Two things are rare these days in that mosaic called New York theatre: the playwright whose output is liked by virtually everyone, and the playwright fortunate enough to see a new play premiered. That Julia Jordan, over the next year, will enjoy no fewer than four productions opening—and is unanimously described by her producers in near-rhapsodic terms, professionally and personally—is a feat that's practically unheard of.
Yet the story of Julia Jordan is also—and one observes this without negativity—that classic New York cliché: an artist, toiling in obscurity, suddenly gets hailed as an overnight sensation when, in truth, she's been there all along, quietly working, quietly aiming for that big break. What differentiates Jordan, then, is getting four big breaks at once.
The first of the four plays, "St. Scarlet," finishes its run at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre on July 12 in a production mounted by Women's Expressive Theater, or W.E.T. Four days later, from July 16 through Aug. 20, Theatreworks/USA will begin presenting "The Summer of the Swans," a piece geared for a young audience, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Following a short respite, Jordan's name returns to the boards (again downtown) when the Culture Project opens a commercial run of "Tatiana in Color" in September. Jordan may enjoy the winter break that follows, but it won't last: Primary Stages, in announcing a 19th-season lineup that includes new works by A.R. Gurney and Terrence McNally, will round out its slate in April and May of 2004 with Jordan's play "Boy," developed in the company's in-house writing group.
Amazingly, Jordan says, of the four productions—all of which came to light separately and without one company or producer having knowledge of another producer's plans—only one potential scheduling conflict arose. "It was a little nutty when I found out from the Culture Project that 'Tatiana' was happening at the same time as 'The Summer of the Swans,' which meant I was going to be auditioning 'Tatiana' while rehearsing 'St. Scarlet.' But then, 'Tatiana' got pushed to the fall." Not that Jordan would have done anything to jeopardize a production, that is.
"After 10 years of struggling and thinking about giving up playwriting," she explains, "I decided anyone that wants to produce my plays I'm going to say yes to." She says she reached that conclusion after enduring a bad case of writer's block—"a long, long drought," she calls it—that lasted nearly three years.
Looking at her resume, one can understand such hunger. After graduating from the Juilliard playwriting program, she received a yearlong Manhattan Theatre Club residency, won the Francesca Primus Prize for "Tatiana in Color" (and had the play anthologized in "Women Playwrights: The Best Plays of 1997"), received honorable mention from the Susan Smith Blackburn award committee in 2001, and wrote the books to two critically praised musicals ("Sarah, Plain and Tall" and the "Mice" section of the Harold Prince-produced "3hree"). Yet what she wanted most of all—New York productions—generally eluded her, with only "Sarah, Plain and Tall" rising in the scene.
"I didn't see the point of continuing if my plays wouldn't get produced," Jordan says. "After all, if you're writing for the theatre, what's the point otherwise? All along, part of me just felt the plays were good enough to be produced and I didn't understand why they weren't. I did feel I was embraced privately, if not publicly"—on that score, she credits Robyn Goodman of Manhattan Theatre Club for being a "huge champion" of her plays—but ultimately she could only continue to toil away, "surviving on small commissions and having low overhead expenses" while residing on a boat that's docked in a West Side marina, where she still lives.
Unraveling the Jordan Mystique
So just what is it about Jordan's plays that makes them appealing—and why now? Sasha Eden, an actress and co-artistic director of W.E.T., declares she's "fascinated by the individual voice" that Jordan possesses, especially her way of "speaking to women, and about women" that's alarmingly real yet simultaneously theatrical. A kind of tragicomedy, "St. Scarlet" concerns three snowbound sisters in Minnesota on the night their mother dies and as an intruder breaks in.
For contrast, consider the subject matter in "The Summer of the Swans." According to Theatreworks/USA Artistic Director Barbara Pasternack—for whom Jordan also wrote "Sarah, Plain and Tall"—the playwright "has the ability to write characters that have heart and that are also edgy—people who seem very real but are also poetic."
Theatreworks/USA, of course, is renowned for original works geared toward youth, and in that sense, Pasternack expresses amazement at the way Jordan "really got inside the head" of the teenage girl at the center of the story. "It's this moment in this girl's life when everything is horrible and miserable—her brother is mentally challenged, and she has a beautiful sister. When the brother runs away, she has to come to terms with her life, to put things into perspective. At the end, you don't feel she's going to be a prom queen, but you do feel Julia has captured this moment, this moment that's so universal in the lives of all adolescents, and in 58 minutes, that isn't an easy thing to do."
Andrew Leynse, the artistic director of Primary Stages, which will produce "Boy," echoed Pasternack's assessment of Jordan's talent, but adds it was her participation in the company's New American Writers Group that allowed him to observe her long-term writing process, as opposed to the compressed time frame of a month that Jordan had to create the Theatreworks/USA work.
"The group's primary purpose is to create a home for playwrights to work on developing new plays, and it takes place over two sessions over a year, with playwrights bringing in 10 pages a week," Leynse explains. "By the end of the sessions, most writers tend to have a full-length play, which we then support through workshops, readings, and other events. We invited Julia to join the group because we make it a point to find young, emerging talent and keep them on our radar, which she was because of her agent's submissions and through readings we knew about."
"Boy," which Primary Stages describes as a tale "of two young men struggling to find their place in this modern world," impressed Leynse because it contained "really fresh writing—genuinely, truly fresh." And a good example of her ability, he quickly notes, "to take everyday situations and make them extremely dramatic." More than that, Leynse believes that Jordan is "very aware of her own voice, and it's that awareness that makes her uniquely herself and, therefore, a singular talent. Every writer we're producing next year—Pete Gurney, Terrence McNally—has a singular voice, something singular to say. That's why we put Julia's photo right next to Terrence and Pete on our website. To say that she's just as good, as important, as fresh as they are."
In this light, the question of whether Jordan's plays are relevant to this moment, or to any moment, seems almost beside the point. She rolled the dice, and won.
Not that Jordan is the type to sit on her laurels. Indeed, there's clearly a difference between the playwright lucky enough to have a new work go into production at any time, in any season, and the playwright whose newest work will open in the same season as a new Gurney or McNally piece. Moreover, Jordan doesn't respond to the compliment-laden rhapsody her producers are singing. Her focus is on process—and on getting more new works to the fore.
"A lot of the plays that are being done are, for me, old plays—'St. Scarlet' is seven years ago, and 'Tatiana' I wrote eight years ago. So they're things I haven't had in the front of my brain until recently, and it's kind of thrilling to go back to them. It's hard, though, because I think I'm such a better writer now than I was then. I do think there are merits to the writing of these plays that I love, but I love the new plays"—titles and plotlines soon to be announced—"even more."
What has changed, she notes, is the subject matter she's interested in, and a little bit of her process. "When I started writing plays, it used to primarily be about girls; now I think they are primarily about my family. Also, every single play has been very different for me. I don't write every day. 'Tatiana' I wrote really fast—within about two weeks. 'Boy,' which I was writing in the Primary Stages group, I wrote and then threw away and then rewrote, finding that it came out better the second time—I discovered, actually, that there were two plays there that intertwined."
She doesn't rest when a play is "done," either. "Honestly, I rewrite my plays until they get produced. For example, I rewrote 'St. Scarlet' so many times that by the time W.E.T. produced it, Chris [Messina, the director] cut out 25 pages and not to miss that much dialogue is kind of amazing.
"The thing is, when I started, it was 10 years ago and I was looking back 10 years, as a teenager. Now I'm looking back five to 10 years at where I've been. As a writer, I need that kind of perspective." And perhaps more productions, too.