Jordan, Jordan Everywhere
With Tatjana in Color now at the Culture Project and three other plays on the boards in NYC this season, Julia Jordan has arrived.
Tatjana tells the story of the renowned painter Egon Schiele, who liked to draw little girls with their stockings -- and sometimes knickers -- down, and his unconventional friendship with 12-year-old Tatjana von Mossig. The whole thing was a bit too bohemian for 1912 Vienna and for Tatjana's naval officer papa: After the girl was discovered in Schiele's studio one night, he was brought to trial and convicted of corrupting innocence.
Over the summer, Jordan's St. Scarlet, a dark romantic comedy, premiered at The Ontological, and her children's play Summer of the Swans delighted both kids and adults at the Lucille Lortel. She also has a production of her brand new play Boy -- which was short-listed for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award -- upcoming at Primary Stages this spring. I caught up with Jordan in NoHo just prior to a performance of Tatjana.
THEATERMANIA: I read that you originally came to New York with an interest in the visual arts. Was the work of Egon Schiele the jumping off point for Tatjana in Color?
JULIA JORDAN: A friend of mine is a filmmaker and he was interested in doing a film on Schiele -- basically, on Schiele's life -- so he asked me to look at a book of his paintings and prints. I read the liner notes [of the book] and it just seemed to me that Schiele's life was fascinating. It's sort of an archetypal story: Live fast, die young. Then I read that Tatjana von Mossig refused to testify against him, and I said, "Wow!" That's kind of a big deal, for a 12 year old to stand up and say no, and I was curious as to why. That was really my way in. Schiele didn't actually paint Tatjana; he didn't have time to. But he painted other girls.
TM: Did he sketch Tatjana?
JJ: No time. She was at his studio for one night. She didn't go home, so the father got worried and figured it out. Schiele was convicted not because Tatjana ever took off her clothes -- that's just in my play -- but because she saw his paintings.
TM: So you created this whole relationship at the studio between Tatjana, Schiele, and the woman who was his model and lover, Wally.
JJ: That's really my point. Wally was such a fascinating character in real life. And to a 12-year-old...I think Tatjana's as much in love with Wally as she is with Egon but maybe doesn't identify with it. And to be Wally is to have Egon. Wally is fascinating; she had been a model for Klimt and a bunch of other people, so she was more established as a personality in the art scene than Schiele was. She was probably his entrée into a lot of that world. They did stay together for a while after he married; then he died and she lived on, as far as we know.
TM: I think it's interesting that your play has the subtitle "The Trial of Egon Schiele," because I felt like Schiele really isn't being judged in the play. Was that a result of telling the story through Tatjana's eyes or, maybe, a playwright's decision not to judge her characters?
JJ: I think it was mostly that I was writing through her eyes, so I was more interested in Tatjana. While I was writing, I had to make some decisions as to what happened and whether or not I was going to portray it, but it's just what I made up. Maybe Schiele really did rape her but, in my play, I think he's careless. It's not that he doesn't care about her, it's that he doesn't care enough. He cares more about himself.TM: You write a lot of young characters, and your play Summer of the Swans is a children's show. Do you approach writing for children differently?
JJ: I don't write more simply but I try to be really, really, really clear when writing children's shows. The storytelling is a little simpler -- not because they can't follow it but because you only have 45 minutes. The scenes between the sisters in Tatjana could totally play for children; they'd love it because they love anything with "naked" and "underwear." Just throw in underwear and they go crazy!
TM: What is it about writing child characters that attracts you?
JJ: I like the contrast, for one thing. And they're fun to play with because there's almost nothing a kid says that can't be taken as a metaphor. When Tatjana's sister goes on about how she wants to be the queen of the mice and live in this beautiful world, that's basically what Tatjana has been experiencing at Egon's studio but in kid terms.
TM: I noticed that Kate Wetherhead, who plays Tatjana, was also in Summer of the Swans.
JJ: ...and in Sarah, Plain and Tall [Jordan's earlier children's show].
TM: So you love her.
JJ: I do. I love her. She's warm and smart and appealing and real.
TM: I assume that your new play, Boy, is about a boy?
JJ: There's an 18-year-old boy in it and everyone else is older. There's a couple in their 60s and another couple in their mid-30s.
TM: Much has been written about how boys mature differently than girls. Is that something that you had to take into account when you were writing Boy?
JJ: Well, there's actually a lot of me in the character. I purposely changed the gender. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine and he was, like, "Your plays aren't getting produced; you should switch the gender and you'll have a better shot."
TM: Do you think that was the case in this situation?
TM: Is it just that people more interested in the story of an adolescent boy?
JJ: I think it's more appealing to producers because so many producers are male, but it might also be that I'm a better writer now. There was interest in the play from the minute I wrote it.
TM: What's the plot?
JJ: Well, basically, this boy comes from Iowa to the Twin Cities and he's got this really horrific event in his past. It's all about the reveals, so I really can't tell you much more than that.
TM: It must be wonderful for you to have all of these productions at once. How did it all come about?JJ: Everything happened separately; none of the people involved knew each other or knew that other things were happening, so I think most of it was just luck. The plays have been kicking around long enough that they just finally found their homes. I did go through eight or ten years of nothing, so part of me is like, "Thank God!" But part of me is like, "There aren't enough productions to go around for women playwrights." It seems to take us so much longer. I was thinking about the Susan Smith Blackburn Award [given each year for the best play written by a woman]. It's a huge award and the people on the panel that choose it are big, commercial people, but the play that wins very often doesn't get produced. I just think that's amazing; they should be fighting over that play! That's my little soapbox.
TM: One of my favorite things about Tatjana is that it contains several wordless scenes. Did you feel that this piece particularly lent itself to that type of theatricality, or is it something that's emblematic of your work in general?
JJ: It's not emblematic of my work. At the time, I had just seen a play in Russian at BAM, and then I saw Hamlet in Swedish. I was sort of thrilled by how much I got knowing none of the words. So I started writing these little, short, silent plays, one of which I made into a short film later on. I realized that I could get so much done so quickly and not have them talk. You can avoid the exposition problem and it's sort of beautiful. Also, Jesse -- the guy who asked me to look at Schiele to begin with -- had originally said "screenplay," so I tried to think visually.
TM: Did you ever write a screen version of the piece?
JJ: No, but I'd really love to. I'd love to show Vienna.
TM: It was such a hyper-sexual place and time. Did you see Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus?
JJ: I did. But, was it, really? Or was it just more talked about because of Freud?
TM: Maybe it's simply our modern-day perception, based on the art that was produced.
JJ: I think that's it. Sex was spoken about, written about, painted about. There was, apparently, a vibrant red-light district there. But it was important to me for Tatjana to be normal and for her dad to be right, because if it were my kid -- I don't think so!
TM: When does Boy go into rehearsal?
JJ: In March. I'm excited about that.
TM: And what are you working on now?
JJ: I'm almost done with a new play and I'm doing two kids' shows. One of them is going to have a song in it. My brother is writing the lyrics -- he's a poet -- and Duncan Sheik is going to write the music. So that'll be fun!