Julia Jarcho is moving. The playwright (Grimly Handsome, Every Angel is Brutal, Pathetic), who’s built her career in the New York City downtown experimental theatre scene and who has taught for some time at New York University, is relocating to Providence, R.I., this January. She’s going to be the new head of the MFA Playwriting program at Brown University.
She takes over for Lisa D’Amour, who’s been the interim head of a playwriting program that was propelled to national notoriety by Paula Vogel. Though she’ll be mentoring the next generation of American playwrights, she won’t be giving up her company, Minor Theater. They will next present a workshop of Marie It’s Time, a feminist-focused take on Woyzeck, at HERE Arts Center in New York City as part of its HERE RAW (Resident Artist Works), Feb. 25 and 26.
DIEP TRAN: Given that your background is largely as an experimental theatremaker, where do you think experimental playwriting training will fit into the Brown curriculum?
JULIA JARCHO: Experimental American playwriting has been a major influence on my own work, and so I want that to come to the table. I obviously want to help the students, to keep the students abreast of the things that are happening now. There’s a history of experimental playwriting that I want to bring into the classroom. I was lucky enough to take a short course with Erik Ehn a few years ago to do one of his silent retreats. He as a teacher was someone who really looked for ways to cultivate kind of openness, and in my own teaching, I think that’s also true.
I’ve always felt that one of the best things you can do as a teacher of playwriting, and probably of any kind of art or writing, is to keep pushing students to surprise themselves and to interrupt themselves. There are different ways to do that. Some of that is through encounters with work that is really challenging and disorienting. Some of it is through actual exercises and practices of attention. And then some of it is through, I think, encounters with texts that are not plays, or sometimes not “creative texts,” but theoretical, philosophical, and other kinds of work that can provide a different kind of stimulus than we would ordinarily be giving ourselves in our daily lives.
I remember reading in your book, Writing and the Modern Stage: Theater Beyond Drama, that when you first started out, you called yourself a performance artist rather than someone who writes plays.
I wonder what the context of that was. Because I think for a while now I’ve felt pretty invested in this notion of playwriting. I do direct my own work; I don’t personally find it very appealing to write plays and sort of hand them over to somebody else. For me, writing plays is always ultimately about creating a performance. Of course, there’s a lot that’s interesting about playwriting, but a lot of it clusters around the way that playwriting is paradoxical. Playwriting is a kind of writing that claims to be able to produce an event which is not writing, which would be the performance. So there’s that sense of playwriting as essentially a kind of fantasy about a thing that is not on the page, but supposedly will be. Of course, we know that it never actually will be right—that the performance will never actually be the play as written or as imagined on the page. There’s something about that sort of fantasizing and kind of utopian quality of the play as a document, as a piece of writing, that I think has become more and more interesting to me.
You founded your own theatre company. Is that something you’ll start teaching students how to do?
The truth is, I’m still learning how to do it. For sure, I want to encourage the students and support them in becoming the kinds of artists who feel brave enough to lead their own projects. I think there’s a certain national profile, the playwright as a kind of gifted child who stands around awkwardly, waiting for someone to notice how smart she is and put her plays on the stage. To me that’s not a particularly attractive position.
The thing about theatre is you can actually do it. And in relation to what I was just saying about how plays are always sort of fantasies or even lies about what’s going to happen, it’s only in realizing them that you get to feel those tensions. Certainly, I want to train playwrights who are in a position to make their work happen. And if that means starting a company, then yeah, how do you do that? What are the choices you have to make? In my own case, having the company, more than anything, has just meant finding a small group of people whom I completely trust artistically and personally.
This is not just about the kind of relationships that become available immediately through being in an MFA program, although that’s important. It’s also the questions of how you present yourself, how you talk to others about your work, how you approach collaboration. These are questions Lisa D’Amour has really been working with the students on in the past couple of years. I think it’s super important to continue that, so that as a playwright you don’t feel beholden to, let’s say, a director. The director as the person who knows how to do things with people, and the playwright as the person who knows how to do things with words—that doesn’t feel viable. So helping people think about how to form those alliances, how to find the people that they want to be making work with, is also important.
What plays should students be reading right now?
Wow, okay. I think the plays of Adrienne Kennedy are really important. I think she’s someone who never takes what it means to be writing a play for granted. At the same time, in the midst of that kind of formal experimentation, is also always, I think, about creating work that feels very profoundly—thinks and feels. So that’s one writer I would name.
Looking at neoclassical drama, I think, is really useful still, because I do think its conventions are still with us, maybe more than we realize. So looking at Racine, for example, and also ancient Greek work, as much for its strangeness and foreignness to us, as for whatever’s best about it.
I just saw a play by Kristen Kosmas, an artist based in Seattle, that seemed to me genuinely exploratory, and concerned with the question of how theatre, or really any place, can be a site of hope. Like, how do we use theatre to create hope in a way that doesn’t feel like a lie, in a time that feels terribly dark to most of us? Any artists who are really tackling that question are important artists to keep up with.