An Interview with Julia Jordan
Written by Victoria Myers
November 14th, 2014
“It should just be a natural thing. Of course you’d want to see a play by a woman—why wouldn’t you?” declares Julia Jordan midway through our talk with her. Well, we agree (we’re sure that comes as a shock to no one). One of the reasons many people became aware of the gender parity problems in theatre isn’t a reason at all, but a person: playwright Julia Jordan. In 2009, Julia and Emily Sands, a Harvard PhD student in economics, conducted a major study about gender bias in the American theatre. The study highlighted the many problems facing female writers in the theatre, and in the theatre itself—because if an industry is disenfranchising women, it is problematic. As a writer, Julia’s plays range from Tatjana in Color, St. Scarlet and The Summer of the Swans to the musical Murder Ballad, and two short films. Needless to say, we were excited to talk to Julia about her past study, the new gender parity study coming out soon, and her plays.
You have a new study about gender parity coming out. Could you tell us a little about it?
The Lilly’s are doing it with the Dramatists Guild. It looks like it will have to be in two parts. The first part will be gender and, basically, a count. We’re using Guild reps across the country, and they’ve identified the theatres in their districts that are, in their estimation, most important to living writers. That part will be gender and identity of the writers. The second part will be going to the writers directly, and we’ll get more information on race, what type of play, how many characters, and gender and race of the protagonist. I’m really interested in if writers specify race, and if they don’t specify race, is there a reason why. I think there are some changes that could happen—people could say, “This is open to any race,” whereas right now they say nothing, so by default the role is cast white. I think just by gathering the information and putting it out there it will create change. We know that some theatres—just by being aware that it’s happening—are looking more closely at their own numbers and we’re seeing a jump in production of female writers.
It’s amazing how few numbers are out there, especially prior to your first study.
Well, there was the NYSCA study of 2001. That’s the one that really opened my eyes, but there hasn’t been anything that matched up to it, and ours will be probably the closest to matching up with it. We’ve followed through with some of the questions they asked, and we are seeing where we are thirteen years later. Numbers have been coming out city by city, but this will be national, and I think it will be interesting to see a picture of the whole country and like, “What’s it really like in Kansas?”
One thing we found interesting about your first study with Emily Sands was the media coverage and what points the press focused on. One point the press seemed to focus on was “women vs. women.” Let’s talk about that.
It’s definitely the angle that they liked, but they didn’t explain the context, which is vastly more interesting and pretty much the opposite of what the headlines asserted. We found two things. One: the female respondents were definitely saying that the plays they thought were written by women were not going to put forward nearly as much as the ones they thought were written by men. But, the reason why had nothing to do with the quality of writing or the play. The reason why was, they thought bias on the part of the artistic director who would do the final choosing, on the part of the critics who would do the reviews, on the part of the audiences who would buy the tickets, and on the part of the actors and directors who would decide if they wanted to take part in that production, was so extreme that it would cause the play to fail. That’s a completely different thing than the headlines that basically said women hate women. Women Beware Women was even one of the headlines. The fact of it was that women know of bias and act accordingly. In pure economic terms, what’s the point in pursuing a job you know you’ll never get? Why would you do that? That’s a waste of your time. With plays written by women, if they could possibly get them produced, they believed that they would fail. If that happened, that literary manager would lose their job. So it all makes perfect sense.
You would never see a headline saying, “Men hate men.”
But you do see a lot of self-hatred based on race. But maybe it’s not self-hatred. Maybe it’s realism. Maybe it’s realism and making the best choice for your life. If you’re the greatest baseball player ever, and it’s before Jackie Robinson, if you’re going to put everything on being a professional baseball player—to feed your family and put a roof over your head—odds are you’re going to fail and end up on the street. So why would you do that? You make conscious decisions based on the reality of the day. All the evidence points towards that it’s harder for a woman to make it as a writer, so of course more women are going to quit. Why wouldn’t you? It’s stupid not to. It’s only the crazy people [who don’t], but sometimes the sanest most practical people are the most talented. You know, there’s this myth that we all have to be these crazy artists, but Emily Dickinson wasn’t. They’re not always chasing fame. They’re not always huge risk takers. And the females of that type get cut out a lot faster than the males.
How do you wish these studies were talked about in the press?
