Five Questions for Jonathan Wei
Name: Jonathan Wei
Title: Executive Director / Writer and Producer
Organization: The Telling Project
1.) Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I grew up in college towns in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Minnesota and New Hampshire. My father was a librarian, which explains none of this itinerancy, but he was also the son of a diplomat and a refugee of the Communist revolution in China, which might have had something to do with this restlessness. After leaving home for college, I tried very hard to make myself a stationary person in Portland, OR, but the rain and grayness endemic to that region eventually chased me away. My wife and I ended up in Austin out of sheer impetuous luck. We came here in 2006 for a conference, had a great time with some friends who lived here, and decided we’d move here when she was finished with graduate school. Coincidentally, the lifestyle of Austin turned out to be not dissimilar to the lifestyle one leads at a conference, ie, highly social, drinkable and somewhat frenetic in a laidback way, if that makes any sense. We couldn’t possibly have known this, and that’s where the luck comes in. I would never have conceived of myself as a Texan, but when the plane starts to make its descent into Austin International, no matter where I’ve been, my heart jumps a little. I’ve never felt this anywhere else.
2) Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
I’m not sure I can name a single work of art that was/is most important. As a fiction writer and playwright, I am still more guided by my musical sensibility than anything else. I was a musician first, a guitar and bass player, and though I was never particularly great at it, it is still how I think. I am intuitive as regards things like structure, pacing and language; meaning is, of course, important, but it’s more of an after-thought, something that will follow if I get the music right.
3.) What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
I wish I could surf. Surfers are just cooler. I wish I could play the piano – the composer’s instrument. I wish I could fly without anxiety. Hit a 120 mile an hour serve. Mostly I wish I could surf, but the Texas hill country is no place to learn.
4.) What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.
My job is, in the simplest terms, interviewing military veterans, and then turning those interviews into plays, which the veterans themselves then perform. We give them performance training and direction and the opportunity to stand in front of their communities and speak, in undiluted terms, about their service. A normal day with The Telling Project involves any number of things: at home, it involves a lot of e-mailing and phone calls, watching and transcribing interviews, scripting, editing video, writing press releases, publishing clips to the web; on the road, it’s meetings, interviewing veterans, shooting rehearsals and performances, organizing all of the various constituents involved in staging a production, making sure everyone knows and has what they need. When it comes down to it, I couldn’t ask for more interesting or fulfilling work. I also write fiction, which I squeeze in somewhere between all of the above.
5.) Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?
There have been long periods of my life when I have had to make the choice between art and work on a daily basis – and though it depended on the day, most often I had to “choose” work. Or accept that it was inevitable, necessary and ultimately a matter of survival. The truth is, however, that the distinction for me is somewhat specious. Work is a part of life for most of us, artists and otherwise – and we’re better for it. It may not be fun or creative much of the time, but art can’t be the province of the few of us who are lucky enough to pay our bills with it, or those of us who have enough to pay our bills without working. Art is one of the ways in which a civilization, a people, a society reflects upon itself. As such, the broader the spectrum of experience that artists bring to their work, the better off a society is. Work engenders empathy across differences in politics, religion, social status and other barriers in a way that nothing else does – this is one of the very interesting things about working with military veterans. The uniform belies (and, arguably, allows for) what is one of the only truly multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-class, multi-gender cross-sections in our society. We can speculate endlessly on how someone else lives, but working side-by-side can allow us to actually know him or her in a way that few other things can. For me, the banality of tasks turns me toward the person(s) next to me. My art is better for this.
Jonathan Wei is the Executive Director / Writer and Producer of The Telling Project. You can read reviews and analysis of his work with The Oregonian, OPB, and Inside Higher Ed.
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