Monday, August 31, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 46: Julia Jordan

Julia Jordan

Hometown: Mostly St. Paul Minn. But we moved around a lot. England and back.

Current Town: Just above the Bronx, Fleetwood, NY

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on two musicals. One is about the closing of the N. Orleans red light district just as we were entering WWI, with a hopefully juicy melodramatic story... One is an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first published story, BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR. It's set in the same time period. I'm not sure why I keep going back to the turn of the last century. It's my favorite short story ever, bar none. And I'm working on a film version of my last produced play, DARK YELLOW. The film however is called TELL ME SOMETHING I DON"T KNOW which is a vastly better title. And it has become a very different narrative.

Q: According to Wikipedia, you were a painter, CNN copywriter and actor before you started writing for the stage. How did you become a playwright?

A: I was a mediocre to bad painter, a mediocre to bad actress, and a mediocre to bad journalist. I just kept trying things. I always tell my students that it's almost more important to know where you talents do not lie. I turned to writing while in acting school at the Neighborhood Playhouse. They had us write personal monologues to perform. I just didn't feel comfortable letting my personal demons out or spilling any deep dark secrets in that venue, so I made one up. Went over gangbusters. Made my teacher cry. I enjoyed it immensely.

Q: You've also done some film and TV. Can you talk a little about what that was like?

A: Didn't love the TV writing. But that was probably more to do with the shows I worked on. I'm really enjoying this film script, but its kind of an ideal situation. The director and I are completely in tune and our producer has worked on some of my favorite films so I trust him completely. Plus, he loves theater, and he was a jeopardy contestant, so I know he's smart.

Q: How does musical book writing compare to playwriting?

A: Musical bookwriting is more concrete. You have to be crystal clear about who is doing what when and why. Music is many things but it is better at expanding a moment than progressing the plot. That said, when in the hands of certain composers and lyricists it can be done beautifully. I adore plot. I think it's the hardest thing to do well and the most delicious. Plot with music, double delicious.

Q: Why do you think there aren't as many women as men being produced on American stages?

 A: Okay so here's the deal. We can prove bias is at work. It's been proven over and over and over again in many different fields. When respondents believe work, or a resume, belongs to a male they rate it higher, are more likely to produce or hire than when they believe it to belong to a woman. Men and women both hold this bias, though possibly, I think probably for different reasons. In Emily Sands' study of theater, she only found bias by women. This doesn't mean that she found that men don't hold bias. Not finding something means little to nothing in economics. You can't prove a null hypothesis. Bias is easy to hide. Finding something however means that there is AT LEAST as much as was found. What Emily found was that the female respondents rated scripts purportedly by women as having overall lower value, but it was entirely due to their belief that others would discriminate against the work. They rated the artistic excellence the same whether they thought the script was written by a man or woman. They thought however that audiences wouldn't buy tickets, that awards committees wouldn't honor the work and that the theater would suffer financially if they produced scripts by women (and specifically scripts they thought were by women that had female protagonists) so ultimately they said that though they would like to produce them they would not. This has been entirely missed in the media... They reported women hate women. So there's bias, and then there is discouragement. Just as in all cases of discrimination, whenever the possibility of making a living is lessened you will have fewer people going in to a profession, and those already in will be more likely to leave or to stay in only part time. So fewer women become writers, fewer are able to find representation (agents know they don't make as much money) fewer are produced, fewer find work in TV and Film (the numbers in hollywood appear to be worse that theater and have taken a dip in recent years.) So for more women than men, writing becomes something on the side or is given up completely. As much as we seem to love the idea that the truly talented write no matter what, I find it hard to believe. Economics plays a huge part in everyone's lives. Only so many folks have trust funds. We need health insurance and roofs and food. And even for those who are independent of these concerns, writing plays that never get produced is obviously discouraging and... pointless. Its hard for anyone to be a playwright. But it's easier if you are male. So it's a vicious circle. The theaters are getting fewer scripts from women, and they are producing even fewer, and of the ones they do produce, they are usually off on the second stages without the degree of talent and names and money afforded mainstage work. The bar is set higher for women's work. And the proof of that is in the simple fact that though less that 20 percent of the productions are by women, around 40 percent of the most successful plays in the past ten years were by women. Basically there are two choices, women are vastly better playwrights than men OR only the best women are being produced and the men's average is being dragged down by lesser works by men. I don't think men or women are inherently more talented by virtue of their gender. There are just way too many excellent male writers out there and thru history. All this bias is largely unconscious and maybe a bit willfully misunderstood. There is comfort in stasis. And a lot less work involved. A lot fewer scripts to read. So there's my two cents and then some. I find the whole thing endlessly fascinating.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: What kind of theater do I like? I like plot. And I love a little political intrigue. And a good fight. And bad language. Martin McDonagh is a huge favorite. And a guy.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Advice... Send out your plays yourself. Move to Chicago, LA or New York. I think being present is an even bigger factor than gender in whether or not you get produced. Know what kind of theater you hate and address it in your work. When you are young, go ahead and be reactionary. It's not the time to emulate, its the time to create something new, something else.


