Interview with Julia May Jonas

Pictured: From left Kate Schroeder, Hannah Heller and Caitlin McDonough-Thayer. Photo by Marisa Lark Wallin

Pictured: From left Kate Schroeder, Hannah Heller and Caitlin McDonough-Thayer.
Photo by Marisa Lark Wallin

I met Julia, the directress of Nellie Tinder, somewhere around the year 2000. Since I’ve known Julia, her work has always been bold in its vision and intimate in its application: like an old bible with hand-drawn calligraphy and simple pen and ink illustrations.

The newest Nellie Tinder piece, “Emily Climbs (Machine Méchant),” will premiere April 15th – May 2nd at The Brick. In advance of this event, I was able to have a conversation with Julia for Culturebot, in which I could ask her some questions about process, instinct, and the agony and ecstasy of making plays.

At the heart of Julia’s work, there is always a serious philosophical inquiry. I mean serious only in that it never strikes me as superficial – not that it is without humor. There is always a true interrogative question that she is pursuing with dogged sincerity and focus.  In the past fifteen years, while her application and form has oscillated, this element of her work has remained constant. It is an intrinsic part of who Julia is as a person and an artist.   

I hope that in another fifteen years into our friendship, Julia will still be building pieces this way; with an autoharp in one arm and a pen in the other, fixated on the timing of how a gesture syncs up with a bit of song lyric, while she ponders a complexity in human existence.  (Maybe we can do another one of these interviews at that point.)

Here’s our conversation below.

AB:

So, here we are! You are in rehearsal for a new show, Emily Climbs.  How long have you been working on this project? I’m interested in the true life cycle of a project – from idea to performance. Can you talk through the timeline from seedling to now?

JJ:

Sure – I started developing the character of Emily Climbs about 5 years ago – in grad school – I think in response to some prompt – which is why prompts are so frigging helpful. She kind of lingered around – I wrote a secret blog for her the summer after. At the time, she was an administrative assistant who had made the decision to give up on acting, and was really happy about it. And I just really liked her character. Then about 2 years ago, (I’m so fuzzy on dates, most especially after I had Ruth {Julia’s daughter}) I was teaching this after school program at this private school. And there was this girl there, this 8 year old girl – and she was so super alpha. Like a mystical kind of alpha where you just do what she says not because she’s a bully, but more because she inspires you to believe that it’s the exact right idea at the time. And I thought, this girl is going to take over the world.

I then had the idea to put my idea of this girl who would take over the world (I made that literal, pretty much, with a character named Kathleen Jackson) and pair it with this character of Emily Climbs. Then the piece found a trajectory, and since I was able to put it in the future, I was able to work in this performance aspect of Emily Climbs being split into 3 different bodies as a result of a life-extending procedure gone wrong. This meant I could use three actors to tell a one person show, which was more interesting to me for this project than simply a solo show (although I love solo shows) and it didn’t have to be about a metaphor of “3 different aspects of the self” which kind of turned me off. So a little over a year or so later I started doing some initial staging work on it, and with that work, I was pleased, so off we went.

AB:

So these two points in the process gave you your protagonist & antagonist, in a basic sense.

JJ:

Yes. And a world that was other, which was lacking with just the character.

AB:

Is this a pretty normal timeline for you – from writing to production? Is there such a thing as normal for your projects?

JJ:

I certainly tend to take longer than I wish I did – I write a great deal, but I don’t feel inspired to make much of what I write – there has to be a certain spark that makes me want to put it on stage. And I like writing other things, and the rehearsal process depletes me, so it’s not something I want to jump into immediately. But also I had a baby one year ago, so making something new was deliberately put on hold.

AB:

Or rather – making something theatrically new was put on hold. Ruth  is a very new thing that you made!

JJ:

Well that’s a real collaboration, but yes, I was helping her to make herself by making sure she was fed and didn’t roll off the diaper-changing table.

AB:

Of course! Now when you say the rehearsal process depletes you – I totally empathize with that. Sometimes I feel bewildered like “why don’t I like rehearsals more?” because I have this idea that it should feel more invigorating to me.  And in reality, it’s only occasionally (in my experience) invigorating.

