BORN STORYTELLER JESSICA BECK IS EAGER TO START HER NEXT CHAPTER
Storytelling is a privilege, which is something that Jessica Beck ’03 (BA) doesn’t take lightly. “When you’re working in news, you’re asking people to, at times, share their worst day,” she says. “There’s a generosity in their stories.”
Whether she’s aboard an oyster fisherman’s rowboat to discuss Brexit or interviewing survivors of the 1942 Luftwaffe bombings of Exeter in the United Kingdom, storytelling is her passion. But if you’d told Beck 18 years ago that she’d become an award-winning radio producer, she wouldn’t have believed it.
From her days in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, Beck yearned to journey west for college.
“I wanted to go to California,” she admits. “I wanted to get as far away as I could on the continental United States to just try something different.”
Intrigued by the University of San Diego’s theatre program, Beck connected with former Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Marilyn Bennett and Corey Johnston, MFA, an adjunct assistant professor and the faculty costume supervisor in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Marilyn was so inspiring and inviting. When I had my interview, she was talking to me. She really saw me,” recalls Beck. “I had done costume design work in high school, and she looked at my designs and rushed me over to the costume shop to meet with Corey. He looked at my designs and I just felt like these were people I wanted to learn from.”
Because the theatre program had no major track at first, Beck planned to study business.
“I started as a business major because my parents had hoped I would study business. I did take lots of classes, but I ended up taking more and more theatre classes because that’s where my passion was.”
By the time Beck graduated, the theatre program had an established major and she was one of a few students in its first graduating class.
She spent the summer after graduation assisting at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, but planned a return trip to London, having first experienced the city while studying abroad.
“I remember speaking to this woman who worked in The Old Globe box office, and she asked what I was up to next. I said, ‘I’m going to London for a year, but I’ll be back.’ The woman laughed and said, ‘You won’t be back.’”
Eighteen years later, Beck admits the woman was right.
“I accidentally started my life as a theatre maker in London. I created shows and took them to the Edinburgh Festival, and then I wanted to stay,” she says. That took the form of a PhD program, with Beck earning her doctorate in 2011 from the University of Exeter.
She never imagined she’d end up in journalism, but after the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum, she found herself attending protests and interviewing participants.
Those experiences lit a spark in her. When the BBC had an open call for applicants for its Production Trainee Scheme, Beck thought it was worth a shot.
“I applied for it thinking, ‘It’s 11 months, so if I don’t like it, I can go back to doing some part-time teaching and directing,’” she recalls with a rueful laugh. “I had no idea it was a very competitive scheme. There were more than 6,000 applicants and they chose 10 people.”
Since then, Beck has produced BBC flagship programs and more recently served as the NPR’s London producer for correspondent Frank Langfitt. In the fall, Beck received a Gracie Award for best producer for her work on “Snapshots from Black America” for World at One, a three-part series that gave BBC listeners a historical context around race in the U.S. For Beck, receiving the award from the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation was a surreal experience.
“With a lot of these awards, you put yourself forward because you’re supposed to, but you don’t think anything’s going to come of it,” she says.
As she prepares for a career move to The Guardian, Beck looks back fondly on her path to this point.
“I remember being at USD, dreaming big about my future and thinking about working with actors like Michael Caine. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen through radio,” she says, referring to having recently worked with the Academy Award winning actor on the podcast Heist with Michael Caine.
“Theatre and radio have so much in common,” she says. “It requires using all the same skills. You engage the imagination, you have to rely on sound, you want to take your listeners somewhere. I found myself using the same skills, writing scripts, booking talent, finding contributors. In many ways, being a producer is very much like the director role in theatre.”
When asked what she’d tell her younger self, Beck stresses that everything happens for a reason.
“I worried a lot,” she admits. “Looking back, every deviation fits. A lot of great things happened when I didn’t get what I wanted. You have to trust life and be open to new adventures. And if you’re in a very privileged place, use that privilege to give voice to the voiceless.” — Allyson Meyer
Above photo of Jessica Beck in Los Angeles with her Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media for producing “Snapshots from Black America” for BBC Radio 4. Photo credit: Negine Jasmine.