Francisco Fringe festival. Asked if there was intent to form a company, Craig says, “No, it was very much a one-off, which was why we picked such a ridiculous name, Banana Bag & Bodice.” But the next year the group made another show. And another. And then another.
Seventeen years later, the name has stayed with them across state lines, and though Craig and Jelliffe still give off an anti-institutional vibe (“We didn’t have a mission statement; there was no five year plan,” Craig says of their early days), Banana Bag & Bodice continues to make critically acclaimed work.
The biggest change of late is the birth of the couple’s child, Charlie, who is three, and their relocation to Beacon, N.Y., from San Francisco. The couple’s artistic hats have also settled more, with Craig primarily writing and Jelliffe mainly acting and tackling administrative tasks.
“I usually have a bad opinion about how I think something should be done,” Craig declares about administrative matters. Jelliffe chimes in, “I’m very optimistic and have my head in the clouds, and Jason brings me down to reality. I’m the one that’s like, ‘Let’s do this!’”
“If it was up to me we wouldn’t do a show,” Craig says with a laugh.
“If it were up to me, we would be doing more theatre but probably not as well,” adds Jelliffe.
The couple’s show LongYarn, which recently bowed at the Bushwick Starr, was a test of their endurance as artists and patience as parents. Initially, Charlie was going to be with a babysitter during rehearsals but this proved tricky; commuting to babysitting locations cut into rehearsal time and quickly added up financially. Eventually Craig and Jelliffe moved into the Bushwick Starr’s annex room, just upstairs from the theatre where they rehearsed. Babysitters came to the annex so that Mom and Dad were just a staircase away from their little one and could easily check in on him as needed.
“If it weren’t for the whole staff at the Starr, the show wouldn’t have happened,” says Jelliffe. “What they put in was astounding,”
Craig began writing the script for LongYarn when Charlie was still in the womb. Based on the Irish mythic figure of Peig Seyer, the show features Jessica as a tall-tale-telling mother. Nevertheless, Craig was wary of making a show in the city now that they live in Beacon. “I can boil an egg and cut a piece of wood while Skyping with my mother,” he says of his multitasking abilities. “But when we’re in Beacon, I’m like, ‘Let’s just do Beacon.’ I didn’t want to muddy this giant life change by putting silly theatre into it. I want to put down roots for Charlie.”
Despite the learning curves and bumps along the way, Charlie bounced through rehearsals and performances for LongYarn like a champion. And though Jelliffe is a devoted mother, she concedes that she is also an actor and “can’t sit still for too long.”
“We’re an unusual ensemble in the sense that there’s really just the two of us,” says Jelliffe, pointing to a great roster of fellow collaborators who have cycled in and out of the company over the years (full disclosure: My man, Dave Malloy, a composer and sound designer, is one of them). The company is also seeking to expand a bit, as Jelliffe and Craig are searching for a company manager. “As an actor I’ve avoided a lot of horror stories by getting to have my own company and getting to write stuff for ourselves and make whatever we want to do,” Jelliffe continues. “I get great joy from performing Jason’s words.”
“I get great joy watching Jessica speak the words,” says Craig. “It’s pretty great to have a companion who can find sense in that stuff and who can decipher that patter or lyricism.”