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Jul 19, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 214: Deborah Yarchun

Deborah Yarchun

Hometown: Austin, TX.

Current Town: Harlem, NYC until July 28th then Iowa City.

Q: Tell me please about Next Year in Jerusalem.

A: Next Year in Jerusalem is an intimate two-hander that actually works far better in an immersive space like a café or bar than on a stage. We’ve been describing it on our facebook page as “A site-specific, anti-romantic one-act play in three cerebral battles.” It’s basically about two young people building up walls between each other while simultaneously trying to scale them. It starts as a dating-site date gone wrong, moves into a second attempt a year later and ends in a final confrontation. It’s sort of a comedy of neurosis. I co-produced it with my friend Kacey Stamats, a really talented hypomanic kindred spirit. She’s directing. This is our debut experiment as Rogue Theater, which is more of a theater entity and an idea than an actual company. We had two goals:
1) To produce a play in NYC for under $50 and offer it up to audiences for free.
2) To explore Next Year in Jerusalem in permutations. Meaning— we cast two different actors who both brought something different to the role of Nat. And because it’s being performed in two very different spaces—I tweaked the show to fit into each space. So, it’s actually one play and four different shows.

We held auditions in Bryant Park and rehearsed in public spaces, cafes, apartments and rooftops across NYC. On St. Marks Place we found a bar (Holiday Cocktail Lounge) and a café (The Crooked Tree) that both agreed to let us produce our show in their space. We also found a fantastic team of volunteer artists—Amanda McHugh, David Rysdahl, and Max Wolkowitz,. The whole process has been a blast. One of the best parts of this experience has been working with people who aren’t afraid to fail and who are doing this for the sheer joy of the experience.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: I’m working on once more uprooting myself as I’m about to move to Iowa City. I’ll be renting a car and driving across country on the 29th. And for the next three years, I’ll be pursuing my MFA at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. When I arrive on the 30th, it’ll be the first time I’ve ever stepped foot in Iowa in my life.

Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A: This is hardly definitive and I’m never good at telling just one story—how about one in the form of several?

As an Air Force brat, I spent three years of my childhood in Germany. We lived in a small German town in Kaiserslautern. One time my sister and I were digging for buried treasure in our neighborhood playground, which was built in a church-yard. We scratched our nails into the dirt and to our surprise, our fingers brushed against something cold and smooth. We kept digging— until we uncovered a shiny marble stone with an engraving on it. It doesn’t just happen in horror movies; our childhood playground was apparently built over a cemetery.

Behind our apartment complex, there was a large backyard with a wire fence separating us from a small farmhouse with a plum tree that reached onto our side. Plums used to fall onto our lawn, but the old farmer who owned the property, used to hand-pick us the best ones straight from the tree and hand it to us over the fence. When he passed away, we inherited a bag of walnuts.

Between kindergarten, first and second grade my parents road-tripped us across Europe through France, Spain, The Czech Republic and all across Germany where we toured subterranean salt-mines, castles and ruins. And in every friend’s home that I ever visited in Germany, I searched for secret passageways. Once, at a sleepover in the second grade, I found one. If I remember correctly, it led through a small crack in the wall in the basement into an entire other room with a door leading to the space between two brick walls that divided my friend’s home from her neighbors. When I reconnected with my friend a few years ago, she told me she had researched it and discovered her home had once been a Nazi headquarters. I’m the granddaughter of holocaust survivors.

I guess if I try to tie this together— I learned pretty early that the pursuit of the fantastical often reveals deeper darker truths. But perhaps the world is also filled with people who out of nothing more than legitimate kindness will occasionally hand-pick you a plum. It’s still mysterious to me why he left us a bag of walnuts. I like to think this Schrödinger cat type of questioning and analyzing people’s mysterious motivations pushed me towards becoming a playwright.

I also think all of these experiences sparked my imagination and an urgent wanderlust in both my life and my plays. I tend, at this point in my playwriting—to wander across styles that range from wild-lyrical worlds that demand a stage to a play like “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which is extremely naturalistic. I am not sure if I’ll ever find a place to settle, partially because each play seems to require its own aesthetic.

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A: I’m going to pick the obvious and selfish one— from an early early / almost-not-even-a- career-yet standpoint-- from standing at age 24, staring ahead, I have a lot of “holy shit, if I keep pursuing this, how am I ever going to have babies one day?” moments. It would be nice if it was easier to see how to eventually sustain oneself financially as a playwright. It would be nice to not have to have those moments where you feel like eventually you might have to pick between having your next play or one day having an actual child. It doesn’t mean it’s true. That’s obviously ridiculous. It can’t possibly be true. So many wonderful playwrights have children and one I know right now is due, but I just have no idea how they do it.

Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A: Wow. Okay. As somebody who started as a young playwright, I have a lot
of theatrical heroes. Peter Shaffer! I used to read a play each day in high school and pulling Equus off the library shelf was one of my earliest playwriting revelations. My theatrical heroes include anyone who has shaken up the way I view playwriting at some point. The short list right now: Sheila Callaghan and Jason Grote, Eisa Davis, lately Erik Ehn and the entire RAT conference concept (http://www.ratconference.com/), which I just recently discovered.

But the more personal theatrical heroes in my life:
Playwright John Walch literally rescued me in high school by standing up for me. My junior year, I won this Texas wide High-School playwriting competition and as part of the prize, my school produced my play. This would have been great, except I had this High School theater teacher, who told me “The best playwright is a dead playwright” and informed the college student who had been hired to direct it, not to let me into the rehearsal room. He really believed that playwrights have no role there. I had to hide under a blanket during rehearsals so my theater teacher wouldn’t see me, and I was terrified he would blacklist me from participating in any future productions if I was caught. I was on total edge. Fortunately, I had just become acquainted with Austin Script Works, which John Walch was helming and I timidly asked him if this was right. He wrote a 1.5 page single-spaced letter to the college student directing my play spelling out my role as a playwright and cc’d me. I still have it. It scared the crap out of the young director who immediately let me have more of a role in the production. Knowing my actual role as a playwright, really empowered me at that age.