JJ:

Yes, I’ve come to the place where I realize that I have pretty much two bad rehearsals for every good one – and even though I know it, those bad rehearsals (the ones that are uninspired, full of self-doubt) still shake me. And I get very paranoid and kind of go off the rails emotionally. It’s a mess! Why do we do it?

AB:

Oh yes. That ratio sounds about right. And when you get that good one, it’s such an addictive high.

JJ:

Yes it’s fun – and feeling like you’re solving problems is so satisfying. It feels concrete, even though you’re being concrete in the most ephemeral of mediums.

AB:

Right. But do you experience that uninspired, self-doubt when you’re working away from the rehearsal room? Or can you mostly keep it at bay when you’re working alone – when you’re writing?

JJ:

I tend to like the writing if I’m working on something that I feel is not bad, or when I’m not trying to fix some problem that I know needs to be fixed but I’m unsure how to go about that. But there is a good amount of time when I am working on something that I know is bad, and then it’s torture. However, there’s this Frederick Seidel saying that I’m going to paraphrase, which is something about having to abandon your ideas about what you think is good writing. Lately I’ve been trying to let that guide me, and I’ve enjoyed it. But, of course, when you’re in a rehearsal process, just writing seems like the golden ticket to happiness, because it means you get to be alone and not spend money.

AB:

Yes! Being OK with something being bad feels like a large percentage of a process. But it’s a balance where you have to be OK with it enough to not jump off a bridge. But uncomfortable / dissatisfied with it enough that you want to keep working to make it better.

JJ:

Yes I think that’s right. I actually have a tendency to stick with things too long. I get way attached to my little turns of phrase – my little bits – and I think, “I can’t stop this because I’ll miss the moment when he puts the paper towels in the suitcase!” Then I literally spend a couple of months on a play that I don’t really like. But poor Phillip Roth would write like, 75 pages before he could see if he was interested in working on a novel.  Actually I don’t think he’s poor.

AB:

Oh man. I’m always amazed at seeing what other people will willingly throw out. And then I simultaneously beat myself up for throwing too much away. My last show had about fifty rabbit holes that had to get cut before we found the right ones.

JJ:

But I think that’s what is so strong about your work – there’s a discipline of choice.

AB:

Well, it’s also a product of my collaboration with Michael {Silverstone – the co-director of 600 HWM}. You know, sometimes we have to force one another to let go of something. It’s not always pretty. Ok, new question:  I know you once were doing a lot of Buddhism studies. Do you maintain that kind of practice now – and how so? Or do you think that informs your practice – whether alone or in rehearsal?

JJ:

Ah, Buddhism. It has been such an enormous influence on me, even as I am right now, more Buddhist-aligned than a practicing Buddhist. Before I write I do meditate for ten minutes, if only to get all the flashing email lights a little further away from my brain. I try to leave extra time before rehearsal, and I drive so that I can both bring props and sit in my car and meditate for 5-10 minutes before I walk in the rehearsal room. Content-wise, one of the most affecting philosophical tenets of Buddhism (in my experience) is the insight that there is no real fixed self. That has been enormously helpful on a day-to-day emotional level – but it also shows up in my work in that many of my themes circle around the suffering that comes from rigidity concerning self and identity.  But many aspects of Buddhist philosophy tend to pop up in little bursts throughout my work, because it’s so wise, and for me, (which I know is not the case for everyone, or even the majority of people) I am most affected when a piece of art gives me a piece of wisdom.

AB:

What kind of wisdom? How would you define wisdom?

JJ:

Oh gosh I’m not sure if I walked into something I can’t answer, but – hmm – maybe wisdom is something that expands or enriches your understanding in and of the world. In the performing arts sometime this can come from a gesture – a movement across the stage – an arrangement of bodies. Sometimes it also comes from a surprising use of language or a revelation of a relationship, or a straight-up delivery of some philosophical take on something as large as the world, or as small as the timbre of an experience. But I do like to learn from my art, even if it manifests in a non-verbal way.

AB:

Yes – this all makes sense. Wisdom is certainly a big word, a big idea – but the beauty of the form is that revelations come from small things. I had rehearsal today with a person who has to sit on the ground then they have to stand up at this particular moment. And the way he stood up got me a bit choked up, actually. It was a totally beautiful way of standing up. Not because it was particularly graceful. It was just very true. Or – oh, true feels like the wrong word. It was just very new, in a way. Like I saw the basic act of standing up in a new way. I think you’re right – that’s wisdom.

