Interview: Julia Weiss

Forgiveness, a new play written by Chicago-based playwright and improvisor Julia Weiss opens tonight at the Cornservatory. Described as a mix between the navel-gazing self-indulgence of Garden State and the heady absurdism of Waiting For Godot, Forgiveness is a funny, thoughtful, and sweet parody of both.

In observation of tonight's opening night, I talked to Julia about her creative process, as well as her influences and hopes for the show, which you can buy tickets for right here!

The Steamroller: How did you come to work with Corn Productions?

Julia Weiss: I came to Chicago at the end of the summer after college - I actually left for good to start my adult life on my birthday which I should have realized was poignant before this interview but I didn't. Change is incredibly hard for me, and not only was I leaving the only sort of life I'd ever known to become a grownup, I was going through the final stages of my first significant break up, saying goodbye to friends, and taking on a whole new city which at the time still felt big and daunting. Public transportation was A LOT for my brain, so I barely left my apartment other than to go to work or Trader Joe's or to see the small group of IU alums living in the city.

I hadn't yet saved the money to go to any of the training centers I wanted to attend and my life was sort of on pause. My friend Nicole, who I haven't spoken to in years and should probably call, was auditioning for a kid's show at Corn and told me I should too. We both got cast in the play and invited to perform in the New Years show as well. It was so fun and lovely and everyone so warm - it broke me out of my post-graduate malaise.

Soon I was invited to a meeting where they were trying to figure out what to do with an unexpected hole in their season, and I was like "I have a ton of short plays and we can do them all and call it Salute My Shorts and my friend Anneliese can direct it and maybe we can order pizza!" And they said "sweet!" While I'm primarily occupied elsewhere in the city now, I've always found Corn to be a safe, supportive, satisfying home.

Robert (Bouwman, Corn Productions' artistic director) put his blind faith in me when I pitched Salute My Shorts. He was the first human in Chicago to give me any sort of a chance, and so when he asked me to write a play and let him direct it, there was no hesitation. Also, this play is in no way similar to the play I told him I'd write, and I'm very proud of him.

TS: How much of a role did you play in the development of the show once the script was complete? Did you work closely with Robert and cast or was it more of a hands off thing?

Julia: I handed over the script, put my $0.02 in at the first read through and didn't have any participation until I saw a run-through the Saturday before opening. Well that's maybe not true. I was drunk at Trader Todd's one night and Robert called me to run some things by me, and I was like "grlll this is what I think and also karaoke is the great equalizer" but that was pretty much it.

I wanted to be hands off this time, because I'm so used to working closely with the process. I think I needed to see what it feels like to give my baby to another person to raise to see what it becomes, instead of being a helicopter mom.

TS: The script plays with many of the established Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotypes, what's your relationship with those set of tropes like as a writer post-Garden State/500 Days of Summer/etc.? 

Julia: I have a complex relationship with MPDGs. It's like smart, creative people didn't like the dimensionless female archetypes available to them, so they made up a new slighty-dimensioned-but-not-so-much-that-its-a-threat-to-men female archetype to passively infatuate them in movies.

Sometimes I feel like they're probably based on legitimately fun, magical, nuanced women whose spirit is lost because the writer who is probably a dude was only seeing her through his own ego or his boner.

I'm torn because I think vulnerability is a great quality in any person and emotion is human and maybe we should all want to sing to rainbows because birds exist and oh look a baby elephant! But the childlike fragility and whimsy of the MPDG is often sexualized in a way that's bad for men and women.

It's like... the 70s are over so people can't openly want to bang 13 year olds anymore... so we just make grown up women more like 13 year olds, and then it's okay. I knew a guy in college who dumped a girl because they "saw Finding Nemo and she didn't smile enough." He just knew, because this 20 year old wasn't completely enthralled by a children's movie. Woof. Not only are we getting off on infantilizing women, we've also been trained to be hyper romantic assholes who fall in and out of love with people based on nothing real about them but on some pre-existing story in our own heads.

Now, I don't hate MPDGs and I don't hate the men who love them. I am mostly amused by them. Sometimes we just want to see a brooding man become taken by a woman wearing TOO many scarves, reading Kafka b-sides, and speaking candidly about her social anxiety disorder and the quirky thing she does to overcome it. These movies are so self indulgent and irritating, but there's an obnoxious sort of sweetness to the way people feel safe in archetypes.

I think there's also something to be learned about ourselves by picking apart these types of characters and relationships. Why do we want baby women to save lost men? Why do we want girls with Lisa Frank folders for brains to teach frightened nerdboys how to feel again? I really wanted to play with that. I like to think that I've written a strong but loving parody.

TS: There's a lot of toying with language throughout the show, and the writeup credits Waiting For Godot as an influence, have you always been interested in communication and its many quirks and failings or is this something new you've been exploring?

Julia: For as long as I can remember (which is maybe not that long because I drink a lot and I read something recently that makes me question the reliability of memory in the first place) I've been in love with words. My parents are intellectuals and word play and language colored my childhood.

What absurdist plays and Zach Braffian coming-of-age-long-after-college movies have in common is WORDS. It's as if the pen has ejaculated onto the page. No one real talks like this, and I know Beckett gets that, but I'm not sure that screenwriters like Braff do. And I love that.

TS: Now, to expertly combine the Manic Pixie and Waiting For Godot questions, do you consider this script a reaction to something in particular? Are there any other major influences you'd cite? 

Julia: Hmmmm, I don't know. I mean... I consume a lot of movies and plays, but I guess Garden State was the instigator for me.

Garden State came out when I was in college. I thought it was so self-indulgent and trying SO hard. I hated it until I realized how much fun it was to hate it. Then I saw a bunch of other Zach Braff movies and I realized how much fun it is to kind of hate him.

Ugh, I feel weird saying that to the internet because he's a real human, and I don't *actually* know him, but he always sounds over rehearsed, even when he's just talking as himself and like... come ON with that Kickstarter, dude! You have all of the money!

But yeah, Garden State was the first movie that really struck me with transparent adolescent romanticism but like with grown ups... and it got my brain spinning on manic pixie dream girls and drippy male protagonists and heterosexual relationships in films like it. I think about those movies and the archetypes in those movies a lot, so I guess the play is a reaction to that.

I didn't set out to write this play, it just sort of happened to my brain

TS: What do you hope people take away from the show?

Julia: Oh god. I want people to like it. I hope that people are like "OH MY GOD IT SOUNDS LIKE THOSE MOVIES!" and also "THIS IS VERY FUNNY!" and I hope that people get invested and then are like "WHY AM I INVESTED!" I hope that everyone leaves thinking in all caps and speaking in all caps unless they hate it.

I really hope that the little things I play on from those movies are recognized, noted and appreciated. I hope people see what I'm seeing, especially if they didn't before. I hope that people laugh a ton and think a lot and say I'm very smart and that the actors and Robert are very talented.

I hope people see that theatre isn't a dying art and that we can still use it to comment on our culture. I guess I hope a lot of things.

I really hope that the carbonara the baby I'm nannying's dad told me I could eat is good because I'm super hungry.

TS: Do you have any other projects you're currently working on that we can look forward to?

Julia: I'll be at the God, Sex, and Death Variety Hour at the Hideout on the 28th, and The Seven Deadly Sins reading series on February 11th, and then sometime in the spring you can expect a sketch show with perhaps too much raw human emotion from me and dream woman, Becca Taubel.

I'd like to finish by saying the word "archetype" again.