joshcon80 said...

Julia, I am OBSESSED with "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" and have wanted to adapt is for so long. I'm glad somebody is finally doing it. Really, all the stories in "Flappers and Philosophers" should be adapted for the stage. They're all beautiful.

Thomas Garvey said...

This isn't so much an interview as it is an advertisement. Here are some follow-up's you might have asked Julia, Adam:

Q: Given that the Sands study found no evidence for your claims of male sexism in theatre, one might expect you to revise or adjust your opinions on the subject. Yet you seem to be digging in your heels. Indeed, you insist that not finding evidence for your assertions "means little or nothing." So I'm curious - what sort of evidence could dissuade you from your current beliefs? Would anything less than exact parity between men and women in terms of theatrical production (which is nearly what Sands found anyway, outside of Broadway) do the trick?

Q: And as a follow-up, I'm wondering if you're concerned about the widespread perception that your advocacy of women playwrights is also an indirect form of self-promotion. If more female playwrights reached Broadway, but you weren't one of them, would there be a new socio-economic explanation for that gap?

Q: Do you worry that your "sponsorship" of Sands might have compromised the objectivity she should have had as a researcher? In particular, I find it odd that she called you in the middle of the night (according to NPR) when the results of her survey didn't work out as planned, and I even wonder if pressure from you might have influenced her decision to fudge her data in her final chapter. Many people feel that Sands wouldn't have made the erroneous statements she's on record as having made without some sort of pressure coming from someone. Can you assure us that you didn't pressure her in that way?

Q: And btw - did you understand the statistical issues in Sands's paper? And if so, did you ignore them on purpose? And if so, why?

Q) I'm also confused byt he strange contradiction between two of your contentions. On the one hand, you say that female artistic directors believe "that audiences wouldn't buy tickets [to plays by women] . . . and that the theater would suffer financially if they produced scripts by women." Yet at the same time you declare that it's a "simple fact that though less that 20% of the productions are by women, around 40% of the most successful plays in the past ten years were by women." Why are female artistic directors unaware of this "simple fact" (because it would allay any fears about the financial success of plays by women)? Also, could you cite a source for that statistic?

Q: I also wonder about your implied contention that the quality of a play can be judged by its box office. For example, you state that the statistic above could be evidence that women are "vastly better playwrights than men." But this kind of thinking should be problematic, it seems to me, for anyone fighting prejudice of any kind. If, for example, plays by women were indeed not selling as well as those by men (but were of equal quality), wouldn't your seeming position be an argument for keeping that bigotry in place, as long as it sold tickets?

Q: Finally, I'm wondering how you parse the interesting issue of artistic quality vs. political equity. Do political values trump artistic values for you, at least as far as your own gender is concerned? For instance, if a male and a female playwright were both in contention for a single production spot, and the man's script happened to be of higher quality, would you advocate producing the lesser play anyway, for political reasons? And just to push this hypothetical a bit further, if the male playwright were African-American, would you still feel the same way? Just wondering.

Ian Thal said...

Thomas raises a good point, that the sort of pressure Jordan appears to have placed on Sands to make conclusions not supported by Sands own research, does harm Sands' credibility as a researcher at the beginning of what might otherwise be a promising career.

Jordan is free to promote her own opinions of "what is really going on" but putting a young protégé's future prospects in jeopardy because over an ideological point is highly unethical. said...

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