I think that change is happening—not just in theatre. I think women have become a focus in the culture in the last ten years. Hillary Clinton said, “Women’s rights are the unfinished business of the past century,” and I think we’ve kind of known that. Like all the small loans that are going out around the world, and they’re going primarily to women, and they’ve identified that helping and educating women is the best way to lift up a community. It’s just everywhere. It is changing. What I think is going to be really interesting about this next study is documenting the change. When I first got involved, the vast majority of theatres in New York City were producing zero women in that year. Now, the list of ones that have been producing 50/50 is growing every year. It’s not just us who are counting and focusing on it. I think the culture has changed. The cocktail conversation when I got involved was, “Merit, merit, merit,” and, “If it’s not good enough it shouldn’t be on, no matter who wrote it; no matter gender or race.” No one says that anymore. I think that argument has been pretty much put to rest. If you can’t see merit in anything but white men, you’re in the wrong job.
There’s that example of orchestras getting to 50/50 because of blind auditions. But that’s impossible for theatre. Blind submissions aren’t really how things work.
Yeah, because we work our plays in public. You can give me a play and odds are, if it’s written by someone in this area, someone on the panel will know it.
Do you think networking in theatre is a boys club? Or set up in a way that’s not great for women?
I don’t know the answer to that question because I’m not inside that network. I do think relationships between male artistic directors and female writers have had a different tone to them. Partially because I think women come to it in a more like, “Please” [way], as opposed to on par. I mean, there have been so many studies about confidence and how men are raised to believe they are excellent and women are not [raised that way], and that changes everything. I find it much easier to advocate for other women’s plays than I do my own. I find full-on networking incredibly distasteful. But that’s the world we live in. It’s not a blind audition, so it’s something I try to work on.
Let’s go back to the confidence thing. It’s hard to talk about since, for example, when there was that article on confidence in women in The Atlantic, it got really slammed, but it seemed like privately, a lot of people were saying, “I relate.” You’re around a lot of playwrights. Do you see a difference in confidence?
There’s a very good reason why women are not as confident—it’s not just that we were taught to be that way for social graces—we haven’t experienced the same level of success. If you’re putting yourself out there and you’re not being embraced, then you’re not going to gather your confidence. I really would love if we looked at schools in this country and just looked at the fourth grade. How do teachers judge, subjectively, the work of a female vs. male fourth grader? I’d be really curious to know. If you went across the country and did the same blind male/female thing, I bet that girls are judged harder—that they have to work harder to get that A. I remember being a girl, and I was really sloppy, but I was smart. I had a friend who was really precise, and she would re-do her papers over and over again, and there would be no spelling errors and her handwriting was perfect. Our work would be exactly the same—our answers, the structure of our work—all exactly the same all through school, but she would always get an A and I would always get a B, and the only difference was cosmetic. I’d look at boys’ papers and they were all pigs, but they were getting As. Girls are held to such high standards that she would do her paper three times over. They keep finding girls are better students. Well, of course they are; girls do everything three times and boys do it once. We’re trained to be better students. And we’re told we’re not as good, so we work harder and harder. It’s not that girls have an innate inferiority complex; it’s our experience in the world: “It’s just not good enough yet.” “Almost.” “Work harder.”
Why is it important to you, personally, to support other women?
I think that’s actually a strength we have that we haven’t been using. As Marsha Norman likes to say, “We’re stronger as a team.” It’s hard for me to advocate for myself, but it’s easy for me to advocate for others. If we could all do that, it would be a much more graceful and helpful world. Also, it’s just incredibly interesting, and it’s such a time of change for women that it would be kind of crazy to not get involved with it. It’s an amazing time. To me it’s just natural. It’s just a normal thing. Why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you be involved? Why wouldn’t you want to know about your own perspective? We’re the majority of the audience; we have so much more power than we know. And it just seems like a normal thing that, if you go to plays, some of them would be written by men and some would be written by women. We’re just righting the balance. It shouldn’t be work. It should just be a natural thing: of course you’d want to see a play by a woman—why wouldn’t you?
You became one of the faces of gender parity in theatre. What was that like?
I had major anxiety about it being punitive, and I kind of think there are a couple of theatres out there that are like, “No way are we producing her,” but not that many. And in fact, at this point, I think a lot of people who were on the fence have changed their attitudes. I think some artistic directors, who had records that were not great back then, they’ve gotten better so their backs aren’t so up against the wall. So everything has just gotten a little better. But, overall, I would tell people to not worry about it because, as much as it may have hurt me, it helped me. It helped me be more forward. On a totally personal level, I went from a girl who didn’t want to advocate for herself to a girl who was in every single artistic directors office going, “You need to do…” And honestly, I think they respect me more.
