Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Julia Jarcho's play American Treasure will be part of our Bay Area Playwrights Festival this year. Julia is a member of NYC's 13P and a PF Resident Playwright. We spoke to her about the play and her work.

Playwrights Foundation: Your play American Treasure explores the relationship between the wounds inflicted on Native peoples throughout American history and the role "Indians" play in our cultural fantasies. What drew you to this subject?

Julia Jarcho: I guess a few different things converged for me. One is that I found myself getting really psyched about the fact that my husband is part Cherokee--which made me ask myself what's at stake for me there, what it is I'm romanticizing or wishing for, which I have to suppose is something the culture at large has taught me to wish for. What is it that we want from our "Indians"? Why do we keep creating them over and over as a fantasy, and how do the facts of genocide fit in with that fantasy? This is also a question about how we do history in our everyday lives, and what it means to have desires that are oriented towards the past. Then there were also the movies I was watching (the play is about movies as much as anything else); the play's title is adapted from a certain pair of action movies (starring Nicolas Cage) which basically insist that America needs to keep getting "discovered" over and over again. That's a pretty fascinating idea, to me.

PF: American Treasure uses two actors to play a host of characters. What appealed to you about using morphing actors rather than the traditional one actor per character model?

JJ: Morphing actors! Cool. Well, the kind of theater I tend to be interested in isn't very character-driven. What I mean is that I'm not so into the idea of creating a set of realistic human beings whom the performers have to pretend to be. For me, it's more interesting to acknowledge that the performers are performers, working with a text and a physical world and a set of tasks which are not the ones we normally work with (although some of them might be). So that means there really isn't any reason to assign one character per actor. I think I tend to gravitate towards multiple-role performance because I get excited about theater as something that is getting done every time we see it, as a labor of imagination; and I think having a performer play more than one role emphasizes the work of making a world happen in your mind, which is both more and less than the world in which you just are who you are, no questions asked.

PF: When you were still in high school you worked with experimental theater director and playwright Richard Maxwell. How did this experience inform your aesthetic?

JJ: It was definitely an encouragement to follow my own logic, which is what he was doing (and still does). And that includes taking seriously your ability to amuse yourself. But also, I think working with him (and with other people I met through him: Aaron Landsman, Tory Vazquez) made me more aware of the wild precariousness of live theater, and of the value of honesty-- of not letting yourself disappear into either a fiction or an idea.

PF: What do you hope to achieve during the Festival this summer?

JJ: I hope to become very famous, very quickly. --Actually, 13P is producing American Treasure in New York in the fall, so this is going to be a great opportunity for me to get to know the play better, to start thinking about its existence in space and also to try new things with the text. There's always a question of how much the piece is going to "make sense" or tell a story, and how much it's going to push against its own storytelling, so I hope I can experiment in both directions through this process.

PF: What's up next for you?

JJ: Well, at the beginning of June I'm co-directing (and performing in) an adaptation of Edna St. Vincent Millay's play Aria Da Capo, with Target Margin Theater (in NYC). Then in the fall there's the 13P show. And I'm starting Mac Wellman's playwriting program at Brooklyn College, so I'm pretty excited about that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Interview with BAPF's Christopher Chen

Chris Chen's play Anomienaulis, an adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis, will be part of our Bay Area Playwrights Festival this year. Chris was born and raised in San Francisco, and his play Into the Numbers was first featured at the 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, receiving further readings at The Lark, hotINK Festival, Theatre Mu, and Silk Road Theatre Project. Most recently, his play The Window Age was commissioned and produced by Central Works Theatre Ensemble in Berkeley.

We spoke to Chris about Anomienaulis and his work.

PF: Anomienaulis is an adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis. What spoke to you about this particular story?

CC: I was first of all fascinated by the initial sequence of events in the story. For the supposed good of his country, the great king Agamemnon makes the tough decision to send for his daughter to be sacrificed. Then, he immediately changes his mind and sends a letter reneging his first order. But when this second letter is intercepted, he essentially resigns himself passively to his initial decision. It was this existential space of indecision and uncertainty that I wanted to tease out and expand upon. The set-up is very Beckett-like. An entire army is stranded indefinitely on the shore, waiting in vain for the wind that would carry their ships to war. In the midst of this restlessness, endless cycles of paralyzing doubt, anti-climaxes, and Hamlet-like wavering are played out, even as the march toward unstoppable violence grows inevitable. I wanted to specifically focus on how Euripides takes the decision-making process and opens up the psychological and moral gray area in between. I wanted to use his text to explore the arbitrariness and absurdity that more often than not determines our “decisive” actions.

PF: How did you approach writing an adaptation as opposed to an original work?

CC: My approach to adaptation wasn’t that different from my approach to an original work. Even when starting from scratch, I usually find it difficult to put any word on the page without first having in place a detailed outline. So working from the rigid outline of the Euripides text felt very natural. And not only was I working from the structure of the original text- I was also working from the structure of the “postmodern Greek adaptation,” a virtual genre unto itself, complete with its own set of conventions (including finding your “modernized take” on the material). I like working within these confines. Somewhat paradoxically, the more narrow and specific the areas of exploration, the more freedom I feel I have. Armed with a pre-existing storyline and a clear concept of my take on the text, I felt more liberated than ever when I started to write. I found myself working more directly from my subconscious.

