by Patricia Grandjean
Jan 1, 2013
05:39 PMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: Laura Jacqmin
(L to r) Actors Tonya Glanz (as April), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Not-Terry) and Meredith Holzman (Myrtle) in a scene from "January Joiner: A Weight-Loss Horror Comedy."
Playwright Laura Jacqmin debuts her work January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II Jan. 9- Feb. 10. A graduate of Yale University, Jacqmin earned her MFA from Ohio University and was a winner of the 2008 Wasserstein Prize for emerging female playwrights. She's done commissions for the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago and South Coast Repertory in California, workshopped plays at the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford and the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah, and has completed two MacDowell Colony Fellowships in New Hampshire and an international residency with the Royal Court Theatre of London.
We caught up with her while she was preparing her latest world premiere for the New Haven stage. For more information, call (203) 787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.
What inspired you to write January Joiner?
Oooh—that's sort of a hard question! I think there are personal elements in there; my own family has always talked about weight and size. Not necesarily as a constant struggle, but more as a reality. And I think I was also intrigued by—whether you're talking about weight-loss or anything else—what happens to the people we love when they change drastically, and maybe not for the better. What is our process for dealing with that?
Like a lot of people, I've been enrolled in Weight Watchers in the past, and the theme you're talking about reminded me of an experience I had there. I remember one guy in my group who had lost around 150 pounds. He had been over 300 pounds, and he had gotten down to around 170, 180. And his wife, who still weighed more than 300 pounds, was very dismayed by this. He talked about how she constantly pushed food on him. And he said something very touching and interesting, which was, "I think she's afraid that with my weight loss, everything else about me is going to change, too. She doesn't trust anything I say to try to reassure her that I still love her just as she is."
Right; I think there are two big fears around weight loss: One is, for the people who love us, we will no longer be the same people; and I think our fear when we lose weight is, "Oh my god, I still will be the same person!" That's why I'm sort of obsessed with it.
There are some very funny scenes in the play focusing on diet and weight-loss and the "fascism" of certain diet programs. Was there a particular real-world model for EVOLVE, the program at the center of the play?
I think it was a combination of . . . I belong to a gym in Chicago that I've belonged to for six years, which is just the YMCA. What I love about the YMCA is that it's full of my people—it's full of old Jews doing exercises that their doctors gave them on a piece of paper. You know what I mean? [laughs] There's women sitting there and you can tell they're thinking, "Okay, how many reps of this do I do?" I like it because it's a very Chicago gym, and it's a very mixed bag in terms of the types of people you see there and the ages you see there. So I wanted to make EVOLVE the polar opposite. I read about this one place, actually—I think it might be in Malibu, Calif.—that costs five grand a week. You can find articles by journalists reviewing it online. Essentially, they starve you for a week, then make you hike constantly. [laughs] So of course you're going to lose weight! EVOLVE is elements from places like that, taken to an extreme.
In the play, you have a couple of cases of people playing dual roles, and one, in essence, of two actors playing the same character.
It's a new idea—I don't know how much you want to talk about this, because it's sort of a story spoiler. Because Terry's transformation is so dreamlike, I wanted to have her played by a different person afterward. If that's something that's made literal, it's not just "Well, you seem different; you're behaving differently," but it is literally a different person. It brings out those elements of horror that are at play in the second act.
I'd also like to ask, how is this production going to tackle its presentation of the evil vending machine?
Basically, we're just going to build it. In our first production meeting, we had 30 people sitting around a table saying. "How wide is the slot going to be? Do we want it to actually accept a dollar and then spit change? Does it have to physically vend? Where are we going to put the speaker? If we put the speaker here, then the actor can't do this." It's amazing, because I'm working with a team of people who just see it as a challenge to be solved.
I love classic horror movies. And classic horror is all about, what's in the audience's mind is always going to be worse than what's actually shown. And I think that's the great thing about the horror elements of this play—you can light it just so and have a certain sort of sound going on underneath that, and make people terrified of what might happen. So, It's been great. I think the vending machine is going to be really scary.
Just curious: What do you consider "classic" horror?