Can we talk about singing?

JJ:

Of course. But also I love that standing up anecdote.

AB:

Oh, I wish you could have seen him do it! I hope he can repeat it in performance. I didn’t comment on it at all because I’m hoping it will maintain as his natural way of getting up.

JJ:

That’s always the trick. You’re good. You have excellent restraint. I’ve seen it.

AB:

Thank you. That’s kind. Let’s talk singing!

JJ:

Singing!

AB:

Lots of singing! In Nellie Tinder shows! So, I know your mother and I know a bit about your childhood and how music (voice in particular) was a large aspect of your growing up. I’ve also been to your wedding, your baby shower, and I know how much music is a part of those (the group singing portion – when your mom passes out customized lyric sheets is always my favorite part). Do you think this is part of where your instinct for singing comes in to your work? Or am I being psychotherapy-simplistic?

JJ:

I love me some singing. Yes my mother was a big influence – she was a church organist and I grew up having to be involved in the church, but also have the church services cemented into me – the way that a church service moves back and forth from text to song. She also is very interested in getting average people to sing. She and I would entertain ourselves for hours making up songs. In my work it has just always been there. It’s communal and it’s vulnerable, and it’s a way to make music onstage without a ton of extra stuff. Really, I couldn’t imagine a piece of mine without music. I’ve written them, but those are the bad ones that I end up throwing away. I like lifting in and out of reality. I love heightened moments onstage, and I love taking characters or performers out of the pedestrian for a moment (or a while). Singing does that very easily.

AB:

Yes, singing is so vulnerable. It’s such a great way to get inside of performers. To expose them in a deeper way. It’s like it turns performers inside out. And even when there’s no singing, per se, you use metered, rhythmic speaking like music.

JJ:

Yes – there have been different reasons for the metered speaking. With For Artists Only, it was to point to the kind of wearying cliché that the characters felt they were trapped in.

AB:

Do you always know why you’re doing something? Why you’re making a formal choice?

JJ:

Definitely not. I’ll work, then I’ll find a metaphor as a container, then I’ll fit stuff within that container, then I’ll work, then I’ll expand the metaphor, etc. I do try to keep in mind a bigger picture, but I work a good deal off of instinct.

AB:

The different kinds of knowledge are so interesting – the innate, instinctual kind and then the cerebral, frontal-lobe kind. OK, a final question and it’s a cheesy one.

JJ:

I love it.

AB:

So, I’ve known you for like 15 plus years, which is crazy for me to imagine. I’ve seen all kinds of things that you’ve made over an extended period of time. What kind of advice would you give yourself 15 years ago.  And also (if possible) what kind of advice would Julia circa 2000 give to Julia 2015?

JJ:

I would give the same advice that I feel like I try to give to myself now – basically, (now this is cheesy) owning who you are – going deeper into what you like and are inspired by, and trying to shed conceptions of who you think you should be or what kind of writing or work you think you should make – that the greatest place to make art from is one that feels in touch with your authenticity: the good, the bad, the smart, the dumb, the beautiful, the ugly, the cool and the not-so-cool. Then of course, Julia circa 2000 was a wee bit more bold and able to “front”. Maybe she would say, “Be bold!, don’t be afraid to front!” I have become more allergic to boldness as I have gotten older. And I’m a complete wreck after a performance of one of my shows and should be locked in a closet –- if I don’t think the show went well then I’m dejected and I can’t hide it. If I think it did, I’m defensive and I can’t hide it. It’s an issue, and I think Julia circa 2000 would shake off that nonsense. You should answer the question, too – that will be fun.

AB:

Oof, wow. It’s actually a hard question isn’t it? I think I’d probably say something to my younger self about not worrying so much – it’s just a stupid play. And my younger self would probably say something to current me about getting off of my computer, not working all the time, going and staring at things more. And to get more exercise.

JJ:

More exercise. Always more exercise. Both my past and current would benefit strongly from such advice.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Julia May Jonas”

  1. Nancy Taylor says:

    Impressive! Thanks for sharing…so nice to learn all of that about you and your work.

  2. Christina Jonas says:

    Always interesting learning about the daughter I think I know. I can hardly wait to see Emily Climbs

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: