Barbara Jwanouskos interviews some alums from the Higher Education days of her column.
This week I reconnected (well, via email for now at least) with my ole pals from CMU, Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour. Both are fabulous playwrights and theater and film makers about town who recently graduated from the program I was a part of last year AND are from the Bay area. I thought it would be nice for this blog series to sort of reflect a little on how far it’s come from starting while I was in school trying to figure shit out to now while I’m out of school trying to figure shit out. So, you see, a lot has changed in the past year.
As Julie and Tracy step out from school into the real world ready to put their training into action, I’m reminded of how I was feeling when graduating this same time last year. I thought it would be lovely to capture this moment, where the future is full of promise and also huge unknowns. Whenever you’re on the precipice of the Next Thing, it can always be a little dizzying, but while I was in school with these two, they showed such strength of character and distinct writing styles, that I thought it would be lovely to hear from them about what this moment in time is like.
For your enjoyment, the interview with Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour:
Barbara: What is/was your involvement in Bay Area theater?
Tracy: I had been very active in Bay Area theater before going to grad school. I received an A.A. in Theater Arts with Michael Torres at Laney College, formed my own theater company All Terrain Theater, which had already completed three seasons, ran the playwrights group Play Cafe, co-founded 31 Plays in 31 Days with Rachel Bublitz, was a member of the MondayNight PlayGround Writers Pool, and interned or worked for CalShakes, Marin Theatre Company, and the Playwrights Foundation. I also worked as a writer or director with Masquers Playhouse, Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, and, of course, Theatre Pub!
Julie: When I finished undergrad, some of my fellow classmates and I started a small, do-it-yourself theater company called Cardboard Box Theatre Project. We did productions, staged readings, and workshops over the course of a few years in the South Bay. I also workshopped with the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and Central Works Writers Workshop.
Barbara: What’s your style as a writer? What kinds of topics/ideas do you gravitate towards?
Tracy: I’m a mom so a lot of my work deals with feminist issues and parenting. I also love pop culture, science (especially as it relates to the environment), and technology, so those topics feature in a lot of my writing. My goal is always to entertain first and educate second, and when I’m really in the zone I try to present complex situations while advocating for all perspectives. I spend a lot of time trying to understand people who act or think in ways that I disagree with, and I put those scenarios into my work.
Julie: I consider myself a writer of dramas and dark comedies. I’m interested in how people struggle toward intimacy and human connection with the limitations of language and social convention.
Barbara: What was on your mind as you were making the decision to attend a graduate Dramatic Writing program?
Tracy: When I had my first son, I marveled at him and dreamed about what his future would be like. I wanted him to feel like he could do anything that he wanted with his life, and then I knew at the core of my being that I could only help him do this if I pursued my own dreams, too.
I had been jumping around all over the place–both professionally and artistically–and I realized that I was spreading myself too thin and not really mastering anything in particular. Before I took my first acting class, I was researching MBA programs, then I got hooked on theater and suddenly I had identities as an actor, producer, director, and writer. I had a heart to heart with myself and realized that writing had always been a part of my life and if I could become really good at any one thing, that was it.
I love being in school, so grad school was just a thing that I wanted to do at some point. I just needed to choose a focus, and writing seemed like something that I would keep doing and would be easier to pursue with kids than some of my other interests.
Regarding goals, I went to grad school so I could start the path toward mastery of writing and also to make it more possible to work as a writer professionally. I know that lots of people don’t need grad school to accomplish either of these goals. I could probably be one of those people. However, the truth is that I’m a mom, I have a lot of things that I’m responsible for, and I have a lot of disparate interests that compete for my attention. Going to grad school meant that I could stop working and focus just on my kids and my writing. It’s amazing how easy it is to focus on your writing when you’re on the other side of the country and (almost) everyone in your life knows that you can’t take on extra projects or attend certain events so they give you the space to do the work you’re trying to do.
One of the most tangible benefits of grad school is having the piece of paper at the end that says you’re “approved” by some entity. That paper means different things to different people, but at a minimum it shows a commitment to developing the craft, and it also opens a lot of doors to programs or people who only want to work with MFAs or only want to work with certain schools. Through my program, I was handed opportunities to meet with professionals from all areas of theater, film, and television. As you can see from what I was doing before grad school, I don’t have a problem finding opportunities, yet I still sought out this opportunity to join an instant network and I’m really glad I did.
Julie: I wanted to go to grad school for dramatic writing to strengthen my craft and to develop a stronger and more habitual writing practice. I also wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people to help foster my passion.
