“Eternal, huge, big, human” Julia May Jonas on expanding the canon

In March 2023, just after Studio programmed Problems Between Sisters, Studio Theatre Literary Director, Adrien-Alice Hansel, had a conversation with playwright Julia May Jonas about sisters, Sam Shepard, and her canon-tweaking ALTAS project. The following are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

Julia on Sam Shepard:

There are so many things about Sam Shepard that are interesting, reasons I wanted to talk about him. The first is a chance to connect to a kind of primal—or I'm trying to think of another word for the primal, but this this idea of this kind of like essential life force, essential violence, essential animalistic drive that exists inside of humans—I think for Shepard it was mostly male humans. So, thinking about that drive as a kind of scary and interesting project, and then thinking about it with women, whom I feel don’t often get to embody that energy. It’s a project that felt kind of spiritual and essential. 

So True West was appealing to me because it felt like Shepard’s most clear explication of that desire to find that thing out—that survival instinct.  

I think I made the sisters pregnant to get at that survival instinct in a way that tracks onto women’s bodies. I’m revisiting my thought process about this, but we see that survival instinct in females as mothers—that’s something we see—but I wanted to see that as a kind of essential existential experience. That was really what attracted me to True West

Also, Sam Shepard is also one of those very muscular playwrights who also appeals to a wide swath of people. People love Shepard because he’s poetic and surrealistic. He has such a wide appeal. And because he’s so appealing it felt particularly essential to look at in some way inside of this project. 

Julia's ALTAS Project

When I first conceived this project I did a pretty cursory thing—I went to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland—which is so immense and wonderful—and I went to the drama section. And they didn’t have any plays written after Sam Shepard. That's wild. They had Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, O'Neill…and that was kind of the extent of their drama section. I was struck at the time that these writers aren’t actually American Theater but they do comprise a kind of idea about American theater. 

Aristotle has that thing where he says, “If you’re going to be in a play you should probably be a king,” like: Structurally. A play needs to be about a king. Probably not so good if it’s about a woman, and definitely not a slave.  

Otherwise how am I going to feel that fundamental sense that “there but for the grace of God go I” unless there’s a man, a king, in this role? So it’s interesting to think about the factors of socialization that go into particular characters when you’re thinking about remaking these plays. Both of the sisters in Problems Between Sisters have interpreted these socialized things in different ways.

The Sisters and their Problems

The sisters are also dealing with what they owe each other—what they feel they owe each other, what they assume about their connections, and what their connections actually are. I’m obsessed with the idea of really growing up in two families, or with parents who are in really different phases of being a parent. There’s a big age gap between my two kids and I’m in a very different place now than I was when my daughter was my son’s age, and I am constantly noticing just how different a parent I am now, thinking about my daughter’s experience of what it was like to grow up with us isn’t going to be the same as my sons. But you can’t control the way time works.  

So I wanted to think about how different two people socialized within versions of the same family can be. I think there’s something really resonant about that—especially in this culture when it comes to brothers. Obviously, it’s the set-up for True West

As I was working on the piece, I ended up becoming interested in how catharsis could be possible in the play—it’s part of why I made them pregnant as well. It was a way to underline a kind of fundamental interconnectedness between women that feels dramatically different than the way men are represented. Like with Raymond Chandler it’s more, “down these mean streets men must walk.” Men share a kind of loneliness, a kind of solitude. Women in solitude are almost always represented as quirky.  

True West is about these two loners, who are acting onto themselves. And it gets stickier when you put women into those roles—acting for yourself is stickier when you’re a woman. It’s an idea I find appealing and also find kind of impossible. 

Adrien-Alice Hansel: And especially in pregnancy, right? Once you’re publicly a pregnant body you’re not a loner. When I was pregnant I felt like I was a very public figure. 

Julia May Jonas: Yes. There's really a sense of being exposed, and people will feel really differently depending on how much they want to feel exposed.  

I was also interested in thinking about visual art and the art world in a different way than Shepard’s screenwriting plot. I mean obviously I just wanted to translate it, but I also really wanted to think about the art world, what it’s like for Jess to be struggling to be an artist—not in a sexy way but just in a boring “you just have to keep making things and hoping you get better, or hit on something, but that might never actually happen.” And then you’ve got Rory who just has a more raw relationship to life—like Lee in True West—and people are attracted to that rawness. Which is so unfair.  

The Question of Artists Who are Women

Adrien-Alice Hansel:  Do feel like you engage with the question of Being a Female Artist or the question of What Art Do Women Make? I see these questions in the play—Jess is so aware of her impending parenthood and how it will change her time. But do you think at all about how it changes one’s art? 

Julia May Jonas: Yeah, it’s interesting. This project is an extremely feminist project and I feel very feminist doing it. And yet, at the same time, I came of an age when the art question I was struggling with was how to be a writer, not a female writer. It’s hard for me to navigate people being interested in the “female writer” of me. 

ALH: I was trying to get at something for your characters, but I’m happy for you to tell me to find a more interesting question.  

JMJ: No, it IS an interesting question; there’s no judgment. That viewpoint is connected with the project—these canonical plays but with different protagonists and then everything that involves. I guess I’m interested in the assumptions of these writers that there is an “everyman” role. Because that’s how those plays were presented to me: They’re about Good and Evil. They’re about Big Humanitarian Themes. So that’s why I appreciated some of them and loved some of them. I didn’t really know enough to not love them until much later. So the project for me is really finding a way to cast a woman in that role and still have it feel eternal, huge, big, human and not so specific to femininity that you don’t see the bigness in there. That is a huge question for me. In Vladimir I wanted to see if you could switch the gaze—can my narrator desire? Can she connect to an authentic sense of desire without putting in there that she herself is being desired? Can she gaze and not be gazed on? 

In terms of being a female writer, I often feel like I’m not polite and reserved. I want. I feel. When people are like, “That person’s an Art Monster,” I’m like yeah, I’m an art monster, but I don’t feel like my life is compromising my work in some way. So if someone’s putting me in the role of the Female Writer, I don’t care. I’m doing my thing; I have a different project for myself. 

It’s not that you can’t ask the question about the project—that’s what the project is. But for me, the question was more: “What would these stories look like on my team?”