Five ( + one) Questions for Julia May Jonas, from an email interview given by Caroline Prugh, about the production NO ONE IS EXCUSED FROM THE TROUBLE OF LIVING, premiering this Friday-Sunday, March 25-27 in the Schapiro Theater.
CP: The multi-generational (and multi-species) spread of this play is epic in scope. Where did this story begin for you? Did you find yourself favoring one particular story line or character while writing it or were you heroically impartial and loved all equally?
JMJ: I have a reductive and story-driven mind that I’m always trying to trick myself out of in the hopes that I will come up with something more interesting than my first instinct. Working with that, when I started out on NOIEFTTOL I started with a. the title and b. the goal to write about nothing – in order to resist the urge to “clamp down” on a story, character, or dynamic. So various situations and scenes started accruing with no preferential treatment, really. That said, the character of Ryan certainly is my “sane woman in an insane world,” (even though I don’t think the world is that insane) and so, story-wise, I think we track her the most. At the same time, I love every character and storyline, and wish I could make a Mahabarata-esque theatrical event with them – so that we could drift in and out of a theater for 24 hours watching all the characters explored in detail. Brecht wanted theater in which one could smoke, I want theater in which one could take a lunch break.
But more to your question, this piece was fun to write because I could explore different sides of my voice/self in the variety of characters and realms based on what I felt like writing that day. I wrote the Nutria, for example, when my now fiancé then-boyfriend and I were moving in together. We were living amongst boxes like little burrowing animals in a tunnel of chaos. We were emotional, irrational, stripped of any sense of order, and ruled by our need for food, drink and mutual reassurance. Sometimes life is a beautiful sunset, sometimes life is a pile of shit you have to deal with. I hope the vastness of the play touches that, at least a little bit.
CP: You’ve divided the world of No One is Excused… into various realms. What inspired you to take this approach for this play?
JMJ: I took the title from a Buddhist text and so I wanted to use the system of Buddhist realms as a structural device. I won’t go into descriptions, but if anyone is interested in researching for their own edification, the realms I used are: The God Realm, The Jealous God Realm, The Human Realm, The Animal Realm, The Hungry Ghost Realm and the Hell Realm. I find the Buddhist realms fascinating because they function both as ways of describing the world as it exists as well as ways of describing different states that we go through as human beings (i.e. fighting in a war might be considered living in the hell realm). Also, it is said that the most privileged realm to exist in is the Human Realm, because there is the right balance of suffering and joy to study the nature of mind, and therefore attain enlightenment, which I think is nice, and informs the journeys of all the characters.
CP: You indicate that if the casting isn’t age appropriate that you would encourage that the production “should point to this fact rather than attempt to hide it.” Could you elaborate on what this has meant for this particular production?
JMJ: For this production we made a firm decision even before casting that we would work with talented actors in their 20s and 30s rather than attempt to find 3 actors over the act of 50 and 2 over the age of 70. Shannon Fillion (the fantastic director) and I have come up with all sorts of tricks that point to the fact that we’re having actors play the “idea” of a grandfather or grandmother rather than the real thing. I would go into more detail, but some of it is kind of surprising and fun to see, so I don’t want to ruin it.
CP: You use music in various ways throughout in this play. How would you describe its function in the world of No One Is Excused…?
JMJ: My mother was a concert organist/elementary school music teacher and I think music is interwoven into my narrative psyche. To entertain ourselves on long car rides she and I will start singing about everything we see or comes to our mind. This can go on for hours. What I’m trying to say is that music seems a natural, non-specialized form of communication for me, and in the writing of stuff it just tends to come out. In terms of its function, I will also say I’m a little bit of a show-biz hack, and I use song when I think we need some fun formal stuff or a rhythmic or tonal change. NOIEFFTOL is actually the least musical piece of staged theater I have ever created (although I have never made a classic “musical’). I guess when I make work I kind of feel like, “hey, we’re in a theater! Everyone knows this is not real life! Let’s do some singing! Why the hell not!” Lastly – philosophically I like chunky work with rough, weird edges that stick out all over the place like cowlicks on an otherwise orderly head of hair. Can I say that in NOIEFTTOL, the music is kind of like a cowlick? I guess I just did.
CP: I’d never heard of box hockey before No One Is Excused…, have you played? If so, do you have any memorable victories?
Dude I have most definitely played. But I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it. Box hockey is an invented game that is particular to one side of my family – the reason I wanted to include it in the play is that I find it to be really energetically thrilling to watch. Now, I am a herb-ish writer, so I have actually never won a game against anyone in my otherwise Amazonian and athletically-gifted family (seriously they are intense) but I do pride myself on providing amusing play-by-play commentary that makes my brother laugh, if no one else.
CP: As a bonus question, I’d like to throw back a question you asked me about my play Estate since I had a great time grappling with it – The action of No One Is Excused… centers itself around a family, the touchstone of American (possibly all) drama. What responsibility does a playwright have, if any, when writing about the family, given its high profile in American drama?
JMJ: Ha. Well I think the responsibility a playwright has, whether writing about family or not, is to be specific, clear, personal (not necessarily autobiographical, but personal) and committed. I think when writing about family, the touchstone of American drama, that responsibility increases exponentially. However I don’t know if it’s because I’m just socialized, but I don’t think it’s very possible to write drama without writing, in some way, about family – either in its absence or presence – even if the family is a “created one.” Plays are little societies, families are little societies and the exploration of one generally tends to shed light on the other.