Caitlin Moran has a great thing about how liberal denial of the problem just re-enforces it [it’s in her book How to Be a Woman, which is well worth a read].
When I was growing up, we had a big thing [in school] on World War Two and a big thing on slavery, but we didn’t have anything on women’s lib or how women got the vote. It wasn’t presented as a big chapter of history. It wasn’t presented as ever having been a problem. And then you come up in a world where people are saying, “It’s done. It happened.” And in the arts, or if you’re doing anything subjective, there’s always that question, “Is it just that I’m not good enough, or is something else going on?” You’ll never know the answer on an individual basis. It’s interesting that she puts it in terms of liberal.
Well, it’s like when communities that would never hear of discrimination pretend discrimination against women isn’t a thing, then it gives the denial more credibility. Like the theatre community, which is overall liberal, has been totally in denial about this stuff, especially on Broadway. When we ask actresses about these issues, it’s almost always the first time they’ve ever been asked about them.
At the Lilly Awards this year, Kelli O’Hara said, “I’ve never been in a show written by a woman [until The Bridges of Madison County].” I mean she never stops working and she’d never been in anything written by a woman. That’s bizarre. My jaw hit the floor.
Right, and how many times has Kelli ever been asked what she thinks about that? It doesn’t happen [except here].
I have a friend who’s a massive agent in Hollywood, and when I was first starting at Juilliard and she was starting as an agent she said, “Tell me all the actors at Juilliard who you think are going to work.” And I said, “But no actresses?” And she said “Zero. There’s no work for them.” That always stuck with me. When I was in acting school, it was like eight women and two men, but then when they did the cut those ratios reversed. So the bar for actresses is so fucking high. Juilliard wouldn’t even accept 50/50 women, since Shakespeare’s plays don’t have 50% women, so why would they?
You wrote the book and lyrics for Murder Ballad, and you’ve worked on some other musical projects. Musicals are an area of gender parity that gets talked about less. Why do you think that is?
I read this amazing article about the mystery of music; everyone thinks they can write a story, but we think of music as being this mathematical genius world—which is a myth—but because it’s “mathematical genius,” we think of men. There are so many female composers out there and, of the new ones coming up, the ones that really excite me are the ladies. There are so many female musical theatre writers coming up, and that’s been a big focus at the Lilly’s—especially female composers.
Who are your top five favorite female composers?
1. Kirsten Childs
2. Jeanine Tesori
3. Zoe Sarnak
4. Georgia Stitt
5. Mary Rodgers (for music and so much more)
Do you see any themes in your work?
Well, I do write about girls. They almost always have some sex. I think I’m really pretty basic. I think that’s one of the things I found really frustrating when I was younger—this idea that we were supposed to be lyrical and quirky—I don’t think I’m either one of those things. I think I do like more muscular, I’m-going-to-spin-you-a-tale type stuff. I think my strength is more storytelling.
There’s an old interview with you where it mentioned that a theme in your work was female sexuality. And that that theme made the plays less likely to get produced.
I think both things are true. I think they are produced because they’re sexual and that they don’t get produced because they’re sexual. The play of mine that article was referencing was called Tatjana in Color, and it’s the play of mine that I’ve won the most awards for, but it is about [painter] Egon Schiele and the twelve year old girl that he was accused of raping. It is from her point of view, and she has a massive crush on him. No one knows if he actually did rape her or not, and in the play he doesn’t, but she doesn’t really know what intercourse is—she’s just a normal twelve-year-old girl hitting puberty, and he was only twenty-one years old and really handsome, and she had a massive crush on him. A lot of little old ladies see that play and go, “Oh yeah, I did that.” A lot of twenty or thirty year old men see that play and it gives them the creeps. It doesn’t give women the creeps. And I think the other thing that’s important about [female sexuality on stage] is likeability of characters. The likability of a female character doing anything complicated is, when written by a woman, a problem for a lot of audience members. Whereas if it’s written by a man, it’s insightful. I think there’s something about a woman saying something that makes people go, “If that’s true, then that freaks us out,” and with a man they go, “Well, it’s just that one character.”
Well, that ties into that thing of women being forced to represent all women, so everything becomes this huge statement.