PF: You grew up in San Francisco and studied playwriting at San Francisco State. What is the San Francisco playwriting community like and how has it shaped your writing?

CC: The playwriting community here is incredibly supportive and close-knit. I’m sure this is due in no small part to playwright-centered organizations such as Playwrights Foundation, Playground, and S.F. State’s playwriting program. Not only are the professors at S.F. State great playwrights, but they are incredible teachers as well. I owe a huge debt to Brian Thorstenson, Anne Galjour, Michelle Carter, and Roy Conboy for helping me develop my voice. Of course, working in a nurturing environment runs the risk of lulling a writer into complacency, but I’ve found that it also provides the perfect testing ground for new ideas. In a safe environment, I feel I have the courage to run with more wild conceptual impulses.

PF: This is your second Festival experience with PF. What was your last experience like last time, and what do you hope to achieve this year?

CC: My first experience at BAPF was a watershed moment for me. Not only did it help launch my playwriting career, but it was really my first time working with a professional artistic team. The experience ultimately elevated my play to a new level. This time around, I feel I have a clearer idea of how to use the festival to really explore new possibilities of the play. Central to Anomienaulis is a strong sense of anarchy and absurdism. This time I really want to allow my director and actors to tear into the script and tear it apart as they see fit. I want to see what happens when the text comes alive with a cast running with their wildest instincts. I want to see what shape the play will take.

PF: What's next for you?

CC: I am working on another Euripides adaptation- Herakles. It’s set in early 20th Century China and takes the form of a bad translation. It’s been a blast to write, and will get a reading at Fluid Motion Theater Company in New York next year. I am also working on a Borges-inspired take on Mao and the Cultural Revolution. And my first play with Playwrights Foundation, Into the Numbers, is going global. It was recently translated into Russian for the Belarus Free Theatre, and this Summer it will be translated into Chinese and premiere at the 2nd annual Beijing Youth Theater Festival, founded by experimental director Meng Jinghui.

PF: Anything you'd like to add?

CC: Donate to the Playwrights Foundation!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Interview with Deborah Stein

Minneapolis-based playwright Deborah Stein is coming to the Bay Area this May to workshop her play Natasha and the Coat as part of Playwrights Foundation's In the ROUGH Reading Series. She'll be returning to the Bay Area in July as part of our 32nd annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. PF Associate Artistic Director Jonathan Spector spoke with Deborah about her career and work.

Jonathan Spector: In addition to writing plays as an individual artist, you have also collaborated multiple times with both Pig Iron Theater Company and director Lear DeBessonet on developing work with and for a specific company. How does the process differ when you're developing a piece specifically with a company?

Deborah Stein: Writing with and for specific actors has been one of the great joys of my creative life. When I write for an ensemble, the creation of character, story, rhythm, and playworld is a collective endeavor. There is often a sense that only these actors could play these roles; while I know lots of writers who would find this limiting, I find it incredibly invigorating and inspiring to know who I am writing for, and to collaborate intimately with them on how the character evolves from the clay. Working with a company, there is collective authorship: I work alongside the director, actors, and designers to create the world of the play. There is a sense of baton-passing, where at various points we are each in the lead, creating all together. Writing independently, I strive to create scripts that are whole yet allow enough space for this kind of active participation from future collaborators.

JS: Along with PF alum Dominic Orlando, you run the playwright driven company the Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis. What was the genesis of this company and how has it grown and changed over the course of the three years?

DS: The playwrights of Workhaus are mostly Minneapolis transplants, drawn to the Twin Cities by the resources of the Playwrights’ Center and the city’s awesome live-ability. The idea behind Workhaus was to create a home for our plays in the city after our scripts had moved beyond the development stages supported by the Playwrights’ Center. Inspired by 13P in New York and also our own experiences producing our own work elsewhere, we are also really committed to creating opportunities for unmediated interaction between playwrights and audiences. Each playwright becomes the Artistic Director for the duration of their production, and is involved in conceptualizing everything from set design to marketing as part of the dramaturgy, part of the audience’s experience of the play. We have produced seven plays in three years. Right now we’re finishing our second season as company in residence at the Playwrights’ Center and gearing up for a third, which will include new plays by me, Dominic, and Alan Berks.

JS: What as the genesis of Natasha and the Coat?

DS: My first job after graduate school was very similar to Natasha’s—I was hired by a vintage clothing wholesaler to design a marketing campaign for her local Hasidic-run dry cleaner. I got the job over Craigslist and lasted about eight days at the job. The parting was amicable—the clash of cultures was too intense; the cauldron of tradition, commerce, and gender dynamics was impossible for any of us to navigate. I grew up in a pretty secular Jewish household in New York, during the years that the Lower East Side and Williamsburg were gentrified. The swiftness with which this process happened was pretty surreal—to find myself bar-hopping on the same street where my grandfather, a Polish immigrant, worked sewing buttonholes forced me to reckon with how quickly the city, and my family, had changed. This reckoning was kind of so overwhelming that I decided to avoid it. This play, which is the most personal piece I have written—and which I began five years ago and then literally stuffed in a drawer, unfinished—is my belated attempt to wrestle with this legacy and these stories.

JS: What's up next for you?

DS: This summer, I’ll be back in the Bay Area to continue working on Natasha and the Coat; then I’ll be in Philadelphia working with Pig Iron on a new piece called Welcome to Yuba City. This fall, my play God Save Gertrude will be at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.