Editor’s note: Playwright and poet Arlitia Jones is in Juneau for Perseverance Theatre’s world premiere of her play, “Rush at Everlasting,” which opens Friday. While she’s in town, she will also be participating in a poetry reading Sunday at the Juneau Public Library downtown along with Emily Wall and Ernestine Hayes.
Amy O’Neill Houck sat down with Jones at The Douglas Café this week to talk about theater and playwriting, poetry and life as an Alaskan playwright. Here are some excerpts from their conversation.
Amy O’Neill Houck: Can you tell me how you got started writing “Rush at Everlasting”?
Arlitia Jones: I was in a really boring workshop. I thought, OK. I’m just going to take this time and act like I’m listening, but I’m going to write a play. What’s in my head? What’s in my imagination right now? There was suddenly a woman sitting there reading. I thought to myself, who is her antithesis? Who would be the most surprising person to walk through the door? The door opened, and Jim Ryan came in. Jim Ryan is an alias for a famous outlaw. He walked in the door and started talking.
I have a lot of female actor friends who say to me, “Write us roles!” There are no good roles for women 40 and above. There are no good roles for women 60 and above. This is when women are so interesting. They’ve lived this life. My main character is different. I feel like we’re at this watershed moment where feminism is rising and women are becoming known for their accomplishments. I feel like what is also happening is we are throwing away the dark sides of ourselves. I wanted to celebrate that in a female character. I’m trying to explore that. Why can’t women speak their mind even when they are wrong. I still admire my main character. She has incredible strength. She has also done some bad things.
AOH: Did you find any challenges writing a character who is a woman of color?
AJ: Yes. The play has had many forms. My playwriting process has changed over the years. It used to be I would hear the my characters. Now my plays come as a vision. I see the play, and I see it from very far away, and I get closer and closer before I ever hear them. I know everything about them physically. Like a dream, but with no sound. I think it’s because plays are not just words. They are alive on the stage.
One day I saw this character who was black. I’ve always lived with this creed that I do not write according to my genetics. I don’t read that way either. But race is scary. Was I going to appropriate a voice? Was I going to write a stereotype? So I had to ask myself, why is she in the room with my main character? Why would a black woman be in a room with a white woman in the 1930s? Is she a maid? I thought, I don’t want to write a maid. So I decided she’s not a maid, and I had to figure out why not. And now, she’s my favorite character I’ve ever written.
AOH: You’ve had a very busy year. Can you give me quick overview?
In February, Sandy Harper asked me to write a new play for Cyrano’s playhouse in Anchorage. I said “sure!” That was my workshop of “Come with Me, Leopards.” In late March or April, Art Rotch said that they wanted to produce “Rush at Everlasting,” so suddenly I had two productions going around the same time. I also had started a theater company and I directed for the first time. I then received the Rasmuson grant. I got picked to go as a playwright to Lincoln Center, and the Samuel French festival in New York. I also got picked to be part of a playwriting group at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. We meet twice a month in Seattle. There will be a festival in June of readings for the plays we’re working on.
This next year I’ve promised my husband “no theater.” I’m going to “sneak write.” But I have a wooden kayak I’m going to build, and in the fall I’ll get back into theater. I need a break. I have a play I need to be focused and engaged for, so I need a rest period.
AOH: So your MFA is in Poetry, Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I graduated around 2000, and a year later, my book came out. “The Bandsaw Riots.”
AOH: And you’ll be reading from that on Sunday at the Downtown Public Library?
Yes. I brought it with me. It’s so interesting when I look back at it because I wrote it so long ago. I was such a young writer. Some of the vision was the same. It’s cool to have it on record. Where I came from.
AOH: Do you ever want to change early poems?
AJ: I do. But once they’re published I don’t tinker with them.
AOH: And recently, you’ve started blogging.
AJ: I really enjoy blogging. Sometimes you just write strictly for yourself, and sometimes you just write in your journal because you want a record, then there’s that other level where you have an audience. That’s what blogging is like for me, kind of a conversation. I don’t know who it is. I don’t want just writers to read my blog.
AOH: Do you find since you’re mostly writing plays, the blog is a good way to flex your poetry muscle?
AJ: I still write poetry all the time. But now it’s mostly just for me. And my playwriting is what I describe as “fast poetry.” Because I consider every line of my plays like a poem or part of a poem. It’s a big, long structured poem with stage directions.
AOH: What’s your writing schedule like?
AJ: When I had my grant, I set up a cozy room in my house and I would be down at my desk by 9, and whether I was writing or not, I’d be surrounded by all the stuff I was working on. Nothing else is allowed in. I let the dogs come in, but if they make noise, they are out of there. I left my phone upstairs. If I get in there, and I can get to writing something or reading something, because reading is part of my process, I’m so disinterested in what’s happening on the Internet. In the afternoon I worked on productions and talk to other people. While I’m writing I need silence, and I need to not talk to anyone else. I don’t have a conversation in the morning, I just get up with whatever words are there.