Well, if you think of the Bela Lugosi Dracula, and contrast that with the Saw series of films—it's not a blood-and-guts kind of experience. Those movies are not like The Shining, which is one of the most terrifying movies ever made. Or The Exorcist—my god, that movie is scary. It completely plays with your head, and I think the best horror is not just about the fright makeup you put on an actor and have them lurch around on the screen. One of the reasons The Ring is so terrifying is not because of what we actually see in the movie, but because we have a television in our house that something might come out of, too. What do we do about that? You know what I mean? After I saw that movie I was like, "Maybe we could just put a sheet over the TV at night." You know, it's silly—when I shut my laptop down at night, sometimes I'll think, "Oh, I'll just leave the lid open. And then I'm like, "No, because something could come out of it. I'll close it."
These fears are really primal, aren't they? I always thought Rod Serling gave a great definition of the fear generated by classic horror or sci-fi: that the deepest fear we can experience is the fear of some unknown force working on us, that we can't share with anyone else because they'll automatically think we're crazy.
I remember my sister reading me . . . there was this book called, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The illustrations in this book were horrific. And they stayed with me. I'm the type of person who, if I see a horror movie, if I see a frightening picture, I'm going to remember it forever. And it never gets any less scary. I still remember from that book, this horrific image of a dead, straw-haired woman with empty eye sockets. To this day I remember exactly what that picture looked like. And the last time I saw it was when I was 5!
In horror movies there's such an ever-present feeling of "Why me? Why is this happening to me?" It's one of the reasons that Halloween is still so scary. Sometimes the horror is random, sometimes it's just the protagonist's bad luck. But that's the thing—if you are so unlikely as to get in something evil's sights, that thing will not rest until it has finished with you. And that is really frightening.
I know you're very excited to have this play premiere at Long Wharf. How come?
It's really a combination of things. It's nice to be back in New Haven—I attended college at Yale. It's nice because it's a familiar enough environment . . . you know, as a playwright, you find a place to live for six weeks to do your work, and then you fly home after the show opens. So it's nice to have a head start—this feels like home, which is really helpful to getting the work done. Eric Ting is a phenomenal director; he's totally fearless. And [Long Wharf artistic director] Gordon Edelstein is just . . . As an emerging writer, you're always encountering people who say, "I love your work." Gordon is really the first person to say, "I love your work, I love your voice," and then a few months later, he's like, "Okay, here's the offer—we're doing your play next season." There's that feeling of trust. And to not have it be a situation where it's treated like, "Well, this is the new play slot in our season. We don't know about this play; this is a risk." There's a way new plays are treated by most theaters during their season—I don't know, "ghettoized" is the wrong word—and I just have not experienced that at Long Wharf. There's a total trust and excitement about the work that's phenomenal.
In the script that I read, you have a stage direction or note—whatever you'd call it—stipulating that certain roles should be played by "actors of size." Is there a fear that actors of size would otherwise be discriminated against in casting?
Absolutely. That's just a fact. The reason that I actually have it in the script is because I didn't want anyone in a "fat suit." You know what I mean? I didn't want anyone being padded. I want the actual bodies, and I want actors to have the freedom to work in their own bodies. It's the same thing as if I wrote a role that I really wanted a black actor to play that role, or a Middle Eastern actor. You do have to make it part of the story, and you do have to state it explicitly. It's not necessarily a knock on casting directors—but unless you make things explicit they may say, "Well, wouldn't it be easier if we just . . ." or "We're having a hard time finding a particular kind of actor, couldn't we instead do this?" That's not what I want with this play. I want to have bodies on the stage that are not typically the bodies we see onstage.
I wonder what your take is on this cast—they certainly have great credentials.
Oh, yes. Oh my god, they're phenomenal. Some people, like Danny Sherman and Ashlie Atkinson, ahve a tremendous amount of credits; and then others—like Meredith Holzman, who plays Myrtle, the lead—she has a couple of smaller shows she was in, like with Playwrights Horizons. So we also have some people who are at the beginning of their careers. But individually, they're just phenomenal, and together as a cast, they're dynamite. I feel like as a writer, you sort of luck into casting alchemy like this only every few years, and it lets me tailor certain aspects of the characters toward these specific actors. It's a wonderful feeling.
You chose to settle in Chicago. What about that environment enhances and supports your playwriting?