Barbara: Could you share an anecdote/story about your time at CMU and how it helped you with your writing trajectory?
Tracy: When I signed up for CMU’s Dramatic Writing program, I went in primarily with an interest in sticking with playwriting, but the program is designed to also cover film and television. During my first year of the two-year program, our teacher Rob Handel was working on opera, so he offered us a workshop on writing opera libretti. That turned into writing short commissioned mini-operas for the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and 20-minute collaborations with composers in the MFA composing program.
Sometime during my first year, I decided to focus my energy on writing for television–something about the possibility of paying my bills through writing seemed very appealing to me–and I also developed a love of writing opera, which is amazing considering that until grad school, the only opera I’d seen was Moby Dick at SF Opera.
Julie: I had a fabulous experience rehearsing my New Works play—the final project for graduating writers—this spring. The process was a wonderful reminder of why I decided to pursue a collaborative art form. Everyone in the rehearsal room helped me make the play better over the course of our time together. I took improvisations the director and actors developed and brought them into the script to the absolute benefit of the text, and the production assistant offered valuable dramaturgical insight that influenced my revisions. I loved the teamwork and dedication that made my initial draft something we could all feel proud of influencing.
Barbara: Now that you’ve graduated, what are you looking to do next? Any fears? Any sources of inspiration?
Tracy: Right now, most of my energy is focused on revising work that I started or developed during my program, which includes a couple of full length plays, a spec for “Masters of Sex,” an original TV pilot, and a commissioned piece that’s due next month.
I’m also working on submitting the work that I’ve already completed, including my web series, Merritt Squad, with Colin Johnson, a short film that I self-produced called “Fashion Foes,” and I’m applying to TV writing fellowships, MondayNight PlayGround in LA, and a musical theater writing program in LA.
I don’t know if I’m really afraid of anything career-wise. I’m going head first into an industry that’s difficult to break into, but I have a game plan and am giving myself the time and space to make it happen.
I’m inspired by the fact that people are making a living being writers–maybe there’s not a lot of them, but they exist and I want to be one of them.
Julie: I plan to move to Los Angeles to try to get into TV writing. I think one of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to keep up a consistent writing practice outside of school, but I believe that having gone to grad school, I’m better equipped than I was before to manage and overcome that fear. I’ve been inspired by my instructors and classmates to make bold choices and see what happens rather than reigning myself in from the start.
Barbara: If there’s anything that you wish you could change in theater what would it be?
Tracy: I would make funding a non-issue. If theater-makers could focus on creating the work and not the fundraising, then I think theater would be more accessible for audiences as well as for artists.
Julie: I wish theater were as popular a medium for art and entertainment as film. People from all communities watch TV and film, which are forms that I love. But theater is often attended by a smaller, more affluent, and older audience. With that and with many ticket prices, I think, comes the idea—and in many ways, the reality—that theater is a medium for the privileged. I wish theater were more accessible to everyone and less associated with class and education than I think it is now.
Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those interested in playwriting and for those thinking about graduate programs – whether applying or soon to be attending?
Tracy: Write a lot. Try to get produced, or self-produce your own work. If you still like writing plays, then talk to people you admire and respect and see which programs or opportunities nourished them and see if it makes sense for you. Not everyone thrives in academic environments. If you can’t stand artificial assignments and deadlines, and you don’t like receiving criticism, then grad school’s not an ideal place to be. However, if like the idea of collaborating with lots of different people and you want to hear advice and criticism from people who (hopefully) know what they’re talking about and you want to have that extra reassurance and structure that a program provides, then grad school may be a great option.
Julie: I feel very confident that my decision to go to grad school was the right choice for me. Grad school gave me the time and space to explore writing and gain confidence in both my writing and in my decision to pursue this field. I do think, however, that you can succeed in dramatic writing without going to grad school. It just depends on what suits your needs best.
Barbara: Any upcoming productions/projects of yours for us to look forward to?
Tracy: Yes! I am writing a full length commissioned play for the new Loud and Unladylike Festival with DivaFest at The EXIT Theatre called “A is for Adeline.” I’ll get two readings on June 25th and July 9th. I’m also producing two shows through my theater company, All Terrain Theater; “Women in Solodarity: Waking Up” which goes up in June and “Six Monsters: A Seven-Monster Play” which goes up July 31-August 15 and will open with a short play that I’m writing.
Julie: Nothing right now, but I’ll keep you posted!
Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area playwright and blogger. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.