And that’s part of the scarcity thing. If there are more perspectives out there, it would cease to be true. But it’s like, “Oh my god, a movie about girls for girls!” But it’s actually just one movie.
What does it do to your artistic development to be told that what you’re interested in writing about isn’t commercial enough?
I was tearing my hair out. I almost quit. I mean you don’t know. I’d see what was being produced by the boys, and I’d be like, “Well, that’s not like Dick and Jane tossing the ball around.” I was in the same circle as Adam Rapp, and he’s pulling out penises and vomiting on stage, so why can’t I just write about a fifteen year old girl who has a crush on a twenty year old? What’s the big deal? I mean, you grow up not realizing it’s a problem, and then realizing it’s a problem and how to operate in the world. I mean, everybody goes through that in some sense. But gender is a major complication. It’s a major way we define ourselves. I have two kids—one boy and one girl—and it’s the first way they define themselves: I’m a boy, I’m a girl. My daughter wants to wear pink. She goes a little ape-shit if she can’t wear a skirt because she does not want to be a boy. They don’t pick up on race till a couple of years after that, and apparently, they pick up on accents before they pick up on race. We’re always in a process of saying, “We belong to this group,” and gender is the first—it’s the most primary, like, “I know I’m this. Teach me how to be”—I think it’s why it’s so ingrained. It challenges our own identity to in any way, change what the other is.
I read you had a period when you wanted to be a painter. Are you a visual writer?
As I have done it less and less, I really feel like those skills have slipped away from me. I used to be pretty good at drawing, but now I can’t draw at all. I feel like I have a visual interest, and I insist upon it in my dealings with directors, and I’ll write things into the script. But, as time has gone on and I’ve worked with more professionals, I respect that when I do have someone where that is their strength, why would I tell them how to do their job?
You’ve also done some short films. What do you find you can express through that medium that maybe you can’t in theatre?
There are certain stories that just aren’t contained in a box. To tell that part of the story they need to climb a mountain, and it would be a waste to not put that on film.
Do you find cinematic influences in your playwriting?
I guess so, because it’s so ingrained in us. It’s such a visual storytelling part of history. It’s all mixed up in my brain—like novels, film, and TV—I really like stories. I really like plays that are about ideas, but it’s not what I do well; it’s not how I think. Since I’m in this world, I try to pick the stories that, to me, fit into this world as much as possible.
What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I was just a voracious child reader. I was the kid who hid so I could read all night. I do remember the first time I saw a play. There were five kids in my family, and my dad decided that every kid would get a day, so once a month you’d get to skip school and pick an event. The first time I did it, I picked roller-skating. I took my dad roller-skating and it was a disaster because he couldn’t roller-skate and clearly wasn’t having that much fun. So the second time, I tried to pick something I thought he’d like, so I thought we’d go to the theatre. It was literally that random. And the theatre was the Guthrie, and what was playing was Our Town. So I went to see Our Town with my dad on a Wednesday matinee, and that play blew me away. I was in the fourth grade and no one had taught me that play or why it was important, but it blew me away. I’d never seen anything like it. I was really, really into music and painting, but the fact that those people on stage were alive and that we got out of the theatre and saw one of the actors in the parking lot—like that he was in that magical place and then he’s right there—I just thought that was the coolest thing. Like they didn’t stay hanging on the wall. The fact that it was just a person really excited me.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I was obsessed with Louise Nevelson. She’s a sculptor. I had an art teacher who I loved and was the whole reason I was into drawing and painting—I had this amazing teacher, and she was fantastic, and I just lived in the studio because of her. She was really into Louise Nevelson, and we went and saw her work at the Walker Art Museum. I didn’t even know that much about her. It was just that my teacher loved her so I loved her too.
One of the things we talk about is how so much of behavior is learned, and young women need to see other women doing things. And that need isn’t always talked about so much.
My first day at Juilliard I was like, “Wow, I didn’t know I could really do this.” I couldn’t believe I’d even gotten accepted, since I’d just written the one play. I was sitting there, and day one Marsha Norman said, “This is a job, and this is how you do it. This is a business, you don’t sit around and write your masterpiece and hope someone discovers it after you die.” So I had that person from the get go—she wasn’t just a model but she laid it out. It seems like there’s no path, but she gave us a path.
When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
When my son was born.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Within the industry, don’t be afraid to say something to the artistic director when it’s blatant. The voices gathering more and more and more has been what’s made the change. When it becomes socially irresponsible to not address inequality is when it’s going to change.