Crystal Skillman dramaturged my play "FreezeFrame" for the 2006 Young Playwrights Festival and has remained a great friend and cheerleader ever since.

I’m sure many do for different reasons, but I consider Paula Vogel one of my theatrical heroes for this random night when I was a sophomore in college and I took a train from Philly to hear her speak at Bryn Mawr’s campus. She invited me and the last five students in line at the book signing session to sit down with her and talk about theater—Over a period of what must have been two hours, she filled my head with all kinds of crazy ideas, like self-producing instead of waiting for somebody to produce your play for you. I’m sure this didn’t start with her, but at the time- she was the messenger.

And I consider Todd London my theatrical hero because in the time that I interned for him at New Dramatist and have subsequently worked as his research assistant, I’ve learned an enormous amount about the way our theater currently ticks just from witnessing his day to day playwright activism. Also, the project I’ve been helping out on is about the founding visions of influential theaters across American history, and working on it has really brought to light all the potholes in my contemporary theatre history knowledge. It also made me realize that at some point, for every major theater company—somebody once sat down and dreamed it up.

My theatrical heroes are also anyone who I have read or seen who has inspired something in my own work—anything from a new concept of structure, to inventing an entirely new language on the stage. I have spent a lot of time in NYC and Philadelphia seeing readings and productions of new plays; I’d be really embarrassed to even begin listing out the bulk of my theatrical heroes, I will inevitably miss somebody, and there are just too many.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: Theater that makes you feel like everything in the theater is about to explode or collapse around you. Theater that punches you in the gut or, even better, in a place that you didn’t even know existed in yourself. I guess, theater that leaves you with a feeling you don’t understand and in a way that you don’t know what actually hit you. That’s vague—but the theater that excites me, excites me for reasons that I am still trying to pinpoint. Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More,” which I saw through A.R.T, Dan Dietz “TempOdyssey” which I saw back in the day at Salvage Vanguard Theater, “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage and reading Sarah Hammond’s “Green Girl” and “Hum of the Arctic” and Gregory Moss’s “PunkPlay.” Lucy Thurber’s “Scarcity.” Most of Greg Romero’s plays I’ve seen. The list pretty much continues and continues and continues…You would think this effect would be impossible, but I find a lot of plays excite me this way. I think this a really promising time for the theater.

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

A: That’s funny because I consider myself really just starting out. This is possibly too specific, but if somebody wanted to take my fun and somewhat circuitous route to starting out:

Read a lot of plays, particularly contemporary plays. And if you haven’t yet-- don’t forget to read the major playwrights: Christopher Durang, David Henry Hwang, Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Paula Vogel, Peter Shaffer, Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill, August Wilson, etc…there are actually a hell of a lot of them…It’ll shock you how many of them there are. Keep going. Or at least, read a range of styles. Eventually, start to see everything as a continuous conversation. If you’re in NYC, read across the shelves at the New Dramatists library. It’s open to the public during the weekdays usually from 10-6 (hours vary in the summer). This is by no means a complete picture of the most exciting new work out there right now, but it’s a great starting point. Eventually, also read the book “Outrageous Fortune: The Life and times of the New American Play” (available from TCG). Believe if you stare at it long enough, you can begin to see it as a roadmap instead of a thousand roadblocks. If you have time, read “The American Theater Reader” (also available from TCG) from front to back. That book is like an entry point into every important issue in the American Theater in the past 25 years – at least for a relative newcomer. Intern at a theater or two, ideally as a literary assistant—it’ll give you another perspective on the field and you’ll get to evaluate a lot of plays. If you’re lucky, you’ll also realize how subjective that evaluation process actually is. See plays—usher for as many as possible, doctor your student ID if you have to, but see a lot of plays. But also don’t forget to keep writing your own. And when you’re ready to submit your plays out, don’t ever take the Dramatists Sourcebook or the Dramatists Guild Resource Directory for granted. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” – it’ll validate your playwriting obsession.

But the most direct path I’ve found so far: if something screams from your gut—don’t hesitate even for a minute to write it.

If you’re 18 and under— submit every year to the Young Playwrights Festival. Even if you lose, with every rejection, they send you a very thoughtful evaluation. Read it. It’s free feedback from professional writers who want you to succeed.

Q: Plugs, please:

A: Shameless plug for Next Year in Jerusalem (hopefully you will have
read this in time.) We have six performances. We open Monday, July 19th at 5:30 pm at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (75 St. Marks Place) and close at 3 pm on Thursday, July 22nd at the Crooked Tree Café (110 St. Marks Place). Reserve tickets at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/119014.
It’s free. No, really- free! Also, there is no ticket service charge through brownpapertickets. More information about our times and locations can be found on the site.

Also, from my one year and eight months in NYC, here are three groups  that I think are doing really exciting work:
Woodshed Collective (http://www.woodshedcollective.com/).
Heidi Handelsman’s Potluck Series is just an all around great idea.
I haven’t seen this yet, but I hope to catch anna&meredith’s production of Gormanzee and Other Stories by Anna Moench at the Flea Theater.

1 comment:

GregRomero said...

Deb-- this was a really fun read, I continue to admire your full-force commitment to your writing.

And thank you for the nice mention of my own work!

Have fun in Iowa! We will miss you on the E-Coast.