Julia Jarcho interview: ‘Theater is fundamentally embarrassing’

The fascinating playwright draws inspiration from 20th-century fellow writer Jane Bowles for her latest work, Nomads

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Playwright Julia Jarcho

Playwright Julia Jarcho Photograph: K. Sue Park


Playwright Julia Jarcho is hard to pin down. Her plays (Grimly Handsome, American Treasure) skirt along shifting narratives with dense but deft language. Nomads, her latest theatrical offering, is a four-character study "about getting lost," directed by Alice Reagan and inspired by the writings of mid-20th-century novelist Jane Bowles. We caught up with Jarcho about the new work, Bowles and the state of the American theater (yikes!) over sweet treats at the Cupcake Café.

How did you get into Jane Bowles?
A friend gave me her book, My Sister's Hand in Mine, around 13 years ago. There's this sort of consensus among cool downtown theatre people-especially ladies-that this is the shit. The work I get most excited tends to be a little more formally experimental, like Djuna Barnes. She's also a queer American mid-20th-century writer. Her work is labored in a way that's different from Bowles. Jane Bowles has an incredible specificity, which I definitely appreciate. Every word has the potential to surprise you, which is exactly what I always want for my own work. But when I first read Bowles I was a little surprised that it wasn't more formally off-the-wall. It's narrative. On the page it doesn't look immediately weird, which only makes it weirder because it's like, "Why is it so weird!" I think part of Bowles's weirdness has something to do with the kind of confessional impulse that all the characters have-including the narrator. You come across phrases in a sentence that summarizes the entire metaphysical state of the person as if it were just talking about the tie they were wearing. Which is hilarious.

What's an example?
There's a sentence in Bowles's Two Serious Ladies: "It made Mrs. Copperfield sad to think about how for her husband each new experience was a joy but for her everything that was not already an old dream was an outrage." There are incredibly intense, not even perceptions but decisions about people being made in a syntax that doesn't suggest that kind of importance.

How did Nomads begin?
I was teaching Jane Bowles in a Freshman comp course a year go and learned that Alice Reagan had applied for a fellowship to research the Bowles archives. She wanted to direct Bowles's play In the Summer House and I said, "How about I write a new thing and you can direct it." For a while we thought it would just be an adaptation of the book Two Serious Ladies. When I first when back to the novel I felt stymied because so much of it is already dialogue and close to being a play. So I wound up writing a new thing that I think of as "being under the influence of Jane Bowles."

Does Nomads have a narrative plot?
There are two protagonists: one who can't remember relationships with her former lovers and who deals with this with the help of a cab driver. And another is a writer who decides to take a trip to the tropics, but the trip goes off course. Both storylines ask what are the ethics of being with another person? And specifically why is it and how is it so hard to take in the difference of the other person? The way that they're different from you and this trap of only ever seeing yourself in the other person or only ever seeing your reflection is something that both storylines deal with. I feel in any relationship that's a looming danger: You have coffee with your friend and you're just waiting for your turn to talk. Or you have sex with your lover and it's basically an exercise in being sure that someone desires you. But opening up to the fact that the other person is another person is hard. So that's something I think the play is exploring. I don't know if Bowles was interested in that directly, but her characters constantly speak past each other. Real connection is so rare in her work and it feels like it's rare for a good reason. It feels like the world she creates between two people is the world that makes that the case-that it's so hard to do that.

What are your thoughts on the state of the American theatre?
I don't really feel I've had access to most of it. First, as an audience member, because I never had enough money, and even though I have a job now, I just don't think I'll ever really feel like it's okay to spend more than 50 bucks on a ticket to a play. And also as an artist, because all the anecdotal evidence points to mainstream American theater being a conservative place. Theater as a medium is fundamentally embarrassing, at least within the cultural context I belong to. Theater is rightly the butt of every joke-every TV show has a goofy theater episode-and when that goofiness comes into contact with hardheaded practicality and a confident sense of knowing the rules, you're going to get something horrifying as the result. So there's a contradiction in pursuing theater as a business. Which might be the same as saying that "American theater" is a contradiction in terms. But sometimes a wonderful one.

Nomads is at the Incubator Arts Project through June 15.


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