I grew up in Cleveland, so Chicago felt really familiar—it was just bigger and more of a real city, which is one of the things I love about it. The great thing about being a theater artist there is that first of all, it's so affordable. In New York City, there's a ton of quality work, but the struggle becomes about surviving New York itself. To me, there's very little struggle to surviving Chicago, so I get to channel that struggle into the type of work I'm trying to do and the kind of story I'm trying to tell. I don't have to think about, "How am I going to pay $3,000 in rent this month?" It's just a much more stable environment in which to work. And I think the cost of producing is significantly lower, that you can have all these young companies that Chicago has that can premiere all different kinds of work—and sometimes fail at presenting that work—without experiencing too much loss for it. And even the critical community is, I think, an extremely democratic critical community. The Chicago Tribune will cover both "fringe" stuff and shows at Steppenwolf without knocking one for not being the other. It doesn't matter what at what venue a show is produced or how much money is behind it, they're going to give it a fair shake. That's something I really respect.
How did you get started as a playwright, by the way?
Oh, I kinda think I always was. I went to a public high school that had a great theater program. And ever year there was a student-written, one-act festival, so I started having plays produced in that festival when I was 15. And then there was a local Cleveland theater called Dobama Theatre, and I was lucky enough to participate in a couple of workshops there, sort of year-long workshops with a mix of high-school students and adults, that ended up with my plays being produced. So I was really lucky that from a young age, not only was I writing but I was seeing my work produced.
That reminds me—you workshopped one of your plays, Two Lakes, Two Rivers, at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford last summer. What was that like?
Amazing. The way it works up there is, you are actively working on your play for a week, but the writers are all in residence for the entire month. So the sense of camaraderie that you get from being around all your peers, working on all these very different types of plays . . . while the actors are coming through, the directors, the dramaturgs . . . it's just a really wonderful environment to do the work. And that was another situation where I was working with a director, Henry Wishcamper, who was really wonderful, and a really dynamite cast. It was just the ideal situation in which to work, and I think writers are always looking for that.
As someone who has been in the O'Neill audience several times during the Playwrights Conference, I can attest that you actually feel "closer" to the plays there than anywhere else.
Oh, completely. It's a slightly protected environment, and I was lucky that my play was staged in the Edith, the outdoor lawn space between the big beech trees. So just atmospherically, it really enhanced the text as well. And it's great to come away from a workshop and say, "I learned so much about the story and I think I made so many smart changes" or "It reinforced things that I already knew were strong."
What kind of theater excites you?
Oh, man, it really depends. The way that I tend to write plays is that I can know a story for quite a while, but until I know the sort of structural package that it lives in, I'm not going to make any progress on it. The structure is equally as important as the story, in my mind. So I really love plays that do really strange and bold things with structure. But I also really like . . . when I saw the Chicago production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is on Broadway now, I just thought that was phenomenal, and I loved the original production of Good People, too. So you have these two very realistic, classically well-made plays, and I thought they were just wonderful as well.
Do you think you have a signature as a playwright? What makes a play a Laura Jacqmin play?
That's an interesting question; Eric Ting might be better able to answer that! I think what I try to do with every play is tell a completely different story and put it in a completely different package. I feel very strongly about punctuation; the way the text looks on the page is the way I feel it needs to be delivered. So in my plays, the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, or a period and a comma, that's very imporatnt to me, and that i think is a hallmark of all of my work. Apart from that, I don't know!
What about the themes you focus on? Is there a pattern in what you've written about?
Coming out of graduate school, a lot of my plays concerned how difficult it is to do a genuinely good thing—the sacrifices that being "good" require of us. I haven't noticed any particular connecting thread in my last few plays. But maybe in a few years, I'll be saying, "Oh, these plays were all about this."
So, now that you're back in New Haven, are you getting a chance to do some of the same things you did while a Yale student?
To tell you the truth, it's been very busy so far. I have been working out a lot, which is great, especially given the theme of the show. And it's great to just walk around campus again. Things used to seem so much farther away when I was an undergrad. I used to think, "It's going to take forever for me to walk from this place to this place," and now I can do it in six minutes. So scale-wise, things do feel a little bit smaller. And what's great about this cast is, we hang out together so much outside of rehearsal. So I've taken them to The Anchor, which was my favorite bar when I was an undergrad, we go to The Study a lot, we were all at Rudy's last night. So they're sort of slowly but surely learning about different parts of New Haven, which is really fun.Q&A Exclusive: Laura Jacqmin