It was interesting just driving from North Douglas, I just had a whole scene come to me. Driving is my thinking time. I never listen to the radio. I might not be the most focused driver.
AOH: Do you juggle new work and revision as part of your writing process?
AJ: Yes. I have to. Right now different things are in different stages, and if I get a new idea, if I don’t start writing it, it will go away.
AOH: When did you flip that switch from poetry to playwriting?
AJ: It was after I graduated from my MFA. My last year in school I started writing these persona poems, that got to be pages long. And I started imagining costumes for the characters, and then there were two people speaking, and I realized, this might be a play. Maybe I’ll just try it. It was really organic. It was characters coming to life.
AOH: Were you interested in theater before that?
AJ: No. Not at all. I was terrified of theater people. When my husband and I got married, we made a pact. We’d always have whole milk and real butter in our house, and we’d never hang out with theater people. And now our lives are just full of theater people! But still no margarine.
I didn’t know that playwrights were living, breathing people. It was the same when I started writing poetry. I didn’t know that there were poets living in Anchorage.
AOH: How did you end up at the The Last Frontier Theatre Festival in Valdez?
AJ: I think I knew about it from UAA. I had met Dawson Moore who wasn’t yet organizing the festival, and we were instant friends. I met Boston Christopher, who was there writing about the festival, and he interviewed me, and he was so open to everyone’s thoughts and opinions. I started to realize that theater people were just as scared as I am. I hadn’t realized the relationship between their art and the amount of work they put into it. Once I know what drives people, I’m not afraid of them anymore.
AOH: You started writing persona poems and then you had this epiphany that they were sort of play-like. At that point, did you think of your playwriting as collaborative at all?
AJ: I did. I wrote those first few plays, and I took them to the conference. And there would be readings, but then I took them home, and I put them in a drawer. But I didn’t know where to go from there. I didn’t know what a producer did. I didn’t really know what a director did. I just had this impulse to write these plays.
I had gone to a couple of conferences and Bostin came up to Anchorage and invited me to write for Overnighters which is a theater event in Anchorage [similar to the Juneau Douglas Little Theater’s 24-hour Miracle in Juneau]. And I heard, “Come have a barbecue with us.” I didn’t realize I what I was agreeing to. I didn’t sleep that whole week. I was so nervous. If I had known what it was I would have said no. But I loved it. That was my first produced play. I then did those twice a year, and kind of built my name up as a playwright.
AOH: Do you read aloud?
AJ: All the time. I read aloud, and I read on my feet. I have to walk around and read it. The energy gets me up because writing poetry and playwriting is a body art for me. It takes your whole body to make the words alive, and it’s the words reacting on your body — poetry especially — the rhythm and the breathing.
AOH: Do you read for inspiration?
AJ: I try to read as broadly as I can so I’m not stuck in my niche. I read sci-fi and mysteries, lots of novels, I haven’t read as much poetry lately. Lots of plays. And research. I get lost in research. Right now I’m just lost in the period I’m researching: 1869 in New York City.
AOH: Do you ever feel like writing more about a character than can fit in a play?
AJ: Oh yes. I’ve written so much about the characters in “Rush at Everlasting.” I write all kinds of stuff about them. Things the actors don’t know. And the actors have built other back stories that I don’t know about. I love when I see them start to make the characters their own. That’s when I know the characters are alive.
AOH: With “Rush at Everlasting,” you’ve been part of the whole rehearsal process. Is that your usual method with a premiere?
AJ: It is for me. Bostin, who’s directing, and I have a really good way of working together. In October, in Anchorage, I just finished a workshop for a new play and my director was Jayne Wenger, who is the dramaturg on “Rush at Everlasting,” so I got to work very closely with her. I was there every single day. Because it was a workshop I was trying to see how the scenes related to each other and what the arc of the play was. I got to go to every performance. The audience changes everything you think you know about the play. Now I can make changes according to that.
AOH: Are you looking forward to seeing how Juneau audiences react to “Rush at Everlasting”?
AJ: I’ve seen some other shows here, and Juneau audiences are amazing. They are smart and open to what’s on the theater stage. I’ll be in the back of the house this weekend somewhere, hiding.
KNOW AND GO
What: Perseverance Theatre’s world premiere “Rush at Everlasting”
When: Jan. 10-Feb. 2
Where: Perseverance Theatre.
Details: Tickets are available online at perseverancetheatre.org and by calling 463-TIXS or visiting the JAHC, Rainy Day Books, and Hearthside books.
What: Authors’ reading, featuring Arlitia Jones and local poets Ernestine Hayes and Emily Wall
When: Sunday, Jan. 12 at 2 p.m.
Where: Juneau Public Library downtown.
Details: Free and open to the public.