How has the pandemic has changed theater, aside from the obvious fact that live audiences are currently forbidden?
At this point it’s impossible for plays to rehearse. People cannot gather in groups. In addition to actors, there are scores of other behind-the-scenes people necessary to bringing the play to production: designers, builders, backstage crews. It’s just impossible now to prepare a play for public presentation. Once we get back to some semblance of our former lives, I am not sure audiences will feel comfortable gathering in large numbers. And yes, I am depressed about the future of our vital and important art form.
Can you imagine social distancing that might make actors together on stage and audiences in their seats possible soon?
I cannot imagine a way, no. It feels like the end of the world, our world. I know Shakespeare had to endure the plague, and theatres in London were closed for several years. He wrote poetry during that time, while some theatre people toured the provinces, and others starved. We’re in the same boat. Unfortunately, I don’t write poetry, only plays. And because of the nature of this plague, we cannot tour the provinces.
Will playwrights lean toward writing one character monologues that can be filmed?
I suppose they will. But there’s a limited appeal for such plays. They’re not very exciting, not very theatrical. A good play depends on characters interacting with one another: give and take. In addition, film is not theatre. Theatre is live. It depends on real people on the stage and in the house. That’s what it is. It’s like saying, write a poem without paper.
Why did you choose playwriting as your art?
I was always in the theatre, found it the most compelling, in the experience and in the practice. After I began writing plays, I realized that when a play works, there is nothing more thrilling or satisfying. That doesn’t mean that all plays always work. About half the time they don’t. But when they do, there’s nothing like them. It’s almost addictive for me: can I make this work, can we make it work?
Tell us about the play you’ve most recently completed…and what drew you to that subject?
It’s a play called P.G. Anon about three women, all pregnant, none of whom should be. One’s too old, one’s too young, and one’s incapable of raising a child. It is a political play, no question, inspired by Trump’s two additions to the Supreme Court. I am terrified that women will lose the right to choose, and so this play puts the audience in the position of these three women, all trapped. It’s due to premiere in February at Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake City. Will it, can it? I don’t know.
Tell us about the collaborative aspect of working with directors, both good and bad.
Directors are hugely important. They shape the product, manage people’s experience of the play. They must coordinate all the creative aspects of the work: actors, designers, technicians. They must have a clear sense of the play and how it can affect an audience. Other people a playwright works with are fully-achieved artists, as competent as the writer. One must trust them, guide them when possible, make suggestions. Trust is vital. When it works, it’s magic; when it doesn’t, it’s heartbreaking.
How can you tell when an actor is good at their work?
When an actor works hard and has discipline, that’s the first sign of a good actor. But mostly I look for someone who can try a hundred different things, enabling us to choose what approach is most effective.
And how does experience teach them?
Actors are much like athletes, the more they work, the more they can do.
What makes some actors specialize in a certain type of role, while others can do a wider range of roles? Is it just that the latter are better actors, or is this a choice, or?
Actors can get “typed” by their looks, their skills, their experience with certain kinds of characters. Often, directors “type” them, seeking an assured performance. Actors themselves usually resent being “typed.” They’d rather play a wide range of roles. And in my experience, they love a challenge and a chance to work outside their “type.”
If you could be friends with any character you (or anyone else) has written, who would that be and why?
There’s a kind of smart-ass female character that I like to write. They’re brave and funny and defiant, a lot like my sister. There are several characters like that in my work: Dot in Last Lists of My Mad Mother, Our Girl in The Lost Vegas Series, Nyda in Stray Dogs. It’s not that they’re all the same, but they have a response to the world that’s similar. I’m also interested in class. I don’t know much about upper classes. I know a lot about working class people. These characters all share a hard-scrabble world I know and love.
Your plays have been performed all over the world. What makes a good company and why? Give a few examples.
A good company is first a successful company. But apart from that, certain companies are good with certain plays, with certain playwrights. Not all productions of a good company are necessarily good. One of my favorite productions of a play of mine was done in London by a little company that did not even have a permanent home, Nomad Theatre. They produced a play called The Lost Vegas Series about, you guessed it, Las Vegas. How they understood that strange and quintessentially American city and its characters is beyond me. But they did. They were audacious and full of experimentation (the set, for example, was covered in fake fur). Another production I also loved was Stray Dogs, produced by Profiles Theatre in Chicago. It was amazing, incredibly moving. And yet a couple of years later, revelations were made public that the artistic director of that successful theatre had a long history of abusing actors, both physically and emotionally. And the theatre was ultimately closed. I never would have imagined….
Could you tell us some transformative moments you’ve experienced in theater? Why can’t they translate to or be accessed via online performances?
I once saw a production of Marat/Sade in New York. This was a long time ago, but I will never forget it. This particular performance was for the benefit of the Actors’ Fund, and so the place was full of New York actors. The play is about the French Revolution, being told by a group on inmates in an insane asylum. At the end of the play, the inmates get carried away. They begin stomping and clapping. The revolution has infected them. They want their own freedom. The audience in the theatre joined the inmates, becoming one with them. I could not believe what was happening. What’s more, I could not believe that I, too, was one of them, one with the inmates.
What’s your greatest unwritten play?
The one I wish I were thinking about now. But I wouldn’t be able to tell you about it, because that would fix it before its time. I am, however, not thinking about any great play at the moment. I am frightened. Everything seems futile and off the subject.
Can you talk about your creation of characters? I sometimes tell students that real people are more surprising and less coherent than their story characters have to be…is this true for plays, too?
You’re actually right. In addition, all characters in plays have to want something. If they don’t, they just float like seaweed. Then too, dramatic characters don’t tell the truth. They want something and they are capable of doing unexpected and amazing things to get it. That makes them interesting, compelling, complex, and I have to say, true to human behavior. We’re all angling for something all the time. Characters in plays are the same. The playwright’s job is to figure out how characters manipulate one another.
What trends were you seeing in theatre (before the pandemic)?
The American theatre had just come out of a heavily realistic period. The pendulum was swinging. Realism is less interesting in the theatre, because film actually does it better. And so great theatrical experiments were underway; directors were let loose to create fantastical experiences, and playwrights were allowed to think, quite literally, outside the box. Alex Timbers’ Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton redefined the American musical and the theatrical experience. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and more recently Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance gave new meaning to the recent past, specifically to the AIDS epidemic. Sarah Ruhl explored the surreal, Annie Baker the hyper-real, and Suzan-Lori Parks the black experience through experiments with character and situation.
What do you fear may disappear after the pandemic?
We were in the process of developing and producing playwrights of color, and great ones: Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, Young Sue Lee’s Straight White Men, Luis Alfaro’s solo performances’ Bitter Homes and Gardens and Downtown. I’m afraid that such work might sink out of sight, and when the theatre resumes, we’ll have forgotten where we left off.
Julie Jensen has been writing plays for over 30 years. She has won a dozen awards, among them The Joseph Jefferson Award for best new work, the LA Weekly Award for best new play, and The David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award. She has been commissioned by a dozen theatres including Kennedy Center (twice) and Actors Theatre of Louisville (twice) and Salt Lake Acting Company (twice). She has received grants from NEA, TCG, Pew Charitable Trusts, among others. Her work has been produced in New York, London, and theatres nationwide. She has taught playwriting at five universities and has written a book on the craft. She currently lives and works in Salt Lake City.
Natasha Sajé is the author of three books of poems, a book of literary criticism, and a memoir-in-essays forthcoming from Trinity UP this year. She teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program.